Math enthusiast turned edtech millionaire Byju Raveendran on what makes him tick
Byju Raveendran has always been a man who had difficulty in accepting a ‘no’ for an answer. He was always looking to crack open difficult problems, and Math was the perfect subject to tackle. Math and sport are his lifelines even today, and he knows that anything that is measurable can be improved upon. Byju believes in setting very high growth targets for himself, as he feels only such heights will inspire people to dream. But it’s not just about goal setting. He also knows how to work the nuts and the bolts to achieve the goals, and having a good team with him helps, he says with a smile. Today, Byjus - The Learning App - is currently being used by over 22 million students across locations. The company is also in the process of taking the product global.
But his life was certainly not like this a decade ago. Growing up in a village in northern Kerala, all Byju wanted to do was do Math and play football. What started as a hobby, of helping friends prepare for competitive exams, has grown into a unicorn. And he’s hard driving his business, just the way he would approach a math problem - getting to the root of the problem early and finding the right solution.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
YourStory: Can you please tell us a bit about what led to the launch of BYJU’s – The Learning App. Can you talk us through the pre-app days? And do you still remember the day you decided to go commercial?
Byju Raveendran: In 2009, BYJU’s launched its 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 multiple centers across the country.
During these sessions, we realised that if you want to make a real impact on the way students learn, we will 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) was launched in 2011 with the focus on the K-12 (school going students in classes 4-12). After the launch, we started working on creating high-quality content for our flagship product - BYJU’S - The Learning App, which was rolled out in August 2015.
The main idea behind starting BYJU’S was to make learning accessible, effective, engaging and personalised for everyone.
We noticed there was a huge gap in the way students learn, and how concepts can actually be learnt. Especially among 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.
YS: Can you talk us through those early days when you helped your friends gain admissions into premium engineering colleges....any interesting anecdote that you can recount?
During my work breaks, I used to help my friends with tips and tricks to crack CAT. I used to sit for the exams along with them. Something that started out as a CAT hack catch-ups in coffee shops, grew into auditorium and stadium sessions.
In fact, it is through these sessions that I met my current team. I am extremely proud that brand BYJU’S has been built by a team that truly believes and understands the importance of better learning experiences. Some of my best students joined me to build the brand.
I never intended to start this as a business. I pursued something that I loved, which turned into a business.
YS: When did you really believe that BYJU’S can turn into a massive company, from just being a tuition centre?
During our initial workshops, we realised that there was a huge gap in the way students learn and how concepts can be actually learnt. Students were being trained to solve questions, but not encouraged to find problems or ask questions. The focus has been on spoon-feeding and rote memorisation, rather than encouraging children to learn on their own. The challenge, therefore, has been around changing the perception about how children should learn.
While the stadium sessions were a hit and one-of-its-kind, true personalised learning can only happen if a student is offered a customised learning programme based on his or her individual learning pattern and style. The latest version of the personalised app appeals to students as they are guided throughout the entire learning process in a highly-effective and individualised manner. This is made possible by the intervention of the combination of data science and technology.
We wanted to inculcate love for their studies through the use of technology and that led to the launch of 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 programme. We continue to focus on making learning engaging and effective using technology, creating high-quality learning modules, videos, and interactives across segments or grades.
YS: When did you realise that your interest in sports, specifically football, was helping you in business? What were some of the key lessons learnt?
I did my schooling in a village in Kerala called Azhikode, in Kannur district. I used to play multiple sports from a very young age. In fact, I missed a lot of 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 teamwork”. My favourite sports are Football, Table Tennis, and Cricket, even though I pursue multiple sports genres even today.
I am a true believer of the fact that sports really helps in developing and honing real-life skills like - 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.
YS: You have been in the edtech business for a long time now. What are today's students expecting from the tutors, and virtual classrooms?
Traditionally, students have been trained to answer questions and not to ask them. It has been more of a ‘follow-the-steps’ method as opposed to ‘create-your-own-way’ method.
Studies show that children extensively use their senses to learn in which the sense of sight accounts up to 75 percent. Learning videos that offer a combination of teachers, animation, and interactive visuals help students understand and remember what they see, hear and learn better. Learning visually offers them a game-like and movie-like learning experience that increases their curiosity levels and ensures life-long learning of concepts.
Students today are looking for learning programmes that will guide, help and encourage them to better themselves at their own pace. A learning programme that will break down complex concepts into simple blocks and help them understand it by relating it to real life examples. Something that will adapt to their style and pace of learning and keep their curiosity alive. A game-based, interactive and adaptive approach to test taking makes it much more challenging and enjoyable for the student. Gamification also allows instant gratification, which boosts their confidence and motivates them further.
Digital learning platforms offer students newer ways to explore concepts and initiate learning on their own.
YS: Why do you think none of the other competitors have been able to catch up with BYJU’S?
Our learning programmes are designed to make ‘every’ student fall in love with learning and is not for the motivated ones and the 'toppers' only.
Our core strength lies in creating high-quality learning modules, videos and interactives across grades that help students experience learning in the most personalised format. The success of the app has made us realise the rewards of investing in high-quality products. We see a potential for our product globally, as so far we haven’t seen such a product available in the global market, which can reach out to such a large number of students and create great engagement at the same time. Currently, we are working on creating learning programmes for lower grades (1-3) and for the international market too.
YS: Where do you think BYJU’S can end up at the end of this fiscal in terms of revenues? And how do you plan to achieve it?
With a consistent 20 percent month-on-month growth, we expect to finish this year with Rs 1,400 crore in revenue. In the month of May, we crossed Rs 100 crore in revenue.
The launch of the personalised version of our app last year further helped us boost engagement and enhanced the learning experience of our students. Growing consistently at 100 percent annually for the last three years, today, we have 22 million registered students and 1.4 million annual paid subscribers. The app also sees an addition of 1.5 million registered students every month.
YS: BYJU’S always had inbound interest from investors. Can you tell us about the early investor interest and their role?
We have been fortunate enough to have a diverse and good set of investors. Having the right investors as partners is very important. If you have a long-term view for your business and you aren’t looking to sell it in the next couple of years, it is important to have partners with long-term horizon too. Good early investors gave us a lot of functional support. And for the growth stage, it is important to have investors who have a long-term view.
Our first round of investment came from Ranjan Pai, CEO and MD of the Manipal Education and Medical Group, who invested $9 million along with Mohandas Pai, ex-CFO of Infosys. They were convinced of our product’s potential after seeing one of our video sessions being conducted at the Manipal University. We used the investment to accelerate our team growth and product development.
I will suggest that one should always choose investors who are equally excited about your business model as you are. It is important to select investors who like the segment that your business is in, rather than coming for the sector being hot and currently in-demand. Also, if you excite your investors, they will help you like an extended top management.
YS: What is the short to medium term plan for BYJU’S? Can you tell us something about the growth strategy?
This year, we are focusing on going deeper in India. There will be a strong focus to further accelerate our reach and create awareness in the deeper parts of India.
Since the launch of our app in 2015, it has seen great adoption and has successfully forayed beyond the metro cities in India. Today, almost 75 percent of our users come from outside the top seven cities.
It is encouraging to see an increased adoption from 1,700+ towns and cities in the country, but there is still a long way to go before we call this a learning revolution.
We are also in the process of building a product for international markets. Our core focus is on getting the K-3 (for lower grades 1st, 2nd & 3rd grades) product ready for launch by October this year.
For our global product, we looked for acquisitions (abroad) but did not find a perfect fit. Hence, we decided to build the product for the global audience in-house. We are working with some of the most popular YouTube teachers who are experts in their own domains. We are getting them to India to record and help us with product development too.
Currently, there are no products like BYJU’S Learning App, 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.
YS: Measurable goals. You have told me once earlier that it was important to measure everything that is being done. Please talk us through that.
I am a firm believer in setting measurable goals. They are very useful because - you can only improve things when you can measure it. Both at a personal and professional front, measurable goals have helped me outperform the goals set by me.
At BYJU’S, when we started out, we wanted to become India’s largest edtech brand name, today we are well on our path to becoming the world’s largest education brand name. Measurable goals have helped us ideate, plan and execute our plans at a lightning speed and constantly set new benchmarks for ourselves.
Along with having measurable goals, breaking down these goals into yearly, monthly, weekly and daily goals is very useful too. Breaking down goals helps you find the right balance between being reflective and being pragmatic. It makes you fearless, aspire more and extremely positive.
YS: What are some of your most important entrepreneurial lessons? What were some of the life events that taught you these?
I am of the opinion that a business cannot be driven by the passion to make money. Obviously, it is also important that you are passionate about the idea and love doing it. In fact, I am an engineer by profession, entrepreneur by chance and teacher by choice. I never planned to start this as a business, I just pursued my passion and capitalised on my strengths, and it later turned out to be a business. Additionally, it is very important to think big, have high aspiration levels, and plan and execute ideas at a lighting speed.
YS: BYJU’S is today a unicorn. What does that mean to you?
There is a lot that can be done in education, as this is one segment where you can truly create an impact and contribute towards creating a better tomorrow. For me, the real fun is not in creating a billion dollar company, but changing the way millions of students think and learn.