It has been a frantic week for Byju Raveendran, co-founder of Byju’s: The Learning App, finalising a deal to acquire Pearson’s online education ventures TutorVista and Edurite. But then, it’s this hectic pace of work that has catapulted him to his position today: sitting pretty as the head of India’s largest edtech company, with big acquisitions under his belt and the honour of being a Harvard Business School case study. The Raveendran story is like many others in the start-up space. A passion for teaching led him to quit his engineering job and start video-based learning for the common aptitude test (CAT) through VSAT in 2009. But Raveendran is no risk-taker. Even while working as an engineer, he took the CAT exam himself, scoring 100%, a feat he repeated again to test his methods. Encouragement from friends led him to take the final plunge into teaching. He has been soaring since. “I am an engineer and entrepreneur by chance, and a teacher by choice,” Bengaluru-based Raveendran says.
His coaching classes became popular in no time. “Slowly, my friends started getting more friends and, before I knew it, my workshops with around 100 students (initially) went up to over a thousand in packed auditoriums… eventually, I had to book stadiums,” he recalls. However, the 37-year-old didn’t let fame cloud his mind, seeing a bigger opportunity for himself. Consequently, in 2011, he launched Think & Learn (the parent company of Byju’s: The Learning App), with focus on the K-12 (school-going students in classes IV-XII) segment. “I realised that if you want to make a real impact on the way students learn, and make them fall in love with learning, you need to start early, when they start feeling a subject,” he says.
The blocks started fitting together as investments began to flow in. Raveendran believes there is a solid foundation for this model, and investors are interested when they see that.
However, the turning point in Raveendran’s journey was the launch of his flagship product, Byju’s: The Learning App, in August 2015. “It was a turning point because the smartphone as a learning device—and the app as a medium—gave us infinite reach.” But the journey thereon was not as easy as it might look now. In a country where learning is driven by the fear of exams rather than a love for actual learning, as Raveendran points out, the focus has always been on spoon-feeding and rote memorisation. “The challenge has always been to change the perception about how children should learn. Students should take up the initiative of learning on their own, while parents should take up supporting roles,” he feels.
He also stresses on the need to integrate technology in education, as it not only increases engagement, but also simplifies the way students learn. Contrary to popular belief, Raveendran says, “In conventional classroom learning, access to quality teachers—and personalisation of learning—has always been an issue, as it’s a very exam-focused approach.”
As per him, online learning is not just offline learning taken online by digitising content. “Technology needs to be used extensively to make learning better and more effective online,” he says. Intertwining technology with learning is one of the few ways to revolutionise the education system in our country. And, he is betting big on it. “Technology and data science have just about made their mark in personalising learning. The real impact of technology on education is still to be realised, which can be truly phenomenal,” he says, adding, “Technology enables the possibility of taking the skills of the best teachers to students in every corner of the country.”
Despite being at a nascent stage, the edtech space in India is highly competitive, and needs you to be a cut above the rest. “The key differentiator is how we personalise learning based on their (students’) pace and style of learning. The app merges interactive videos and teachers to bring concepts to life,” he asserts, adding, “When you are creating a new segment, it’s important to compete with yourself. We are constantly innovating around how to make learning more engaging, effective and personalised.”
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In order to ace the task they have undertaken, the company has leveraged big-data analytics to trace the learning fingerprint of every student to cater to the learning experience. A big fillip to the company has been the rapid expansion of smartphones in the country. “Our app-based product has a reach of over 1,700 towns and cities. Not just metros, but students from smaller towns as well learn from our app,” Raveendran claims. This doesn’t seem like an exaggeration, given that the Byju’s app has been downloaded a whopping eight million times.
Decoding the numbers, he explains, “More than four lakh students are paying an annual fee of `10,000 (just over $150) in a country not known to pay for subscriptions of any kind. The app is adding 1,000 subscribers every day and has reached an annual renewal rate of 90%.”
Asked how he feels about the gargantuan growth the app has achieved, Raveendran says, “It’s an overwhelming feeling to see such positive response from students amid the noise about toppers and rank holders.”
Interestingly, many of these achievers, having learned from Byju’s, are now the driving force behind the country’s largest edtech company. He even went on to marry one of his students, Divya Gokulnath, who co-founded the company. “The company was founded in 2011 with a few of my best students, who joined after graduating from elite management institutes like the IIMs. They were involved in almost everything—getting students, sales, marketing and operations,” Raveendran points out. The team is now 60 times the original size—the current strength is 1,200.
It has sure been a long journey since 2011, but Byju’s has miles to cover, and Raveendran is aware of this. Apart from investing time and capital on innovation and latest technology, Byju’s is slowly taking giant strides to establish its dominance in the edtech space. It acquired Vidyartha, a career guidance and academic profile-builder, in January this year, followed by the recent acquisition of TutorVista and Edurite from Pearson. Asked how these acquisitions fall in line with the company’s strategy, he says, “With these partnerships, we look forward to enhancing our product offerings. This will also give us access to some of the new markets when we launch our international products.”
And, going global is very much on Raveendran’s mind. The fresh capital infusion from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, is a blessing for Byju’s, and Raveendran accepts it with humility. “With the recent round of funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and other prominent investors, our focus is to create similar products for international markets. We want to capitalise on our core strengths that we have developed in the past four years,” he says.
Raveendran is highly optimistic about his plans to expand globally. He claims there are no products like Byju’s in the global market that can reach out to such a large number of students and create great engagement at the same time. “We have the required talent and capabilities that can create a product for students across the globe,” he claims.
Despite all the accolades and achievements, Raveendran believes it’s too soon to call this a learning revolution. He states, “So far, we have reached out to less than 1% of the total student population in India. Going forward, there will be strong focus to further accelerate our reach and create awareness in the deeper parts of the country.”
The engineer-turned-teacher-turned-entrepreneur doesn’t just want to make money out of his company, he wants to change lives. “This is one segment where the real fun is not in building a billion-dollar company, but in helping millions of students learn better,” he says. What bothers him is that in our system, children are still getting trained to solve questions, and not ask questions. This is a reflection of the teacher inside him, something that once made him quit everything and turn to teaching.