At a glance
It was a mixture of “ambition and naivete”, says Kurt Meyer, that propelled him and his Orah co-founder to drop out of architecture school and seek their fortunes as tech entrepreneurs.
But the pair have clearly learned a thing or two along the way.
Since forming in 2014, Orah now has more than 100,000 active users of its student engagement platform in 17 countries, and it’s used by around 250 schools, including elite institutions like the UK’s Eton College and St Mark’s School in Massachusetts, US.
Schools, pupils and their families use Orah’s platform to manage student life, using its products to help keep track of students, plan co-curricular activities, manage emergencies and risk, and monitor student wellbeing.
Importantly, Orah’s platform brings that information together so users can access it in one place.
“There are a lot of well-designed ed-tech products, but they tend to focus on individual pain points, so there’s a lot of fragmentation,” explains Meyer. “The main value of our platform is it unifies all of these different processes and data around student engagement.”
Back to school
The business rebranded as Orah earlier this year, with its former name, Boardingware, pointing to its origins.
Meyer and Orah co-founder Paul Organ met as architecture school students. After investigating how software could help the design process, they sensed there were better opportunities in software development and ditched their architecture studies.
In the process of searching for a pain point they could solve with a software solution, they literally went back to school.
Both had been boarding school students and approached their former housemasters, who shared their difficulties ensuring students were going to the right places on weekends, and had permissions in place.
That sparked the idea behind the business’ foundation product, now known as Orah Supervise, which helps schools track student attendance and whereabouts.
Handling information about the whereabouts and welfare of young people, however, comes with heavy responsibilities.
Meyer says the business has invested heavily in learning about, and building, infrastructure to meet stringent data security and sovereignty requirements, particularly for the different international markets in which it operates. However, this has provided a solid foundation from which to scale – the holy grail for software as a service, or SaaS, businesses.
Callaghan Innovation has supported Orah on its journey to scale, including enabling it to take on the next generation of tech talent to expand its R&D.
The business has taken on five interns over the past three summers, with support from Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grants. The 2020/21 cohort included user experience designer Ying Zhou who, like the majority of Orah’s interns, went on to full time employment with the business.
“The internship followed a step-by-step process that allowed me to understand why and how the business works before I worked on an actual project. It was so well managed, and I felt fully supported, even though I work remotely.”
Allen Wang began at Orah as an intern four years ago, and is now its front-end development lead.
“I was supported by a really good engineer here to develop my career as a front-end engineer. There are a lot of really great technical challenges in this work, which means I’m still learning and, naturally, when new people start I now also help them learn and grow.”
SaaStr delegation expands horizons
Events targeted at the SaaS community have also expanded Orah’s horizons.
In 2018, for example, Orah was among the Callaghan Innovation-led Kiwi delegation to San Francisco for SaaStr Annual – the world’s biggest gathering for cloud-based businesses.
Says Meyer: “That Callaghan Innovation trip was pivotal for us in terms of starting to think bigger and finding businesses we could emulate.”
Connecting with the SaaS community by attending NZ’s annual SaaS conference, Southern SaaS, since its inception in 2018 has also been valuable.
“One really memorable workshop [in 2019] was with people from Amazon, who talked about planning your marketing launch before you develop the product. That concept has changed our approach to development: now we define the persona or customer we’re building for before starting on the technical side.”
Callaghan Innovation Digital Team customer manager Ian Skelton says Southern SaaS aims to inspire, connect, and upskill by sharing insights SaaS entrepreneurs can actually implement.
“One of Orah’s strengths is they’re very good at taking on board new lessons or ideas and running with them,” says Skelton. “Their level of engagement and willingness to learn is impressive.”
The next level
The rebrand to Orah signals the next step on the business’ journey, as it expands beyond the boarding school market to target independent day schools – firstly in English-speaking markets and then, potentially, in the larger markets of China and India.
“We had some customers who were already using the technology for their day students, so it seemed like the most natural transition for us to make. It’s taken us a while to formulate the product to fully address that market, but it’s been received positively so far,” says Meyer.
“As a business, we’re always looking at how we can get bigger and, through trial and error, figure out ways to make it happen.”
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Updated: 27 July 2021