Building an ed-tech startup in India – an education in itself

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The author narrates how he embarked with a bright vision to impart learning tools and pedagogical fundamentals among schools before discovering that the learning curve is winding and orthogonal to authentic learning.

The Indian education system still has a primitive approach to and environment for learning. | Flickr / Dennis Skley

I never imagined I would actually end up being a teacher. My sister and cousins had always felt I did a very decent job when I taught them — be it math, science or Sanskrit. However, when I walked into a classroom with 20 students at a premier competitive exam preparation institute, it should have felt different but did not. Everything came so naturally and I realised I had it in me to be a really good teacher. Three years on, after having taught hundreds of students in multiple institutes, I decided to stop. It wasn’t just because I was going for my MBA but also because I did not want to be teaching the same stuff repeatedly. Most students who came to the classes were there to pick up a few shortcuts and ace an exam but were hardly looking at picking up anything concrete that would last much longer. I had opted out of the rat race quite some time back and followed my heart when I chose to work in Cricinfo. I knew I had to do something in the field of education and that something was an ambitious idea.

My sister, who had started off with a plan of becoming a chartered accountant, soon found herself far more suited to journalism and embarked on that path. Soon enough, however, she figured that TV journalism was not quite something she enjoyed and decided to apply to the Teach for India fellowship. Post her two-year stint which was tiring and exceptionally challenging, she knew very well that she had to do something in the education space. This was when the two of us planned what we thought every student/parent needs.

 

Given that both of us had spent a significant amount of time trying to identify our passion, we knew very well that the right mentoring, exposure and experiential learning opportunities while we were growing up could have led us to the perfect career. However, this was something that we (and most other students) could never really hope to get during the crucial high school and college years. For students truly interested in engineering or medicine, there were always mentors on hand either on the family or friends front. But when it came to most other career choices, students had no option but to rely on the advice given by career counselors or shut the door on their ambition and move back to a conventional field.

Both my sister and I could never quite understand the fascination for generic career counselors and psychometric tests. The education space was filled with so many of these that it was close to impossible to identify which of these was actually reliable. I personally doubted the accuracy of the tests given that students go through a rather turbulent phase during adolescence and their choices can vary from day to day. Further, I felt strongly that generic career counselors could perhaps provide a very broad sense of direction and nothing more, given the innumerable career choices available to the modern-day student. No single counselor would really be capable of providing enough information on a variety of fields. We thought we had the right product — career exploration. We envisioned a three-step process that involved exposure to different subjects, one-on-one mentoring by experts, and an experiential learning program that would ensure that the students learn how it is to work in the space they are interested in.

As is the case with any start-up, the process got tougher the moment we began trying to implement the idea. Firstly, we did not have a strong enough base in technology to build the product — in this case a website. However, this was not an insurmountable problem given the plethora of tech resources available in Bengaluru. After a crowdfunding round, where we raised some seed money from friends and family, we were up and running. We identified a small set of experts to help develop and fine-tune the content for the first few topics. Hiring a full-time resource was completely out of the question given the lack of funds. Almost every task — typing out content, editing, video-creation, connecting with mentors, setting up meetings, visiting prospective clients, discussing with investors, to name a few — was distributed between the two co-founders. At times, we felt strained and stretched but realised quickly that the only hope of success lay in what both of us could achieve. We needed little else to spur us on.

 

As one principal known to us put it succinctly: “The ones who understand education are not empowered while the ones empowered have no idea about education”.

Over the course of the next 3-4 months, we set about talking to hundreds of experts across a variety of fields. While contact with a few was established via a referral, we sought out many others via LinkedIn and other channels. Soon enough, we had onboarded close to 200 experts spread across 25 fields including upcoming areas such as sports management, bioinformatics, linguistics etc. We also had eight courses spread across sports, medicine, photography, journalism, law, and even one on stand-up comedy. The time was ripe to start finding customers. WHY would someone not be interested in such a unique offering, we felt? What we were not prepared for were the innumerable challenges the education system in India poses — the gatekeeper problem in educational institutions, multiple stakeholders with different agendas, short sales window and a long sales cycle, a myopic vision still focussed on standard academic success, lack of understanding around the intangible elements (knowledge, experience, networking etc.), and an extremely low willingness to pay for a product that few could understand fully. Let me take a look at these one by one.

The gatekeeper problem

For any company aspiring to work out a B2B model in the education space, this represents the first, and perhaps most crucial challenge. Nearly every school and college has gatekeepers who stand in the way of you being able to access the person who matters — often the principal. Now, the gatekeeper could be the security guard, the receptionist, the PA to the principal or just someone else. Often, these people are burdened with so much work or are just plain ignorant of what you are bringing that they just filter your request for an appointment at that stage itself. Schools have been ‘kind enough’ to ask us to explain our idea to the security guard. It took us a while to actually digest the fact that a school management had actually asked us to do just that. To be able to connect with this first layer and move past the gatekeeper is such a major problem that many companies stop trying after a few attempts. Lack of access to the relevant stakeholder in schools and colleges is a massive stumbling block for a B2B model. During the course of our start-up journey, we must have approached at least 250 schools and colleges but managed to get past the first hurdle only about 20% of the time.

Multiple stakeholders with different agendas

Given the extraordinarily large and complex educational system prevalent in India, it is perhaps not strange that a product’s success or failure is determined by the whims of numerous stakeholders. The only problem is that it is virtually impossible to figure out who these person/persons are. In some schools and colleges, the principal may call the shots while in some others, he/she might just be a puppet who nods away to the directions of the management team. The management team, which is often driven purely by a commercial agenda and nothing else, is almost always inaccessible. As one principal known to us put it succinctly: “The ones who understand education are not empowered while the ones empowered have no idea about education”.

 

For our team, it was disheartening at times to see our discussions stalled after presentations, workshops, one-on-one chats with the principal, and negotiations galore simply because the management did not consider this worth discussing. Why, one may ask? The answer is — nobody knows. Some perhaps felt there was not enough in it (financially speaking) for the institution and management while some others were probably too busy to spend any time on it. With so many stakeholders involved and vastly different agendas to deal with, it is hardly surprising that most companies lose their way in the maze. There were times when we contacted 8-10 different ‘stakeholders’ in a particular school but were still unable to move further.

In the education system, the stakeholders do not just belong to the school management. The parents and students are also an integral part of the system. For anyone looking to set up a B2B model as we did initially, the challenge lay in the fact that the pitch had to be made to the parents via the school and the students. We would make a presentation to the students, provide a proposal to the school management who would then pass on the information to the parents who would be the ones paying for the solution. The school, at its discretion, would choose to make a product compulsory (and part of its syllabus) or optional where the parents could decide if they wanted to pay for it. This complex and convoluted approach often left us wondering if we were on the right track. It turns out we were not but what was clear was that there was no real ‘right track’.

Short sales window and a long sales cycle

When a company decides to take a product the B2B way, as we did, it has to be prepared for an extremely long sales cycle, often close to 8-9 months. The problem is that the sales window i.e. when a school agrees to the proposal and signs off on it is just three months at most. We had heard of this problem but there was nothing really that could be done about it. Pitch, discuss, draft a proposal, wait and repeat the process all over again. This was a game of patience which you kept playing despite being aware that you were unlikely to win.

Myopic vision still focussed on standard academic success & a lack of understanding of the intangible elements (knowledge, experience, networking etc.)

I combine these two points for a specific reason. Students nowadays are flooded with choices. They have a plethora of courses and activities to choose from, are offered electives as early as school, can go through alternate or home schooling and boast of an exposure far greater than any of us could have imagined a decade earlier. However, a lot has not changed still. Parents are still well and truly entrenched in the classic Indian education system that emphasized conventional academic success i.e. marks and high scores. The changes in the world around have done precious little to alter this mindset. It is not that the parents do not want their wards to follow their heart. However open they are, the results will not show if one does not accept the challenges that are part of the journey.

 

In one of the novel programs we tried bringing to some of the leading colleges in Bengaluru, we tried to provide a high-quality mentoring and experiential learning experience to biotechnology students. Now, biotechnology as a field is experiencing rapid growth but is one of the most challenging ones to succeed in. We figured that students have much to gain by connecting with top PhDs and post-doctoral fellows working in leading labs. Since this was going to be a focussed, customised program, we designed a short test to shortlist students for an interview. Post the interview, the students were going to be assigned a mentor from a list of experts based in India, the U.S., and Europe. These experts were going to provide quality content to boost awareness and interest in a topic, hold one-on-one mentoring sessions and finally guide the student in a project in the specific research area.

The abysmal performance on the test exposed the thorough lack of fundamentals. Apart from no shows, terrible interviews and an unprofessional attitude, we were stunned when the parents called us and asked us why this was not being given free and whether the student was likely to get a job immediately after the personalised program. This clearly told us that the audience we had in mind was not ready for the product we envisioned.

Extremely low willingness to pay for a product that few could understand fully

The path we were taking was completely orthogonal to what the parents (and students) were taking. We advocated learning, they cared about marks. We asked them to focus on networking, all they wanted was jobs. It became quite apparent that the product we had was something very few (read an insignificant fraction) could relate to. It did not matter whether we went B2B, B2C or B2B2C. The parent (paying customer) would not invest in a product that did not seem to provide tangible benefits (read improvement in scores, degree certificates, etc.). While we had multiple positive discussions with companies and schools outside India on our product, we were unable to generate a similar response in our target market.

In the ed-tech space, there have been numerous innovations. But almost all the products have been tailored to focus on school subjects, test & exam preparation, facilitating better teacher & tutor access, etc. The ones that have succeeded and created an impact (at least business-wise) are clearly a subset of these. A few months back, I was at an ed-tech discussion organised by a leading technology player. Nearly every major education company present spoke about a similar set of challenges in the space — multiple stakeholders, the myopic vision, and a low willingness to pay for products that focused on anything but regular academic success.

What did we learn?

Yes, the experience had been quite an eye-opener. Yes, we had underestimated the challenges the education sector posed and come out bruised. However, we gained far more than we lost. The numerous connects we built across a variety of fields made this a fulfilling journey. The confidence we gained when it came to networking, public speaking and organising workshops was immense. We could have done a million things differently. Hindsight, as always, is a great teacher. To mention a few changes we would make if we were to go through this again — we would never attempt a B2B model unless we are able to partner with a company that has already done the hard yards and set up a connect with schools and colleges. We would focus our attention on a niche group that is interested in exploring initiatives such as these and not try to market the product to a large customer base that does not understand the concept. Also, we would work a lot more on the product itself and market it better.

During our journey, we felt that a lot of our energy had been spent in dealing with the system and its challenges. Correctly identifying the customer will mean that the product will be refined and fine-tuned to suit the customer’s needs. While we might do all this and more if we were to make the journey again, the one thing we would never do is build a product that we don’t relate to just because it is likely to sell. I’d like to end with a line from Eduardo Galeano’s “Soccer in sun and shadow” that aptly summarizes our journey – “We may have lost, we may have won. Either way, we had fun”.

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