Alakh Pandey unplugged: From a roller-coaster ride growing up to now disrupting without trying
A financial slump forced Alakh Pandey’s family to move into a low-income settlement. But that’s where, while still in school, he found his passion for teaching. The CEO of edtech unicorn PhysicsWallah gets candid in this exclusive interview with YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma.
He has two bold tattoos on his right hand—a ‘pi’ symbol on the arm and an equation on the wrist—proof of the passion Alakh Pandey has for his subjects and for teaching.
“It is not that I enjoy teaching because I am successful now,” says the Co-founder and CEO of India’s newest edtech unicorn,. “I enjoyed my work even while I was shooting videos out of my single-room rented apartment in 2015.”
Alakh Pandey’s rags-to-riches journey is etching itself in the annals of India’s startup history, not as a footnote but as a chapter on what an indomitable spirit and some chutzpah can do to disrupt even an established industry.
Not to forget boatloads of charisma.
In an exclusive interview with YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma, Alakh recalls in exhaustive detail how he went from wanting to be an actor to becoming a celebrity teacher, and finally a businessman helming a billion-dollar company.
PhysicsWallah in June raised $100 million in Series A funding from WestBridge Capital and GSV Ventures at a valuation of $1.1 billion, becoming India’s 101st ‘unicorn’.
Childhood and the cycle of destiny
When Alakh was in third grade, a part of his family house in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) had to be sold to make ends meet. When he was in sixth grade, his parents had to sell the remaining part of the house as well.
Alakh was now grown-up enough to realise his family’s dire situation but was still content: his dad had been able to buy him a new cycle, as promised, with the money from the sale.
The family rented a house in, as Alakh recalls, a slum. “My mother fought against destiny, against my father to make me what I am. She borrowed money from relatives so that I could make my dreams come true,” he says.
That phase proved to be a turning point. By eighth grade, he was tutoring younger kids—PhysicsWallah’s first ‘batch’ of students.
Alakh’s love for teaching only grew from there on. After dropping out from engineering school he taught for about four years at a coaching centre back home, earning a meagre salary.
“My previous partner once said with great pride: ‘Alakh, you are so good at this, you will teach a batch of 7,000 students one day’. Well, 7k did not look like a great number to me. I wanted more. That’s why I started my YouTube channel,” says the 30-year-old in the interview.
Disrupting without trying
That was in 2016. Edtech giant Byju’s, now India’s most valuable startup, was about a half-decade in existence, and online learning was catching on. But the world was yet to see a barrage of content on YouTube and other online platforms.
But Alakh had the perfect formula—to work hard on average students and turn them into toppers.
“Frankly, it is difficult to find good teachers in tier II and tier III cities. You may find some good teachers in the metro cities. However, to find a teacher who brings himself down to the level of the student is rare,” he says.
“Before showing their knowledge off to a bunch of young students, star teachers should remind themselves of their younger selves—when they were in the 10th standard.”
In the early era of YouTube classes, teachers wouldn’t upload full lectures for free consumption, dropping a teaser instead and inviting students to their paid platforms for the full lecture. Alakh, however, would put up full-length lectures for free.
“It became a part of my routine to wake up every morning and check YouTube views," he says.
It took Alakh about a year to reach respectable viewership on YouTube. With that, his responsibility towards his students increased as well. When 50,000 students are watching and learning from you, you cannot afford to make even the smallest of mistakes, he says.
To source more study material, Alakh travelled to Kota, a prominent coaching hub for students looking to crack entrance exams to engineering courses. He returned with study material that he used to design his own courses.
Five years later, PhysicsWallah would open its own institute at Kota, with 10,000 students enrolling in the very first month.
One main reason for PhysicsWallah’s success is its course fee, which can be as low as Rs 4,000, making it affordable for a large number of students.
When PhysicsWallah launched its first paid batch, ‘Lakshya’, it did not have to struggle to acquire ‘customers’, enrolling about 63,000 students almost immediately.
Edtech: education or money-making?
How does an entrepreneur with a billion-dollar value business remain a teacher, and a good one at that?
“If, as a teacher, you get stuck in the cycle of money-making, your career will end in no time. You will be wasting your teaching skills, thinking of ways to get more students to enrol instead of focusing on your lecture…,” he says.
True to his words, Alakh is reported to have turned down a multi-crore-rupee offer to join an online startup as a teacher. Alakh sees a similar commitment in his teaching staff at PhysicsWallah. “There were times when they had huge offers from other institutions but they chose to stay,” he says.
He doesn’t view his students as revenue sources, either. “A student is a student. For the tech and sales guys, they could be ‘users’ or ‘clients’. For me, they will always remain kids looking up to me, waiting to be taught.”
PhysicsWallah’s approach to online coaching as a business had repercussions on the rest of the industry. While other edtech platforms were charging Rs40,000-50,000 for their courses, PhysicsWallah introduced courses at less than a tenth of the price.
“The (other edtech firms) realised they had to drop their prices too. Our students often say that we are the ‘Jio’ of the education industry,” Alakh says, referring to Reliance Jio’s low-pricing strategy that forced its telecom rivals to lower their rates, in turn allowing for greater internet penetration in the country.
Alakh blames the high prices on edtech platforms paying exorbitant salaries to their teachers and the practice of celebrity endorsements to drive student enrollment. According to him, a celebrity with no apparent connection with the education sector cannot possibly motivate students. “If an actor makes it big in the movie industry, he is a role model for aspiring actors, not students.”
The man behind the man: ‘Backbone’ Prateek
Alakh believes image-building and promotions alone cannot sell a product. A product sells when it is good, he says.
“The credit for making our product great goes to my co-founder, Prateek Maheshwari. He made the app, taught me how to build an organisation, taught me automation, and the basics of quality analysis. He is the backbone of PW.”
Besides having a product-focused founder like Prateek, it’s essential for an edtech startup to have at least one teacher as a founder, Alakh says, adding that online teaching platforms need to update their curriculum regularly, or risk failure.
The company is now working on a ‘PW Certification’ that will allow other teachers in geographies where it cannot reach physically to associate themselves with PhysicsWallah. “Prateek bhai and I want to create lakhs of Alakh Pandeys in the country,” he says.
PhysicsWallah is also working on a programme called ‘Sarathi’ to allow students to call teachers over video for instant guidance on any study-related issues. This facility already exists in the industry, but PhysicsWallah plans to launch it at one-fourth the existing prices.
The company is also expanding its reach in regional languages. After opening a Bangla-medium centre in Kolkata, PhysicsWallah is targeting Hyderabad for Telugu-speaking students. PhysicsWallah’s immediate target is to expand its hybrid teaching model in regional languages.
The startup is also planning to launch courses for school students in grades 6- 8.
'Puppets in the hands of God’
Alakh confesses acting was his first love.
“My family is scared till date—what if he goes back to his dream of becoming an actor! But I have found a way to merge both my passions—acting and teaching,” Alakh tells YourStory.
“To exist in this world is to act—the almighty is making us all do it.”
Alakh’s big fear is what if all the success and achievements end one day.
“I’m a hero today; what if I become a villain tomorrow?” he says “Today, when I am swarmed over by hundreds of students for selfies, I feel a little irritated sometimes. Then I think, what if I lose this? What if all this love is gone one day? And I realise it will feel worse.”
Edited by Giriraj Kiradoo and Feroze Jamal