From India With Love: Unconventional Approach Spells Success For BYJU’S U.S. Market Strategy
To be a prisoner of the moment would lead to a headline awash in BYJU’S valuation of $16.5 billion with detailed accounts of recent acquisitions of Epic, Great Learning, Toppr, Aakash Educational Services, WhiteHat Jr, and Osmo among others. It would be fair game to list out the accomplishments from the Indian juggernaut as a bulleted laundry list of achievements never before seen throughout the global EdTech market that has led to it being the world’s most valuable education company.
To break free of the moment provides an opportunity to get to know the people and personalities behind the company that is establishing itself in America in a very pronounced manner. It was just a decade ago that Byju Raveendran and Divya Gokulnath founded the Bangalore-based multinational that is now backed by investors such as Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital India, Bond, Silver Lake, and many more.
Recently, ASU+GSV honored Gokulnath’s efforts naming her one of the 2021 Power of Women (POW!) winners. Through it all, the 34-year-old executive wants to know: “How do you create continuous learners, active learners, those who learn because they want to learn, and those who learn because of curiosity?”
After years of success in India, the founders are proud of their recent developments and the progress they have made in the U.S. Unlike some companies that might impose their agenda on newer ventures, Raveendran and Gokulnath are making use of U.S. market experts to share their vision of activating the individual learner. One such project is Future School, designed in conjunction with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to instill excitement about space-related math classes and coding courses that utilize creative thinking and problem solving skills.
Remarkably, the real story lies in the make-up of these individuals. Their combined curiosity to provide greater educational opportunities for a wide population, some of which were missing out on traditional education, led them to look for unconventional methods.
Reacting to the success of a live class lecture of 25,000 eager learners in India, BYJU’S student-centric, principles-based online learning model emerged. The live lecturing soon morphed into school-wide programs, with the platform offering users additional learning resources, both synchronously and asynchronously.
India plays a central theme in BYJU’S development and story. The company's efforts are indicative of a growing national awareness that understands the true significance of education. When looking at the recent results from the 2021 Scripts Spelling Bee, it is hard not to notice that nine out of 11 finalists are Indian-Americans. It's a small but powerful kernel of proof of what happens when a culture embraces education from an early age. Byju Raveendran and Divya Gokulnath are taking it a step further by tapping into the underutilized potential within India and around the world.
BYJU’S platforms are designed to allow students of all ages and backgrounds to take advantage of opportunities that ultimately lead to greater success. A parallel component to the overall offering centers on building next-generation teachers while also providing more opportunities for women. Raveendran and Gokulnath’s emphasis on developing the whole human is at the foundation of their business growth plan. Their global expansion is providing an ever-expanding combination of platforms with far-reaching access that is positioned to produce long-term change for years to come.
As a reporter, I gained an inside perspective on the company's spirit and the passion that led the founders to realize dreams that were inconceivable to most EdTech prognosticators and analysts. The following is a portion of an extensive conversation I had with the founders of BYJU’S, the world’s largest EdTech company. The decision was made by this reporter to allow for a more substantive piece, inviting the reader to acquaint themselves more fully with our new U.S. neighbor from the East.
I dive deeper into the motivation of Byju Raveendran and Divya Gokulnath to offer a glimpse into their personalities, pursuits and what lies ahead. There were no subjects off-limits, and the conversation spanned multiple areas of focus.
Entering the U.S. Market
Rod Berger: There are approximately 17,000 education companies and counting across the world, and it feels like there is a great deal of interest outside of the U.S to come here. Was it a natural progression for you? Why the U.S. and why now?
Byju Raveendran: It was a natural progression. We’ve been looking at the US market for a long time. During the pandemic, we realized that there is an opportunity to add one more layer to our asynchronous offering by opening up to a large, underemployed, unemployed, high-quality graduate pool.
The world has realized over the last 12 months that the golden age of teachers is going to come back. Today, anybody can go online and start teaching anything they like. It took a pandemic to change the mindset. Whether it's students learning online, teachers using digital tools more than ever before, or schools and institutions going online. We saw an opportunity in terms of tapping into this large potential workforce.
Berger: How is this effort reflected in your home country of India?
Raveendran: In India, there are 100 million free users and 11,000-plus women teaching from the convenience of home. The building of products developed for kids over the last six years has helped millions of Indian students by supporting at-home and school-complementary learning.
It provides confidence to launch in other markets and adding expertise around content pedagogy. Math and coding are universal subjects, but you need to do the curriculum adaptation with localization in mind. The fundamentals are the same all over the world. It led to launching BYJU’S Future School in the U.S. and a few other English-speaking markets.
We’re using a measured approach. It's not that we are launching in the U.S., we are scaling operations in North America. There is a difference.
Divya Gokulnath: Coming to the U.S. with two stronger models that cater to different types of learners was important. One is the asynchronous format, which is a learning app for students to become self-learners. The other is synchronistic, a live one-on-one learning format where children take the front seat, and the teacher plays the role of a mentor.
It's a productized offering, with lots of interactive play. Children interact on screen and learn concepts by doing. The aim is to change the way students think and learn, making them better learners who fall in love with the process.
Developing a Product with Vision
Berger: Is your shared approach by design or accident? Some companies have made mistakes in remaining homegrown and rejecting input from outside experts. They shy away from growing organically, blind to a collaborative strategy. You believe in the U.S. market and it sounds like you are demonstrating it in a variety of ways.
Gokulnath: It starts with having a passionate founder in Byju who believes in and understands a singular mission. We have the same vision today as we did 10 years ago, and we will continue to do so in the future. That is the secret sauce. Be in it for the long run driven by passion. We are lucky that our passion intersected with a need in society. That's how it clicked.
It shows both ends of a spectrum - on one end, the inefficiency, and the other, high aspiration levels of students to learn. In a country like ours, education is the only way to make it for most of us as demonstrated by the stadium of 25,000 students. Everyone involved is still in it today from the founder to the initial co-founders and students. We strongly believe that we can create an impact in education. It binds us together.
Berger: I get the sense that this is more than just an objective for you - it feels like it comes from something inside of you – culturally speaking. Am I right?
Gokulnath: Education is close to a lot of us, especially in a developing country. But to stay mission-driven, you need consistent leadership every single day. There is no room for complacency.
It’s important to have your own playbook for success. When we launched the app in 2015, BYJU’S spoke about something very different: a love for learning. A student-centric approach that focuses not on arbitrary rankings, but on the importance of loving to learn. When students like what they do, they do it for a longer time, which results in increased learning outcomes. This is how the product is packaged.
The difference here is that the product is not one teacher on the screen. We have a 3000-member research and development team filled with teachers who work, day in and day out, to make every concept simple, fun, and engaging for students so that they can enjoy while they learn.
The platform is extremely personalized, adapted to the style, size and pace of every student. They can learn whenever and however they want. They determine the speed and amount of learning materials. I think that’s where it lies. Can you create a dream one-on-one learning solution that is for every kind of learner? It is possible if you use the right mix of content, media, and technology. We built all three in-house.
Berger: You are not flipping the classroom but rather the whole model. Please describe your approach and overall outlook to that approach?
Raveendran: All students learn in different ways. The solution is finding the right intervention. Teachers will play a big role in motivating, guiding, and supporting students. We are trying to flip the role to move away from the one-way transmission of knowledge. We have created a platform that personalizes what the teachers have to do in a classroom when students are learning with activities on screen, and off-screen.
Everyone knows education is important, but it’s learning how to learn that’s important. It’s not just trying to force math, science, and coding. The aim is to create active learners with a particular conviction and emphasis on self-learning. It is the key to the future, particularly when the jobs of tomorrow are not even defined.
Investor Community and Future Growth
Berger: I have personally been party to industry conversations questioning the viability of the Indian EdTech market, yet I gather from our discussion that India served as the ideal proving ground for BYJU’S.
Raveendran: Starting in India was an advantage because there is a large primary market or segment in a very large model that allows us to continuously invest in research and development, on both the platform side and content side.
India, China, and the U.S. are three of the biggest education technology markets, and having a strong presence gives us an advantage in investing for the future with a long-term approach.
The challenge and opportunity, as an Indian company, is to convince exceptional Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – those who've been in the sector for many years that recognize collaboration will yield bigger, better results.
Initially, we had to convince them of three things: India, education, and BYJU’S. Then, once we consistently showed valuation increase, and more importantly, value creation it became easier than ever before.
In many ways, we play a good supporting role without changing our culture. I would say that we learn from them, and they learn from us. It's about sharing best practices.
Berger: ...and the plan for expansion in the U.S. is?
Raveendran: In the U.S., the plan is to invest a billion dollars both organically and inorganically. The idea is to bring in the best product with complimentary freight fit to have more products for more students, relevant to different age groups and different grades.
Berger: How has your relationship, as a couple and as business owners, impacted your approach to partnerships within the investment community?
Raveendran: There's always been very strong inbound interest from investors, but our investors are more like partners to us. They've supported us along the way. It’s similar to the way we do our integrations – minimal intervention and maximum support and borrowing of best practices. They support us and give us strategic advice wherever needed.
One might think that it's a huge challenge having 30+ investors that are considered marquee prominent investors, but we have a strong, diverse set of partners in terms of geography, sectoral expertise, and stage of investing.
We have been fortunate enough to get investors who think long term and investors who trust in our decision making as leaders and as a couple. We have a lot of skin in the game and are still the largest shareholders which sometimes makes a difference. Some founders dilute too early, or too fast, especially in India.
Berger: I think readers are going to shudder at the thought of having so many investors or voices in one’s business, but it doesn’t seem to bother you?
Raveendran: It can be challenging when investors pull in different directions. The key is having a founder’s mentality and not losing that mentality. It should never be about the founders. They often get undue credit for what they do. Especially someone like me because my name is the brand. I get a lot more credit than what I deserve.
There are so many exceptional entrepreneurs whom we have brought on organically into BYJU’S. We've hardly lost anyone in the company. Of the top 20 people, we’ve lost just two in the last nine and a half years. That's a clear validation of what we’re selling and staying mission driven. Hopefully, we'll be able to do so for many more years.
Berger: In what ways do you think about growth as entrepreneurs? How do you determine when it’s a good time to shift or pull back on development and expansion?
Raveendran: Companies who struggle to innovate, are often low on the innovation index or get too attached to what they do and what they build proves to be a recipe for disaster. If you look at our track record, we have disrupted our model multiple times. Most of the time, companies fail not because of external reasons, but internal, where they lose the founder mentality.
There are often three types of entrepreneurs. The “Serial Entrepreneur” who does it scientifically, receiving unfair access to capital after a big splash and exiting. Then there is the “Accidental Entrepreneur” who happens to fall into something big. The third [entrepreneur type] is the “Visionary Entrepreneur” who innovates, disrupting their own model multiple times.
A visionary is most successful by keeping the founder’s mentality even after the founder has exited. I consider myself a passionate entrepreneur working toward the visionary model. I remain humble in the process as I think long-term in approach. The passage of time will reveal the success of my approach.
Berger: Do you ever fear that blind spots will overpower your passion as a leader?
Raveendran: Today, there is so much data for one to pour over in search of overall effectiveness. If there is a better model or if someone else is doing it better and then it's time to change direction. At scale, when you lose that willingness to audit yourself, you're not agile and it can unravel quickly. It’s important to be willing to accept when there is someone else doing it better. Many companies make the mistake of thinking that everything can be done on their own.
Gokulnath: As a company, we have always been cognizant of breaking down goals weekly and even daily so that we execute quickly. As you become a bigger and bigger organization, the growth phase can lose that quick execution approach of a startup. If you can continuously innovate, you are very fast to execute.
When all the schools shut down over the last 18 months, within a week we gave the app away completely free. We opened it up. We launched free live classes for students realizing they were missing out on school learning.
We had three big product launches in the last six months. We were very quick to do it and I think that is important for any organization as they grow at scale - to be able to be very timely is to be relevant.
Even though Covid-19 has been so unfortunate for so many communities across the globe, we were in a segment of relevance. We were able to create an impact because we could move fast. We reached so many people and addressed the needs of those missing out.
A Culture of Education in India and Personal Motivation
Berger: I get a great sense of humility from both of you. Have you thought about what it takes to continue your epic growth while maintaining the crux of who you are as individuals and as partners?
Gokulnath: I think we're very similar people. We put values and people above everything.
That's something that we have learned from our parents and something we would love for our children to learn from and grow. Both of us are extra aware of the way our parents instilled the value of people, money, and life. It matters because it made us who we are today.
We have a large team and we put value in people. For us, the team matters more than anything else. We know that we are here today because of the fabulous team that has helped put this together and we wouldn’t be here without them. That holds true for both family and work. I think it keeps us rooted and grounded. The things that made us happy 10 years back are the same things that make us happy today.
Berger: You've held onto your sense of self, as individuals, as a couple, and as business leaders. Is that something that you've discussed with each other over the years?
Raveendran: When you are around the same set of people who were important to you 10 or 20 years back, nothing changes. Nobody is giving you any special treatment just because you are a so-called paper billionaire. If you can surround yourself with the right people and if you value relationships, you don't need to put in the effort to remain yourself - you actually need to put in the effort to be someone else.
I come from a small village and I don't say that to get sympathy. I often say it’s my biggest advantage. It’s what makes us extremely positive and aspirational. Success is relative at the end of the day and more importantly, we feel that we're privileged to get an opportunity to make such a big impact. It's not that we don't celebrate our accomplishments, it makes us happy, but soon we go back to what eventually got us here.
Our question is how do we teach these values to our kids? How do we create some of these artificial challenges, that we think are the reasons why we have had an opportunity to make an impact on the world? It's not easy. Sometimes for your kids, it’s about creating a tough, challenging environment so that they become resilient themselves.
Berger: What story is not being told about the success you have realized together?
Gokulnath: We've created an opportunity for students to learn better. We are creating an opportunity and that’s very, very special. So many women are unemployed and underemployed, sitting at home, who are extremely talented and able to enter the respectable profession of teaching. We have 11,000 female teachers on the platform.
Even though half our graduates are women, only 23% of them are in the workforce. I think this is something that we can silently create a revolution around.
It was never fully looked at before. If you think about it, especially in India and in some respects globally, there is a huge notion that women take care while men take charge. The platform is allowing highly qualified women to pursue teaching careers from the comfort of their homes. It’s a very respectable career that’s also impacting a child's future. This product is something that is giving both of us joy every day – something which is changing and creating a new social structure and social strata.
The whole mission is to create opportunities for students who were otherwise not able to learn. We get stories every day relating newfound hope through the platform. A mother called in from a village in Gujarat explaining that her child can learn on her own now, not having to travel through unsafe areas to do it. The mother says, “You know my daughter’s life would have been different if she had not been educated.”
It's slowly creating a difference and people are understanding the importance of education. If you educate a woman, you actually educate an entire generation.
The education industry spins press releases with great volume and energy, depicting a thriving, global market. News of staggering financials, student users and market penetration abound, but often the reader is left wondering more about the elusive “who” than the “what.”
Divya and Byju might just well be the next iteration of Bill and Melinda Gates or Steve and Laurene Jobs. The history books will document their evolution from former student and teacher, respectively, to the highly influential power couple that propelled the world’s most valuable education technology company.
One thing was abundantly clear from this reporter’s experience – Divya and Byju spell education with love, through diverse approaches and cultures, as individual leaders and ultimately as a partnership with a deep desire to impact generations of learners across the globe. Welcome to the U.S.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.