Starting off as a traditional brick and mortar coaching class, Byju’s is now India’s largest and best-funded digital ed-tech venture.
Had it not been for sports, says Byju Raveendran, he would have never succeeded in business. A keen sportsman in his school and college days, even today Raveendran turns up in his trademark black T-shirt for work as Founder & CEO of Bangalore-based ed-tech (Educational Technology) firm Byju’s. Every evening, he continues wearing it for a round of football with his colleagues. “I used to play multiple sports from a very young age. I have always believed in the adage `Games teach you teamwork’,” says Raveendran. “Sports help you in developing and honing real life skills like peer bonding, performance under pressure, controlled aggression and leadership qualities.”
The sporty entrepreneur has imbibed these abilities very well if the stupendous growth of his company is any indication. In the six years that it has been around, the business has mushroomed to employ more than 1,000 employees, many of them ex-students of Byju’s, including his wife Divya Gokulnath. There have been over seven million downloads of the Byju’s App to date. Around 330,000 paid users are using the app on an annual subscription basis. Byju’s clocked a turnover of Rs. 120 crore for the financial year ending March 2016. “We expect to grow at 2.5x for the FY ending March 2017,” reveals Raveendran.
Son of a physics (father) and maths (mother) teachers in a Malayalam medium school at Azhikode village, Kannur district, Kerala, where he studied, Raveendran started working as a service engineer for UK-based shipping firm Pan Ocean after graduating from Calicut University. He recalls how it all began: “During one of my work breaks in 2003, I ended up sitting for the CAT exam (the Common Aptitude Test, which students appear for to gain entrance into the IIMs) along with my friends. I was surprised that I scored 100 percentile, without actually having prepared thoroughly. To test myself and the way I learned, I sat for it again and repeated the score.”
After this, his friends encouraged him to teach and prepare them for the exam. Slowly, his friends started getting more friends – who brought in more friends and before he knew his workshops with around 100 students went up to 1000+ packed in auditoriums and later, in stadiums as well. “The overwhelming response validated my method of teaching. I believe and have always taught my students how to predict questions and more importantly on how to learn,” says Raveendran.
Eventually, he quit his engineering job and took up teaching fulltime, even travelling to other cities to reach as many students as possible. In 2007, his students came up with a brand name – Byju’s Classes. With a strong and dedicated team in place, in 2009, Byju’s launched online video-based learning for CAT through VSAT. This was the first time that the company was using technology as an enabler which helped in scaling up the business. This helped the Byju’s team to conduct lectures in 50 centres across the country.
But the quantum jump came six years later, in August 2015, with the launch of Byju’s – The Learning App. The app is today the flagship product of the group, contributing to about 90 per cent of its revenues. This was a turning point because smartphone as a learning device, and app as a medium, gave Byju’s an infinite reach for its learning programme. Bundled within the app are Byju’s original content, watch-and-learn videos, animations and interactive simulations.
The company follows a freemium business model whereby students get access to the content free for 15 days, post which they can subscribe for advanced levels. The average annual subscription works out to Rs 10,000. Apart from school students, the app coaches students for CAT, the civil services examination, the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET).
The company focuses on making learning visual and contextual, rather than just theoretical. “Our students spend an average of 40 minutes per session. More than 90 per cent of the students who come on board renew their subscriptions. Overall, the main idea behind starting Byju’s was to make learning accessible, effective, engaging and personalised for everyone. We noticed that there was a huge gap in the way students learn and how concepts can actually be learnt. Especially amongst students, memory-based learning has been mostly driven by fear of exams rather than the love for learning. We wanted to inculcate love for their studies through the use of technology,” says Raveendran.
Others have also believed in the founder’s vision. Venture capitalists and other funders have been quick to recognise the potential of the ed-tech pioneer. Byju’s was started with Rs 2 lakh, seed money made from Byju’s Classes. The first big investment came in 2013 when Mohandas Pai and Ranjan Pai, Chairman and CEO respectively of Manipal Global Education, decided to invest $10 million in return of a 26 per cent stake. The investment came in after Ranjan Pai happened to pass by a classroom packed with students attending Byju’s video classes at the Manipal Institute of Technology.
Last year, Byju’s became the first company in Asia to receive an investment from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy organization set up by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Other prominent partners include World Bank’s investment arm International Finance Corporation; Brusselsheadquartered Sofina which invests in several sectors; Times Internet, the digital venture of the Times of India Group; Californiabased Lightspeed Venture Partners; and Sequoia, which invests in technology companies across the US, China, India and Israel. All these outfits have till date, collectively invested over $ 150 million in Byju’s making it the largest funded ed-tech company in India.
“During our second meeting with Byju we caught on to the fact that there were a couple of things he was doing that were unique, that were allowing him to scale and acquire customers,” says GV Ravishankar of Sequoia on the company’s website. “He didn’t see himself as an edtech company. His primary mission was to help students learn better. With him, it was always education first – with technology as the enabler. His go-to market strategy was very well-crafted.”
Raveendran repeatedly brings up the education angle in his conversations. As a brand, Byju’s focus has been on solving core problems like access to quality teachers across geographies with technology and offering personalized learning according to the learning style of every student, he asserts. With 70 per cent of its users being from outside the metros, the company’s reach is wide and across geographies. Today, it has active users from 1400+ cities and towns in India.
The entrepreneur says his company’s USP lies in its aim to make students fall in love with learning. “Once that happens, they will take up the initiative and learn on their own. What makes this possible is our unique combination of content, media and technology,” he elaborates and adds that his team is constantly innovating on how to make learning more engaging, effective and personalized. A robust R&D team of 500+ people across media, content and technology is continuously working towards creating best-in-the-class learning products. “Our core strength lies in creating high quality learning modules, videos and interactives across grades. The success of the app has made us realize the rewards of investing in high quality products. Today, with a wider bandwidth, we want to create similar products for the international markets, especially the Englishspeaking markets,” says Raveendran.
Some time back there were talks about Byju’s acquiring a US education technology company. Raveendran refuses to go into the details but adds, “We are open to explore partnerships as well as acquisitions that can offer us reach across schools, students, parents and teachers. With the work that we have done in India, we are sure that we will attract some good partners across the globe.” Even as he waits for the right target abroad, last month, Byju’s acquired Bangalore-based Vidyartha, reportedly for Rs. 50 crore. Raveendran explains the rationale: “Vidyartha has been doing some great work in the learning guidance and career planning space for school students. They have created a unique learning guidance platform.”
The takeover is in line with industry trends in the ed-tech space in India. Explains Ankur Lekha of Mumbai-based Takshzila Shikshak, which reaches out to more than two lakh graduate level test takers via YouTube, “As far as the number of players is concerned, the field is getting over-crowded and a shakeout has begun, with traditional classroom players most in danger of acquisition.” Byju’s, he adds, has made effective use of its visibility and money resources and is definitely here for the long haul.
But Raveendran is not one to rest on his laurels. The real impact will come, he insists, when his team gets millions and millions students learning right from their formative years at school. “My father is a Communist and I grew up in Kannur, the bastion of Communism. So money does not hold much importance for me. For me, the real fun is not in creating a billion dollar company but changing the way millions of students learn.”