Ask Byju Raveendran to play ball, and he’ll probably rattle out numbers. That’s what the 38-year-old maths whiz knows best, with his mesmeric hold over students making Byju’s, the tech-driven education start-up, a dominant player in teaching, apart from, obviously, playing ball. You could catch Raveendran at the dead of night on a football field along with his colleagues — always a midnight game between 12 and 2 am. He uses football to keep himself motivated. “I don’t like half measures, whether at work or play,” he says. This has served him well for the last 10 years to graduate from tutorial classes to the cutting-edge technology of apps. The goal-driven Raveendran has been a mathematics prodigy since his school days. It all started with him 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 maths and had a knack of solving objective questions in seconds, 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 but did not proceed further. He decided to turn his informal coaching of friends into a business. During the week it was all in Bengaluru and on weekends, the teaching shifted to Mumbai and Pune. What started in classrooms moved into auditoriums as over 1,000 students listened to him in rapt attention.
From 2007 onwards, Raveendran was all about jet-setting across cities, taking classes that were primarily for CAT. Later, realising that it was not physically possible to be at all the locations, he came up with the idea of video tutorials, which were beamed across all the centres. This was the turning point in terms of investor interest. 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 total silence, as if in a trance. He knew instantly that this was something unusual. Aarin Capital, a fund of Ranjan Pai and former Infosys board member TV Mohandas Pai, pumped in Rs 54 crore in 2013.
For somebody who grew up in Azhikode, in Kerala’s northern district of Kannur, and studied in a Malayalam-medium school, this was naturally a big transition. He also confesses that his English is still not up to speed. “I still think of words in Malayalam before I can translate them into English to communicate,” he says. In a switch, a teacher who’s the pupils’ pet The technology leap for Byju’s arrived when it launched its app in 2015. The app claims 10 million users and 5,00,000 annual paid subscriptions. The Byju’s app is now a Harvard Business School case study authored by John Jong-Hyun Kim and Rachna Tahilyani, which studies the growth of this K-12 app, its impact on students and how it can be used by students the world over.
The learning portal of Byju’s now encompasses not just K-12 — or students from classes four to 12 — but also other competitive exams like JEE, NEET, CAT, IAS, GRE and GMAT. Byju’s has cumulatively raised around $240 million in venture capital funding and debt with marquee global names as investors: Aarin Capital, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the personal project of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, International Finance Corporation (IFC), Lightspeed India Partners Advisors, Sequoia Capital India, Sofina, Times Internet and the Brussels-based family office Verlinvest. For Byju’s, the latest round of funding of $40 million came from Tencent of China in July this year. The valuation of the company now stands at an estimated $780 million and it could in all probability become the first edutech unicorn from India.
The company, which generated a revenue of Rs 260 crore for FY17 with a loss of Rs 15 crore, is confident of turning profitable this fiscal. Byju’s has also been acquisitive along the way with buyouts of Edurite and TutorVista providing it international reach. Along the way, when Raveendran felt that Byju’s was merely catering to less than 1% of the student population in India, he pushed the envelope to develop products that will make students fall in love with learning. Well, that’s how his tag line looks today — “Fall in love with learning.” “Our ambition is to become the world’s biggest edutech company,” says Raveendran. “If you see, it is not an area where there are too many giants. It’s a dream that’s certainly possible to achieve.”