Friday, September 03, 2021

How Byju's Became The Most Valuable Edtech Startup: By Pushing Expensive Education Packages To Parents Who Can't Afford Them

 

In my previous post, I wondered if we can make online tutoring go non-profit in India, which would help achieve education equality in India.  Now, Akanksha SIngh has written a brilliant expose of Byju's shady sales tactics and shoddy work culture.


A former Byju's salesperson says:

“My last sale was to a driver whose boss gave him a phone,” Ritesh, a former sales associate, whose name has been changed at his request, told Rest of World. The driver only had $9 (700 rupees) in his account when he signed up for a subscription for his only child. “[His] boss paid the down payment and deducted it from his monthly salary. … [His wife] said, ‘I’ll work 24/7 for this course.’ That was the day I resigned.”


Akanksha's article details other important things you should know about Byju's methods:


1. Byju’s has partnerships with local lending companies to help finance its expensive education products.

An investigation by The Ken, which analyzed 110 consumer complaints, found that 54 people were unaware they were being signed up for loans when they signed up for subscriptions. The average ticket size of the loans was $952 (66,000 rupees), and down payments ranged from $15 (1,000 rupees) to as high as $864 (60,000 rupees). Annual per capita income in India is around $2,000 per year.


2. Byju's sales associates are told to ask children tricky questions to make them look “bad” in front of their parents on field visits.

 “If their parents weren’t literate, we’d ask them questions that looked easy, like, ‘Which is bigger: one over two or one over four?’ … [A younger] child would say one over four.”


3. Byju's promises a mentor as part of the package, but parents complain of lack of proper mentoring.

(a parent) signed up for Byju’s mentorship program, where an academic mentor is assigned to each student but got none. She complained but got nowhere. Eventually, she cancelled the subscription.


4. Byju's pushes expensive tutoring services from its acquired companies.


(For example) When she mentioned that she’d been sending her daughter for tuition at a local institute, they instead pushed her to sign up for an Aakash Institute training center, saying a small institute wouldn’t cut it.


5. Byju's has made it hard for people to get refunds.

Parents find out that when they get to the end of the 15-day free trial they are unable to opt out. 


A quick Google search for “Byju’s refund scam” reveals hundreds of customers detailing trouble with getting a refund through the company. 


6. A Byju's sales associate has to meet their weekly sales targets of $2,700 (200,000 rupees).


Byju's sales associates are under immense pressure to make their weekly sales targets. As one employee put it: “As long as we met our targets, nothing else mattered.”


7. There have been multiple cases of mistreatment of sales associates by Byju's managers/ supervisors.


(In a video on Youtube) Several individuals claiming to be former employees commented on the video, saying they’d faced or witnessed similar verbal attacks from their supervisors. 


My manager shouted a lot,” Ameer, the sales associate, told Rest of World. But he never reported the abuse to HR because he was threatened he’d lose his job. “My manager once told me that if I tried anything, he’d make sure I don’t have a career,” he said.


This is how you make a billion dollar Edtech startup.

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Monday, August 09, 2021

Can We Make Online Tutoring To Go Non-profit In India?

The big news is that the State Council, which is China's highest governing body, has passed orders for after school tutoring companies to go non-profit, and also banning them from going public or raising foreign capital. No company can now invest in or buy online education startups involved in out-of-school teaching.

To reduce the cognitive burden on school kids, China's rulers have also put limits on tutoring hours during weekends and vacations


Three reasons have been cited for the new rules. 

One, the Chinese government believes that high private tutoring fees are a huge burden on young families, who then are discouraged from having more kids, and China now wants to reverse the adverse effects of 'one child' rule.

Two, the Chinese government wants to put an end to the unethical practices of false advertising and VC capital-induced pricing wars by Edtech startups. For example, most Edtech startups heavily promote cheap trial classes. However, once the trial period is over, Chinese parents find they have signed for expensive courses, which they were not prepared for.

Three, and this is most important, Edtech is doing nothing to address underprivileged children. If anything, Edtech startups go all out to influence impressionable parents from lower income groups, pushing to sign up for courses that are supposed to be the answers to all problems in life. And, the Chinese government does not want an angry populace.


So, can we make online tutoring to go non-profit in India?

We should. But we won't. Read on.


One, while China boasts of multiple multi-billion dollar Edtech startups, Byju's in India is fast becoming a monopoly, using all the VC money to buy all other Edtech company. As of writing, Vedantu is next up for Byju's greedy kitty, and only UnAcademy seems left in the other corner. Monopoly in any business is undesirable. Monopoky in education, more so. 

Two, there is something very objectionable about Byju's pricing.

I tried to look for Byju's pricing for its various products and most of time, Google showed me spammy websites or a web page on Byju's showing the Rs. 2000 first month trial offer. 

Having found the product pages after exploring the Websites, and not relying on Google, I found the answer to 'How much does Byju's cost?'

Byju's pricing:

Class 1 - 3: Rs. 3,333.33/month

Class 5-10 Math & Science: Rs. 26,000.00 (Rs. 2166 / month)

Class 11, JEE 2023, English: Rs. 135,000.00

And so on. pricing for competitive exams is much, much higher. 

And you thought the internet would make education affordable.

An average city - based parent is paying Rs. 2000 - 7000/ month as school fees already. Tack on the 3-4000/month cost of Byju's. Much has been written abut Covid-19 being good to Edtech companies. No one is writing about the burden on parents and how much benefit online learning  can be to young students.

Three, the kind of dog-eat-dog work culture and revenues-at-all-cost business ethic at Byjus. This may or may not be the norm in many Indian startups today.

But first, you must understand what Byju's really is.

Byjus is a big VC-funded education marketing company, not an Edtech company.

Byju's the education marketing company depends on an army of 40000+ sales people.

The modus operandi is simple: Hire desperate graduates from India's interminable and numerous tech and business schools, promise them Rs. 7-10 lakh packages, train them the basics of sales and push them out into India's dusty streets, making shady deals with school teachers (who force student sin their class to do some quiz, and the Byju's starts to spam you) and guilt-tripping lower middle class Indian parents ('apka bachha bahut kamzor hai math mein') into signing up for EMIs on expensive / overpriced packages of ho-hum quality educational videos, far better quality versions of which are freely available on Youtube and Khan Academy.

If these poor new grads (who studied IT but are now doing sales) are not doing enough revenue, Byjus then uses highly paid sports and entertainment celebrities to influence gullible parents, who never pause to ask where Shah Rukh Khan sends his kids to study (pssst...it is 'phoren').

To get an idea of Byju's sales tactics, read this Reddit post titled 'BYJUs BDA feeling proud of putting a lower-middle-class family into an EMI trap'

From the thread: 

True story: was approached by a sales guy in Big Bazaar while shopping. Saw my lil one toddling around and came upto me to discuss an awesome package for the kid. I looked at him and then at my kid. I told him the kid was a year and half old. He looked as if he couldn't comprehend this info as if why i wouldn't even listen to his scheme. He seemed disappointed.


But then i realised, the brief given to them is if you see a little kid, irrespective of the age just throw the bait, let the maa-baap bite.

Another relevant thread about Byju's: How is Byjus able to generate a revenue of $72m in a country where majority of its population is middle class, and of course a fair share below the poverty line?

This brings me again back to the question: Can we make online tutoring to go non-profit in India?

NO!


The government is on the side of business. 

Farmers, students, jobs, migrants, and minorities do not matter. 

The middle class matters much less. 

What will the middle class do? 

Revolt? 

Ha!


I understand you got to make money. 

But, in a post-Piketty, aware-of-the-1% world, it matters who makes the money and how the money is being made

According to Crunchbase, Byjus' has received $2.7 billion in funding, which amounts to Rs. 20000 crores. This means, the rich are going to extract Rs. 20000 cr plus interest. All from selling over-priced, redundant videos. 

Media companies, private equity, celebrities, search engines...everyone is making money from the Rs. 20000 cr+ gravy train! India's media will spin the China story as being good for India, which will now become a more attractive target for Edtech investments.

But, teachers are not going to become millionaires. Almost no one among the 40000-strong sales army will become a a crorepati. No one in the Byju's support center will win the 'Kaun Banega Crorepati' lottery either.

The extraction of value from India's already stressed middle class will continue unabated.


How much would it takes to create videos on every chapter in every subject across every grade?

Taking an average of 15 chapters for subject, it is about 1200 videos, 1200 chapter, and 1200 quizzes. Let's be generous to our content developers / Subject matter experts and say it will cost Rs. 100 crores. Add in some extra couple of crores for translation.

I am sure the figure will be less than 0.5% of what Byju's has received in funding. 

What else? Oh yes. Establish a support center for students, answering problems, offering mentoring and so on. Is the 2-3000/ month that Byju's charges for support services? I am not so sure. At Rs. 3 lakh/ teacher per annum (Rs. 25000/month), an army of 1000 teachers would cost Rs. 30 crore/annum. 

So, You can create a comprehensive online learning tool, we need Rs. 130 crore (Rs. 100 cr + Rs. 30 crore Annual cost). 

Or, you can curate all the best videos on Youtube in one place and offer teacher support and tests only. 


What else can we do?

A lot.


We can create and / or share free / very low cost educational resources

- in multiple languages and made available everywhere the students are.


After all this bhashan, what rashan am I bringing in the house?


Some of the work I have been involved in

1. Free directory of educational resources online.

For example:

Khan Academy Videos: Class 1 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 2 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 3 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 4 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 5 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 6 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 7 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 8 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 9 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 10 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 11 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 12 math (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 9 Physics (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 10 Physics (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 10 Chemistry (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 10 Biology (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 11 Physics (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 11 Chemistry (India)

Khan Academy Videos: Class 12 Physics (India)

A List of 600+ Khan Academy Basic Math Video Tutorials on Youtube

The Fatskills Directory of Online Learning Resources & Tools

2. Fatskills.com: 12500+ Free Practice Tests and Quizzes, 1.2 million questions across 700+ Subjects.


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Sunday, August 12, 2018

V.S. Naipaul's Mutinies, Then and Now

V.S. Naipaul, who wrote some of the best non-fiction in the 20th century, has died. The Guardian describes his non fiction as 'gloomy portraits of India, Africa and Islam in a series of travelogues including 1964’s An Area of Darkness, 1980’s A Congo Diary and 1981’s Among the Believers'. 

He saw the the rage of groups in India early on:


Some more gloomy writer would say the million mutinies in India would turn out to be the 'mutinies of the mobs' against each other.

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

The New Media Diet Pyramid


Faris Yakob has created this "Media Diet Pyramid" based on the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid.

You would modify the tip of this media diet pyramid for Indians and include these highly toxic media brands: Zee news, Aaj Tak, Republic TV and Times Now.

In fact, barring a couple of TV news channels and a couple of newspapers, you can include most other Indian news media brands into this 'wasteful media diet' category.

'He said, she said', 'He tweeted, she retweeted' , and 'Now I am all angry and shouting and debating about it', is not journalism. TV anchors have mistaken their drawing rooms as the new newsroom. News reporters sit in the OSD to the minister's office and think they are reporting from ground zero.

You may also want to add 'foreign' brands - the famous 'Whatsapp' university' (Thanks, Ravish) and all those 'Facebook politicians' to this toxic layer.


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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Exec's brutally honest pitch to potential investors I wish I had sent


Exeq, the New York-based startup founded by four New York City college drop-outs, has taken an unorthodox approach to pitching potential investors. In this email, Exeq CEO Derek Brown, a former engineer at LinkedIn and Addepar, explains the values of his startup, which wants to change the way millennials think about spending their money. The emphasis is mine.

"At Exeq, we don’t have everything together. We don’t know the future for our product and platform. We don’t know or control the external circumstances around our company."

The point of the app is to help people make more efficient decisions about their spending. It does so by notifying users when slight changes to how they spend can be made. For instance, the app might alert a person who frequents a coffee shop on their way to work that there is a more affordable alternative nearby. The app, which is only available in New York City to iPhone users, has 6,000 users. But, like most startups, their sights are set higher. 

"By combining financial and lifestyle data, we’re able to build a consumer product that enables consumer behavior…responsibly," Brown wrote in the email. 

And also this:

"Because you have a fiduciary duty to your LPs to make the best investments you can. We’d fall in that category. ;) On a more serious note, the answer’s simple: if you don’t see the shape of the world in the way that we’ve described above, then you shouldn’t invest in us."

I have been working on startups for 10+ years now, with no outside help. I created Bighow in 2007, a news publishing platform for curating news and listings, before Huffington Post and others took it mainstream. I wrote about my startup journeys in 2006, 'Startup is hard in Delhi'.

I just launched Truho, multipurpose publishing / payments, but I am hesitant to knock on investors's doors. I have no IIT/IIM degree. I have entered the fast-passing 40s. So I am hesitant.

A man without the pedigree of a degree.

But having seen Exec CEO's email to prospective investors, I wish I could send a similar kind to investors, but then I think what use would it be, other than sheer linkbait.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

A Journalist Was Killed Yesterday


Gauri Lankesh, a journalist/activist, was shot dead yesterday. A progressive, she spoke and wrote against communal politics, caste system and the establishment. She was a mentor to rising young leaders like Jignesh Mevani (social activist in Gujarat) and Kanhaiya Kumar (Ex-JNU students Union president). She worked in Karnataka, a state in news of late for not being that friendly to journalists, even by Indian standards.

Are journalists more in danger today? Because they are targets of people hiding behind mobs hiding behind governments? Gauri Lankesh said some time ago:

“We had UR Ananthamurthy, Kalburgi, my own father P Lankesh, Purna Chandra Tejaswi, all these people. They were all trenchant critics of Jawaharlal Nehru, of Indira Gandhi, of Rajiv Gandhi. But none of them were ever physically attacked, let alone [receiving] death threats.”
We know the answer. We know deep inside that we should all be journalists/activists today. That would be the best tribute to Gauri Lankesh.

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Friday, September 01, 2017

We may be killing and hurting less, but are we thinking about it more?

Steven Pinker might have some facts about there being less violence (at least in the developed world) on this planet than before, but I am with John Gray and don't believe humans have become peace-minded animals.

Truth: We are too busy with our smartphones to go out, riot and kill, and too fearful of army-like police and CCTVs everywhere, where even small crimes may result in big punishments.

Saying 'millennial' all the time doesn't mean we all have become more 'moral'. Doc Searls writes about the decline in usage of the term 'non-violence' in searches and books.

Use of non-violence term in books

Searches of 'non-violence'


Does it mean we mean we are not interested in 'non-violence'? Does it mean we are thinking about 'violence' more? Does it mean our language has changed, that we project our anger, frustrations and policies in other words when writing books or searching? I want to go with the third explanation. You?

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Modi Government = Sellers of Vaporware = Pivot Government

The massive failure of demonetization, one of the worst things done by an Indian government, affected every common Indian citizen. Old men saw their fixed deposit incomes go down. Small businesses shuttered down for months. Millions of workers lost their jobs. The unorganized sector, responsible for most jobs in the country, took a left hook (this government loves big business only). RBI's credibility took a big beating. Farmers couldn't get timely and adequate payments for their produce, resulting in protests and suicides. GDP growth slowed down.

The Modi government is best at two things:

1. Sell the public on fancy plans and slogans - They call all this vaporware in the software industry.
Three + years of this talkative ('vachaal') government and all India got was shitty phrases...'smart cities' anyone? Hope your street isn't flooded during this monsoon.

2. Announce new plans as soon as you learn about the failure of the existing plan - they call it pivoting in the software industry.
The habitually pivoting government explains the demonetization failure as saying it was all about a cashless economy anyway, as if cashless economy would take away all the corruption, and it didn't matter that the consumers and small businesses would have to pay the fees associated with all digital transactions.

The people of India are gullible and anxious people. They sent a bunch of dubious and mouthy people to power. If only we had acted as smart VCs and tried to see behind their marketing.

Remember 'shining india' of 2004? Actors from the same training institute that time too.

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Friday, July 07, 2017

Truho.com: An easy, all-in-one online publishing tool for businesses & professionals

How about creating and maintaining a comprehensive online business presence that is as easy as using your email/social media account?

Meet Truho, my latest project. Truho brings you these: Quick and easy online presence, easy online marketing, easy resume, easy lead generation...and soon, easy payments and invoicing.


Basically, Truho is 'Wordpress meets Paypal meets Magento'.

I know it is a handful.


I have been working on the Truho, on and off since 2009, and was able to finish it, working full-time on it for 12months.

If you are a business, you can use it do a lot of things - business listings, products, services, deals/offers, rewards progams, job posting, other business pages, lead generation pages...and much more.

(Truho for business - screengrab)
If you are individual or a professional / freelancer, use Truho  to post your resume on a dedicated url, have a'hire me' button to get new job leads, maintain a 'project's page, answer people's questions.

(Truho for Individuals - screengrab)
I am working on adding the payments component to Truho.

Try it out for yourself.

About Truho
Truho for individuals
Truho for businesses

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Annals of 'Post Truth': Is Rajeev Chandrasekhar The Peter Thiel Of India?

So, a rich man in India got the courts to issue a take down order to a news website, TheWIre, even before giving it a chance to explain itself. That most of our media is prostrating itself before the Modi government is not news. What is a bigger news that the rich and powerful people are being able to openly dictate what the Indian people get to read about them in the media. From Scroll.in:

The Wire took down two articles that  (Rajeev)Chandrasekhar. The first, published on January 25, was a report by Sandeep Bhushan on the Republic TV, a news channel Chandrasekhar is set to launch in association with former Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami.

The second, published on February 17, was an opinion piece by Sachin Rao on the alleged conflict of interest in Chandrasekhar being a member of the parliamentary committee on defence and investing in defence companies.

The offending articles are here but they show the take down notice instead.


All this seems familiar to the way Billionaire Peter Thiel went after Gawker, eventually succeeding in getting Gawker.com to shut down and paying loads in fine, just because Thiel didn't agree with the stuff Gawker was prublishing. In his response to a questionairre sent by Scroll.in, Chandrasekhar replied in an eerily Thiel-like manner:

“This court action is not about a take down, it is about holding those who did this accountable for their actions,” he added. 
Of course he meant that the rich and powerful are not accountable for their actions at all, only those in media who dare to speak the truth.


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