Learning app Byju's recently made headlines when Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg announced that his personal fund, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, would be investing in the ed-tech startup. It has raised $50 million from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital, Belgium-based Sofina, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Times Internet Ltd. Byju's is now planning to launch a learning app for the global market.
I am an engineer and entrepreneur by chance and teacher by choice.
The brainchild of Bangalore-based entrepreneur Byju Raveendran, the app has over 5.5 million downloads and 250,000 annual paid users. With more than 30 million lessons watched and average time spent on the app being 40 minutes a day, Byju's has created a new segment of self-paced learners.
In an exclusive interview with Dipin Damodharan, CEO and founder Byju Raveendran speaks about his story, the ed-tech market and his immediate plans.
Could you tell us how it all started? How did you become an edupreneur, and how did you sense the opportunity for this kind of a product in the sector?
It's been quite an interesting journey which is completely built around passion. If you look at my background, I am an engineer and entrepreneur by chance and teacher by choice. I started teaching as a hobby during weekends and the impact that it created turned it into a business. I never thought that it would become such a large scale business.
I did my schooling in a village in Kerala called Azhikode, in Kannur district. My parents were teachers in a Malayalam Medium school where I studied.
I used to play multiple sports from a very young age. In fact, I missed a lot of my classes to play sports. I played six sports in school and pursued my interest up until the university level. I have always believed that games teach you teamwork.... I pursue multiple sports genres even today. This really helps in developing and honing real life skills—performance under pressure, controlled aggression, leadership skills etc.
While I played all day, I ensured that my studies never suffered. I can completely attribute this to the life skills that I learned on the sports field, in an unstructured environment. The sports schedule forced me to start learning on my own by asking questions. It takes less amount of time if the students take an initiative, especially in the subjects they like.
After my graduation, I started working as an engineer. During one of my work breaks, I ended up sitting for the CAT exam—the Common Aptitude Test—which students appear for in order to gain entrance into the elite Indian Institute of Management colleges that provide MBA degrees. I was surprised that I scored in the 100th percentile, without actually having prepared thoroughly at all. To test myself and the way I learned, I sat for it again and repeated the score.
After this, my friends actually encouraged me to teach and prepare them for the exam. Slowly, my friends started getting more friends, who brought in more friends, and before I knew my workshops with around 100 students went up to 1000+ packed in auditoriums and eventually stadiums as well.
What was the focus of your learning method?
The overwhelming response validated my method of teaching. I believe and have always taught my students how to predict questions and more importantly on how to learn.
In our system, children are still getting trained to solve questions but not ask questions.
Eventually, I quit my job as an engineer and took up teaching full-time; I even travelled to other cities to reach as many students as possible. With a strong and dedicated team in place, in 2009, Byju's launched online video-based learning for CAT through VSAT. This was the first time that we used technology as an enabler, which helped in scaling up. This helped the team to conduct lectures in 50 centres across the country.
But, I also realized that if you want to make a real impact on the way students learn, if you want to make them fall in love with learning, you need to start early—when they start feeling the subject, as those crucial years lay the strong foundation for lifelong learning. So, Think & Learn Pvt Ltd (The parent company of Byju's) with a focus on the K-12 (school-going students in Classes 4-12) segment was launched in 2011.
We launched our flagship product (Byju's—The Learning App) in August 2015. This was a turning point because smartphone as a learning device, and app as a medium, gave us infinite reach for our learning program.
Overall, the main idea behind starting Byju's was to make learning accessible, effective, engaging, and personalized for everyone. We noticed that there was a huge gap in the way students learn and how concepts can be actually learnt. Especially amongst students, memory-based learning has been mostly driven by fear of exams rather than the love for learning. We wanted to inculcate love for their studies through the use of technology.
Ed-tech startups are in the news these days. Post Zuckerberg's investment in BYJU's, Paytm acquired Edukart. What do you think of the possibilities for ed-tech startups in the country?
India has the largest K-12 education system in the world, with over 260 million enrollments. The lack of access to good quality teachers, one-size-fits-all approach and learning driven by fear of exams have been the main reason why India consistently ranks low [in global education]. There is a lot of scope for players to create solutions for these problems.
With the recent round of funding from Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative... our focus is to create similar products for international markets.
At Byju's we have developed learning products that address these needs along with making students love learning. Our focus is to make learning engaging and effective through technology. We introduce students to learning that adapts to their style and pace of learning. The use of smartphones as a learning device and app as a medium have definitely helped us reach out to millions of students.
While education in India is one of the fastest growing sectors, we have a long way to go. In our system, children are still getting trained to solve questions but not ask questions. Students memorize and forget after exams. We need more players to come in and develop tech-enabled learning products to create better learning experiences.
Before we call education technology a revolution, the focus should be on helping every student become a lifelong learner. The beauty of this segment is that you get a chance to empower millions by helping them to learn better irrespective of their proficiency level or geographic location.
What are your immediate plans for Byju's?
Our app has seen great adoption in the last one year. We have successfully forayed beyond the metros in the country and helped India learn better. Currently, our product is available both in India and the Middle East.
With the recent round of funding from Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and a few other investors, our focus is to create similar products for international markets. We want to capitalize on our core strengths that we have developed in the last four years i.e. creating high quality learning modules, videos and interactives across segments/grades. We see a huge potential for our product globally. Currently, there are no products like Byju's in the global market which can reach out to such a large number of students and create great engagement at the same time.
We strongly believe that such a product can come out of India. We have the required talent and capabilities which can create a product for students across the globe. Our product will revolutionize the way students are learning across the world today; it can make students fall in love with learning. In the next 18-24 months, you will see us create better learning products which help students to become lifelong learners.