Pacing Growth: Mohammed Aldhalaan On The Lessons Learnt While Building Edtech Platform Noon Academy
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It is the customer who matters the most when it comes to product development- that is the key lesson Mohammed Aldhalaan has grasped over his years starting up and building his edtech platform, Noon Academy.
Launched in 2013, the Saudi Arabia-headquartered digital learning platform has adopted a gamification approach to its educational services to ensure the users find it interactive and engaging, and here’s why: “We realized that what matters is no longer access to education; what matters is making it engaging and interactive,” Aldhalaan says. “The new generation expects apps at bar to experience the entertainment and gaming world. It took us years of experiments and unlocked puzzles in students’ behaviors to get to this conclusion. With a heavy discovery mindset, we navigated our way to win students’ hearts, before winning their minds.”
Aldhalaan admits that it took a lot of trial and error, over the past seven years, to create the right product that fit the target markets. Today, due to the effort of Aldhalaan and his co-founder Aziz AlSaeed, the edtech startup has expanded its operations from Saudi Arabia to India and Pakistan, while plans to start offering its online services to the London market later this year are also on the cards.
Aziz AlSaeed and Mohammed Aldhalaan, co-founders, Noon Academy. Source: Noon Academy
However, what Aldhalan learnt while acquiring over six million registered users across these four major markets is that the best product isn’t necessarily always the one that undergoes severe tweaking or modification. “We didn’t adjust much. We didn’t change the product; we sometimes localize messaging, value proposition, and the job to be done. Universally, everyone likes live tutoring and an interactive and engaging product, so not much to be tweaked. There are just sign-up experiences and copywriting that need to be tweaked in every country. Having said that, different study needs are served in different countries, depending on the study culture and students’ mindsets.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and a greater focus on online educational tools, Aldhalaan and the team at Noon Academy were quick to realize the opportunity and greater sense of responsibility this brought on the firm. “We thought establishing credibility with parents may take some time, and when COVID-19 hit us, we realized that it will take much faster than we expected in terms of adoption and credibility,” he explains. “We have validated an open platform business model where teachers can open a group and start teaching without waiting for any permission. If they do a great job, we then promote them. This will become the future business mode.”
But with growth and expansion comes the very obvious managerial issue of building the right team to cater to the varied students and teachers who use Noon Academy. Aldhalaan is blatantly honest when asked about what his biggest lessons have been over the last seven years when it comes to creating the perfect team. “We look for employees who are humble, original in their thinking, who are bold, and can learn very fast. No matter what you do to maintain the culture at home or overseas, it’s all about the people you hire and fire. Firing, honestly speaking, is equally as important as hiring! Be patient with those who learn and do their best to scale, but have zero-tolerance with those who violate your company’s values, and cut off that cancer early on.”
While building the right team has been vital in catalyzing the firm’s growth, Aldhalaan is also fully aware that they also require the right kind of investors when it comes to fundraising– more specifically, investors who are aligned with the vision and values of the firm. The edtech startup recently announced a US$13 million pre-Series B fundraise. But Aldhalaan remains firm that unless the investors do not show a keen, genuine interest in Noon Academy’s long-term goals, he doesn’t approach them. “We bootstrapped till the end of 2016, and in 2017, we raised some hundred thousand dollars (slightly more than $400,000). We then raised $8 million in Series A in 2019, and now we just raised $13 million. The Series A round was the most difficult to raise as it was a bit big, and very few investors were fit to our criteria back then. We needed investors who are strategic and super aligned with us. We have not yet raised from an international investor. It’s due to many reasons, including proximity, cultural barriers, and familiarity with the market.”
Noon Academy's homepage
With such a straightforward approach to nearly all aspects of the firm’s operation, it is interesting to note what he shares as advice for budding entrepreneurs in the region. Again, Aldhalaan is succinct and to-the-point. “Your first idea is definitely not your best idea. Have a discovery mindset, not the execution mindset. Nothing is more important than product-market fit, especially in early days. Startups are hard, and we typically underestimate things. So, make sure you spend your sweat and tears in a problem that is worth it!”
On a closing note, when asked about future plans, Aldhalaan remains cautious and says pacing growth is key, but he remains confident of the possibilities. “The market is huge with a lot of opportunities, and we’ve doubled down on our growth,” he says. “We have a core value which is ‘own it and be bold.’ As long as the market is receptive and big enough, there’s no need for us to slow down.”