How UNiDAYS rose to the top of the SME fast-growth ranks

Generating revenues of nearly US$2 billion last year, UNiDAYS is an SME fast-growth success story.
31 October 2018

Filephoto of UNiDAYS. Source: UNiDAYS

In 2011, an entrepreneur called Josh Rathour started a venture called UNiDAYS from a small rented office in Nottingham.

Its core concept was verification; developing technology which would verify whether or not young people are students. This would then allow brands across almost every vertical to accurately reach a customer-base – online, in-store and on social media – that had just become financially independent.

It’s safe to say the business model worked, and quickly.

Alongside strong incentives, brands on UNiDAYS’ app and web-based platform can now see conversion rates surpass 50 percent and, crucially, it only asks for payment if it drives a sale.

Just a year after launch, UNiDAYS landed international fashion retailer Asos. Global brands like Samsung, Nike and Apple fell in shortly after. Fast-forward to 2018, and UNiDAYS is the reigning Sunday Times Lloyds SME Export Track 100 leader based on international sales growth with offices worldwide, including London, Sydney, New York, and Silicon Valley.

Be first to scale

Rathour’s business generated over GBP1.9 billion (US$2.42 billion) in revenue last year for a partner-base now exceeding 600 retailers across 32 countries. Its growth overseas, meanwhile, has been nothing short of staggering – the business increased sales from GBP209,000 (US$266,000) in 2015 to GBP3.3 million (US$4.2 million) last year.

“The key to success in business is not being the first to market: it’s being the first to scale,” Rathour told the Telegraph last year, and it’s a quote that rather succinctly sums up the method behind the company’s aggressive and ongoing rise to the top.

UNiDAY’s founder is certainly under no pretense that his product was ever a unique offering – former student readers may remember the days of NUS cards – Rathour believes he is just doing it better than his competitors, and taking bolder steps with the technology available.

This includes catering to an ever more tech-savvy, mobile-centric and social audience. Nearly two-thirds of Generation Z consumers now browse the web with smartphones.

As such, expectations among consumers are at the highest they have ever been, choice of retailer is multitudinous and user reviews can make or break your App Store ranking.

Rathour’s focus has always been on trying to delight users with intuitive and silk-smooth user experiences. It’s a discipline taken for granted by users, but one behind the success of leading technology disruptors, such as Airbnb and Uber.

Growing pains

One of the toughest challenges for UNiDAYS, however, has been to make that technology compatible with a disparate and endless list of national student registration systems, while maintaining a seamless user experience to match the expectations of its household-name clients.

“One of my core responsibilities is spearheading the development of UNiDAYS and future-gazing for the business,” Rathour told Retail Gazette.

“After setting ambitions for the next five to ten years, I then work closely with our talented team to ensure our current strategy and resources are focused on building the most effective channel for brands to engage with the world‘s 200 million university students.”

At present, UNiDAYS’ user-base sits at 10 million, the largest online community of students worldwide, and having developed technology that allows it to verify 70 percent of the world’s population, this figure is set to get much larger.

Maintaining this momentum of growth and expanding the company’s offering into new regions is not without considerable challenges. According to UNiDAYS’ Chief Technology Officer, Andrew Bullock, data is integral to its strategy on the global stage. In that regard, UNiDAYS is no different from 90 percent of SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises).

“You can’t assume one geographic region is similar to another. Models are very useful, but ultimately you need as much data as possible, specific to each country,” said Bullock. Once that data is gathered, the company can then begin to work out how to target a lucrative audience of future-earners in that market.

Power of personalization

Each of those regions must be treated with its own marketing strategy. Bullock added, “Influencer and advocacy marketing tends to be more effective in regions we’re more established in, as does CRM [Customer Relationship Management], but in newer markets, we rely far more on performance marketing, including AdWords and social media.

“For us, the biggest trend is personalization and smarter use of data – this has led us to have a more individual approach to marketing.”

Whether it’s data on customer behavior or local market insights, audience data gives SMEs the power to orchestrate effective marketing strategies that are relevant to a specific market’s audience. Although, Bullock would argue that a physical presence is equally important.

“You need local knowledge, for both language and market insight. Deploy people on the ground where possible,” Bullock says, an attitude that’s evident in the company’s ambitious expansions plans which include opening offices in three new markets by the end of the year.

Though UNiDAYS has certainly evolved, Rathour has protected its simplicity while striving for continuous improvement and scale, and this diligence, despite the challenges to come, has paid off. With such rapidity of growth, time will tell whether the company will be able to maintain its momentum.