Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to James Koo, co-founder of student discount and job listings app Niesh.
ONE: How did Niesh start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Niesh actually started as a project between me and my business partner Jae Yoo when we were both university students. Jae couldn’t afford to print his past papers for his exams one semester so we decided to make a free printing service. At this point, we called ourselves Frint for ‘Free Printing’.
We received an overwhelmingly positive response from the students with 750 students joining us within the first 24 hours of making our first ever Facebook post. We quickly grew to become the fastest growing student community in New Zealand and that’s when we realised we were in a position to make more impact than just providing students with free printing.
So we both dropped out of university and rebranded to Niesh, which is derived from the word ‘niche’. The dictionary definition of niche is the most comfortable and suitable position in life and in employment. We wanted to be a company that helped students find their niche, but we just spelt it differently for trademarking purposes!
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Niesh?
I had a little dabble in entrepreneurship and business before Niesh. I worked as an advisory intern for EY which gave me an opportunity to learn how to strategise and solve real business problems.
I also started another tech company called Plate NZ, a discount app for students that actually went really well – we had over 500 downloads on the first day of launching. But our whole team dropped the project on the day university started. This has always been a regret for our whole team and was a big motivation behind me wanting to start Niesh.
THREE: Niesh and its functions/services have evolved a lot since 2015. Can you take us through all the different things it offers students today? What about your student lounge near University of Auckland?
Our services can be placed into three separate categories:
- Student Discounts: We have over 100 student discounts from partners all over the country that students can access for free.
- Jobs: Students can access part-time jobs, graduate jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities through our jobs feature.
- Events: We run a variety of events throughout the year, ranging from employment workshops to ‘The Amazing Race’ type of events where students participate in various challenges around Auckland City in pairs and the winning team is awarded prizes like a Contiki Tour to Europe.
We’ve just recently surpassed $500,000 worth of savings across the different services we provide.
[In September, Niesh’s free printing service was put on indefinite hiatus]
FOUR: Can anyone who’s a university student in New Zealand join Niesh?
Absolutely! We now cater for all students from high school level upwards. This means students from high schools, universities, PTEs (Private Training Establishments), and ITPs (Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics) can all join and enjoy our services for free.’
FIVE: I understand you guys also operate a kind of student space/lounge near Auckland Uni. Can you tell me a little about that and how that fits into your business model?
Unfortunately, we’ve actually had to say our goodbyes to the student lounge in late 2018. The student lounge played a key role to the initial chapters of the Niesh story as essentially this was where our free printing service started. We initially planned to place our printers in the [Auckland] University campus but was quickly met with resistance from the universities as they monetized printing and this was a significant revenue stream for them. Determined to bring the free printing service to the market, we raised some seed capital from our investor and opened up the student lounge where students could come and study, chill, do their free printing, and also feed themselves with some affordable meals.
Being real rookie entrepreneurs, Jae and I didn’t think far ahead enough to how we were going to pay rent and quickly realised that working in the kitchen was the only way! During these early days, Jae and I would both work in the kitchen from 9am to 9pm, and then work on the IT side of the business from 9pm – 2am. This lasted for a whole year. They were ridiculous hours, but we absolutely loved it!
When we decided to scale nationally, we needed to focus on growing the scalable side of the business, and unfortunately, opening student lounges all across the country didn’t seem like a viable option. So we had to part ways with our kitchen duties and are now focusing on what we do best – building an app for students. We’re still really good at making smoothies though!
SIX: How does your business model work? Are you funded by advertising, membership fees, partnership deals etc?
The most important part of our business model is that we never have and never will charge our students for our services. All of our revenue comes from sponsorship and partnership deals from our various partners across the public and private sector.
SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
Definitely! Our plan this year is to expand our services all across the nation as we are currently only in Auckland and Wellington. This national expansion will start in February when we enter Christchurch in line with the beginning of the University of Canterbury Orientation Week, which starts on Monday. After scaling across New Zealand, we may look to expand our services to our neighbours in Australia, but nothing is confirmed at this stage.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.
It’s too difficult to pick one so I’m going to pick three: Unfiltered, founded by Jake Millar and Yuuki Ogino, Girlboss founded by Alexia Hilbertidou, and the #YesToSuccess movement founded by Robett Hollis.
All three are in the education space and are inspiring our younger generation to challenge the status quo. I’m super excited to see the impact that these organisations will make in shaping the future of New Zealand.