History tells us, great teachers didn’t travel across the globe, their teachings did. One of the greatest writers of all time, Leo Tolstoy, had been a teacher and an educationist at his core. His experiments and teachings, be it at Yasnaya Polyana or through The Kingdom of God Is Within You inspired revolutionary minds such as Vladimir Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi who even went on to set up Tolstoy Farm in Johannesburg, South Africa during his time there.
If Yasnaya Polyana, which began life back in the 19th century, was an attempt to challenge the then-existing conventional education system in Russia, in India, there has always been an alternate and supplementary educational system in since ages. The increasing reliance on edtech and online courses testify against the broken conventional educational system.
The fact of the matter is that Indian education has always relied on the teacher’s cult persona, from Gurukul period to today, when a movie (Super 30) personifying a math teacher in Bihar went on to garner INR 150 Cr at the box office.
If some teachers like HC Verma and Anand Kumar — portrayed in Super 30 — have become cult figures with their brand of teaching, another equally popular educator, Byju Raveendran, chose a different route.
An engineer by education, Raveendran refused to settle with the existing method of disseminating lessons in a classroom. For those doubting the huge draw that Raveendran had on students, just consider this — his lessons were conducted at the mammoth Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Delhi, where over 20K students used to gather around for each session. He estimates that this is the biggest live mathematics session in the world. But Raveendran wanted more; he wanted to take his teaching to every home and every child.
“Offline education has its limits,” Raveendran recalls the realisation that struck him nearly a decade ago. In 2011, he founded the eponymous BYJU’s in Bengaluru.
The enigmatic founder revealed to Inc42 that his intention was to build an online supplementary educational course for Indian students, and in the process, he ended up creating the world’s most valuable edtech company.
There are currently over 3500 edtech startups in the country, but BYJU’s, with a $5.7 Bn valuation, is miles ahead of the pack. From 2011 to 2015, BYJU’s worked in stealth mode and the BYJU’s app was launched only in 2015. In just four years, the startup has not only emerged as the first and only unicorn in the edtech sector but has gained national and international recognition.
As Inc42 looked to decode Byju before Byju’s and his perspective on the challenges in the Indian educational system, we also got a glimpse into how BYJU’s is planning to overcome these.
Byju Before BYJU’s
Talking about going from a teacher to an entrepreneur, Raveendran says,
“Having studied at a state government school in non-English medium, I had to teach myself, first. I had to learn subjects like math and science on my own. Thanks to my interests in sports, I learnt English through listening to cricket commentary.”
And, perhaps it’s because of his continued interest in cricket that in July 2019, BYJU’s acquired the rights to sponsor the Indian cricket team’s jersey.
Since his school days, Raveendran says, he was used to learning on his own which helped him discover the real issues, challenges one faces during self-learning. He was also teaching maths to other students since his high school days.
A self-learner, Raveendran remained a class topper throughout his school and college life and even scored 100 percentile in 2003 CAT exams. Interestingly, Raveendran, an engineer by that time, didn’t opt for IIM for higher studies but joined a UK-based shipping company.
This didn’t take away the teacher within Raveendran. In 2006, after returning to India for a three-month vacation, he resumed teaching CAT students.
Raveendran recalls, “During my holidays when I came back, many of my friends came to me requesting to help them for CAT. That’s how I started off doing weekend sessions for them in Bengaluru.”
What was meant to be a vocational programme, soon became his full-time job. Raveendran didn’t go back to join the job.
“The class strength then soon surged from 35 to 1200. Students started coming from Pune, Chennai and other cities. Soon, an Orkut group was created with over 5K members. The response was unprecedented. After six weeks, I started taking classes across nine cities — four cities on the weekends and five during weekdays.”
Meanwhile, the class strength kept on increasing. By 2008-09, it was over 2K students per class. The experience was no longer interactive. It was nearly impossible to do that Raveendran recalls.
For the next three years, as Raveendran kept travelling and preparing students for the competitive exams like CAT, GRE, GMAT etc, he started feeling the huge gap between demand and supply.
“This forced me to scale the offline model from just physically running around and taking classes to using VSAT to webcast sessions to other cities as well. This helped me to scale from nine to more than 40 cities,” said Raveendran.
By the end of 2009, Raveendran had started using VSAT. “This became very popular, and was a huge success commercially too. Now, I could spend more on creating better content,” he says.
By 2011, Raveendran started creating content for school children, which was the stepping stone for what was to come next.
The Challenge Of Starting Up
Anyone who has taken CAT, GRE or other such higher education entrance exams knows the thorough learning and retention of learning that’s required — the preparation often begins right in primary school. Seeing the urgency to scale his online learning content product for students as well as increase the market reach, Raveendran, finally set up BYJU’s in 2011.
However, unlike other founders who usually start chasing investors right after the setup, Raveendran didn’t raise any funding for the first few years.
“There were no investors in the beginning,” he says candidly, adding, “And, that was very useful because in fact there were no early investors. This helped us patiently create enough, in-depth and comprehensive content. We initially prepared contents for eighth to 12th-grade students. We kept on creating content yet we didn’t launch them before 2015.”
By now he was channelising whatever money BYJU’s earned towards creating more educational content. His offline sessions kept growing bigger and auditoriums maxed-out capacities routinely for each of these sessions. As a result, Raveendran now started taking sessions at stadia. Over 20K students could now attend his session — and they did.
How does tech solve a student’s problem who is looking for an alternative to conventional learning? Students in most classes don’t get an opportunity to ask questions about what they want to know.
Raveendran was keenly aware of this. And, that’s why BYJU’s courses were being created at such a rapid pace. “When students number between eight and ten, it’s interactive. However, when the number shoots to 24K students, [this is not possible]. I used to stand at the centre. They won’t [sic] even see me. It’s a one-to-many format like a six-sided screen.”
When the BYJU’s learning app was launched in 2015, the company only had about eight to 10 of Raveendran’s former students who studied at IIMs and IITs. They had been with him since 2011, which shows the influence of Raveendran’s teachings.
“They had a choice to join the big MNCs like McKinsey, BCG etc, yet they not only chose BYJU’s but all of them are still with us. It’s a validation, a testimony for us.”
That’s just one part of what makes BYJU’s uniquely successful in the Indian ecosystem.
And what about the allegations of forcing expensive lessons down parents’ throats? In recent years, these allegations of BYJU’s using unethical means to acquire more subscribers have risen by the month. Can schools cope with the onslaught of digital learning? What about newer business models posing a threat to the edtech giant?
Raveendran has answers to these and other concerns around the edtech ecosystem in India.
The BYJU’s story continues in Part 2, where we delve into the five years of BYJU’s after its launch.