India's First Ed-tech Unicorn on How It's Revamping Education
After a $400 Million fundraise Byju Is Now Valued at $3.6 Billion
Though education and technology so far haven't come on the common ground, a teacher feels technology can revamp learning. And he is not interfering with the education system, or how teachers have been teaching over the years. His aim is to instill the concept of self-learning among the students. Byju Raveendran calls himself a selflearner too. A couple of minutes into the conversation with Raveendran you will know he loved Maths and Science so much so that he always found ways to learn the chapters outside the curriculum. The love made him so passionate about the subject that his friends started approaching him for help after the school hours.
Raveendran's popularity spread word of mouth and friends further got their friends to come and learn the subject from him. Probably this is the reason the company started getting popular by the name BYJU'S. As per Raveendran, "I didn't start to start a business. I used to teach my friends. Then the number increased so I couldn't continue doing it from the terrace or a friends' dining hall. We booked a classroom. There was no business plan as such that I will start something in education."
Raveendran started it as whim when he came to India for a vacation while he was working as a mechanical engineer overseas, and never went back. All his friends were in Bengaluru and some were appearing for the CAT. They came to him for help knowing that he's good in Maths. In fact, Raveendran also appeared for the CAT twice and scored 100 percentile. It all started with the first batch of 35 students, and at 500 it became a talking point. Then it moved to 1,200 students. The scale grew so much that they had to hire an auditorium and prepare slides to be projected on large screens. All this time, Raveendran, however, was thinking of growing even bigger. "We started doing it in stadiums. Once there were 23,000 students. Then we started moving it to V-SAT." From travelling to nine different cities in a week, it became possible to address thousands of students in 45 cities through V-SAT videos.
In this, the first class came free and post that the students had to opt for the paid model. Raveendran's first set of eight students formed the inner circle and started coming on board from 2009-2011. And in 2011, he launched the company together with the eight of them. Tech players usually take a tech-first approach. Byju's, however, moved from offline to online. You can't find a better example of tech being an enabler and leading the company's entire model revolving around it to help it achieve scale. "The transition from offline to online is what helped us to scale more efficiently. Best part is you don't need to compromise on quality whether it is 100 million users or a million users. Product will become better only when more people will use it," says Raveendran. The app in its most recent format was launched in 2015, which covered the curriculum of various boards - CBSE, ICSE or the state boards. From using VSAT for weaving classes to using smartphone as a medium, tech has been the distribution channel for BYJU'S, which wasn't possible in the offline model.
THE UNICORN IS FOUND
For BYJU'S, the success has been based on the effectiveness of the content and the format. In the words of Raveendran, "If the students are not engaged the purpose is not solved. It is essential to make sure you are delivering lessons that are easy to understand, contextual, simplified and also engaging. If you don't get engagement you don't get long-term benefit making sure they like learning." It's a new way of learning for 11 to 17-year-old students at BYJU'S.
Sharing his thoughts on the education model, Raveendran says, "An ideal classroom would be where students learn and the teacher plays an important role of a mentor. They pitch in where they see a gap. Classroom sessions will be more meaningful if it's interactive. For that students have to take the initiative to not be scared to ask questions. The user is the student; you will make the biggest impact in the way they learn. Is there scope for the way teachers teach in the classroom? – the answer is yes. The students are bound to come back to the classroom with some interest, if they like the subject." The conventional model of schooling in India has been built on the norm of classrooms, standardized curriculums and time tables. Though other attempts have been taken what matters is how edtech is used. A joint report released by Google and KPMG estimates that India's online education market will rise more than six times to $1.96 billion over the next four years.
Being the first Asian start-up to be backed by Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, BYJU'S seeks to Disney-fy education. At BYJU'S, teachers don't look or talk like conventional teachers, it's an informal set up. The videos are not just fun to watch, it finds the right balance between engagement and effectiveness. "The approach has been learning it right; exams will be taken care of. When you know the concepts you will do well in exams. We will make you a topper that's the message most brands give out, but that's not us," claims Raveendran. Teachers who are in videos are experts in the subject they teach but besides that they also are expressive on camera, especially for lower grade students.
In higher grades, they showcase that intensity and rigor. The number of content creators BYJU'S has is close to 250+ but around 15 teachers appear in the videos.
WINNING THE NUMBERS GAME
Meeting Raveendran, you can't miss his athletic built which he credits to his love for sports. "If you ask me to define myself, I will say Maths and sports. Logic is what I have leant from Maths and the life which I learnt is by playing multiple games," shares Raveendran. He treats Maths as not a subject but as a way of thinking. "That is helping me because things which you can't measure, you can't improve. If you are passionate about doing something better, you will always find ways to do it better. All these challenges which are there in the system, you can solve them at scale only by using tech," he adds.
Raveendran himself went to a government school which was non-English. He learnt to speak English by listening to every possible commentary on radio. For him, there was no teacher who played a critical role but by putting himself in the learning environment. When asked to share the road to profitability for the recently tagged unicorn, Raveendran says, "We will almost breakeven this year. In last quarter we have been profitable. And there is month-month growth. Next year is when we will have good margin on a full year basis." Recently, the brand did marketing to the tune of Rs 100 crore, most prominent being getting Shah Rukh Khan as the face of the brand for its television commercials. Sharing the same, Raveendran says, "It's a product required for most of the students. More than creating a brand name it is about creating awareness for the segment. People are not aware of learning like this." As we meet in his Bengaluru office, Raveendran has returned from the US, which tends to be his next focus area along with Australia and the Middle East where English is popular. Talking about the expansion in those countries, Raveendran says, "For international markets, we are bringing some teachers, who are already popular on YouTube and other channels. The strategy is to first launch in English speaking markets and then in countries where English is becoming aspirational."
Talking about the journey of whether the business was born out of passion, Raveendran says, "The company is run by my students including my wife who was also my student. My students are my family. Today, I am not involved in everything but involved in new initiatives. They have already figured out what they want to do in the next three years. I am spending my time figuring out new markets, finding right partners and teachers. My students will take it where I want this to reach." He wants BYJU'S to be the largest education company in the world. Today, you won't see Raveendran doing what he does best, teaching. When asked he says that now he is trying to create teachers who are better than him. The best satisfaction is in seeing a 21-year-old doing it in a much better way than what I was doing at 21. "Once we reach there we will figure out how we can be bigger. Thinking bigger has always been part of the game," concludes Raveendran.
(This article was first published in the May issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)