Being passionate is important for an entrepreneur; an investor must be objective, says Great Learning founder

Mohan Lakhamraju, Founder of e-learning startup Great Learning, talks about building an edtech business in India, his biggest learnings along the way, and why he thinks the emergence of unicorns in the sector is extremely likely.
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Mohan Lakhamraju, one of India’s most renowned educationists, now runs a leading management school and an e-learning platform where working professionals can upgrade their skills. 

He began his journey at IIT-Bombay and went on to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. A recipient of the David Packard Fellowship, he did an MBA from Stanford Business School.

Mohan, who worked in the Silicon Valley for a little over a decade, was the founding member of electronic discovery service provider Stratify and was engaged in managing investment activities at American VC company Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ).

His association with Great Lakes Institute of Management and his tryst with entrepreneurship with edtech startup Great Learning followed a stint as Managing Director at global investment firm Tiger Global. 

In a recent episode of 100x Entrepreneur Podcast, a series featuring founders, venture capitalists, and angel investors, Mohan talks to Siddharth Ahluwalia about his journey. 

In the beginning

Mohan hails from a lower middle-class family; his mother was a lecturer and his father was a researcher. The significance of a good education was drilled into him since he was a child. 

The turning point in Mohan’s life was when he got into IIT-Bombay. The people he met there and the exposure transformed his personality. 

In the late 90s, he bagged an opportunity to study in the Bay Area. However, he soon realised that that his calling lay elsewhere and dropped out of his PhD. Keen to earn a livelihood, Mohan joined hands with Rakesh Mathur, a serial entrepreneur associated with Stratify. And, his roller-coaster ride began. 

Mohan Lakhamraju, Founder, Great Learning.

“At Stratify, I understood that I needed to learn more, and so I went to Stanford Business School. During my time there, I developed a strong inclination to get back to India. I kept ruminating and figured that it would be great if I could be a facilitator for the investments taking place in India, and help support its growth story,” Mohan says. 

But, he decided to test the waters before taking the plunge. 

Mohan joined Draper Fisher Jurvetson and later Tiger Global, where he held the responsibility of looking at the education sector. This led him to research and connect with education companies across China, Korea, US, Europe, and India. 

“Over time, I grew passionate about education. And, when I heard a lot of people criticising the quality of education in India, I made a decision to create a wave of positive change in the space,” he says. 

The campus of Great Lakes Institute of Management.

In 2009, Mohan joined the Great Lakes Institute and spearheaded a slew of new initiatives to boost the learning curve of students. A few years later when online learning began to revolutionise education, as digital platforms like Coursera and edX took off, Mohan decided to explore the domain. 

His idea was simple: to equip people to be good self-learners and provide assistance wherever required.  

Great Learning was born in 2013 out of this very thought process.

“We did not want to be just another MOOC platform. Since we believed in mentored learning, we ensured that we put in place a model where assistance was offered at every step along the way,” he says.  

Founded in 2013, Gurugram-based Great Learning aims to deliver high-quality learning outcomes to professionals and ready them for a data-driven future. Its user base is mostly mid-career professionals who are unsatisfied with the education they have received earlier and want to upskill themselves to stay in tune with market requirements. 

Tryst with entrepreneurship and investments 

Mohan’s first brush with entrepreneurship was when he heard about Eric Brewer, a dynamic individual who launched a search engine called Inktomi and inspired him to start something of his own. 

Later, at Tiger Global, he gained a deep understanding of hedge funds, public markets, and private equity. Over time, Mohan also realised the subtle difference between being an entrepreneur and an investor. 

“Being passionate and emotionally attached to the business makes one a good entrepreneur. But, it is imperative to at look at experiences and situations objectively for an investor,” he says. 

Before leading growth strategy at Great Lakes Institute, Mohan had attempted to set up a business school, Institute of Energy Management and Research, to create a pool of talent for the energy sector.

He established the institute with just one classroom and two office rooms in a rented space. But the outcome they saw with the first batch was amazing. The average salary of those who completed the course placed the institute in the top 20 schools of the country. Mohan attributes the success to the pedagogy, curriculum, and faculty. 

The other successful venture that Mohan launched was Great Learning, a digital platform that offered courses for professional learning and higher education.

“The idea was to remove the fear of unknown. A lot of people back then would think, ‘who’s going to sit in front of a computer and learn? I can’t do it; I won’t be able to do it’. We wanted to break that mindset,” Mohan says. 

For the first five years, the platform was largely focused on helping working professionals upskill themselves in areas in demand. After that, the team started directing its energies to train students pursuing higher education.

Great Learning offers courses for professional learning and higher education.

Image credit: Great Learning

As of today, more than 100 educational institutions use the Great Learning platform to traverse their learning path. In terms of the overall count, 30,000 students have signed up to complete various courses. Most programmes offered on Great Learning are bracketed as transformational education, as opposed to incremental education.

When Siddhartha asked about the revenue being made by Great Learning, Mohan replied, “Last year, we did about Rs 325 crore in revenue bookings, the year before, it was about Rs 150 crore. We had grown about 150 percent. And, we expect to have a similar performance again this year.”

The future of the edtech sector  

Majority of the working population today knows and understands the cost of not learning new things. Besides, every job in this era is tied to some form of technology or the other. Clearly, the edtech segment in India holds immense potential

Mohan is of the view that the edtech sector has immense potential.

Reiterating this, Mohan says, “In the last couple of years, 30 percent of degree programme enrolments were seen in online courses in the US. This is likely to happen in India as well.”

The entire corporate training market is also set to go digital. 

“So naturally, there is great scope for the creation of new companies and sustenance of existing ones. I wouldn’t be surprised to see many unicorns in the edtech space even before the market catches up,” Mohan says.
Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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