Ex-Tiger Global India MD’s startup Great Learning clocks 10X user growth, crosses $100M ARR
Mohan Lakhamraju’s journey in the education sector began in 2006 when he was serving as the India MD of Tiger Global.
During his tenure, he not only set up the New York-based VC’s office in Mumbai but also oversaw its investments in education companies across India and South Asia.
“The sector was in bad shape then. Learning outcomes weren’t happening. People couldn’t use what they learnt to further their career,” he tells YourStory.
Mohan wanted to solve the problem of learning outcomes — first offline, and then online. Since 2011, he's helped grow Great Lakes Institute of Management, one of India’s premier B-schools, in Chennai, and continues to serve as its Vice-Chairman.
By 2012, when Coursera started to take off in the US, Mohan turned his attention towards online education. He soon realised that India was a very different market from the West.
“In the US, it is all product-product; there’s no mentoring. But, just putting up content as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) was not going to work in India. One needed to focus on application-oriented learning,” he explains.
Mohan Lakhamraju, Founder and CEO, Great Learning
Mohan startedin 2013 as a higher education and upskilling platform focused on delivering high-quality, outcome-driven, and mentor-based learning.
The Gurugram-headquartered startup launched its first programme in business analytics, which was in great demand then.
It narrowed its focus to serve only mid-career professionals who “could learn without having to quit their jobs and yet have a transformational learning experience”. “These were typically people who had spent 4-5 years in their careers and knew what they wanted next,” Mohan says.
Later, the platform also went on to launch online bootcamps for freshers and job discovery products. “Our goal was to be an inclusive learning platform. Because good offline institutions have always been exclusive,” adds the founder.
Seven years, 60 million hours of learning, 1.5 million students, and $100 million ARR later, Great Learning is among India’s top three higher-education startups today.
It competes with domestic peers like upGrad and Simplilearn, and international operators such as Udemy, Coursera, edX, Degreed, MasterClass, among others.
Mentor-based learning for career progression
Great Learning has partnered with leading global and Indian institutions, including Stanford, MIT, UT Austin, NUS, IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, IIT Roorkee, and so on.
Mohan shares, “The reason we partnered with these institutions is that they have the best faculty. Learning is a higher-order activity; it is not a transactional thing. And for really robust learning to happen, teachers are important. People appreciate hand-holding and support, and this is getting validated across geographies now.”
The platform offers degree, diploma, and certificate courses in domains such as data science, business analytics, AI, ML, cloud computing, software development, cybersecurity, design thinking, and digital marketing.
There are 330+ free courses and 45+ paid mentorship programmes to choose from.
Two-thirds of Great Learning users are app-based learners
Almost 40 percent of Great Learning’s business today comes from international learners spread across 85 countries. Prior to the pandemic, this number stood at 20 percent. International students on the platform also have higher course completion rates of 96 percent, compared to its average of 91 percent.
Its free courses are available in 170 markets. The platform is seeing strong traction from the US, the EU, Australia, and parts of Asia. “Feedback on courses is taken every hour. Our average rating has been 4.5 in seven years,” says the founder.
Since Great Learning solves for outcome-oriented learning and helps students develop competencies for career progression, it tracks and measures placements.
The startup claims that 66 percent of its students have achieved a “career transformation” within a year of completing their course.
“We work with 500+ hiring partners that recruit our talent. We have seen 100+ placements every month through the pandemic. Most demand is coming from the digital economy,” Mohan reveals.
Great Learning roped in Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador in September 2020 in its first major marketing activity.
10X user growth and $100 million ARR
Until April 2020, Great Learning was offering only paid courses. However, with the pandemic lockdowns resulting in a boom in online learning and generating demand for upskilling courses, it rolled out a free courses library (Great Learning Academy).
This led to massive growth in monthly users on the platform.
“We had about 100,000 users before the pandemic. There’s been 10X growth in the last 15 months. The pandemic also got the regulators to act. Now that the government has legitimised online degree programmes [as part of NEP 2020], we expect a tonne of growth. By September, we will have two million learners.”
Almost two-thirds of its users are app-based learners. Great Learning expects its total user base to cross 15 million, and paid learners to reach half a million by 2025.
“The online learning behaviour will sustain. Several institutions have agreed that 40 percent of on-campus learning can be blended with online. But how many institutions are well-positioned to do that? Several of them will have to approach us to help them achieve that,” explains the founder.
Great Learning booked revenues of Rs 325 crore in 2020, recording a 150 percent growth over 2019. Most of it has been driven by international markets. The startup claims to have crossed an ARR of $100 million in FY21. Its workforce has also expanded from 500 people in March 2020 to 1,400 in June 2021.
“Just the adoption of online learning has been our biggest growth driver along with going global and the legitimisation of online degrees. We think $100 million ARR is a great milestone, and to be able to do that at an Indian price point has been challenging.”
Responding to pandemic-led user demands, the startup also launched a B2B digital campus solution – Olympus. The full-stack platform allows universities to manage their content creation, programme design, student recruitment, class delivery, hackathons, cohorts, guest interactions, career services, interviews, etc.
“Olympus is a full-fledged online university. It is powering our business globally. We launched it in July last year after getting a lot of requests from faculty. Over 250 institutions are using it today, but we haven’t monetised it yet,” shares the founder.
Great Learning's workforce has expanded from 500 to 1,400 since March 2020
Future roadmap and market overview
Great Learning continues to lie low on the funding radar even at a time when the edtech sector is flush with venture capital.
“We never wanted to raise money for the heck of it. We are always looking for the right kind of capital. We have raised undisclosed funding but we wanted it to be a non-event,” says the founder.
Interestingly, the startup is said to have held merger talks with BYJU’S*, India’s most valuable startup that has been on an acquisition spree in the last 12-15 months. The latter has reportedly made a $350 million buyout offer to Great Learning.
Neither confirming nor denying the development, Mohan says, “We have had multiple conversations both as an acquirer and acquiree. The market will [eventually] get to an efficient state. This crazy level of competition cannot sustain. There are lots of costs and functions that are duplicated in online education. The benefit of consolidation is that these duplications will be removed.”
Great Learning looks to reach 2 million users by September.
Even though Great Learning has been low on the funding radar, it made a lot of noise after signing up India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli as brand ambassador last September.
“We don't spend on marketing as extravagantly as our peers do. So, we needed to do something to come into people’s consciousness in the pandemic. Virat Kohli coming on board made it happen. Our brand engagement and traction went up by a huge margin,” Mohan says.
Earlier this year, it was reportedly looking to raise $60 million to ramp up talent acquisition, content development, and expansion efforts globally.
The online higher education market in India is expected to grow 10X to reach $5 billion by 2025, according to a RedSeer report. The market is already dominated by 2-3 players, who are far bigger than the others combined.
“Earlier, there were 40-odd companies, but they haven’t grown. The segment is fairly concentrated already. And there will be further consolidation,” Mohan states.
There is little doubt that edtech is witnessing a transformation like no other sector. Great Learning reckons that education is the last remaining sector (besides healthcare) that is left to be disrupted by technology.
“That is why it is so attractive right now,” says Mohan. “What would have taken 5-10 years of market forces happened overnight because of the Black Swan event.”
And now, there’s no going back. Neither for Great Learning nor for education.
*Update: On July 26, Great Learning was acquired by BYJU'S for $600 million.