Students find a lifeline at sink-or-swim campuses

Niesh’s home base is tucked away near the University of Auckland and AUT city campuses. To find it, one must pass an old church, step between a few sandwich boards, venture down a long staircase, and utter the secret password.

That last one's a joke. There's no gatekeeper, and no dungeon. What you'll find is an explosion of light, chatter, chalkboards, kitchen aromas, and attitude.

A sign at the door reads: “Do you think paying for printing is bullshit? Are you sick and tired of paying for overpriced food and coffee?”

It would seem so. The place isn’t big, but it’s humming with student activity. Busiest of all is a thin youngster with a branded t-shirt and a calm, kind disposition. Obviously, this is the boss.

James Koo is a commerce and science student at the University of Auckland, studying four majors, and that's secondary to his other role as the co-founder and CEO of a growing business focused on making student life easier.

For now, that means easier printing and eating, on-campus and off. (Food and drink sales from the Niesh kitchen help subsidise the printing.) If things go well enough, the company may help change the way people learn.

“Good knowledge isn’t just in the universities," Koo says. "There’s so many things you can learn outside, and we want to break those barriers.

“We’re helping students here, but what about the ones who don’t have this luxury?”

Koo says the current tertiary education system is “outdated” but he can see why disruption is a slow-moving beast.

“There are millions of teachers around the world and if we change the system, we could have a dilemma - but it has to change if we want a more sustainable future.”

The name Niesh suggests a narrow scope – a niche, of course – but the range of services available on its flagship smartphone app is already widening.

Niesh’s biggest attraction is free printing – with a banner advertisement printed on each side of each page. Koo says students are discouraged from submitting formal assignments using the branded paper, but he hasn’t heard of a submission not being accepted. He claims economics teachers actually encourage their students to take the thrifter option.

Being run by students for students means Niesh has a better handle on what works, Koo says. Roughly 60 partners offer deals on the app, with greasy spoons like Better Burger and Lord of the Fries topping the the list.

Koo says the company wants to grow the app to include more services to students beyond their daily studies. He says there is no shortage of options available to students, but there’s no help either.

For the general public, it’s easy. TradeMe takes care of commerce, accommodation, even jobs. For community-building, there’s Neighbourly or Facebook. Students, says Koo, must sink or swim in an ocean of decentralised information.

Some of the growth areas are being kept secret because of commercial sensitivity, but Koo says housing and job seekers are doing it particularly tough. He also says it’s hard for small-to-medium sized employers and graduates to find each other.

“If you want to find a job, let’s say you’re a third-year bCom but not the top student. You’re not going to get into a top firm. But students we talk to don’t know which accounting firms they can apply to because the only ones they’re exposed to are the big four (Deloitte, KMPG, EY, PWC) with the money to spend on university advertising.”

Koo says other expansion plans include academic support services, party planning (“it’s crucial to the student experience”) and sideways movement into other universities.

“We have around 25 percent of the University of Auckland’s students but we want to bump that up to at least 50 per cent, and make the transition into AUT and other areas of New Zealand like Victoria, Canterbury, Otago, and Waikato.”

James Koo at work in the Niesh kitchen. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

But even the fast lane has bumps. Koo, who in his early twenties leads 29 employees and volunteers, struggles with knowing he’s still at university – with years still to go - while his friends are taking management positions in the corporate world.

“If this doesn’t take off, where does it leave me? I’ll be 30 years old and yet to finish an undergraduate degree.

“I don’t think a degree is a make-or-break in my life. If you’ve found a passion and you’re doing what you love, you’re ahead in the race.”

Koo acknowledges his momentum made him resilient enough to overcome personal doubts, or hints of impostor syndrome. He says building professional support networks early has “one hundred percent” contributed to the growth of his business.

“Jae [Yoo, co-founder of Niesh] was in a Young Enterprise competition at Westlake Boys High and Bill Smale [Westlake alumnus and co-owner of the Smales Farm business park] was one of the mentors. Jae held onto his business card for five years.

“Bill agreed to mentor us through the whole thing. His Queen’s Service Medal was for his contribution to education. He walked us through the process of starting a business – we were clueless – but it got to a stage where we needed an investment or nothing would happen.

“Our line of thinking was: if we couldn’t convince our own mentor to put some money in, we’re not going to convince anyone. So we worked on a pitch for two months so any question he could ask, we’d have an answer for.

“Fortunately, he didn’t show any hesitation.” 

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