A humble tutoring pair is teaching the world much more than math.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Eight years ago, a 30-something tutor named Byju Raveendran gave a math lesson to nearly 15,000 students packing the Indira Gandhi stadium, India’s largest indoor arena, to help promote his learning app. Today, his namesake edtech company would pack more than 3,000 such stadiums with just the users of their latest acquisition. “Big” isn’t a big enough word to describe the growth and size of this edtech unicorn, which in business-speak, is actually a “decacorn” – the first such company in edtech. The Bangalore, India-headquartered multinational education technology company founded in 2011 by Byju Raveendran and Divya Gokulnath is, as of June 2021, valued at $16.5 billion, making it the world’s most valuable edtech company. EdTech Digest sat with Byju and Divya to discuss origins, acquisitions, the pandemic effect, success, highlights, managing expansion, how a new billionaire keeps it real, their recent move into the U.S. education sector, and the future of learning according to a pair who are poised to shape so much of it going forward.
It’s been quite a wild ride, I’m sure. Let’s return to the beginning or a bit closer to the start: what prompted you to first get involved with education and technology—what value did you see back then in terms of technology’s role in education and learning?
Both Byju and I were educators who believe in the impact that quality education creates. Our love for teaching and passion for inspiring students to become lifelong learners led us to launch BYJU’S in 2011. We wanted to make learning accessible, effective, engaging, and personalized for everyone.
India is home to the world’s largest school-going population—260 million. When we first started we were entirely offline, from packed auditoriums to stadiums across India, for students who were eager to learn math. Very soon we noticed the education system had three core problems: lack of access to quality teachers, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning, and most importantly learning driven by fear of exams.
We started BYJU’S with the focus to address these learning gaps, to make learning fun and engaging by making it contextual and visual and not just theoretical; to leverage technology and data science, making learning truly personalized to the extent that students will know what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, how much to learn, and how fast to learn and also, to make the best of the teachers available to every student. We wanted to instill love for their studies through the use of technology.
We saw the internet’s tremendous potential in creating a global online learning community, which ultimately led us to launch the BYJU’S learning platform in 2015 and it’s only progressed from there. In addition to making education more accessible, technology has given us the ability to make learning more interactive, visual, adaptive, and personalized. Our platform personalizes the learning journey of every student based on their learning patterns—helping them learn at their own pace.
‘In addition to making education more accessible, technology has given us the ability to make learning more interactive, visual, adaptive, and personalized.’
By combining the BYJU’S way of learning with an engaging and interactive platform we’re taking a major step in creating future leaders who love learning and relearning.
Byju, both your parents are educators—what key lessons did you learn from them that you still carry with you today, and that you keep in mind as most applicable to your current approach to business, life and learning?
I come from a very humble background. My parents were always supportive of my dreams. Both my parents were teachers and encouraged me to continue my studies as well. I did my schooling in Azhikode, a small village in Kerala, so I was grateful for every little resource at my disposal and practiced contextual learning from a very young age. In fact, I learned English by listening to football and cricket commentaries.
My parents also encouraged me to take up sports and it has been an integral part of my life ever since. During my school days, while I used to play all day, I ensured that it never impacted my studies. I played six sports in school and I can attribute my academic performance with certainty to the life skills that I learned on the sports field, in an unstructured environment. In fact, I still play football, badminton, and table tennis with my colleagues whenever possible. I am a firm believer that sports can help in developing and honing real-life skills such as performing under pressure, controlled aggression, leadership skills, and more.
These values have really helped me contribute immensely to my academic performance and fueled my desire to instill the same drive in my students. As a company, since our inception, our aim has always been to make learning accessible, effective, engaging, and personalized for all students. We want to enable students to become active learners who take the initiative to learn on their own.
How have you managed such rapid expansion and what have been the key elements involved in keeping it orderly and upward?
Our mission has always been to encourage people to fall in love with learning, so every new product offering, partnership, and every investment we’ve made has been to work towards that overarching goal. We’ve grown both organically and inorganically, from investing in research and our teachers to ensure our programs align with a child’s curriculum, to expanding our offerings to the U.S. through acquiring companies like Osmo and Epic.
‘Our mission has always been to encourage people to fall in love with learning, so every new product offering, partnership, and every investment we’ve made has been to work towards that overarching goal.’
Osmo was our first U.S. acquisition, and we loved how their technology was the perfect synergy with BYJU’S, allowing for us together to create a blended learning experience. Together we’ve helped them scale four times in the last two years and have launched incredible products like BYJU’S learning program featuring Disney.
The Disney learning suite just launched in the U.S., it combines physical and digital learning for kids PreK through 3rd to help them develop math, language, and reading skills alongside their favorite Disney characters.
Now with Epic, we are excited to add their platform to the BYJU’S family, giving our students another wonderful tool to encourage them to fall in love with reading. With a strong presence in the US market, Epic is the largest reading platform for students with a bundle of interactive content to make reading engaging. The platform has over 50 million kids, who have read more than 1 million books last year. It reaches the age group where BYJU’S is planning to scale.
We have always aimed to integrate companies that bring in complementary synergy for BYJU’S. Reading is truly a cornerstone of learning. So, while Epic creates the love of reading and creating lifelong readers, BYJU’S focuses on making students fall in love with learning. We hope to continue to scale and grow as we meet our goal of investing $1B in the U.S. market.
How has the pandemic been a factor in your company direction and decisions over the last year or so?
The past 1.5 years have been very challenging for everyone, and with the pandemic impacting the learning journeys of over a billion students across the globe, we at BYJU’S quickly pivoted our course of action. Our employees were on an overdrive mode, unified by a mission to provide uninterrupted learning. We started by creating content on our app free for students so they could access a viable learning solution from the comfort of their homes. We accelerated the launch of free live classes in India, introduced learning programs in multiple regional languages of India, and even introduced a new learning program for social studies. Additionally, we launched BYJUS Classes – a complete after-school learning solution for students across the country, which offers classes from India’s best teachers, instant doubt resolution, and one-on-one dedicated mentoring.
As a part of our social impact initiative ‘Education for All’, we launched BYJU’S Give Initiative to make digital learning a reality for as many children as possible, in the most remote areas in India. Under the Give initiative, we encouraged citizens to donate their old or unused smart devices that will then be refurbished and powered with BYJU’S content and distributed to children with no access to online education.
2020 has been a unique and productive year for us. We have been fortunate to be in a segment of positive relevance. The fact that we managed to launch many key product offerings during the pandemic and remain student-centric, with all teams working efficiently from home, would be our biggest achievement the past year.
BYJU’S was founded in 2011 as Think and Learn Pvt Ltd by teacher and engineer Byju Raveendran. Based in Bangalore India, with offices in Palo Alto, CA, the company quickly grew into one of the world’s largest edtech companies and one of the top 5 most valued private internet companies in India.
Its flagship product, BYJU’S – The Learning App, was launched in India in 2015 and now reaches more than 95 million registered students around the world, with 6.5 million annual paying subscribers. Students spend on average 71 minutes a day learning from educational content on the platform.
In 2019, the Disney BYJU’S Early Learn App was launched in India to offer personalized, interactive programs for young learners.
Most recently, BYJU’S has introduced their first suite of products in North America for grades PreK-3rd, BYJU’S Learning App and BYJU’S Magic Workbooks featuring Disney.
BYJU’S currently employs more than 10,000 people worldwide, including a Content and Research team of 2,500+ highly qualified educators and Learning Science experts who research and develop the curriculum.
A digital-first company, BYJU’S continues to revolutionize education with strong partnerships from Tiger Global, Naspers Ventures, CPPIB, private equity firm General Atlantic, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Tencent, Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sofina, Verlinvest, Owl Ventures, and Times Internet.
What highlights over the last couple years fit with your overall mission and strategy moving forward?
Two years ago we acquired Osmo for $120M which helped us get one step closer to our goal of expanding into the U.S. Their ability to blend digital and physical learning really helped us tremendously in boosting interaction on our platforms, making learning feel like play. Because Osmo is an American company, our partnership paved the way for us to expand to the U.S. which we officially achieved in June this year with the launch of BYJU’S Future School – an online learning platform for math and coding that gives students access to one-on-one live lessons from 11,000 different teachers.
Together with Osmo we also created the BYJU’S Learning App featuring Disney and its complementary Magic Workbooks which we just launched in the U.S. The app blends digital and physical learning to help students PreK through third develop math, language, and reading skills based on a child’s grade level. Powered by Osmo’s reflective AI technology, students can use the Magic Workbooks to practice what they learn while receiving real-time feedback from encouraging characters on the app.
As we look ahead, we’re so excited to be investing $1 billion across the next three years in North America to accelerate our goal of inspiring people across all age groups to fall in love with learning. We just got started through our $500M acquisition of Epic, the world’s leading digital reading platform for kids 12 and under.
Our partnership with Epic will help us expand our footprint in the U.S. by providing access to the more than two million teachers and 50 million kids in Epic’s existing global user base, which more than doubled over the last year. We’re looking forward to continuing to create additional partnerships with companies that can help us expand our offerings while aligning with our mission to create impactful learning experiences accessible to students around the world.
Do you feel like a billionaire, or just an everyday person with a lot more resources to back your choices moving forward? In terms of resources, what are some big differences that you really notice from when you started out, compared to how things are now?
We started this company with my students, who are still here leading key business verticals. For Team BYJU’S, it was a clear case of passion intersecting with real needs right from inception. And today, even after so many years, we all are still unified by a single mission of creating the best learning experience for students globally. What makes us stay focused is the realization that we are creating an impact in someone’s life. We believe that the real passion is in changing the way millions of students learn, and not in creating a billion-dollar company.
‘We believe that the real passion is in changing the way millions of students learn, and not in creating a billion-dollar company.’
Additionally, we don’t do anything just because we have access to capital. We are paranoid about ROI, and numbers are our best friends. We have extensively dwelled on qualitative and quantitative measurements to keep track of the impact of our decisions. Our point of focus has always been ‘value creation.’ It has never been about winning the game, it is about staying in the game. The challenge for us is to stay relevant even after 10 years.
It’s also been a wild ride for edtech as a sector in the last couple years—for online learning, e-learning, remote learning. What are your thoughts about the current state of education and technology’s role?
Education is constantly evolving to best fit the needs of students and it is exciting to see how technology can accelerate this progression. We expect technology will continue to play a larger role in education moving forward, however, in more innovative ways that play off of the exciting technologies that are becoming more widely accessible such as AI and machine learning.
A decade ago these technologies were relatively unheard of to the common consumer, now they surround us in both obvious and subtle ways. As more companies harness the power of this tech, we are excited to see how they change and improve education.
Being a digital-first company, BYJU’S truly believes in the power of technology and that tech-enabled learning solves the problems of accessibility and personalization at scale. Online learning is not just offline learning taken online, by simply digitizing content; technology is used extensively to make learning better and more effective online. At BYJU’S, technology has helped us innovate the way concepts are being taught and also personalize it based on the capability of the student. It has been an enabler in integrating multiple formats of learning such as videos, graphics, etc. seamlessly and efficiently that makes for a more engaging learning experience.
‘Online learning is not just offline learning taken online, by simply digitizing content; technology is used extensively to make learning better and more effective online.’
Additionally, the increasing smartphone and internet penetration has further boosted the growth and adoption of online learning. This has also reduced the disparity between students from various regions by providing equal and quality learning opportunities. At BYJU’S, we are harnessing technology to constantly innovate these dimensions and help better our products for students to learn from.
What lies just ahead for education—what trends are you watching, and for that matter, what trends do you feel that you are setting?
The ongoing pandemic has proved to be an inflection point for the education ecosystem. It has helped shine light on the effectiveness and the credibility of online learning, making it an integral part of mainstream learning. While students have always preferred learning online, we have witnessed a massive mindset shift among parents and teachers in favor of online learning.
On the other side of the crisis, we don’t expect things to go 100% online or 100% offline. Every crisis presents an opportunity and this is that inflection point for education, where we expect the rise of a blended model of education. We will soon witness a blended format of learning that will combine the best of online and offline learning, to provide engaging and effective education irrespective of geographical location, school infrastructure, proficiency levels, etc.
While the importance of school will remain uncontested, online platforms like ours will enhance a child’s conceptual understanding and offer them a holistic learning experience from the comfort of their homes. The ‘right’ blended learning model will depend on what students want. Students will have the flexibility to choose what concepts they want to learn and the formats in which they learn these concepts. This will further push students to become self-learners.
And with teachers now understanding the advantages of online learning tools, we will also see tech-enabled learning gain importance even in a classroom setting. The ‘Classrooms of Tomorrow’ will have technology at its core, empowering students to cross over from passive to active learning. The future will see us leap the traditional one-to-many approach to blended one-on-one learning experiences, providing students the best of both physical and digital worlds.
‘The future will see us leap the traditional one-to-many approach to blended one-on-one learning experiences, providing students the best of both physical and digital worlds.’
Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, or the future of learning?
Education is the key to success, and students are no longer bound to the classroom to unlock it. Supplemental learning has the incredible potential of leveling the learning playing field on a global scale. Through our platforms, students have the opportunity to access lessons developed by a global community of over 2,500 academic experts no matter if they’re in India or the U.S. We are excited to continue to expand our personalized and interactive learning offerings in America and around the world, building a global community of lifelong learners who love learning and relearning.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]