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2021: A year in review with Orah’s founders

Kavyapriya Sethu

January 18, 2022

Reviewing our opportunities and lessons | Design by Storyset

We started the year 2021 with a lot of anticipation. After nearly a year of adjusting to the pandemic and the new normal, we were unsure what the new year would bring us. Will the vaccine be administered to the public? Will we continue to work remotely? Will schools finally reopen? 

2021 had a fair share of the good and the bad. Maybe not as tumultuous as 2020. The most positive highlight would be the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 7.4 billion vaccine doses were administered in 184 countries in the first eleven months of 2021. 

Personally, at Orah, we had an exciting year. Here’s a look at what we were up to in 2021.

  1. Boardingware was rebranded into Orah. We split our offering into multiple products to enable customers to adopt it for their unique needs. Our vision expanded to include independent day schools and boarding/residential schools. The word Orah derives from the Māori word ‘Ora’ is defined as (verb) to be alive, well, safe, cured, recovered, healthy, fit, healed. We aimed to help schools manage and support students at every stage of their development and ensure their safety, health, and wellbeing. This launch paved the way to build the industry’s first Student Engagement Platform.
  1. The way we worked changed for many people in 2021. At Orah, we went completely remote, allowing us to hire great talent from around the world. Our team now encompasses 35 passionate people, sitting in different parts of the world and working to make Orah bigger and better. 
  1. Teachers and students were vastly affected by the pandemic. We were hard at work improving the virtual and hybrid school experience. We launched many new features like the dashboards, improvements to forms and workflows, and easy navigation around your Orah application, to name a few. We laid the foundation to build and launch our latest product, Nurture, to help schools proactively support students in optimizing their wellbeing. 

We closed the door to 2021 and stepped into 2022. But before we begin this new chapter with new goals to reach, we took a moment to ponder over our opportunities and lessons. So we know what to do and what not to do to achieve success in the future. The founders of Orah, Kurt Meyer and Paul G. Organ, got candid about what last year meant for them. Here's what they had to say. 

My first question for you. What worked well for you last year? 

Paul: There were lots to be grateful for in 2021.

  1. What worked well was our decision to go completely remote. It enabled us to work with people all over the world with great people like you, Kavya. Previously, we had some working remotely while others were coming to the office. Now, we have standardized that. All of us are working together to make this an interesting and exciting company to work for. I am grateful that COVID gave us that kind of opportunity. 
  2. The expansion of our vision now allows us to help students in different aspects. We have been getting feedback and insights from people at schools that we previously didn't cater to since our focus was mainly on boarding schools. Now, the team and I can envision the big picture and understand why we are doing what we are doing. 
  3. I am thankful we began working with 40 regular independent schools that have signed up for our Nurture product and am so appreciative of their confidence in us to build this product with them.
  4. On the personal front, I am grateful for my health, my family's health, and my team's wellbeing. 

Kurt: I am grateful for the growth of the team this year. And some of the people who have joined have been incredibly talented and driven. It's been a privilege to know them better and work with them. And in the environment of Covid, I know companies who didn't make it. I'm glad that we're one of the ones who were able to navigate it and come out probably stronger. 

Did you envision this growth at the beginning of 2021? 

Kurt: Yeah, but it was just numbers. It's a lot different when you actually feel and experience it. For us, the projection was just numbers on a spreadsheet that we were aiming towards. But then actually experiencing it has been something else. It has been great.

This year felt surreal. The pandemic probably forced us to adapt to a new normal. Talk to me about the lockdown and the new normal. 

Paul: During the lockdown, one of the big things I focused on was understanding what centers me, i.e., what makes me feel happy and fulfilled. It reinforced some of the habits I need to follow daily like getting an hour's worth of exercise and getting 7-9hours of sleep and learning something new. If I don't get around to doing these things for too many days in a row, I get tired and cranky. 

I also started to understand my diet a little better. It sounds pretty basic, but I never noticed what nutrients I was consuming before. You know, your carbs, proteins, and other essential intakes. I started tracking those with the help of MyFitnessPal. 

About a year ago, I moved into my office/home. It has been a great change for me. By working here, I have everything I need at an arm's length—gym, kitchen, office. It has made it really easy to be flexible and to do things on my schedule because I am not waiting in traffic or waiting for anything or anyone. 

Kurt: It has been great, to be honest. My wife and I both work from home. I tend to work well in an environment where there aren't many external distractions. So it's been good in that sense. I don't really like traveling for work. Last year, the conferences and other things were held virtually, and I didn't have to travel. That was good. The remote working style gives me a bit more flexibility in my life. I just find that I have more time in my day to do other things that might be important. 

I also learned a bit about my habits and how it impacts my productivity. For me:

  • Having a good sleep
  • Having a sense of achievement through work or exercise
  • Having new experiences
  • Making sure my important relationships are strong
  • Having a clean and organized environment
  • Blocking time to rest without any pressure to get something done

If I miss out on any of these things, I tend to be in a bad headspace even though things may be going well overall. I also picked up the habit of listening to audiobooks while running. It has helped me save time and consume more information than usual. 

Any recommendations for our readers? 

Kurt: Radical Candor is a good book I would like to recommend. Maybe even the Netflix book - No Rules Rules. Radical Candor talks about culture and management. It selves into the importance of developing strong relationships with your team and caring deeply about them on a personal level. The idea can be translated and applied in the school environment. 

Where did you spend your time and energy? 

Paul: Last year was about focusing on the future of the business and understanding the impact we can have. I feel like we are in a good space right now. We are still trying to articulate our vision properly. We understand the big picture, and I can see a great future for the business. 

Kurt: Nurture has been one of the most thorough market research projects that we've done. It was awesome. Initially, I didn't have much knowledge of the space or the problems. But talking to one school after another was helpful and rewarding. They are really nice people, and they're so insightful. I think I even learned a bit about compassion, empathy, and psychology from them. 

On the Nurture product: We conducted research around the wellbeing space and tried to understand the different frameworks and research available. I learned more about wellbeing and started to develop the product around all the research we had compiled. It has been fun working with talented team members like Ying. I saw it go from scattered ideas to something more improved and complete, and it was amazing. We used the prototype to receive good feedback and improve the product further. It's been one of the most rewarding product development projects so far. 

Previously, I mentioned that I was comfortable with the new normal. But talking to all the caregivers, counselors, and teachers who look out for these kids, I learned how the Covid environment has impacted the students. That learning has been quite eye-opening. Kids don't know what's going on in the world. They are in the early stages of their life. They don't know what's going to happen when they leave school, among other uncertainties. I feel for them. If this product can somehow help them in a small way, then we are making a difference.

We have ventured into supporting students’ wellbeing and actively doing research on it. Kurt, are there any best practices you have learned and adopted from it? 

Kurt: The model is called the circumplex model of affect. It maps the spectrum of emotions across two axes - energy and pleasantness. We've talked about this quite a lot internally. But the idea of thinking of your energy and your pleasantness as two separate dimensions has been useful for me. Consciously, deducing what impacts my energy and what impacts my pleasantness. It's pretty straightforward—good sleep, diet exercise, understanding what drains you, and what recharges you. I think just having that has helped me maintain my energy levels or manage my moods better. We have been using it to build the product (Nurture) for students to be able to use as well.

What were your most meaningful moments?

Kurt: Climbing Mount Fuji was something I did in the summer this year. It was something I've always wanted to do. So that was definitely a bit of a surreal moment when I climbed it and got to watch the sunrise. 

Kurt at Mount Fuji

Paul: Honestly, the rebrand was one of the most meaningful moments for me. When Kurt and I left university to pursue the idea of building Boardingware, we could see a step change to a drastically different future than where we were headed if we had stayed in school. The rebrand has had a similar impact on me in the sense that the trajectory of the business is going to be wildly different than if we only focused on one aspect of a student's journey in boarding schools.

Previously, we were happy that we had built a great product for boarding schools but we wondered what the big picture was.  Now that we know it, we can focus solely on improving our vision, performance, and effectiveness. To me life is good if I can do that and have fun along the way; it gives me the sense that the sky's the limit. 

What didn’t go so well? What was challenging or disappointing?

Kurt: I had some ambitious goals to learn to speak Japanese. Although I improved a lot, it was not to the level I was aiming for. 

Paul: We lost a few schools that we worked with. And it was because we didn't have the right processes in place to handle things like smooth transfer of knowledge between people in our business. So it meant that some accounts that we had signed in the past got a little neglected. It was frustrating because it was within our control. But we are getting better at it. We are actively drafting processes and getting more people on board to help us out. 

Another challenge that we faced—even though we have gone remote, it took us a while to build the team we have now. It was a big learning for all of us. We learned that it takes time to put together a great team and how important culture and company values are when it comes to choosing the right talent to work with us. If we choose someone who is not the right culture fit for us, then it can almost feel like we are going a little backward. 

And on a personal front, I found it frustrating to not be able to travel to meet my parents living in Australia. It has been 2 years now since I've seen my parents and I am hoping I can meet them soon. 

What could you have done differently?

Kurt: What I could have done differently...try not to do too many things at once. Prioritize what's important and commit to doing that. The other things are going to have to be secondary. This kind of thinking has to be quite deliberate. There is a temptation to try to optimize your life so that you can do a lot of things. It might work well for some time. But it's a hard balance, and it's not very durable. It can quite easily be tipped out of balance. If you are serious about one thing, then you need to be willing to sacrifice all the other things. That's hard to do. I think that's something that I need to try to improve on because I tend to try to do everything. 

Paul: I could have adopted the habits that I follow today a lot earlier. I flourished during the lockdown. I was running every day, and I was eating right. But when we were coming out of the lockdown, you had to juggle your social life without letting go of your daily routine. That is something I am working on and can always do better. 

Also, better planning in terms of how our revenue team is going to expand our offering and expand our footprint in the market share. I knew it in my head, but I didn't have it mapped out on paper for everybody to see and understand. That's something I am hoping to do better this year.  

Previously, we focused on solving the immediate problems in the boarding school environment. We didn't spend enough time understanding and clarifying the larger vision for the company. Now, we know our vision. I need to make sure that it's properly articulated and cascaded to everyone in the company. That's also something to work on for the next 12-24 months. 

What is an area where you would like to stretch, grow and learn this year (2022)?

Kurt: I think I would like to meet more people. We've hired the most people that we ever had in one year. I had to meet a lot of new people inside the company. Also, as we developed new products and expanded the market. Naturally, I got to meet more new people. Meeting people is one of those high-leverage activities. For instance, if you meet someone who you think is going to be a great fit for the team—that interaction is automatically high value. Or if you are connecting with people who can help you develop the product or who are keen to become customers, then that's high value. 

It is also rewarding to meet kind and intelligent people who are passionate and good at what they do. I got to meet with early adopters and the people we are trying to hire. And I would like to do more of it. It's a stretch goal for me because it's not something that comes naturally. I'm naturally introverted, and it's not something that I think about. It has to be something that I consciously realize and try to do. 

Paul: There are a couple of things:

  1. Making more time for downtime. Nothing extravagant but taking time off to do things, I get joy out of pretty simple things like going to the beach and spending time with friends. I am hoping to see my parents as well.
  2. I want to get back to doing more regular journaling. 
  3. I'd like to grow by using my creativity more consistently. When I was younger, creativity was one of the elements of my character. It is something I have always been interested in developing. At work, I do get to use my creativity from time to time. But I would like to explore and find more consistent outlets like painting or creative writing. 

What does success look like to you this year (2022)?

Kurt: Grow Orah faster than ever before :) 

Paul: Build well-functioning sales and revenue teams. Because of the market that we were in, we've had insufficient ability to scale. But this year, with us expanding our vision and venturing into a new and bigger market, we have exciting opportunities to build a team and hire specialists to enhance each part of the customer journey. Also, structuring our key products better to help K-12 schools, widening our reach to more schools, and continuously delivering great customer experiences.

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Kavyapriya Sethu

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