About 87% of our results result in a full or partial grant.” A Kazakh woman has created a platform that helps with admission to foreign universities
Laura Vaigorova was inspired to choose to study abroad by the guys from Singapore. "Your English is great. We can help with admission to one of our universities," she recalls the words of new acquaintances. So Laura went to Yale University College – the Singapore branch of Yale University. But due to the fact that at that time the girl was a minor, and they could not find her guardian, they could not get there.
As a result, she ended up at Nazarbayev University, from which she twice went on exchange to study in the United States. Along the way, I helped other guys with admission abroad. Soon it turned into a full-fledged business. And in 2021, the Smartestprep platform appeared - an online platform for preparing for admission to foreign universities. For the joint project of Digital Business and Astana Hub "100 startup stories of Kazakhstan", Laura told how their system can assess the chances of an applicant for admission to a particular university, how it helps to enroll in a grant or scholarship, as well as what other features will appear in the product in the near future.
"Now we have about 5 thousand universities from Europe, Asia and the USA in our database"
– Laura, what prompted you to create a digital platform?
– My boyfriend and I, who later became my husband, started helping the guys with admission abroad back in 2018. At first, the two of them were engaged in escort and training. Then the team gradually increased. However, we still remained a classic business. There was no understanding of how to scale without inflating the staff.
When the pandemic happened, they started using different services in their work: Microsoft Education, ClassDojo, etc. This helped to increase revenue by about 3-4 times. They began to think about what processes should be automated in order to get a serious increase in income.
We decided to make a university selection system and develop training courses for exam preparation for admission to other countries. First of all, these are the SAT (standardized test for admission to higher education institutions in the USA), IELTS (English proficiency test), as well as NUET (exam in mathematics and critical thinking at Nazarbayev University). There are also blocks on the correct writing of a motivational essay for the specifics of universities in different regions: Europe, Asia or Ivy League educational institutions (association of 8 private American universities – approx. Digital Business)
– Tell us more about the university selection system. How does it work?
– We have made an ML algorithm that, using university data, can estimate the chances of an applicant for admission to a particular university from our database. Then the system issues a personalized feedback, which tells you how you can improve your profile. For example, you need to improve your IELTS score or work on a letter of recommendation.
At the same time, the system offers applicants suitable educational institutions for their needs. She selects them in 3 categories: Dream, Target and Safety. The first is the desired option where you want to enroll, but the chances are not too great yet. The second is a rational option that best correlates with the profile and level of training of the student. The third is a reliable option, where a person will pass for a grant or receive a scholarship without any problems.
– How many universities are in your database now and which countries are they from?
– There are about 5 thousand universities and various programs with scholarships. The breakdown by country is large. This is practically the whole of Europe. Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are especially popular, where students are ready to provide generous payments and take on grants.
In Asia, we focus on South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. There are several universities from India. We work with Australia, Canada and, of course, the USA. Plus, we help with admission to advanced universities in our region, such as Nazarbayev University or Khazar University in Baku.
– Where do you get the data about educational institutions so that the system can realistically assess the chances of a student's admission?
– At first, they just parsed, but the information often turned out to be irrelevant. I had to assemble everything manually. We had a team of 7-8 people who worked on this for several months. Now we periodically send e-mail or call universities to update data on the most popular programs. We do this check-in every six months.
"The country only benefits from the departure of a certain number of children to study abroad"
– Are you ready to help any applicant with admission, or is there a selection?
– We recommend taking courses to those guys who have a real chance of admission. If an 11th grader comes to us who has a low level of English proficiency, and only a birth certificate is among the achievements, then with a high degree of probability he will not pass the grant. We can offer only paid training. We advise such applicants to allocate at least another year for preparation.
– What is free for the user on the platform, and which features already need to be paid for?
– We provide free assessment of the chances of admission, access to information about universities and scholarships, as well as express courses for all exams.
If we talk about paid, then this is a complete program for preparing for SAT, IELTS and other tests, training on the correct writing of a motivational essay. By the way, we have made an algorithm that checks all this and can give feedback with recommendations for improvement. The applicant also gets access to mentors – these are graduates of various foreign universities. They can answer questions of interest, help with advice, etc.
We offer users a semi-annual or annual subscription. If you apply for 3-4 items at once, it will cost 300 thousand tenge per year.
– The Smartestprep website states that your platform has helped students save more than $100 million. Thanks to what?
– Assistance in applying for a grant or scholarship. Look, an academic year at a conditional Williams College in the USA costs $ 50 thousand. For 4 years, an amount of $ 200 thousand is obtained. If you take Nazarbayev University, it will cost $25 thousand for 12 months to study there. Through us, for example, 10 people received a grant there. As a result, we get $1 million saved.
– What percentage of the students who have completed the courses enter the desired universities?
– Over the past 2 years, approximately 87% of our students have been on a full or partial grant or scholarship. This is 4.5 thousand people.
This year, the results have not been summed up yet, but I assume that the number will be twice as high. After all, many guys start using our platform long before admission. Or they do not pass the grant the first time and get into the "zero" course, where they tighten the language and prepare for a new entrance campaign.
– Have you ever encountered a haight towards the project due to the fact that you are helping promising young people to leave Kazakhstan?
– This has happened. Especially when they tried to log into B2G. They offered their product for free, and in response they heard: "Do you mean to say that our children will go somewhere?". But this is a normal practice for many countries in the world that are ahead of us. For example, China and India are not afraid to send their citizens to study in other countries.
If you look into it, then the country only benefits from the departure of a certain number of children to study abroad. Some of them will return to their homeland in any case and will make a serious contribution to the economy. And those who remain in another state will support (including financially) relatives in Kazakhstan.
– Can you advise how applicants can increase their chances of getting into foreign universities?
– First, start thinking about it in advance: at least 2-3 years in advance. And if a person is aiming for the Ivy League or Stanford University, then even earlier. Probably, you need to prepare from the 5th-6th grade: especially to pump English and mathematics.
Secondly, choose a university to suit your needs, and not based on popularity. Many people go to a conditional Harvard, because everyone hears. But then the person does not understand what to do there. If you just want to go to another country, then there are many other interesting options. For example, Estonia or Italy.
Thirdly, to develop comprehensively in the directions that you like. Then it will not be difficult to enter the university for the specialty of interest.
"We started offering our product as a SaaS solution to schools so that they could prepare students for admission themselves"
– As far as I understand, your main source of monetization is a subscription for the B2C segment. Is it possible to be self-supporting or even profitable?
– At the moment we have about 1.5 thousand paying customers. The average MRR is $83 thousand. I hope we will close October at around $100 thousand. I can say that we are profitable
Even when I launched the platform, I clearly set a goal for myself that the project should pay off. Perhaps such a vision will seem wrong to someone in relation to a startup. But I am convinced that business must earn. Suddenly, the venture Investment Institute in Kazakhstan will close tomorrow. In that case, we shouldn't die.
This project is an important story in my life. And I want us to be able to run it on our own. So now we are actively working on other sources of monetization.
– We want to move to B2B. Since this year, we have started offering our product as a SaaS solution to schools so that they can prepare students for admission themselves. We train people responsible for career guidance, and they, using the tools of the platform, work with applicants.
Or the school can open a paid circle to prepare for admission abroad and pay us a fixed subscription for each person, and take the earnings from above for themselves.
– How many paying schools do you have now?
– So far, 3. We provide the rest for free. This gives a large influx of new users. Our main goal is to get as much data as possible about which educational institutions children go to. When Smartestprep is enabled, the school registers all high school students and we can evaluate their admission preferences.
– What will you do with this data later?
– Firstly, we can use them for retargeting. Secondly, when we get 10 thousand paying users, we want to start providing them to universities by subscription. Educational institutions are interested in the data, because the market of Central Asia and the CIS as a whole has not been studied much by them, although there are many of their target audience here.
We have already talked with the President of the University of Hong Kong. He was interested in our offer. Many universities already pay at least $ 5-10 thousand for an annual subscription to data from various online public sites where applicants gather.
"We want to create a unified system of uniform submission of documents to all foreign universities"
– Are Smartestprep users mostly Kazakhstani guys?
– About 80% – yes. For the most part, we have applicants from Almaty and Astana – almost half of them. There are enough students from the regions: Shymkent, Aktobe, Atyrau, Uralsk.
Another 20% are schoolchildren from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Although they didn't even launch a target in these countries. All the guys came organically. Just now, managers who speak Kyrgyz and Uzbek have been hired to flood the markets.
But the most interesting thing is that we have 5 paying customers from Saudi Arabia. One day three people came to the sales department and said they wanted to buy a course. Then other clients began to appear. Now we are thinking about localization in the region. There is a cool market there: even within the country there is a need to take exams in English, and customers are willing to pay 3-4 times more than in Kazakhstan. We want to test Saudi Arabia in the near future.
– Will you attract investments?
– We have already closed the pre-seed for $230 thousand at an estimate of $3 million. Now we are opening seed at an estimate of $10 million. We are ready to concede no more than 10%.
– What would you like to implement in the foreseeable future?
– We have clear goals. By the end of the year, we plan to reach MRR of $150 thousand. It is also important for us to connect schools: go to at least 20. We will also increase coverage in other Central Asian countries and gradually enter Saudi Arabia.
If we talk about global things, we are working on a new feature – career guidance courses, with integrated MOCK tests. This will allow students to identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to better understand which skills need to be emphasized. The system will also be able to offer suitable directions for study.
When we start offering subscriptions to universities and partner with at least 30, we plan to launch the submission of documents through RPI robots. Let's say you want to send them to universities from several countries. Everyone's applications are different, but the same data is required. We want to create an application form that needs to be filled out, and then we will send applications to universities ourselves. We will get a unified system of unified filing of documents.
All this should help us in three years to come to the main goal – to become a "unicorn".
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