[The Turning Point] How Alakh Pandey mined his passion for teaching to build edtech unicorn PhysicsWallah

The Turning Point is a series of short articles that focuses on the moment entrepreneurs hit upon their winning idea. This week, we feature Noida-based edtech startup PhysicsWallah, which was born as a YouTube channel, and recently turned unicorn.
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Earlier this week, Physics Wallah joined India's unicorn club, raising $100 million in Series A funding from WestBridge Capital and GSV Ventures. PW is India’s 101st unicorn. 

What makes the Noida-based startup stand out from its peers is its profitability, especially at a time when other startups in the edtech sector seem to be struggling. Edtech unicorns in India, including Unacademy, Vedantu, and BYJU'S, have laid off employees, slowed expansion plans, and are trying to burn as little cash as possible to increase their runway, as funding dries up. 

Meanwhile, PW plans to expand, open more learning centres, and introduce more course offerings. It is gearing up to launch educational content in nine languages, including Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Odia, Malayalam, and Kannada, in line with its aim to connect with 250 million+ students by 2025. 

It has established more than 20 offline coaching classrooms, ‘Pathshalas’, across India, with more than 10,000 students enrolled for the 2022-2023 session.

From a YouTube channel to a unicorn

PW started as a YouTube channel in 2016 with an investment of about Rs 30,000. 

Founder and CEO Alakh Pandey used a camera phone, tripod, whiteboard, and a few books, and started teaching physics to Class 11 and 12 students for JEE/NEET examinations. 

Alakh, who hails from a humble background, had been teaching students in coaching institutes since 2014 - and he really enjoyed it. 

"I enjoy the moment when I see the student smile, get confused, get the wrong answer…only to tell them why they got the wrong answer. That excitement in students motivates me, " he says. 

He adds that he brings elements of dramatics into the classroom. 

“I couldn't become an actor, so I became an actor through teaching. I can teach the concepts, I can showcraft my whole acting talent through teaching. So I get that enjoyment as well. it is more like storytelling."

He began by making lectures on topics in physics and chemistry (except inorganic) which students could access without paying any fee. In a year, the channel had 10,000 subscribers. 

In May 2018, when he crossed 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, he told his students that he would launch his own platform where they could learn physics, chemistry, and mathematics and get tests, assignments, and other exam preparation material.

However, he wasn’t able to do this himself. He launched a website, through which he would share study material, including notes and assignments. He also kept teaching on YouTube, until the pandemic in 2020. 

This is when his students inquired about his plans to launch his own platform. “When COVID-19 came, students couldn’t go for offline coaching, so they didn’t have any support,” Alakh tells YourStory.  

They were left with no alternative, but to join online centres that charged high fees. 

That’s when “thankfully, Prateek Maheshwari, the tech guy and our cofounder, came into the picture,” he says. 

Prateek, through his other startup PenPencil, was already experienced in building customised education softwares for coaching institutes. 

The duo first met in 2018 and stayed connected on their plans to launch a platform. It was finally in May 2020 that they launched the PW app, which provides students with a complete curriculum for competitive examinations. 

Until then, the Alakh handled the content himself. “I was a college dropout and I had to prove myself,” he says. 

When PW first launched the app, it crashed. The team worked on it. The app crashed again during the first and second classes; more than 50,000 students had entered a live class on the platform. 

“Prateek and the PenPencil team had never estimated the traffic to be that much,” Alakh recalls. 

Alakh invested about Rs 15 lakh, earned as ad revenue from his YouTube channel, for app development according to a previous interaction. 

The team built up the technology in the next 10-15 days, and the app was ready to go. 

Building what students want

In June 2020, the duo registered the company under the name PhysicsWallah Private Limited.

“Prateek is the guy behind the exponential growth. He shaped the business. I am a teacher and I am a very conservative guy,” Alakh says. “Our investors say, ‘Prateek is the hunter and you are the farmer’.”  

The two of them have been working together to meet student demands. After live classes, they worked on a test engine, then added teachers, and other features including revisions and a doubt engine. 

“Our students [are] telling us what to do; we are just following their orders,” Alakh says. This is how they launched the offline centres too. 

PW currently has 5.2 million Play Store downloads with a 4.7 rating and 6.9 million subscribers on YouTube.

 “The company has been profitable since inception with positive cash flows and reserves,” Alakh says. 

PW’s revenue grew nine-fold in FY22. The company’s run rate for FY23 is at $65 million.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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