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My Zoom Call with Gaurav Munjal, who is in Dubai at the time of this call is 15 minutes late and starts as soon as he finishes one of his investor meetings over Zoom for another fundraise. The pandemic has brought new learnings methods even for investors as the edtech market brought an unprecedented change. Valued at $2 Billion in November 2020 in their last investment round, Unacademy is upping the game, as I pen down this story another edtech leader has been declared the most valuable startup in the country making edtech the most efficacious of all. Read on to know what this unicorn can teach you about the changing lesson plan in edtech.
Gaurav Munjal is a content creator whose entrepreneurial streak took him to the path of setting up Unacademy. Ever since the age of 15, Munjal was fascinated by blogging and started using online platforms like Blogger and Quora. Talking about his entrepreneurial innings as a teenager, Munjal says, “I was making money through Google AdSense throughout my college by making these blogs, etc.” While pursuing Computer Engineering from NMIMS University, Mumbai, Munjal’s college mates wanted him to come over to their place to explain a topic on Computer Graphics as they had an exam two days later. Instead of commuting there to explain, Munjal made a video, uploaded it on YouTube, and shared it with his friends. For Munjal, YouTube was just another platform like Blogger or Quora. Six months later, he realized that the video has got 1 lakh likes.
Talking about his eureka moment, Munjal says, “I wasn’t expecting that because it was a very niche academic topic but people also searched for these topics when preparing for their own examination.” This was the moment Munjal realized that online learning was disruptive. But this moment wasn’t just a one-off; he had a series of incidents that made him believe in the potential of online learning. In the first year of his college, he found Stanford Engineering Everywhere. It was Stanford’s initiative for online courses. There was one Professor Mehran Sahami whose videos were uploaded on Stanford Engineering Everywhere for Computer Science. “Amazing courses and amazing quality content, this is what they teach in Stanford and when I discovered this, it was significantly better than what my college was teaching and I went for those courses and I learned most of Computer Science online and I realized in online learning a great teacher can create a 1000x difference,” mentions Munjal.
Once College was over, Munjal worked as a Software Developer with Directi for a year. While Unacademy remained a YouTube channel, Munjal along with Hemesh Singh pursued Flatchat a real estate platform for college students and bachelors across India, which in 2014 got acquired by CommonFloor. On how he found his true calling with Unacademy, Munjal shares, “After CommonFloor had acquired us, I was helping in marketing. I was there for one and a half years. Then I wanted to do my own thing and the Unacademy YouTube channel was taking off and I somehow knew that the time had arrived so the final trigger was that we pitched to a few investors and then they said yes without even the product or revenue in place.” Hemesh Singh has been doing programming since he was 12. From the start, he has been really passionate about technology in general. Currently, the CTO & Co-founder at Unacademy, Hemesh Singh, says, “I joined Gaurav right out of college and when we started working together, we realized that we both really love building products, both of us have a deep passion for technology and we just wanted to build good things and when FlatChat got acquired, we moved to Bangalore. I think we enjoyed building things together and that translated into the inception of Unacademy.”
Soon, he convinced his friend from school days, Roman Saini to teach on YouTube, who went to AIIMS and became a Doctor and further cracked UPSC and became an IAS officer. When he did a video, he got 50,000 views and people were obsessed about cracking UPSC. “That is when we realized that this is massive and we are already seeing the traction on Youtube and we must pursue this,” adds Munjal. Talking about what made his videos click with the masses, Munjal says, “I think we have got very content-creator like DNA and then because I was also a coder so it was a very interesting combination of product and content.” The investors said yes based on the founders’ background and the Youtube distribution they had. When asked about what made him launch Unacademy as a full-fledged business, Munjal replies, “When I made videos it was just a hobby, but when we saw more views with more videos, we soon became the largest education channel on YouTube in the country, we realized we have something here, we already have traction, why not build a
product out of it.”
At that time in 2014, there were hardly any content creators, especially those who were successful. Remembering the same Saini, the co-founder at Unacademy says, “Being an IAS Officer, I wouldn’t be able to create any content. When I first created a video, it was watched by 50,000 people in a day. Whenever I upload a video 50000-1,00,000 people used to watch it, that was the eureka moment. One of the videos crossed a million views over the span of 2-3 weeks and at that time, I realized it was a massive market and it was extremely important for us to crack it properly and that was the Eureka moment for me.” On creating newer educators through the platform Saini says, “We realized we need to incentivize a lot of smart people to teach. Right now only the traditional teachers were teaching but at Unacademy a lot of first-time teachers were also teaching and the Eureka moment was that we should enable hundreds and thousands of content creators to become educators.” More importantly, for them, it was also about building a brand for them as well. If they started teaching offline, they would require at least 5-10 years to get recognized as a top educator in a certain field, but Unacademy provided them with a platform and distribution. Talking about the struggles in building the tech platform, Singh says, “On the tech side, the biggest problem was to make sure that the product works really well because it was one of its kind apps and in 2015, not a lot of creation was happening on mobile and that is what we were trying to enable. We had an app with which one could create high-quality educational videos, which was turning out to be one of the biggest technology challenges. The second one was building a good team because you want to be very sure of the people you are hiring early on. After all, they hire more people. The kind of talent we wanted to bring early on and with the limited resources we had, it was one of the challenges early on.”
Time to Pivot
Launched in 2015, for the first four years, Unacademy didn’t make any money. Talking about the pivot at that moment, Munjal says, “I think the real shift came in 2019 when we launched a subscription product, till then we were a free platform.” Delving further, Munjal shares, “Our top teachers were leaving the platform because we had become a sort of talent acquisition platform for top teachers for top institutes and we had to figure out monetization. We got fairly excited about monetization and now it is a $200 Million product.” When asked about handling growth in the time of the pandemic, Singh says, “For the initial 3 years, we were focusing on getting the educators, creating content and serving it to our learners. We had a lot of learnings from that already.
The core technology platform was there so when the growth happened during the pandemic everything was already there. Since then we’ve improved certain things. Our systems are better but nothing broke because we had the time to learn and fail and create the systems from that and when we started in 2019, we were doing live classes before that in a different model, we had enough time to prepare and have strong systems in place.” Since Unacademy was a technology-first company from day one, it was very easy for them to scale. The test prep platform serving 40+ categories went on to enter the K12 market. Today the Unacademy Group consists of Unacademy, PrepLadder, Mastree, CodeChef, and Graphy. Today, students from Tier 2, 3, 4 cities form 70% of the user base at Unacademy. With the first acquisition of Wifistudy in 2018, in the pandemic period, they upped their buying game in 2020 with the most recent one in 2021 being TapChief. Talking about his ambition behind these acquisitions, Munjal says, “I have rarely done an acquisition for revenue. Mostly, I have done acquisition for team and capability so if there is a good team, we would like to acquire them. If someone has done something that we don’t know how to do, we acquire them. Rarely, it is for revenue.” Next on his radar is the jobtech market which according to Munjal requires a major upheaval. And the recent fund closure will be announced very soon as per Munjal and they will be able to crack the market.
Today, Unacademy is India’s largest learning platform with a valuation of $2 billion and a growing network of 50,000+ registered Educators and over 49 million Learners. The vision of Unacademy remains the same to reduce the knowledge gap by providing access to the best of teachers. Sharing his vision Munjal says, “We believe we can build great consumer internet products and we would like to do that in edtech.” The platform imparts education to students across 10,000 cities in India, in 14 Indian languages. When asked about competition in edtech, and the sector giving the most valuable startup to the country, Munjal reiterates, “We are not chasing the valuation game, valuation is secondary. Our game is a better product, better brand, and better marketing. We are the number 1 education brand in India if you go by the Google Trends and YouTube trends data.”
- Karan Shroff joined Unacademy in mid-2019 as the Vice President for Marketing and was elevated to the role of Chief Marketing Officer in September 2020. In June 2021, he was elevated to the position of Co-Founder and Partner at Unacademy.
- Sumit Jain co-founded Graphy, a mobile-first live learning platform, in April 2020. Unacademy launched Graphy, a platform that helps creators grow their audience, monetize their skills, and host live cohort-based courses, with a separate founding team in June 2020.
- Vivek Sinha, is the Senior Vice President of Business at Unacademy. An MBA from the Indian School of business, the young and zealous Mr. Vivek Sinha joined Unacademy with 13 years of experience.
- Umesh Bude joined Unacademy in July 2020 as the Vice President and Head of Engineering. With an experience in building secure, microservices oriented platforms, Umesh is actively involved in the designing, development, and testing stages of the innovative technological solutions that Unacademy offers to its users.
- Tina Balachandran serves as the Vice President, HR at Unacademy. Tina is skilled in Human Capital Management, Organisation Design and Development, Change Management, and Thought Leadership.
2015: Unacademy founded
2016: 100+ educators join Unacademy
2017: 1M+ learners join the platform with 40K+ online lessons
2018: 200K+ daily active users and 5000+ educators on the platform
2019: 1000+ live classes daily
2020: 700K+ daily active users, 2L+ subscribers & 18K+ educators on the platform
2021: Acquired TapChief
(This article was first published in the June 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)