At first glance, Singapore-based start-up Cialfo may seem like just another service to help students score a place at an overseas university, but it offers far more than that.
It has muscular ambitions to conquer China and boasts a one-of-a- kind technological platform. It has already been named by venture capitalists polled by The Straits Times as one of the hottest start-ups to watch this year, and has secured two rounds of funding with a third expected to be completed this year.
Founded in 2012 by university schoolmates Rohan Pasari and Stanley Chia, the company offers a technological platform Mr Pasari calls "a combination of WhatsApp, Asana (a task management app) and Dropbox".
The system, which is available on both a desktop computer and as a mobile app, sends out automated responses to parents, as well as allows consultants, teachers and students to share documents for university applications and communicate quickly on the status of different application processes.
The platform is free but the company charges for personalisation and consulting services in Singapore. It sells the platform overseas to education consultancies and high schools, and has customers in India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia.
Both Mr Pasari and Mr Chia told The Straits Times about their plans for expansion to reach out to even more students around the world.
Q. What does Cialfo mean and how did it come about?
A. It comes from the beginning of three Latin words - "Citius, Altius, Fortius", which is the Olympic tagline. It means "faster, higher, stronger", one of the core values we have as a team. To us, the purpose of education is being able to go faster, higher and stronger than where you are.
We were inspired to start the company to solve some pain points that we had as students.Through these experiences, we realised that people end up making decisions about universities without going through a rigorous decision-making process, or even knowing about their options such as interest-free loans.
Around 2014, we realised that we didn't just want to help a few hundred students every year, we wanted to help thousands more, and the only way to do that is through technology. So we started investing all our profits into technology and building platforms and tools to make ourselves more efficient.
We built a platform, and we realised that when we went to other countries, our solution was interesting for high schools and other education consultancies. With that, we added another business model - software as a service solution. We moved from being a consultancy to offering technology-enabled services, although we still have a consulting business in Singapore.
Q. Why did you decide to expand to China, and what has your development been like?
A. China is a very competitive market when it comes to university admissions consulting. In every city, there are thousands of players.
On the flipside, that makes for thousands of customers for us. There is also a higher percentage of people who want to study overseas, and the industry itself is well funded and has the budget to invest in technology. As we do only business-to-business sales in China, that model is itself quite unique. We are not competing with the consultancies there; we are marketing to them.
Q. What are your expansion plans?
A. We currently have two people in the office in Shanghai, and we will soon have an office in Beijing. We decided to start from Shanghai as it is the central hub of international schools and international university education consultancies.
This year, we want to expand beyond Beijing. We want to get customers in other areas and we plan to visit Anhui, Jiangsu, Chengdu and Guangzhou. We are also looking into India, where we have one client.
In terms of the product, most of our clients are applying for university to do undergraduate studies. We are launching another feature that will allow boarding school and postgraduate studies consultants to use the platform.
We also want to enhance more artificial intelligence functionalities, such as automated recommendations. For instance, if you are a high school student, it will give you automated suggestions on what you need to get into certain schools, such as workshops and conferences.
Q. You talked about democratising the platform. How can you do that?
A. We charge subscription fees for using the platform to manage students, but students can use some limited features for free to understand the process to get into universities. We are also very excited about a financial inclusion project, and we are in talks with financial institutions in China, India and Singapore. The idea is that students can be guaranteed loans from as early as Grade 9 and 10, which is the equivalent of Secondary 3 and 4.
We base the bank guarantee on the students' capability and not on family income, which is very different from how education loans are given today. The guarantee would be contingent on the students getting into one of the universities that our algorithm predicted they could get into.
Q. What is your biggest challenge?
A. We are a 12-man team and we expect to grow into a 50-man team in the next 12 to 18 months. Our biggest challenge is sustaining the growth we have had, as having a certain level of growth comes with certain expectations on the speed of growth. We are also focused on maintaining the quality of the team and the work culture, so that we don't sacrifice on the talent we have got. Some of the really good people we want to hire are not necessarily looking for an opportunity, so we need to get them excited about the challenge that we are solving, as well as to get the culture right.