Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Decade in the Learning Technology Industry

At 36, he is a veteran in the education technology business. Vivek Agarwal started his first company egurucool in 1999, a few years after graduating from IIM Calcutta. The company attracted investments from Chris Capital, News Corp. and IFC (W) and was sold to NIIT. Vivek is now managing his second venture in this space: Liqvid.

I caught up with Vivek to discuss how the last decade in this industry has unfolded.

SS: Vivek, so tell me a bit about the business of egurucool.

VA: Sure. We were in the online test prep business. We provided courses to help students prepare for the CBSE examinations.

SS: This is very interesting. You know that there are still several players in that field. There is Career Launchers, who have an offline/online model and then there is Vriti, funded by Intel Capital, and Catura Systems, funded by DFJ India which are mainly in the online space. Then there are larger players like Edurite with its coaching centers. Tell us about some of your experiences in running this business.

VA: Obviously at the point I was running this business, the main challenge was to get users online. We tried several techniques including cold calling of schools and parents. In one particular year, we actually visited 30000 homes and demoed the content. We had great conversion ratios (post the demo) but obviously it was very expensive. Now ten years later, we have many more internet users in this country but there is still likely
to be resistance in purely online learning.

SS: And justifiably so. Learning has to be blended into a seamless online/offline format.

VA: That’s what we also figured out. It was important to use the internet to develop communities and to have assessments but we also started learning centers. I think it is important to be able to empower the instructor with the appropriate use of technology and thus improve the quality of learning.

SS: Given that there are still many folks out there trying to build a nationwide big brand in this area is there anything that you would share that you would have done differently if you had been running the business today?

VA: Actually, yes there is. We invested a lot of effort in working with teachers and developing content. If I was running the business today I would try and figure out if there was a way of making existing content available without duplicating the creation efforts.

SS: Well said. Let’s talk of Liqvid your latest venture. You actually started in the services industry by outsourcing elearning projects.

VA: Yes you are right. We worked with customers like HP, Motorola and Cisco outsourcing elearning content development. We covered the entire gamut of sales training, product training etc. We transform the technical material that clients have into learning material with the help of in-house instructional designers who work with subject matter experts from the client or with subject matter experts from outside.

SS: I used to run a company in a similar business: Aesthetic Technologies. I think that it was fun working with a team of varied talents but I think scaling up was not easy given that these projects come with fuzzy specifications.

VA: Well, you are right. The team consists of instructional designers, content writers, programmers and graphic artists. And that’s kind of fun. And over the years we have developed methodologies that help in rapid prototyping so that we can have customers engaged. Also most of our customers have elaborate content development standards.

The bigger challenge we faced was in global sales. We tried tele-calls, local hires, working with sales accelerators and so on. Our experience has not been satisfactory. I think for all start ups the key founder has to be located in the geography of the main customers.

SS: Precisely, Which is why it is so exciting that the Indian educational business is large enough for you to be based here in India and work on products for the Indian market. Tell me about English Edge.

VA: English Edge is our product to help students learn English. It arose out of our partnership with BBC. The main objective of the product is to help students learn English not by way of the traditional “grammatical approach” but in a “conversational manner.

SS: Tell me about your partnership with BBC.

VA: We started by using the BBC material (audio clips and exercises) and developed it into instructional product which comes with the instructor multimedia software, instructor manual (providing background reference), screen-wise cue cards (to help navigate the software) and a student workbook.

This is a complete product that helps instructors improve their teaching skills.

SS: But you have gone beyond this initial partnership.

VA: Yes, we have. In a couple of key ways. First of all to cater to the broad Indian market we have extended the offering into 4 levels. Our first level is really meant for people who are seeking their first exposure in English, our second level is for people who are trying to string words into sentences, our third level is for students who are trying to learn correct grammar. Level 4 (based on the original BBC product) is meant for more polished users.
We have developed the content and instructional material for all these additional levels. The other way we have tried to develop this product is to develop “domain specific learning”. In doing so, we have developed content partnerships with Outlook Money, Outlook Traveller for BFSI and Hospitality domain learning.

SS: Tell me about you go to market strategy

We believe that we can provide the best value in embedding our product in vocational learning courses (for the travel, hospitality, retail, apparel ….industries). We are trying to work with educational institutions to make English learning a part of the ongoing process at these institutions.

I want you to remember one thing. We are trying to target what we would call the SEC A in marketing terminology, we are targeting students who have completed twelve years of schooling and have learnt English as a formal subject. Even then the language skills from an employability standpoint leaves much to be desired.

SS: So Vivek, this has been a fascinating journey. Where do you go from here?

VA: Sanjoy, the potential is enormous. If you take the universe of private schools, professional and degree colleges and vocational training institutes, you probably have an universe of 9 million learners out there. We aim to reach 2-3 million learners in the next few years. If we can develop the product further to be able to incorporate learning English with the help of Indian language learning aids we can take our product to more rural settings. Finally, there is no reason to believe that we cannot take this product to countries like India and China.

SS: Surely that is an exciting goal to help India reap its demographic dividend. Thank you Vivek and all the best.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Vriti: a player in Online Exam Prep

India is a land of examinations. We have 600 of them every year”. That’s how Swapnil Shrivastav described the potential of his business, Viti. Viriti is a player in the examination preparation business in India and Mr. Shrivastav was talking to me at 9 PM over telephone. Hard work and exam preparation comes easily to Swapnil. He is an IIT alumni and so are his co-founders. This is his second venture the first being SeekNet, a company which had developed a desktop based search personalized agent.

Vriti is trying to create an online educational community: students, experts and content providers. The core of the technology is a hosted platform which provides community support and an assessment engine. Vriti’s technology is developed in-house on a J2EE platform. The statistics are impressive: at peak loads it handles 115 million users monthly and 20000 concurrent users. I asked Swapnil whether he had considered any open source LMS like Moddle and he said that existing implementations did not have a rich community integration which they desired.

The community is a key part of Vriti’s strategy. There are 1 million students who are a part of the community and about a million questions answered in the database. There are about 300 individual tutors and 300 content providers participating in the community. That is a rich source of guidance to a student entering the bewildering world of career choices. Virti’s strategy towards communities is based on segregating them into sub-sites for each exam (goiit, gocbse, pmtprep, lawcorridor, gobskool, gonift…). The Engineering and CBSE communities are the most vibrant at this point. Vriti’s revenue model depends on commissions paid by content providers (such as Brillant Tutorials, Pearson Education, Aakash Institute …) and from subscription fees paid by students. The basic community participation is free: students pay for taking assessments.

The Indian test prep market according to the CLSA report on the Indian education sector is about USD 1.7 billion. The CLSA estimate engineering, medical, civil services, business school entrance examinations and is based on an average of 4 lac students spending Rs. 25000 on exam prep every year. These are realistic estimates (CLSA accounts for the exam prep for CBSE separately). Career Launcher (investor: Gaja Capital), Catura Systems (investor: DFJ India) are the other relatively early stage companies in this area. Vriti’s Series A was funded by Intel Capital. Needless to say, there are several well established brands in the more traditional distance education and bricks and mortar modes of test prep services (Brilliant Tutorials, Rau’s Study Circle …)

There is scope to create strong businesses in this area based on a track record of consistent success and low cost of delivery leveraging Internet technologies. However, the idea behind Vriti could be potentially far bigger. To understand why, think of the category of Learning Management Systems and Performance Management Systems. Most large enterprises use some variation of these systems powered by “best of breed” vendors such as SumTotal Systems & Saba, pure SaaS players like & SuccessFactors or ERP players like Oracle and Saba. What is the broad functionality they provide? At the highest level, they help manage the skills and competencies possessed by individuals with that required by jobs and help employees bridge the necessary gaps.

Consider the individual student at the cross roads of career choices. The solution that she is looking for is an ongoing assessment of knowledge and skills and help to prepare for career choices. It is possible to create a disruption by focusing on the technology platform that allows for the following:

  • A strong assessment engine that allows students to assess their learning needs and career potentials
  • A skills and knowledge library that helps students understand the requirements of various competitive examinations
  • A social networking layer to allow students seek guidance from peers and mentors
  • Integrations with web conferencing tools to allow for online tutoring
  • Integrations with content providers to provide for delivery of both off-line and on-line content

The key thing is to focus on the platform and that is why I feel that Vriti might be poking around a big thing. Think of the platform from the standpoint of both the student and the content provider. A strong assessment engine and strong assessment content would enable students to make correct choices. But you can also potentially open up the platform for content providers and experts to run their own assessments. That way they would be able to target their learning interventions to the specific student needs. They would be able to deliver the learning in current “chunks” and also leverage outside teaching help. The platform would generate value for the content provider that would be difficult to create from their own web delivery sites.

“Get to know what you are good at and work hard at it”. That is what the preacher told Rabbit “Harry” in John Updike’s Rabbit Run. If stated this way, the exam prep market is a far bigger game. And it will be fun to see companies take a crack at it.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Indian Education Market: Manipal K-12

I have been interested in the Indian educational market and this is the first of a series in which I will write about companies in this space. In this post I am profiling Manipal K-12.

Manipal K-12 , a player in the Indian K-12 school market, has been promoted by Manipal group, a leader in higher education in India. and TutorVista, a global online tutoring company. TutorVista is promoted by K Ganesh, who had earlier founded, along with Meena Ganesh one of India’s early BPO companies CustomerAsset which they sold to ICICI OneSource. Meena is the CEO of Manipal K12.

TutorVista’s online tutoring focus is largely the US market. The company, which had raised VC funding from Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Silicon Valley Bank in 2006, entered the domestic Indian market by acquiring Edurite Technologies in late 2007.

Edurite Technologies (it still maintains a separate website) was set up in 2000 by Srikanth Iyer and over the years has developed an impressive library of multimedia content in the Indian K-12 segment. Srikanth is the COO of the company.

I must mention that in the late 1990s there was considerable interest in creating educational multimedia content. In 1998 I had co-founded Aesthetic Technologies with the same broad business objective. We too had developed content for the K-12 market but for schools in Singapore and Malaysia.

The strengths of the various partners brings a certain uniqueness to Manipal K-12. The flagship product targeted at schools is DigitALly™ a PowerPoint enabled multimedia tool consisting of hardware (interactive whiteboard or plasma TV) and software (the multimedia learning content developed by Edurite over the last several years). The digital solution enhances the quality of teaching and effectiveness of the teachers. Manipal K12 also targets the coaching segment of the market with Edurite Tutorials (physical centers) and TutorVista (online presence).

The key proposition is simple enough: use technology to deliver top quality standardized learning at low cost independent of the physical location of the student. It is a thought that has been at the core of technology-aided learning. There is considerable interest in this market. Educomp with its Smart class, Everonn with its ViTELs, NIIT with its Interactive Classroom and IL&FS Educational & Technology Services are direct competitors. Smart class accounted for 60% of Educomp’s Rs. 145 cr (USD 29 mil.) revenue in the quarter ended Dec 09 (source: website).

How scalable is this business? Consider the following facts.
India has about a 1 million schools out of which 75,000 are private schools. The private schools are further classified into:
• Approx. 30,000 Government aided schools with an average monthly fee of Rs. 450 (USD 9).
• Approx. 30,000 un-aided “standard” private schools with an average monthly of Rs. 750 (USD 15)
• Approx 15000 un-aided “premium” schools with monthly fee upwards of Rs, 1250 (USD 25)

At this point, the key addressable market is the 45,000 private unaided schools. According to a IDFC-SSKI report the reach of the key players is about 1000 schools each for Educomp and NIIT and 1000 schools for Everonn and IL&FS combined. That leaves a lot of room for growth.

It does, in my opinion, for the next few years. However, schools are investing in ICT infrastructure, often with the help of these same companies. In a few years time, it is possible the private unaided schools would want to be free to buy content from any publisher and not bound to multi-year contracts that are the norm today. At that point, I hope, the market would move to the public schools. It is in this market, which cannot attract decent teachers, that technology can really create a disruption. To enable this to be possible Public Private partnership paradigms will have to be established and/or companies like Manipal K-12 will have to have working relationships with educational NGOs. Most importantly, costs would have to be driven down.. At this point, Educomp charges Rs. 150 per student per month. This is 12% (or less) of the average tuition costs in a private premium school but is 33% of that in an aided private school. At current costs, these companies will find it hard to get the scale that India’s large population warrants.

Manipal K-12 will potentially be able to drive down costs given its in-house content development expertise. Its other approach is to set up its own brand of schools either directly owned or managed. The idea is to bring in good learning content, trained teachers and efficient academic management processes. The K-12 market size in India is large. CLSA estimates the total size to be USD 20 bn. (based the reasonably conservative annual fee assumptions indicated above). Can organized players emerge in this sector? Manipal K-12 does have the advantages of the brand and the technology infrastructure. Having said that, the success of a school in India is based on board-level examination success and it does take years to build reputation. Good schools in India and elsewhere are built by dedicated teachers and principals and therefore the question that I am mulling is: how can an organization like Manipal K-12 create a cadre of great teachers?

Perhaps the answer lies in the other market that Manipal K-12 is trying to target: the tutoring market. CLSA estimates that the market size to be USD 5 bn. (and this does not include specific tutoring for competitive exams and for specialized skill training). However, the market is fragmented, and likely to remain so. Tutors will come from a variety of backgrounds: young students, experienced teachers and patient mothers. However, this may provide Manipal K-12 a very wide recruiting ground for future teachers.

Success of organizations like Manipal K-12 will ultimately depend on execution. There are three key components of an execution strategy: customer (student/parent) satisfaction, entrepreneurial management of individual schools (while using standard processes and technology) and teacher talent management (motivating the ultimate knowledge worker). The business of education is that of people building people. Technology and facilities help to a point.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Solar Energy

I have been reading and learning about renewable energy. This is a set of slides tht will help managers and business folks to quickly come up on speed on what is happening in solar - which is arguably one of the most active areas in the overall renewable space.

Have a look, download, reuse just email me and let me know what you feel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SaaS article in Silicon India

My SaaS Blogs, posted here and also cross posted at VentureWoods has generated quite a bit of interest and I was approached by Silicon India to publish an article on new ventures in the SaaS space in India

Here it is :

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Learning in Innovative Organizations

I have spent many years of my life in the area of Talent Management (or as it was known many years back as e-learning). The use of learning as a strategic weapon in organizations has always fascinated me. In particular, smaller innovative organizations that survive and succeed learn a lot more quickly and painlessly.

These slides based on a few chapters of "Making Innovation Work" by Tony Davila, Marc Epstein, Robert Shelton build a framework to understand Innovation. A key point it makes is that it links Knowledge Management (which has for many years dominated our thoughts on Learning) to the Innovation Framework. Knowledge Management is central to Incremental Innovation – operational items that organizations have to do everyday.

For radical innovation – on the other hand – learning by experimentation is key. There is really no substitute for trying and failing quickly. This reinforces the need for leaders and managers need to build an open collaborative culture to facilitate learning.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Listening to Customers is not enough. Ask the right questions to drive Innovation

Companies which have dedicated customer feedback collection and analysis programs still continue to get surprised by seismic shifts in the market place. How do companies which have an established customer base and are diligently working with them fail to develop products and services only to be surprised by start-ups? Worse, why do innovative ideas within companies get killed after a round of customer research?

At one level, the answer is ready. Customers cannot give feedback on a product that does not exist. To get to understand what customers really need you need to ask the right questions. What is it that they are trying to do? What is important to them? What are the constraints that they are facing? What is it that they have and do not really need?

Have a look at these slides to put some rigour in customer research program in your Innovation process.

Let me know what you think.