“Build a customer-oriented platform.” With Mitch Russo & Martin Basiri

Starting work at a young age with my brothers taught me the importance of hard work, but also made me a team player who values collaboration and cooperation. As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin […]

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Starting work at a young age with my brothers taught me the importance of hard work, but also made me a team player who values collaboration and cooperation.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Basiri.

Martin Basiri is the Co-Founder and CEO of ApplyBoard, a Canadian tech company for international student recruitment based in Kitchener, Ontario. To date, ApplyBoard has assisted over 100,000 students from more than 110 countries, built a team of over 400 people in 20 different countries, and was named the fastest-growing technology company in Canada by Deloitte.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for having me!

I came to Canada from Iran as an international student to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Waterloo. The application process lasted more than a year and was filled with challenges and frustration — from language barriers to complicated visa paperwork. I didn’t have any help, so I had to figure it out on my own. When my two younger brothers decided they wanted to pursue their post-secondary education in Canada, I was well-versed in the process. I was able to cut their application time down to only a few months. Drawing from that shared experience, my brothers and I wanted to help international students better navigate the application process, quickly search for educational options, and build a better future for themselves. That’s how ApplyBoard got started.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

When other families heard about the experiences of my brothers and me, we were bombarded with people asking for help with their children’s study abroad applications.

Word spread like wildfire, and before we knew it, what began as a good gesture to help fellow international students turned into a small business.

I remember chatting with a student who told me it had been over a year, and he still couldn’t figure out his educational path. Throughout many conversations, we started to realize that international students were asking us fundamental and repetitive questions. We thought to ourselves, “You don’t need a human to keep answering the same questions. Why don’t we create software to take care of it? Why don’t we solve this problem with tech?” Over time, we became more convinced that we should do it. we figured we needed a platform to be able to assist a large number of people around the world.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Entrepreneurship is never easy. Like all startups, ApplyBoard had its fair share of challenges and roadblocks when we first started.

In 2016, a year after the launch of ApplyBoard, we almost went bankrupt. We didn’t get the revenue that we wanted and couldn’t raise extra capital; we couldn’t pay our employees. Nonetheless, we never considered giving up. When you start something, you have to finish it. You signed up for something you knew was going to be difficult because you love it, and when you love it, you go for it.

The infant stages of ApplyBoard saw obstacles, experiments, trials and errors. When people don’t like what they do, they need external motivation. We love what we do, so we accept the hard times and move forward with it. We kept trying until we got it right, and we’re still trying to improve every day.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I’d say things are well today. We recently announced our successful Series C funding round of C$100 million. We’ve helped more than 100,000 students, partnered with more than 1,200 educational institutions and employ more than 400 people globally.

All of our achievements have been a result of hard work and collaboration. We wouldn’t be where we are today without our phenomenal team.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are so many things that make ApplyBoard unique, and I think our culture is a big part of it. Our organization was built on diversity, from our employees to the students we assist. Our staff come from over 30+ countries and speak 40+ languages. The diverse perspectives and skill sets that everyone brings to the table are what set ApplyBoard apart. Most importantly, despite our differences, we all share a single mission: To Educate the World. We’re student-centric, and everything we do is to assist them with their educational journey.

So it boils down to four things: Our Mission, Culture, Tech and Customer Service.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Love what you do, and you’ll never burn out. If you’re realistic with the amount of work you can handle, and how you utilize your time, you can better prepare yourself for the stressful times. It’s essential to find time outside of work to enjoy things that make you happy, relaxed and refreshed for the week ahead. I encourage my staff to stay active, stay connected with loved ones, and work on themselves outside of work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The most important people to thank are my parents. From my early childhood, they taught me the value of drive, discipline and hard work — qualities that I still carry with me every day.

When I was younger, every weekend, my classmates would do their homework and watch cartoons while my brothers and I were working at our dad’s side business. We had to finish all the school work on the night before the weekend, so the entire weekend, we could work all day on our dad’s project. It was enjoyable because we were all working together. My dad always had a side business, whether it be building a new house, designing an electronic circuit, some construction or gardening work.

Starting work at a young age with my brothers taught me the importance of hard work, but also made me a team player who values collaboration and cooperation.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

ApplyBoard has assisted over 100,000 international students along their educational journey.

The steps that I’ve taken to build and foster this community can be summed up as below:

  1. Hire a good team of passionate individuals
  2. Make the end-result, expectations, and strategy clear
  3. Always put the customer first

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

ApplyBoard is free for all students to use. We do offer premium packages and we monetize through revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

Here are five important things that one should know in order to create a successful app or a SaaS.

1. Build a customer-oriented platform

You want to provide your customer with what they need, and you want to tailor the experience specifically to what their pain points are. For example, with ApplyBoard, our platform for students is very different from our platform for recruiting partners. Data provided for recruiting partners is much more intense and detailed; whereas students aren’t bombarded with unnecessary information.

2. Choose the right people and great teammates

I cannot stress this enough. Building a good team of skilled and driven people is crucial to your startup. It’s especially a lot easier to learn from employees who have industry experience. They add massive value to your business and your overall knowledge.

3. Build a process-oriented system

Apps and SaaS are more complex than other businesses. It should be high priority to have a process laid out for work, whether it be manual or automated.

4. Make your platform easy to navigate and user-friendly

First and foremost, you need to do your research to know your customers and their habits, preferences and product consumption patterns. Then take those insights and create a user-friendly UI website. This is especially vital if you’re a global business.

5. Right business model

Choosing the right business model is essential for creating a successful tech platform. Understanding what features should be free for customers and what should be paid version, is crucial.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m a strong believer in education. I believe that education is a right, not a privilege. The movement that I would start is a scholarship fund where we can raise capital and give scholarships to people who can’t afford their education.

How can our readers follow you on social media? Instagram: @applyboard


Twitter: @ApplyBoard


This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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