Ask Byju Raveendran for a trick and he will readily whip out a pen and paper to dash off a diagram. It’s a simple geometry problem from Class 8 or 10 that he has scribbled out. But it is also a typical CAT-level question. Byju demonstrates a quick method to get to the answer. “We have a habit of making everything complex,” he says. Tricks, he says, are the result of knowing your subject in and out. A decade ago, Byju’s bag of tricks were an instant draw among friends keen to crack competitive exams.
“That’s how it all got started,” says the 38-year-old, now a household name in the education business. From a travelling tutor holding weekend classes for CAT aspirants in auditoriums in Bangalore and elsewhere, Byju now connects online to a few lakh students from primary school upwards. At the last count, the Byju’s learning app had crossed one million paid subscriptions, cumulatively since 2015, and his firm is on its way to making a profit.
“When things are going well for you, there is no scope for becoming complacent,” he says. The high pace of growth started in August 2015 when the app was launched, replacing the earlier classroom model. The earlier phase helped to understand what the students want. “Our biggest problem is we all learn how to solve questions. We don’t ask questions,” says Byju. “We are inculcating better self-learning habits in students.”
It is important, he insists, because job profiles are changing rapidly, which means people need to adapt quickly. “Almost all reports say that half the jobs today’s school students will end up doing aren’t even defined at the moment,” he says. “The 21st-century illiterates are not those who can’t read and write; they are those who can’t learn, unlearn and re-learn. Things change so fast—by the time you master something, you have to relearn again.” So, he believes in catching them young, with a format that blends in videos and games.
“Our product does not replace teachers or school,” says Byju, whose parents were teachers at a government school in his hometown Azhikode, near Kannur in Kerala, which he also attended before joining an engineering college in Kannur. His first job was as a mechanical engineer with a shipping company, handling vessel breakdowns. The job paid well and he got to travel the world. Back home on two-month vacations, he found many of his friends in the IT sector appearing for competitive exams and began helping them with useful math tips. Soon, he realised a lot of people were interested in these sessions, so the venues shifted to auditoriums and he began to charge a fee. “It was purely by chance,” Byju says. “I never decided I will start Byju’s Classes for CAT. It got the name because I was taking the classes.”
If there is anything the learning app is now replacing, it’s probably private tuitions. “We are not positioning this as a tuition-replacement tool. Our motto is very clear: learning at home.” At the moment, however, the subscription renewals at lower levels—like Class 6—equal those at higher grades like Class 10 or 12 at an average of Rs 1,000 a month. “These children don’t attend private tuitions, so this becomes their only after-school tool. Parents are happy to see them engaged,” says Byju. Last academic year, the average time a student spent on the app was 57 minutes daily, mostly between 7 pm to 10 pm and on weekends.
Byju says he was always a self-learner. Often, when people hear that he came from a small village, it suddenly impresses them. “What a lot of people miss out on is that it is a big advantage. It makes you aspirational and extremely positive. There is nothing to lose,” he says. Many reckon the education sector isn’t easy to crack. But a bulk of Byju’s $240 million funding came in 2016 and 2017 when many Indian start-ups were spluttering. Currently, its investors include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital and China’s Tencent.
In the financial year just gone by, Byju’s neared the break-even point with a revenue of Rs 520 crore. In fiscal year 2019, at the current growth rate, it expects to double its revenue to Rs 1,200-1,300 crore and turn profitable. Growth comes from subscription renewals and new users. India’s schoolgoing population is roughly estimated at 270 million, nearly half of them in English-medium schools. So, there is huge potential ahead, he says. Currently, the bulk of the subscriptions are from Class 4 to 12. Later this year, the company plans to cater to Classes 1 to 4 as well.
“A lot of them are starting early,” he says. “In lower grades, learning from a screen is more of a habit unlike Class 10 students who weren’t using smartphones from the time they were born.” The company is figuring out new models to reach a larger section of students. “It’s early days, but I would also want to reach students who study in schools like the one I went to,” he says. “There will be a certain section who can afford the product, but there will be others who are hungry to learn and who can spend half an hour, let’s say, in a school library.”
Most of the company’s investment over the past five years has been on creating a product development team of content and media specialists. Currently, Byju’s has over 300 employees working on content in its Bangalore office. By the end of the year, Byju’s is looking to create a product for international markets as well. “We are creating three strong IPs, one around content, another around using media and the third involving technology,” says Byju, explaining that the push to overseas markets would be a natural corollary. “What we are doing is mainly for India and, with some additional investment, we can give a good shot elsewhere too. There are no similar models like ours in the US or China. There is no playbook.”
Learning, of course, is serious business. But parents take note: Byju is a sports buff too. He played cricket, football and table tennis at the university level. “I was forced to be a self-learner because I was more interested in sports, so my attendance used to be very low in school,” he says. Have fun, at play or work, is his credo.