The Learning Curve: Krishna Kumar, Founder of Simplilearn Unplugged

With the rise of AI and automation, large corporates have already begun upskilling their employees to prepare them for the change.

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By Punita Sabharwal

Entrepreneur India

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With the rise of AI and automation, large corporates have already begun upskilling their employees to prepare them for the change. We caught up with Krishna Kumar — founder of Simplilearn — to understand how his company is providing machine learning courses and essential skills aligned with the future to corporates, individual employees and educational institutions. The 40-year-old entrepreneur has so far raised $40 mn in external funding, read on to find out how entrepreneurship has been the biggest learning of his life.

Tell us about your journey from being an employee to entrepreneur.

I completed my engineering and I got into an IT company through campus recruitment. IT companies during that time were growing very rapidly. I was mostly on the bench not doing anything. So, I got bored and I left within a year. Once I left my job, I decided to figure out what I should do. I met some of my school friends in Bangalore, who went to different engineering colleges and we decided to do something on our own. That's how we started our first company TechUnified. Eventually, we got into banking to build a very good mobile banking product. Most of our customers were in the Middle East and Africa — some of the large companies such as Citibank, HSBC, and few local banks were all using our products. Eventually, the company got acquired in 2007 by ORG Informatics. After acquisition, I worked there for about a year transferring the business to the new buyers and then in 2009 I moved out of ORG.

How did Simplilearn happen?

In 2009, there was a lot of noise about businesses being built around the internet. So, I thought of starting Simplilearn as a blog. I started blogging about my experience of running TechUnified for seven years and the blog became very popular. Within a few months I had followers coming back to me saying: "You write so much on project management why you don't help us prepare for PMP exams."

When I looked around the internet there was hardly any online resource to prepare for PMP exams. So, I created some videos and kept them free on my blog. Those videos became very popular and many people were asking me how they can talk to me. Thus, I started doing live classes. I used to do one-hour class every week and that class used to get a lot of viewers, sometimes 400-500 people. This continued for about a year as a hobby. At some point I realized that this can be a full-time business; I was doing it for free but some of these students ended up paying. So, with that thought I formally launched Simplilearn in 2010.

In 2015, you moved the start-up completely online. What led to that move?

We started with paid courses and over a period of time we kept adding new courses. The business has been growing since then and has gone through multiple transitions. For instance, earlier there used to be an offline component for talking to instructors who used to come to an offline center. Today, technology has improved so much that you can easily talk to each other on platforms like WebEx and therefore, there is no need for a physical center to interact. It is thus, we moved completely online in 2015.

What made you move towards enterprise business?

There has been a strong focus on going digital and hence, a lot of people are trying to acquire skills for the future. Similarly, companies are struggling to train their employees to get ready for the new kind of business models. So a lot of enterprise business came our way. Most of our B2C consumers work for some company or the other so when they get trained on their own and they spread the word. We start getting enquiries in multitudes. Since we started seeing this pattern we started to build a separate division for only targeting enterprises. Today, we look at ourselves as one of the leading digital economy training providers.

Where does Simplilearn stand in comparison to other players?

Most of the online learning platforms give you self-learning videos. While, our approach is not only content-focused, but also, we do a lot of live classes. A real instructor comes to the online class, which enhances the learning process. We have a lot of short classes and 24X7 support. This is why our course completion rates are very high as opposed to of global players — upwards of 70 percent.

Was it a deliberate call to build a global company from day one?

The courses and videos were free initially. The day I made it paid I got seven payments in the first 24 hours – out of those seven guys who had accessed the course five were from outside India. Our courses have always been global in nature because we are targeting professionals and their evolving needs.

Which is the biggest market for you?

The US is the biggest market followed by India and not because of the number of students but because of the dollar value. The courses are priced differently in the US and India. 80 percent of our customers come from India and the US. We have around 25 fulltime employees in the US across two different locations.

Has it been easy running operations in US?

It was difficult initially. We wanted to scale up the operations and we decided to acquire a company operating in the US market. With that thought, in 2015 we acquired Market Motive which was based out of San Francisco. They had about 22-23 employees but they had a very good set of customers also and that became our initial base for our US business.

How are these courses priced?

There are two types of courses: a single course and master's program. Master's program is like a learning path that we suggest a set of courses in a certain sequence that you eventually become an expert in that area. They are priced differently. A single course in India is about Rs 20,000 and a master is roughly about Rs 60,000. In the US, these courses are roughly about $700 and $1500. A single course takes three months to complete and master's takes about a year.

What about certification?

There are different ways that we take care of certification. For instance, if there is already a very popular industry certificate available, we try to bundle that as part of our course. Like, for project management there is already a certification called PMP, so we bundle the PMP certification as part of our course and we have a Simplilearn master's certificate that requires you to get PMP certificate in place.

Who are your typical customers?

Companies are trying to see how machine learning and AI can make everything better. We have a lot of students whom we train on machine learning across various companies — right from retail companies to banking to pharma.

What have you learned in your second entrepreneurial journey?

When we started the first company we had four co-founders who were all from similar backgrounds. We took up one area each and then started focusing on that. So, it was an organic progression. When I started Simplilearn, I was the only founder, so looking at both the experiences I have learned that good companies are all about people. So, I think my biggest learning has been how to build a team.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here

Punita Sabharwal

Deputy Editor, Entrepreneur India Magazine

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