Born in Mumbai to a middle class family, Sukhada Tendulkar went on to achieve all the dreams her parents had seen for her. Starting with acquiring a professional degree in cost accounting to an MBA from a prestigious college, and landing a job at Axis bank; everything was going according to plan. However, deep down Sukhada felt that she was cut out for the destiny no one in her family had dared to reach for. This realisation came with its share of sceptics, but she knew that she had to break out of the bland corporate grind. So when the time came for her to take the leap of faith, bittersweet memories from her childhood came to her aid.
The cat(ch) in the hat
“I see the similar tussle between kids and their parents that I used to have with my mom 15 years ago. While I fought for my television time, the kids these days fight for their internet time. The concerns and tantrums remain the same, just the medium has changed,” reminisces the 31-year-old CEO of Shirsa Labs.
So she began thinking of an idea that would enhance the learning of a child, rather than merely improving his literacy. Shirsa Labs was her solution – leveraging the life-like simulations of the digital world to take children on virtual tours of varied concepts. “We wanted to create a quality digital platform for the kids aged between 5-15 years; where they can play, get entertained while learning side-by-side without even realising it.”
Esentially, the startup is developing a new-age ecosystem of products for the 21st century children, which aim to engage each child with quality edutainment content. “In fact, we believe edutainment is wrongly spelled. It should be ‘Entercation,’” adds Sukhada.
Coming from a family with humble background, her parents always believed that their girl would do something in their best interests and so they always backed her in all her endeavours. But even then, it was hard for them to accept her decision to quit the corporate journey and launch a start-up. “None of my family members are in business or even closely related to it, so they still have apprehensions. They used to think that I visit schools and conduct workshops for kids, which seems to be a womanly thing to do. It is still a terrible task for me to explain them what I do in specific,”
The three musketeers
But she marched on, starting by assembling a dream team. First up was Mandar Desai, a serial entrepreneur who joined as Co-founder & CFO. Their COO, Kunal Ambasht, joined a little later. Kunal and Mandar both knew each other and had collaborated on several projects during their graduation at Boston University. Sukhada had met Kunal at a Teach For India event seven years ago, and met Mandar through Kunal.
The three always shared a common belief- that being learned is more important than being educated. “As careers are no longer fixed, we all have to be at the top of our game to stay competitive. It is the skill of a person that takes him places and not his academic degree. Helping the youth find their strengths and sharpen their skills has always been our motto and we are committed towards fulfilling it.”
Three tittle tricks
Their first strike in the world of ‘entercation’ was a product named Planet of GUI. Sukhada describes it as a goal-oriented virtual world for kids; with videos, games, worksheets, eBooks, science experiments, DIYs, and quizzes. “The platform has a lot of engaging features with avatars and multiple characters.Kids can decorate their own room, invite friends and do so much more,” she adds.
In addition, the platform pushes only personalised, age-appropriate content to kids, and all of its recommendations are based on the user behaviour. The whole platform is gamified wherein the kids get to earn Geekos, the reward points, by consuming the content. The Geekos can be redeemed against features such as customising the avatar, buying virtual goods, unlocking features and getting freebies at the doorstep.
Riding the wave of turning children into connoisseurs of finer things, they started another unique offering – a digital newspaper for children, named NewsPIK. Here, they curate news articles, events, quizzes and a lot of other information. “It is fodder for young minds with age appropriate news,” says Sukhada. The kids also earn rewards, by reading the news, which are redeemable at Planet of GUI.
In order to diversify and tap into other revenue streams, Shirsa Labs has also launched a B2B product to instill creativity in schools’ curricula – through an entire curriculum on life and cognitive skills – at Rs. 400 per child per year. Using this product, the schools can share strengths as well as areas of improvement of a child with his parents. “We also push recommendations which are implementable without our intervention. A lot of parents find these inputs and suggestions very helpful,” explains Sukhada.
The king of the golden river
The startup considers its audiences to be all those people whoare residingin tier-1 and tier-2 cities, and have access to the internet.
“We are currently using yearly subscriptions and also trying out ‘pay-per-use’ model for monetising our various products. So, we have three revenue streams: direct subscribers, children brands and schools,” Sukhada says.
Currently, the startuphas 1.45 lakh users on their platform,out of which 75% are active users, and 25,000 are the paid users. When they started out in 2013, their three member staff managed to rake in a modest Rs. 4 lakhs in revenue purely through B2B sales. Cut straight to the financial year 2014-15, their revenues have multiplied nearly 18x to Rs. 73 lakhs, as their B2C arm picked up. In terms of number of active users, they’re growing by approximately 70% MoM, over the past 8 months.”
While the numbers paint a different picture, the micro perspective on a woman’s story always comes with certain gender-specific challenges. “As a women CEO, I initially faced hindrance while hiring, especially in technology, as it is considered to be a strictly ‘no woman zone.’”
Taking about the market opportunity, there are 15 crore children in the age group of 5-16 yearsin India. And Shirsa is the first company to offer curated content discovery solutions targeted atthis segment. “Several publishers, including the print media giants, have attempted to build similar solutions. However, those products are restricted to deliver just their content. On the other hand, Shirsa offersa cross platform solution with aggregated content from multiplepublishers.” Globally, companies such as Poptropica are operating in the similar space.
Shirsa started with the life savings of the trio, amounting to Rs. 30 Lakhs. However, they soon raised their first FnF round of USD 50,000 in October 2014. Their second round of funding came as they piqued the interest of ah! Ventures, who pumped in USD 250k into their business in November 2015.
“We are a product organisation and plan to aggressively grow to a 50 member team by 2018. Our revenues rose by 100% last year and we are witnessing 300% growth this year,” states Sukhada.