It’s just past midnight at Bengaluru’s popular sporting facility—the Play Arena—and the last group of players are trooping out, sapped. And in walks Byju Raveendran and team for a customary 12 midnight to 2 am slot. Employees at Think and Learn Pvt Ltd, which runs the education technology startup Byju’s, are well-versed with the founder’s love for football and his penchant to use the game as a tool to keep himself motivated. The midnight-2 am game takes place once every two days and the game is played at full tilt, just the way Byju Raveendran likes it. “I don’t like half measures, whether at work or play,” he says, as we settle into a conversation at a coffee shop.
Byju’s App, which is now a Harvard Business School case study, is today valued at $600 million and is hoping to turn a unicorn soon. The firm generated revenues of about rs 260 crore last fiscal, and is aiming to turn profitable in FY18. “A profitable unicorn is a dream,” Raveendran says. The Harvard case study, authored by John Jong-Hyun Kim and Rachna Tahilyani, studies the growth of this K-12 app, its impact on students and how it can be used by students the world over.
The firm is already a big hit with investors looking to India for good returns. Last year the company raised $75 million from blue chip venture fund Sequoia capital and Sofina, the Belgian family office. A few months later, Raveendran raised another $50 million in a round led by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a personal fund set up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. It was their first investment in Asia, and this immediately put him on the global stage. Soon after World Bank arm International Finance Corp granted it $15 million. “Our ambition is to become the world’s biggest edutech company,” says Raveendran, sipping on some green tea. “If you see, it is not an area where there are too many giants. It’s a dream that’s certainly possible to achieve.”
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Zuckerberg while announcing the investments into Byju’s said that he was optimistic about personalised learning, and hence the decision to work with companies that get these tools to more and more students and teachers across the world. It all started with Byju helping out his friends to prepare for their CAT exams. Back then, he was working as an engineer with a UK-based shipping firm. Since he was extremely good at Math and had a knack to solve objective questions in a jiffy, he was a natural choice for his friends to turn to. One by one, every friend he coached cracked the exam and soon it was clear he had a special talent for it. He himself scored a 100 percentile.
“So I decided to turn this into a business. From Monday to Friday, I started taking coaching classes for youngsters in Bengaluru. Once it picked up momentum, I started travelling to Mumbai and Pune to take weekend coaching classes.” He was working non-stop and people started referring to him as a one-man army.
And when classrooms became too small, he booked an auditorium with 1,200 students listening to his every word. He was like a performer on stage. It was during one such event, that his life changed. Ranjan Pai of the Manipal Group saw him in action at Manipal, one afternoon, and he was stunned to see a large group of students listening to Raveendran in complete silence, almost like in a trance. He knew instantly that this was something unusual.
Aarin Capital, a fund of Ranjan Pai and former Infosys board member Mohandas Pai, pumped in Rs 54 crore in 2013. It was big money at that time. Was he surprised? “No. I wasn’t surprised,” says Raveendran, taking another sip of his green tea.
Raveendran, grew up in Azhikode, in Kerala’s northern district of Kannur and studied in a Malayalam medium school. “My English is not very good even today. I still think of words in Malayalam before I can translate them to English to communicate,” he says.
My sandwiches arrive, and even as I take a bite, I ask him about his fitness and love for sports. “Playing a sport, mostly football, is very important for me. I have learnt a lot about life from sport. Fitness keeps me going. My love for sport is matched by my passion for math and logic.”
Byju feels there is still tremendous headroom for growth. “The learning app has witnessed great adoption among students across grades, but we are still reaching out to less than 1% of the student population in India. There is a long way to go before we even call it a learning revolution. The need of the hour is a product that will make students fall in love with learning and we strongly believe that such a product can come from India,” he says.
A report by private equity fund Kaizen has stated that over $1 billion has been channeled into the Indian education sector since 2007. “What keeps us going is the fact that we can empower millions of students by helping them become lifelong learners.”
Winding up the conversation he asks for a bottle of water. “I need to keep myself hydrated. There is a football match tonight,” he says. “At midnight, of course.”