Naina KhedekarSep 12, 2016 10:50:27 IST
Amid reports about slowdown in funding and other helter skelter in the startup space, a refreshing and encouraging news comes in the form of the recent $50 million funding for Byju's (Android, iOS), an edu-tech startup in India. It is being co-funded by Chan Zuckerberg initiative, Sequoia Capital, Sofina, Lightspeed Ventures, and TIL. While Byju's Classes are quite popular, there is a little we've known about the man himself, who started his entrepreneurship journey way before the whole startup scene went mainstream. Byju Raveendran squeezed in some time for a quick chat with us, and here's the humbling story.
Entrepreneur by chance and a teacher by choice
In 2003, during his two months break from an overseas job as a service engineer, Byju decided to help some of his friends appearing for CAT in Bangalore. It was an informal way of helping, and he also took the exam, and scored 100 percentile. He started teaching some of his friends, and took up the test yet again in 2005 without any preparation, and scored a perfect 100 percentile yet again. This time he also appeared for IIM-A, B, C interviews and cleared all of them. However, decided against pursuing MBA and instead saw potential in teaching students how to crack CAT. So, all in all, it was just by chance, that he took the entrepreneurial path, but teaching was a choice he made. Slowly and steadily, it was through word of mouth that the number of students grew. It can be called a slightly different kind of offline teaching as he would teach over 1000 students in an auditorium back in 2007.
"Our core differentiator has always been how we teach. We were forced to innovative to teach in a non-interactive way and predict what kind of doubts the student can have. Back then, even in the offline format with classrooms with a large capacity no interaction was possible. So, to visualise and conceptualise became our strengths. The growth came via word of mouth. We grew from Bangalore to 9 cities. I would travel to 9 cities in a week to teach and this continued till 2009," Byju tells us.
Going offline to online
Hopping between 9 cities, Byju soon started using video format for CAT and similar entrance exams. But, it was in 2011 that he formed the company, dubbed Byju’s, with the help of some of his students who had graduated from IIMs. It was in 2011 that they started creating core learning products, which are today a part of the app-based format. Byju tells us that it took 4 years to create these products. In fact, while creating products for students from standard 4 to standard 12, he tried to make it effective as well as interesting.
“We made sure that the learning experience was created in a format that students liked. It was always effective, but we tried making it interesting with interactive videos. To build a learning app for school students to get their fundamentals clear in those early crucial years when they start learning as it will have long term impact. We are teaching students how they should learn rather than what they should learn,” he added.
So, all the work on products began way back in 2011, but was out just last year. Meanwhile, Byju’s was running test prep videos online, which ensured that the company is funded.
Even with his unique offline way of teaching in auditoriums, the online space always existed in the form of online videos. It was soon a transition from online to core-learning. The aim was to help school students learn better. It was more about hows and whys, rather than whats, Byju tells us.
Keeping pace with technology
Byju's dive into the online teaching world was well-timed, or rather a step ahead. And, he has been keeping pace with technology with the timing of the app launch being more or less perfect. The quick smartphone penetration has enabled easy access for a mobile-first country like ours. "We have been changing how we distribute our content. Technology has been an enabler. Our app-based product has a reach of over 1400+, and not just metros but also students from smaller towns. The app-based model has several advantages, students understand it easily after some usage, and the app also begins to understand the student learning behaviour. Data plays a huge role to personalise learning," he explains.
In fact, he says personalising has been a pain point in offline or conventional method, because it's usually one to many way of teaching. Visual and concept play a huge role in personalising, and a personal device also ensures higher engagement time.
Kerala's Azhikode and extra-curricular activities
Byju’s online and mobile products have reached out students across India, not just limited to metros, but also small towns, wherein accessibility remains struggle. In fact, Byju himself comes from a small village in Kerala, Azhikode. While you may think, Byju is all about books and technology, but it’s the extra-curricular activities that he believes has had a huge impact on him. “There was a lot of importance given to extracurricular activity, at least from where I come from and that has helped me. I was interested in, and played multiple games at university level and some at state junior level. There was a good amount of focus on what happens outside the class, and not just inside,” he explains.
The balanced focus has helped me in-class and out of class helped him a great deal. “That’s how you develop your skills on how to work in a team, lead a team, how to inspire, the killer instinct and controlled aggression, it’s all from what you learn in class and a great deal from outside,” he adds.
Byju ensured that he put a great deal of time in learning every subject that he liked. And, today, Byju’s products are built around those ideologies wherein students can learn on their own. His products are about breaking the vicious cycle of memorising, replicating and forgetting soon after the exam. Byju wants students to compete with them selves to do better.
As an entrepreneur, he did face a fair share of challenges. One of the biggest challenges in those early days was getting parents to believe in the online teaching methods. "Our biggest competition has been the perception among parents wherein they think students need to follow a certain way of exam-based learning and need to be spoon-fed. We are continuously overcoming that challenge by offering a freemium model," he said. He claims when students start using the app, they like it, and when parents begin to notice that the app is being used for learning then it becomes a big advantage. They have just seen children using phone for watching movies and playing games, and that's how the challenge becomes an advantage. They like the explanation of concepts with interactive videos and reports, and then they soon become continuous learners and opt for annual subscription. Byju says, with this, every student is competing with himself.
$50 million funding and going international
Byju’s recently raised $50 million co-funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s investment arm The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Sequoia Capital, Sofina, Lightspeed Ventures and Times Internet Ltd.
While Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Ventures are popular investors, its Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's first investment in an Indian startup. When asked, Byju tells us that CZI liked how they are making an impact across India, in metros and just small towns, and how technology is being used for personalised learning.
"So far, BYJU's has 250,000 subscribers who use the app for an average of 40 minutes a day -- and it's working. A survey found that almost 80 percent of parents said it improved their children's learning dramatically," Zuckerberg writes in a Facebook post.
Talking about the funding, international expansion is on the cards, he adds. Byju's plans to focus on creating similar compelling products to help students learn on their own, specifically for international markets. However, he quickly adds that they wont customise the existing products that were created for India. They aim for a personalised experience for those students, starting with English speaking nations. The products will take about 18-24 months to be launched. He adds that the model will be similar as these countries are a lot more advanced on how they access tech.
Byju is looking to create a strong product that can help students and make learning more effective and believes that it can come from India. He currently has the expertise with a 500+ high-quality product development team split across three cores – media, content and tech.
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