YourStory, recently spoke with Geeta Bose, Founder of Kern Learning Solutions on what it takes to build a successful e learning business while mapping Kern Learning’s business growth.
Tell us about Kern Learning Solutions - business idea, reasons for starting up and about the evolution in the domain?
We founded Kern Learning Solutions in 2003 as a part of Kern Communications. We did usability and e-learning under the parent company. In e-learning space, we are focused mostly on providing instructional design solutions to organizations as we believe that it is a pain area in industry. There were no companies that provided instructional design solutions at the time we started. As we moved ahead, we realized that instructional design is just a part of the organizational need, so we moved a little higher up the chain to figure out what is the learning need of the organization. It is like a doctor diagnosing a patient, unless you know the root cause of the problem, any kind of solution will be very superficial. So a big corporation vs a small manufacturing set up vs a salesforce or a software company, all have different needs. So we started figuring out what the learning needs are and what exactly can be the solution.
The philosophy also emerges from the usability domain that we worked in, because in usability we talk a lot about user-centric design. We believe that every solution has to be centered around user’s needs. So how I would use a cell phone vs how a rural user would use a cell phone vs how a student would use a cell phone is very different. So the features and the navigation and the elements in the cell phone should be designed for that particular user. Hence, we started focusing a lot on research, and we formulated our learner centered methodology. We said that all learning is centered around the user, so that was the shift we brought in the industry. Few years back learning was a very content centric process, subject matter experts would provide the content and that would be taught. So content centric learning to a learner centric learning was a huge shift that we brought into the market.
Once the learning business started picking up, we formed two companies in 2007. Kern Learning Solutions is the sister concern of Kern Communications. It was a strategic decision to have two independent entities as we did not want the perception of the client to change as far as the differentiated offerings are concerned.We started offering Training Needs Analysis or Contextual Inquiry to understand the training needs of the organization. No other company I know conducts contextual inquiry to understand learner’s needs. What people generally do is ask questions and ask stakeholders what the learner’s needs are. And contextual enquiry is not just about asking questions, it is also about observation and it is about learner in the context. We use advanced research methods to figure out the requirements.
What are methodologies that you use to figure out the learner’s needs?
There is a difference between asking questions and finding out information. Asking questions is one of the methods of finding information. There are other methods like observation and ethnographic research. So we use a mixture of all these methods to find out the needs of the learner. So what we do is, we go to the organization, sit with the crowd, blend with them, observe them at work, see what kind of environment they work in, observe how they learn, observe the context in which they learn. We try to understand whether they take out time to learn, or whether learning is imposed on them. These are the ways that we use to figure out learning needs.
Tell us a little bit about your background - your journey before Kern?
I am professionally qualified journalist. I worked with The Hindustan Times for three years. After which, I moved to instructional design with NIIT in 1998. At that time, WBT (web based learning) and CBT(computer based learning) were in very nascent stages in India. NIIT was the first player in India which started developing CBT and WBT. They had trouble finding people as no certifications existed in India at that time for WBT and CBT. So, they started looking for journalists, copy-writers, copy-editors, basically people who could write and articulate well. That is when I joined them. I was with NIIT for 5 years, then I moved to Hyderabad and joined Wipro, later I started out on my own. My room-mate Rashmi Verma from Delhi, who also worked at NIIT, co-founded the company with me.
What are the services that you offer to the companies specifically?
Our primary service is learning solutions design, which includes e-learning, mobile learning and classroom training. Apart from that, we conduct assessment centers, which is a very niche area. Though a lot of HR companies are into it, not many learning companies do this. But we realized that learning companies should conduct assessment centers as assessing the learning need is a must before providing with solutions.
We have designed a very high end assessment center for Godrej. We work very closely with Godrej. We have designed assessment for 600 employees. And, that is huge number for one go at an assessment center.
Who are your clients?
Our clients include Godrej, Castrol, British Petroleum, many of the banking and financial institutions like Standard Chartered, Deutsche bank and insurance companies like Religare. Most of our clients are domestic; we have a partner in Canada, but, we do not outsource development. Our consultants directly work for the client.
What is the size of your team? Where are you based?
Right now, we are 12 member team. We have offices in Hyderabad and Bombay. We will soon have an office in Bangalore.
How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
We offer the client a guarantee that the methodology is going to be effective. To validate that, we evaluate our training. Not many companies do that. So, we do the complete life cycle of training. We start with research to understand the client’s learning needs, then we design and deliver the solution, later we test the effectiveness of the solution.
What are your biggest challenges?
We completely boot-strapped. We haven’t had any funds from outside. We have generated funds on our own and grown our business. Profits have been ploughed back into the company and we have grown.
As the company grew, the challenges also grew. One challenge was getting the right kind of people, because neither in usability nor in learning solutions you have trained professionals in India. So, we had to grown people within the company. Hiring the right kind of people and after training them, retaining them has always been a huge challenge.
Biggest challenge was, while scaling up, getting high revenue businesses was very difficult. The quality of revenue has never drastically changed. Over the years, the company grows; the overhead grows, so the revenue should also increase in that proportion. The volume of business should go exponentially with time, which unfortunately doesn’t happen in the training business. This is a problem especially in consulting. So it is the same training that they have been conducting year after year, but, clients don’t want to pay you more with time. Another problem with consulting is you can only do as much. You handle three projects a year now, and with more number of people you can do more, but, your expenses go up and the quality of revenue doesn’t. It is a very people intensive thing, we didn’t want to become an assembly line, we wanted to maintain the quality.
So if we keep fewer people, how do we get high value projects, in terms of money? That has always been a challenge.
What are your most significant lessons during this journey?
One thing that I always tell people is business is all about people and relationships. It is not about whether you get a project or lose a project, it is about building relationships. And the success of the project also depends on the relationships you build with employees, customers and vendors. Everything revolves around relationships, which I think every person who has started up or is thinking of starting up should value. Relationships matter more than the transaction that happens between the two parties.
Being in consulting, we have always believed in giving more to client than is expected from us. Always exceed expectations, that will always bring repeat work from clients.
We have always been very true and honest to ourselves. There are many clients, who come to us, but are not aware of their requirements. We could have gone ahead with the project, and charge money for it, but, what we do is we educate clients. So in the process, we lost some projects, but, we make sure that we will be true to ourselves.
Anything else that you want to tell us?
Recently, we have designed and launched a learning management system called LionSher, a SAAS based, cloud based system and is a pay per use model. Most of the e-learning is deployed online on a learning management system, but, the learning management systems currently available in the market are complex and unusable, I would say. So, we designed something that is very user friendly and affordable. We would love yourstory’s readers to check out LionSher and feedback is always welcome!
We at YourStory did get a good perspective on the sector through this interview and entrepreneur Geeta undoubtedly has created a benchmark in this space. We will be clued in to what all new is happening at her end, while you tell us what do you think of the story.
Varsha Adusumilli | YourStory | 4th April 2011 | Hyderabad