Tapping India's creative spirit, how this hobby startup gained 2.5 lakh users amid the pandemic

Launched in December 2020, hobby learning startup FrontRow has grown substantially amid the pandemic, adding new classes, trainers, employees, and users.
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Edtech startups have had a dream run in the last couple of years. Be it coding, languages, math, or more, edtech stepped in to ensure that learning continued despite school closures. 

Mikhil Raj, Ishaan Preet Singh, and Shubhadit Sharma, who had prior stints at ZestMoney, Lightspeed India, and GlowRoad, respectively, had been “looking at the education space” when they realised that there was another huge gap that hadn’t been addressed: the lack of avenues in creative learning and non-academic fields like sports, films, music, and comedy. 

The trio decided to address this problem with FrontRow, a learning and community platform that allows students to pursue their non-academic interests and hobbies.

Neha Kakkar takes the singing course on FrontRow

Modelled on San Francisco-based MasterClass, the startup launched operations in May 2020 and went on to raise seed funding of $3.2 million from Lightspeed India, Elevation Capital, and Deepika Padukone’s Family Office in November 2020

It obtained a stellar lineup of celebs to conduct classes: Neha Kakkar for music, Amit Trivedi for music composition, Biswa Kalyan Rath for comedy, Gully Gang for rap, Swanand Kirkire for lyric writing, and MortaL and 8bit Thug for gaming. 

“We do come across as Master Class but we are nothing like it once you enter the platform,” Mikhil Raj, Co-founder at FrontRow, tells YourStory in an interaction. 

A former product manager at lending startup ZestMoney and Urban Company, Mikhil started FrontRow after noticing a trend among college students from Tier II and III cities. 

“When we were trying to form our first batch, a few students stayed away. Many said they did not have the time. I was wondering how come they didn’t have time and then realised that a lot of them were going for rap battle and cricket training,” says the entrepreneur. 

He and his co-founders dug deep and found a supply gap in the ecosystem. 

“There are so many people who are in jobs only to put food on the table; it’s not their passion. That’s why those kids were going for gigs because there were no good teachers or curriculum available in the 5 km radius of their house, who could teach them what they wanted to learn,” Mikhil says. 

Along with celeb classes, the startup, which is run under Splashstar Technologies Pvt. Ltd., offers pre-recorded sessions conducted by non-celebrity professionals. 

“These teachers would be someone who has been in the field for over 15 years or someone perhaps who came second on Indian Idol,” Mikhil says. 

Accessing one celebrity class costs between Rs 600 and Rs 800, while a monthly Rs 2,000 subscription will give a user access to everything, including live classes and jamming sessions. The founders say 60 percent of users have taken up the subscription plan while others opt for single sessions. 

Singing and music is the “most subscribed category”, but the hobby platform also saw huge inbound interest for dance. 

“We started up in early 2020, and our product was launched in December the same year. In this one year, we saw more growth than we could handle,” Mikhil says. 

Suresh Raina takes batting course on FrontRow

The platform, which currently offers courses across eight categories, saw its user base shoot up amid the pandemic. 

Mikhil claims there are more than 2.5 lakh monthly active users, a number that is growing 30-40 percent month on month. These users spend approximately 30 minutes every week on the platform. The platform refrained from revealing its user base a few months after starting out.  

To sustain this growth, FrontRow also increased its team size: from 25 when they started to more than 100 employees in August 2021. 

“We have grown rapidly across functions and continue to scale our products, design and technology teams,” Mikhil says. 

FrontRow is backed by Elevation Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Hindi film actress Deepika Padukone. In September 2021, the platform raised a Series A round of $14 million from Eight Roads Ventures and GSV, among others, raising $17.1 million so far. Raftaar, a rapper and an investor in the platform, will be introducing a new course in rapping. 

Credit: YourStory Design

The pandemic proved to be a pivotal moment for the edtech sector, similar to what demonetisation was for Paytm and other payments apps. But with most people going online for their needs, both legacy firms and startups across categories started advertising online. This pushed up the cost of acquiring customers for many edtech startups, with many being acquired by unicorns including Unacademy and Vedantu. 

FrontRow could also face similar challenges, more so as we enter the hybrid world, where physical classes have started opening up and users’ time gets divided again.   

“Going forward we want to keep adding more courses, keep going deeper in our existing categories, and widen the horizon by launching new categories,” says Mikhil.  

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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