Beautiful, collaborative, cloud-based document annotation

kami-logo2For most organisations, the basic unit of information is a document. We use documents to communicate with others, generate ideas, measure progress, make agreements, and much more. The last decade has seen the rise of collaborative document generation, of which Google Docs is probably the most familiar example. However, it’s not universal, and it’s not even fit for purpose for many applications. Adobe seized the high ground in the 1990’s with Acrobat, and PDF is the de-facto standard for universal document sharing and viewing. So how do you collaborate over PDFs with anyone, anywhere? Meet Kami.

Kami is a browser extension which lets you view, highlight, annotate, and collaborate over a fixed base document. You can add text, strikethrough, or basic drawings, merge documents, and add electronic signatures. It’s a simple concept with a solid core feature set, and of course the hard part is making it beautiful, lightning fast, and able to scale. And scale it does – with a small team based in Auckland, they currently service over 1.9m users and are adding roughly 12,000 users per day, mostly in North America, and almost exclusively by referrals.

COO Alliv Samson, CEO Hengjie Wang, CTO Jordan Thoms
COO Alliv Samson, CEO Hengjie Wang, CTO Jordan Thoms

Co-founders Hengjie Wang, Jordan Thoms, and Alliv Samson all met when they were students at The University of Auckland (UoA). They wanted to be able to take collaborative notes on their university study material, so they built a tool which they called Notable. With lecture slides on the left, and collaborative notes on the right, they had an MVP. They invited their friends to collaborate, and they soon had 50 users, and then 100, and then 300, and when they integrated into UoA’s homebrew Learning Management System (LMS) Cecil, they became a major fixture in the UoA community. But how to expand beyond that?

The team were accepted into the Velocity 100K Challenge, and met a great set of mentors and investors, many of whom are with them to this day. They took in a small amount of investment. They found the university market really hard work, so they extended their use case from students taking notes, and did a zoom-out pivot to anyone collaborating on documents. Two years later, they’re core market is still education, but they’re now focused on the K-12 sector (primary and secondary schools) in the USA.

Kami has a massive tailwind of environmental factors behind them, especially the rise of the browser as an operating system, and the associated explosive growth of Chromebooks in the education market. K-12 is an investment in the future as well: today’s K-12 students are the workforce of the future. Kami has integrated with Google Drive, as well as popular LMSs Haiku and Canvas. They provide an API which makes it easy to integrate with just about anything. Frictionless integration helps fuel explosive growth.

Their revenue model is easy to understand too – they provide a basic product for free with adverts and nobbled features, which you can upgrade to ad-free with improved collaboration and more features and support for a monthly fee. They offer paid plans for teachers (which include all of the teachers’ students), individual schools, and entire school districts.

Kami took the bold leap from focusing on University of Auckland to focusing on North America. While UoA was an interesting test market, the founders knew that the NZ market is just too small to build up meaningful numbers for a sustainable business.

Their technology stack uses a fairly standard combination of Rails on the back end, Angular on the front end, and infrastructure based on the Google Cloud Platform, with a number of third-party cloud-based services. Everything they do is data driven. Every time a feature is launched, it’s analysed to measure against hypotheses – does it improve usage, retention, and revenue? They use the data to get inside of the heads of users so they can really understand what drives them.

I was blown away that the tech that services 1.9m users is still being managed by only two people, and they’re both cofounders. It reminded me of how when they sold to Facebook, Whatsapp only had 35 engineers managing 450m users. That’s efficient scaling.

The Kami team has just closed an international investment round, combining existing investors (including Flying Kiwi Angels, Sparkbox, NZVIF, as well as a number of local angels), with some new angels and super angels. They had a serendipitous meeting with YCombinator’s Sam Altman and Founders Fund’s Scott Nolan recently, just before their round closed. Like many successful investment encounters, it didn’t start with a pitch, but rather with a conversation. Sam and Scott were super impressed – so much so that they went from “yes” to investment cash in the bank within 48 hours.

New Zealand investors take note: this is the way the professionals do it, rather than taking six months to say “no” as we so often see.

The investment will be used to double down on sales in the US market – more growth with a focus on revenue, and extending the product feature set to support that. Better onboarding and classroom management features should drive a significant uplift in growth. They also plan to expand the engineering team and set up a US-based presence in the next six months or so.

Kami is a great product, and if you haven’t already, you should give it a go.

They’re looking to fill a number of positions to help fuel growth, including engineers who love working in startups, and North America based sales and customer success people. Job descriptions are available on the Kami site.

Kami have a great story of doing one thing really well, and doing it globally in a narrow but large and growing market. They’ve worked hard, and deserve the traction and success they’re now enjoying.


Disrupting tertiary education from the inside.

iqIn a leafy corner of Lower Hutt along the quiet Waiwhetū stream, something remarkable is happening. This is the home of the Open Polytechnic, one of New Zealand’s largest tertiary educational institutions as measured by the number of students enrolled at any given time.  Open Polytechnic specialise in Open, Distance, and Flexible Learning, and have been doing so since they were established after the Second World War to provide distance vocational education to returned servicepeople.

Open Polytechnic have just launched their iQualify platform, which enables courseware designers to author compelling online interactive educational content with author-centric tools designed with usability in mind, and deliver personalised learning experiences that are tailored to specific user needs. They’re using iQualify to replace a large inventory of ageing Moodle content with modern, interactive, personalised courses.

Open Polytechnic needed a much better courseware authoring and delivery system for themselves, but they’re pitching iQualify as a cloud-based solution for the whole indstry, in New Zealand and around the world. The problem of uncompelling, difficult to maintain content is acute at a time when many traditional tertiary educational institutions are looking to take their courses online. Open Polytechnic wants to build iQualify into a platform that any organisation can use to develop and deliver their own courseware, or tailor courseware developed by others for their own purposes.

Shanan Holm

iQualify was the brainchild of CTO Shanan Holm, who did the initial coding after hours as a skunkworks project, after reviewing the market for courseware platforms and coming up with nothing that met their needs. The system is firmly built on Javascript – most of the heavy lifting is done in the browser, with a Node.js backend in the Azure cloud. Responsive design is used throughout, as students in particular tend to access just about everything through mobiles and tablets. The end result is a user experience that looks a lot more like Xero than your average LMS.

One big difference between iQualify and other solutions is their basic educational philosophy. Open Polytechnic are strong believers in the “blended model”, where students do all of their learning through a screen, but have real-time help and interaction with live people who coach them and support their learning journeys. This is an efficient and effective happy medium between face-to-face learning and MOOCs. Face-to-face learning doesn’t scale well, and doesn’t suit many learners’ life situations. MOOCs on the other hand suffer from very low completion rates due to learner disengagement and  lack of personal touch – they’re great for very self-motivated learners and information snackers, but don’t suit the vast majority of distance learners. One of iQualify’s key features is a Facilitator Dashboard which makes it easy for a course instructor to keep tabs on their individual students, and intervene where it will increase the learner’s chances of success.

Tony Grantham
Tony Grantham

Tony Grantham is Open Polytechnic’s Executive Director – Commercial, and is charged with selling the platform worldwide. And less than six months since launch, they’re already achieving good traction in New Zealand with early customers signing up, and several large educational institutions in Australia currently evaluating the platform.  It’s early days, but with inquiries are being fielded from Asia as well. iQualify is attracting significant interest, and revenues are on track to reach seven figures in calendar 2016.

Caroline Seelig
Caroline Seelig

Open Polytechnic’s CEO Dr Caroline Seelig is effectively running a platform pivot on a large chunk of her organisation. That’s a bold move, but the reward will be improving Open Polytechnic’s competitiveness locally in New Zealand against the tide of global education providers, and will also provide a boost to the NZ tertiary sector, enabling other NZ tertiaries to avoid investing huge amounts of capital in multiple solutions that provide similar functionality, and focus on their core business where they provide the most value – quality personalised educational experiences backed by excellent content.

If you doubted the public sector’s ability to innovate, or a large (by NZ standards) organisation’s appetite to overcome the innovator’s dilemma and act like a startup, think again. The Open Polytechnic is raising the bar for how public organisations can become part of the networked economy, leveraging their existing core skill base with new technology, and enable the delivery of far more public good by becoming platforms.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Open Polytechnic Council, but the views in this post are entirely my own.