You may have seen the news.
A few weeks ago, ApplyBoard became the second Waterloo company in the last six months to announce a “unicorn” valuation – a private company worth more than $1 billion. This is just the latest step in a fantastic journey that highlights – almost comprehensively – the reasons why Waterloo has become such a dynamic tech hub.
From the foreign student experience at top academic institutions to stops at some of Waterloo’s key accelerators, incubators and hubs, the ApplyBoard story isn’t just a Waterloo story. It’s a “Made in Waterloo” story – maybe even an “only in Waterloo” story – where the protagonist achieves a $2 billion valuation and is named “Canada’s fastest growing tech company.”
Here’s our roundup of the ApplyBoard story (so far) and how it lines up with the hallmarks of the Waterloo tech ecosystem:
Foreign students/top institutions
The ApplyBoard story begins with three brothers in Iran. In 2010, the oldest brother – Martin – had already earned an engineering degree and was looking for his next step. Like so many people with ambitions in tech and engineering, the University of Waterloo (UWaterloo), with its unique programs and truly incredible high standards, caught his eye. Soon, Martin was working toward an MSc in Mechatronics Engineering at UWaterloo, a unique program that combines mechanical, electronics and control engineering with computer science.
Soon afterward, Martin’s brothers – Massi and Meti – arrived to study at the nearby Conestoga College.
After completing his program in 2012, Martin worked in the automotive sector for a couple of years. Massi and Meti each founded their own business. In 2015, the three brothers reunited to create ApplyBoard, a company that Martin once described as “Expedia, but for education.”
Within a few months of starting the business, the Basiri brothers joined the Velocity incubator. Started as a “dorm-cubator” at the UWaterloo, Velocity has grown to become the most productive university-linked incubator in Canada. In fact, many of Waterloo’s most exciting and successful companies have developed through Velocity, including Faire, Kik, North, Avidbots and Bridgit.
At Velocity, the Basiri brothers discovered a community of tech founders, a wealth of expertise, basic operations support and a team of Business Advisors that could guide them through Velocity’s “Discover, Build, Scale” system.
While “living” in the Velocity incubator, the burgeoning ApplyBoard team was also able to tap into the resources of Canada’s top innovation hub, Communitech. Housed within the same facility as Velocity – known as “The Tannery” – Communitech is a clubhouse for innovators and entrepreneurs, a support organization that helps companies at all stages with access to capital, customers and talent, as well as a key catalyst in building Waterloo into a world-leading tech ecosystem. Not only do they support startups, but they have fantastic programs to help giant corporations drive innovation.
At Communitech, the Basiris were able to tap into the Communitech Rev Accelerator, which provided high-potential startups guidance in optimizing sales and marketing to accelerate revenue. Working with growth coaches, companies like ApplyBoard spend six months building the operational processes required to establish a predictable revenue stream.
While at Velocity, the Basiri brothers were also able to get help from another key part of Waterloo’s tech ecosystem: the Accelerator Centre. Canada’s top-ranked private business accelerator, and ranked among the top five accelerators worldwide, the Accelerator Centre offers a wide variety of programs to support entrepreneurs. The Accelerator Program, their flagship, has also helped develop some of the top tech companies in Waterloo, including Axonify, Clearpath, Bonfire, Deep Trekker, Intellijoint Surgical, Magnet Forensics, Miovision and more.
The Basiri brothers were able to tap into two of the Accelerator Centre’s programs – AC JumpStart and Startup Visa. The former provided the critical funding the trio needed to get started, along with mentorship from the accelerator’s team of in-house experts, access to market research and connections to investors. The latter, a program that helps entrepreneurs bring their businesses to Canada, helped the brothers get Canadian permanent residency in just six months.
If Velocity had given them a home, the Accelerator Centre gave them the ability to pay the bills.
Waterloo: an ecosystem of dynamic collaboration
Recruiting from a fully-stocked talent pool
When your company grows from three brothers to 400+ employees in less than five years – most of it in the last year or so – you need access to a strong pool of talent. Luckily, the Waterloo post-secondary system is renowned for producing excellent technical and business talent, and ApplyBoard has taken full advantage.
Of the 383 employees listed on the company’s LinkedIn page, 185 are graduates of UWaterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University or Conestoga College. Another 52 are from universities and colleges within about 100km/65mi. Perhaps more amazingly for a tech company, ApplyBoard has managed to maintain a 50/50 male-female split while building an incredibly diverse team that speaks 53 languages and represents 27 different nationalities.
Waterloo’s talent and diversity has fed the expansion of Canada’s fastest-growing tech company.
Guidance from experienced local leaders
Companies like ApplyBoard can’t grow without experienced leadership. While mentorship at each stage of the process is important in getting a company off the ground, sustaining growth and building a resilient organization takes experience and perspective. Looking at the ApplyBoard’s LinkedIn page, it’s apparent how they’ve incorporated experienced local talent into the company.
For example, the company’s Director of Inside Sales comes with nearly two decades of experience at D2L and BlackBerry. The Director of Business Development was a Vice-President at Europro, the Head of Corporate Innovation at Communitech and a senior sales leader at numerous local scale-ups. The Senior Director of Strategy and Innovation has significant stops at Sun Life Financial and BlackBerry on his resume and the Director of Customer Experience spent more than a decade at OpenText.
ApplyBoard has built a dream team of senior managers bringing experience from some of Waterloo’s most successful companies.
Don’t get us wrong, ApplyBoard isn’t the only Waterloo story. From companies like Faire, a scale-up that touched many of the same bases before becoming a unicorn late last year, to the growing list of local high-growth companies like Deep Trekker, Vidyard, North, Intellijoint Surgical, and Auvik Networks, tech companies are finding Waterloo to be fertile ground for growth.
Update: In June 2021, ApplyBoard announced a $375 million raise and a $4 billion valuation.