Field lessons for Ed Tech entrepreneurs

Varadarajan Sridharan

Varadarajan Sridharan

It was in June that I had invited, through a Facebook post, geeks and startup entrepreneurs to send in their stories. One of the responses was from Varadarajan Sridharan, introducing himself thus: “I am an Ed Tech researcher, with a failed attempt at co-starting a mobile learning company. Since then I have been mentoring a ton of Ed Tech startups, cos I believe startups in this domain cannot take the regular problem-solving route that other domain startups do. I believe that an Education startup has to be more fundamentally rooted.” And we got talking…

Varadu, tell us the story of how you started off.

In June 2010, a good friend asked me if I can join him to create an m-learning product. I quickly jumped in first, as a consultant pitching in wherever I could. Then, given my passion towards education, my growing interest in Ed Tech, and my experience as Business Analyst, I took to oversee product management and also operations.

We decided to take a holistic approach to m-learning, rather than creating individual apps. So, we worked on various aspects of m-learning like LMS, content creation/ authoring, open content aggregation, content delivery (live lectures, video conferencing), and content distribution.

Realising that the mobile platform has much more to offer, we worked on apps for location-based learning, augmented reality learning, P2P learning, mind-mapping, adaptive learning, game-based learning and social learning. All these apps would cohesively work with the LMS to create a seamless learning experience. We also added device management and education administration capabilities.

We started off as a 12-member team, mostly fresh college graduates. And, four of us, from corporate IT background, oversaw this team, guiding and working with them. The team was one of the best I had worked with, in terms of their hard work, dedication, and their readiness to take up multiple responsibilities. Our QA lead doubled up as our Project Manager and HR. Our content team doubled up as the testing team. All our developers were working on one core product feature and one supplementary feature. Almost everyone contributed to our demos and sales pitches. Even our cashier contributed to the localisation effort of our initial LMS. We established a transparent work culture, stressed on everyone understanding our product vision and every team member being a brand ambassador.

We had a seed investor even before I joined the team. We spent our initial money and time on training the team, and building (albeit slowly) some of the features. We adopted an informal agile initially, but as the team matured we got a more rigid process.

In most cases our releases were guided by the client demos that were lining up. We had a marketable product by March 2011; and we spent 2 months trying to sell it to K12 segment. That didn’t go as expected, but we gained a lot of valuable insights about the education market.

We got back to our drawing-board mid-2011, and redirected our focus towards Higher Education segment. With colleges reopening that fall, we resumed our marketing and secured our first client by December 2011.

Image courtesy - Christianpost

Image courtesy – Christianpost

What were the challenges?

1) Most of the technologies we were working on required niche technical skills, and getting the right resources with those skills, that too in Coimbatore, was a big challenge. We were moderately successful in overcoming this by training our team in-house. But we lost valuable time during that training process.

2) We did not have a good sales team, which really hurt us when the time came for marketing our product. But our tablet vendor, who was our well-wisher, came to the rescue and shared their sales resources.

3) Our seed investor was not aware of the education or the technology market. So, at times, when we needed to infuse capital to secure hardware orders or pivot our product to Higher Ed, we found ourselves running behind the investor and losing valuable time. Many of our friends pitched in and helped us during the crunch.

4) Education market works by academic calendars, which meant that many times our discussions would stall due to other priorities on that calendar. The lack of dedicated IT for new technology roll-outs, coupled with the perceived threat from existing IT vendors presented unique challenges. A good rapport with the client helped us in such scenarios.

5) With our first client, we had to manage the hardware issues, even though we were sourcing the hardware from our tablet vendor. This led to a lot of gaps in fulfilling customer expectations. And we increasingly found ourselves trying to work through the gaps, when we should have been working on the solution deployment. We were able to manage this challenge to a very minimal extent, by establishing a post-sales helpline and diverting some calls directly to our vendor. But this would prove to be our toughest challenge.

Early indicators of failure, and the decision to sign off on that.

1) We were able to envision big things, but the execution faltered. Small things like not having a UX designer in-house, changing lanes to customise every demo and then trying to get back, technical challenges working with emerging technologies (P2P, Augmented Reality), a complex setup for demo, etc., kept our execution misfiring.

2) We saw a repeating trend of backlogs in our financial commitments, but we couldn’t cut down our spending, find another investor, or scale up our revenue quick enough to manage these backlogs. We assumed we could scale up revenue after one successful implementation, which didn’t quite go that way.

3) We continued to hold on to an extra office space, as we had spent some money initially on altering that space. We could have cut this unwanted expense and the unnecessary interface with a second landlord, especially in times of financial crunch. Our optimism in forecasting our growth blinded us.

4) Our initial revenue-model was subscription-based, but as we met many educational institutions, it was clear that the subscription model would not work, at least in India. But we continued to focus on the Indian market, and we continued to give a sales pitch based on the subscription model.

Lessons from the failure that you took away.

1) If you are into education market, identify your early adopters very carefully and quickly. With educational institutions, the initial adoption rate is very slow. But once you are in, the peer pressure will boost your sales. So, your choice of initial customers could actually make your journey very easy.

2) You will have a high gestation period, given the slow decision cycles in academia and their academic calendar priorities.

3) Educational institutions in India are not great at paying regularly. Subscriptions won’t work, at least in India. It should always be cash-n-carry.

4) Be ready to market your Ed Tech as a PR tool to get more admissions. This is how most colleges look at Ed Tech. You can always show your conviction later by ensuring that your product doesn’t stay as a PR stunt post implementation!

5) Do not waste your time talking to academic decision-makers (principals, deans); talk to their financial decision-maker (chairman).

6) If you are selling Ed Tech software, stay out of hardware. There are enough hardware vendors battling it out already!

Advice to young entrepreneurs.

1) Each education institution has a heterogeneous tech landscape and varied requirements. Your product that fits one institution may not fit with others. Do not create fixed power or authority structure into your product (e.g. only principal can approve something); that will need the institution to change their way of working.

2) It doesn’t matter that you have the coolest Ed Tech product; they will see you as an IT guy. Take a stand on what you want to do. Otherwise, your product priorities will get mixed up.

3) Get good advisors from academia early on! You need a great deal of inputs on pedagogy to build a solid product, especially if you want to take your product overseas.

4) If there are any infra pre-requisites for your Ed Tech software, get a third-party to handle it for the institution. You should be able to get in, deploy your product, get out.

5) Collect the money in advance, there are no IOUs with education segment.

6) Build your product to handle the network bandwidth constraint. You will more often find that the institute’s claims of having the best connectivity are very subjective.

Outlook for Ed Tech.

1) Paying for content is on the way out. Get into paid learning services (live streaming of lectures, curated content, 24X7 on demand experts, MOOCs, paid accreditation).

2) DIY kits for experiential learning are going to be hot. Robotics, especially on open hardware like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, will pick up steam very soon.

3) Look for government interventions like Aakash, NSDC, Education MIS portals (DISE) and SSA, and build around them if you are targeting the Indian market.

4) Mobile will continue to lead the consumerisation wave for Ed Tech especially in language and math learning.

5) Twenty-first century skills-related Ed Tech – for example Computational Thinking – is a good market to explore.

6) Include xAPI (from the makers of SCORM) support in your product, this will soon be critical as you roll out to international markets.

7) Learning Record Stores will be the big data approach for education, and xAPI will play a big part to that.

8) Look out for FDI in education (Is There a Role for Foreign Providers in India? Past Challenges and Current Developments, Sudhanshu Bhushan 2010).

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