x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dubai company’s admin solution for kindergartens and nurseries

Sarah Sikandar Shahid, a software developer, is enabling nurseries in the UAE and beyond to manage their private information independently.

Sarah Sikandar Shahid company’s Automation Ready was a finalist in the RSA Start-up Business of the Year category of the Gulf Capital SMEinfo Awards. Jaime Puebla / The National
Sarah Sikandar Shahid company’s Automation Ready was a finalist in the RSA Start-up Business of the Year category of the Gulf Capital SMEinfo Awards. Jaime Puebla / The National

Unsecured sharing of children’s pictures on social media started Sarah Sikandar Shahid thinking.

Three years ago, the mother of two approached nurseries for the admission of her eldest child, now six years old, when she moved to Dubai from Michigan.

While researching nurseries, she saw scores of pictures of children floating around on Facebook, open to the public, shared by the nurseries and day care centres on their social media pages.

“I was shocked to see kindergartens and [day care centres] do not use [secured technology] and use Facebook for sharing pictures and information,” says Ms Shahid, 33. “Moreover, when my child started going to a nursery there was no live calendar or reminders, and notes would get constantly lost in the bag.”

The software developer, who had worked for a decade in developing enterprise resource planning systems in the United States, decided to tackle the problem head-on.

Her software development company Automation Ready, which she started in 2011, created its second project, School Cloud Me. The school solution integrates various functions of a nursery such as invoicing, online billing and security besides providing communication tools along with HR and payroll functions, and has the potential to be scaled up across K-12 schools and beyond the UAE.

Automation Ready, which had previously developed HR software used by companies and schools, was a finalist in the RSA Start-up Business of the Year category of the Gulf Capital SMEinfo Awards this month.

“With the priority given to education in this part of the world, Automation Ready has tapped into a market with immense opportunities for growth,” says Walid Cherif, managing director for credit partners at Gulf Capital, and one of the judges in the awards.

The demand was such that within two months of Automation Ready launching the beta version of School Cloud Me in March, 11 nurseries showed interest in using the solution. These included four nurseries under Blossom Group in Dubai.

“The environment is changing and companies are caught up with getting document processing in order,” says Rahim Sajan, a managing partner at Blossom Group.

“We want to grow the company and want to get the back office processes on line first. Moreover, other service providers required a lot of tailoring and we needed a company that would work along with our inputs.”

The four-year-old group is implementing the system across its three nurseries in Dubai and a fourth in the same emirate scheduled to open in January.

Ms Shahid stopped selling the solution two months after its launch when she saw the demand for it and the opportunity to scale it up even outside the UAE.

It launched officially last month and is ready for sale again to day care centres and play areas. In a couple of months, it is expected to go live at a Kids First Group nursery – a Dubai-based company – in Qatar. Soon it could be in Egypt and in four nurseries in Lebanon.

Every nursery has its own School Cloud Me system. These come with events reminders and secured picture-sharing accessible only to parents of children within the specific academic class.

The cost for the nurseries comes to US$ 1 per child per month.

“They don’t need an IT department and use Microsoft Cloud [Solutions] instead,” says Ms Shahid. The software can be downloaded onto the school network.

The Pakistani-American entrepreneur has invested $1 million in Automation Ready. While she supplied most of the funding, the rest came from three investors who now sit on the board.

Revenue in the last quarter was around $30,000 from the beta customers with whom School Cloud Me launched. Its first-year target revenue is $250,000. And it employs four people, excluding the founder Ms Shahid, who is also the company’s chief software developer.

“It’s a huge salary cut that you have to take when you go from a paid job to your own business,” she says. “But it’s more about making school secure for children and making lives easier for young families to raise children.”