In rural areas of India, government schools often struggle to provide students with effective education due to the lack of access to quality teachers. Tuitions are seen as a way to supplement the school's teachings, and they are considered a privilege for many. However, when the coaching provided by the school or its teachers falls short in helping students excel in exams or grasp concepts, it poses a significant challenge for those who are eager to learn.

Vidyakul, an online app, addresses this issue by offering affordable and high-quality tuition to students in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Gujarat. It boasts an impressive tagline ‘Bharat ka online school’. With a subscription starting from just Rs. 350 per month, the platform has already achieved impressive results, with 7 out of 10 toppers in the last Bihar board exams being students from Vidyakul. The app has over 10 Lakh downloads on Google Play Store.

To gain insights into the needs of their consumers, I had an insightful conversation with Vidyakul's founder, Tarun Saini. We discussed various aspects, including the cultural differences between states, how Vidyakul managed to convince people to pay for their services, and the diverse perspectives students have on education across different regions. I hope you find this conversation intriguing and informative.

(Please note the conversation is mildly edited for a better reading experience)

Table of contents:

  • Introduction to Vidyakul
  • Internet access for school kids
  • UP vs Bihar vs Gujarat - The Cultural difference
  • UP’s Bahulbali behaviour
  • Role of youtube in discovery
  • Content localisation
  • Conviction to pay for content
  • Success metric for education

Introduction to Vidyakul

Tarun, can you give us a brief pitch on what Vidyakul is?

In short, we are an online school in Bharat. We help kids residing in faraway villages learn in their local language at an affordable price, i.e., Rs 300-Rs 350 per month for all subjects. The problem we are solving is that kids in tier 3 and tier 4 small towns don't have adequate facilities in schools. Even in tier 1 metro cities, the condition of teachers in affordable or lower-level schools is not good, and the tuition centers around those schools have only one teacher to teach all subjects. Therefore, the quality of education is not measured anywhere. We are filling that gap. Any kid from any tier 1, tier 2, or any other place will receive quality education at an affordable price and in their own dialect.

Why make an online app and not start an offline tuition centre?

I think that if you want to reach the masses at an affordable price, then online is the way to go. However, there are two things to consider: these people are currently offline, and they didn't have much knowledge about online when we started. Actually, COVID-19 helped a lot to get these people online and give them a taste of what online is. So, I think that technology is the only way to reach the masses in an affordable way. That's why we chose online.

Internet access for school kids

Do students from tier 3 and 4 towns have access to their own mobile devices?

As per mobile and internet data, almost 60-70% of people all over India currently have access to a mobile phone in some way. They either have their own independent phone or share 1-2 phones within their family. However, we do not know if this percentage has increased after Covid. When we talk about the segment we are currently in, yes, these kids have independent phone access during 11th or 12th standard.

When it comes to class 9 and class 10, I am expecting around 10-20% of users to have independent access to phones; it may be less, but in their family they do have a phone which they can access in the evening. It could be their mother’s or father’s phone. So there is no issue with accessibility of phones. We have seen another strong example where, if kids require a phone for their education, these people are happy to spend their money on phones for their education.

Parents usually discourage their kids from using phones because they think they will only use it to play games. Does that fear exist in the parents of your students?

Firstly, we cannot stop this. Secondly, this perception is for those who have good phone usage. For example, if somebody comes from an educated family, their parents have seen a phone before and they know how to use WhatsApp and other apps. They think that if kids have access to a phone, then they may utilize it for something else. However, when you go to tier 3 or tier 4 towns, these families are not as educated and may not have had access to technology in their early days or even now. Therefore, they don't have the mindset that if they give a phone to their kids, then they'll do all sorts of things. They only know that they bought the phone for their education. Whatever kids are doing, it is their choice. Even now, if you go to these tier 3 or tier 4 towns, all the bill payments, internet bill payments, PhonePe and Paytm, are used by a kid studying in 11th or 12th grade rather than their parents. The KYC is in the name of their father, but it is used by the kid because they are the most educated in their family. Be it girls or boys, any online transaction done in tier 3 or tier 4 towns is done by the youngest kid in the house rather than the father or mother.

UP vs Bihar vs Gujarat - The Cultural difference

During your field visits, have you noticed any interesting people or things that surprised you in these towns?

Yes, we have many surprising cases. I will tell you some of the stories. Currently, 60-70% of transactions, or more than that, are done by students themselves rather than their parents in Vidyakul. So, for us, the user is the one who is going to pay and not the parents. Parents say, "Take this money and study wherever you want." They don't know about online and all. They just want better education for their children. If they hear somebody saying, "My kid is studying from Vidyakul and is doing well," then word of mouth plays a huge role here. When it comes to metro cities, the scenario is different. You have to reach out to parents. On the other hand, we have to reach students. If they get convinced, then they will ask their father for money. There are many such cases. Recently, there was one case where the father gave 3500 rupees to the kid's mother to do shopping for a wedding. But she didn't buy clothes for the wedding; instead, she bought a second-hand phone and a Vidyakul subscription for the kids. They know the value of education and they know the digital transformation in the world. They have not yet come to misuse the phone. We see that kids in those places come back home and participate in household activities. If they don't do household work, then they get beaten up. In metro cities, kids reply to their parents in a very different tone if they don't want to do something. But in small towns, you can't do that. They know that. The girl in a small town has this in her mind that after going back home, she must clean the house and make rotis. This situation still exists.

Currently Vidyakul is in Bihar, Gujarat and UP. Why these 3 states?

We started with UP and Bihar because we can cater well to the Hindi-speaking population. However, we soon discovered that each state has a very different exam pattern. So, we had to change our starting theory. UP is a huge state, almost twice the size of CBSE, and presents a big market and opportunity. Bihar, on the other hand, is very different in terms of nature, living standards, and the value placed on education. If you cater to UP as one state, you will learn how to scale. If you cater to Bihar, you will learn how to deal with the audience and their different mindset. Gujarat has a different language, but Hindi is also widely used. The people there are very open to accepting new things. When it comes to South India, Hindi acceptance is lower. However, Gujarat is a business state, and people are happy to accept anyone. That's why we chose UP, Bihar, and Gujarat.

Now that you have worked with three states, can you discuss the differences in perception of high school education in these three states?

Yeah, sure. In Bihar, education is the key to success. It's a do-or-die situation. Education can change your entire life. If you don't get an education, you'll be stuck in a do-or-die situation. Education is a huge thing for them. When it comes to UP, somehow the living standards of families are better than in Bihar. For them, if we get an education, it's good; if not, we'll still do something. They have a farming background in their family. It's not a situation where they have no other options. Uttar Pradesh doesn't have that kind of pressure. If they are unable to do it, it's okay. User behaviour is very different. They exhibit this "Bahubali" behaviour. They have politicians' skills in their blood. They are proud of the place they come from and exhibit this "Bahubali" behaviour.

UP’s Bahulbali behaviour

Can you explain Bahulbali behaviour a little bit deeper?

For example, have you ever seen a web series like Bahubali about Bihar or any other state? No. You will only see such series about UP. Whether it's Mirzapur or Bhaukaal, all these series are made in UP. All these encounters that happen... in today's time, Yogi is considered as Bahubali. It's like he's actually cleaning up the state. No other state CM is called Bahubali or Gunda, but why UP? Because it's in their blood. This is the history of UP. One of the districts in UP, Ghaziabad, was once the most dangerous in all of Asia. There were a lot of crimes happening. That's in their blood. Sometimes they take things for granted. If something is not possible for them, then they'll let it go. Education is like that for them. They have a second option; they will do something. But in Bihar, it's not like that.

As this is being passed down through generations, is it also reflected in the way students view education?

Yes, of course. It's all about the atmosphere and family culture in which area you live. The East and West have different behaviors, depending on which area you belong to. UP is again divided into four parts, each with different behaviors. In some parts, men have more power, and in some parts, women are the decision-makers. It's very different even within the state. When it comes to Gujarat, it's all about doing your own business. The kids already know that they will be doing business, so they don't worry about education at all. That's there in the family. In UP, it's not in the family. But if the family sees something, they will be like our kids should also study further. But Gujaratis are not like that. Families are not pushing kids to study. Even if they don't study, it's okay. They will do some business. We see that in UP, 80% of kids in 11th and 12th standard choose science subjects. In Gujarat, 80% of kids choose commerce. It's very different.

Product Discovery

How are students actually discovering Vidyakul?

That's what I explained. The majority of our sales come from word of mouth, accounting for almost 60% of our sales. People hear about us from various sources such as our platform, references from family and friends, or by seeing our previous year's results. To give an example, if we had 10 students in a village last year, this year we have 50 students. This growth can be attributed to the power of word of mouth. Last year, one topper brought 150 students for us from the same village, just by reference. No incentive, nothing. He said, this has changed my life, I want everybody around me to get benefitted by this.

Can you talk a little bit about YouTube as a strategy for students?

As we all know, this is the greater creator economy; everyone wants to be online and build a huge trust. We deliver the things, and then if you need anything extra, this is the subscription. I believe this will help you in customer acquisition at a very low price. We have seen some other ed-techs, but I think Vidyakul has been very creative in this segment because of the kind of word-of-mouth we have built on YouTube and the kind of reach we have on YouTube, which is helping us to build the initial stage of ice breaking. The segment we are going into is those kids who have been exploited by politics. Every politician and government that comes has exploited these kids. There are many fraud schemes, and they are scared because of these schemes. So building trust with these people and adding value to their lives is very important than anything else. YouTube played a huge role for us.

Teaching style

I watched a few lectures that were a mixture of education and motivation. Can you discuss your approach to working with these children and your teaching style?

We need to understand that there are 3-4 types of students available in the market. The first one knows what they want, is highly dedicated, and is at an IIT level. That type of student is hardly available online. If they are online, they know which teacher to follow and which content to consume. The second layer is good but has some doubts. The third layer is kind of mediocre and needs a push to do something good. Vidyakul's audience is the second and third layers and last benchers. Our goal is to help kids who have doubts. For example, in our class, we have seen that some kids needed to be taught twice and they need assurance that we are here to help. These are 10 questions, and if you solve 3 of them, you can solve 10 also. There are kids who need to be told that there are 3 questions, and if they understand these 3, that is enough.

You need to see what kind of audience you are catering to or who you are teaching, be it on YouTube or on our platform. Depending on which chapter or section is going on, we go much deeper. Depending on the kind of audience that is coming to us, we see if they are able to understand. If it is a heavy topic, we sometimes go slow, and if it is an easy topic, we go fast. We see the engagement that is coming. We will see if students are reacting or not, if they are able to understand or not. Teachers need to see what kind of students they are teaching and modify the game based on that. It is a storytelling game, and I believe a mix of education and motivation creates a huge change in life and mind. When somebody says "you can do it," that gives a different feeling. That’s why online teachers have become stars these days. When they go out, students run behind them because they keep motivating them. The offline classes were serious types. That’s the beauty of online classes when compared to offline classes.

You spoke about 4 kinds of students, you explained 3. What is the last one?

The last type of student is the one who becomes more active towards the end of the term, when exams are just two months away. Their goal is simply to pass, nothing more. If you provide them with motivational content, they might wonder what's going on and think that we're crazy. They belong to a very different category, so we have to customize our approach for them. We need to tell them that there are 20 topics to practice and that if they do so, they will pass. We also have students who are slow learners, and we need to accommodate their learning patterns on our platform as well. At Vidyakul, we don't only focus on the top-performing students. We also track the progress of the middle and last benchers who come to us. From day one, we monitor the percentage they get in the first and second tests to see if their learning curve is improving. If it is, then we are adding value to the student's life. If it isn't improving or is improving slowly, we customize a few videos for specific students in the class and give that information to the teacher. We let the teacher know that this student needs some motivation, such as when the teacher takes their name in the class. This helps to motivate the student, so we incorporate this approach as well.

Can you talk about localisation of content?

Every state has different requirements for kids. Even the requirements for the Hindi belt are different for UP and Bihar. Therefore, the teacher's approach and student needs also differ. In Gujarat, the mindset of kids is different, so we write in Gujarati language according to their mindset because the outcome will be totally different. For example, you can achieve certain things by doing accounting. In Bihar, the pain point of the kids is different. They don't like their written content and they don't have good teachers in schools, so hand-written notes play a huge role in their lives. In UP, it is all about problem-solving. If you are unable to understand a topic in a video, then you can come to our platform. Bihar is about affordability, while UP is not. The native language is very different for UP, Bihar, and Gujarat. You have to go dialect-based, and you will understand this only when you travel there and understand the students' behavior. For marketing in UP, you have to put the father's picture in one area and the mother's picture in another area because mothers are the decision-makers. In some areas, you have to put the boy's picture, and in some areas, you should put the girl's picture. It is very different.

Conviction to pay

When it comes to payment, what questions come to students' minds?

The first question that comes to mind is whether online payment is safe or if there is a risk of fraud. People also wonder if they will receive the service they paid for and how to pay online when they have cash. Many people in tier 3 and tier 4 towns prefer cash on delivery when ordering online because they trust that they will receive the item when it is physically in their hands. However, our service is not physical, it is on the phone, so we need to build trust in other ways. Word of mouth plays a huge role in building trust. We need to create videos or other materials that show people how to use our service and demonstrate that it is safe and reliable. For example, we could show people how to use Paytm to pay at a nearby shop. We need to guide them step by step and create a hook that convinces them that our service is trustworthy. Videos are a key tool for building trust in our service.

You also mentioned that while payment is more important, word of mouth is also an interesting factor. I'm curious, is this translated into a feature within the app? Could you tell me more about it?

It depends on the service. For example, if you come to our platform from a place called XYZ and then cancel your payment, you will receive a message saying "Hi Rahul, I am near you. I have used Vidyakul and I was the district topper last year. Everyone knows the district toppers, and that plays a huge role in building trust. I am from this school, this is my village, and if you need any help, here is my number or my team's number or Vidyakul's number or XYZ company's number. If you speak to them, your problem will be solved."

For example, there are a few things about Flipkart that I really love to keep to ourselves. I hope you understand. I am from a small village in Ambala, and Flipkart knows this because they have my address. When I cancelled my service, I received a message saying that so many people from my village have ordered so many things. "Don’t worry, we deliver to your place." This is a huge trust-building factor. They can also show reviews like "This person has given this review." It is not a big town, so if I see anybody’s name, then I will come to know. I know that if he is ordering, then I can also do it. We need to build that trust at a very low cost.

Success metric

What do you consider as success metric inside Vidyakul?

User outcome, the student outcome. The key goal for us is if somebody comes to our platform and has scored 40% on an exam before joining us, we aim for them to score 50% or 60% on tests after using our platform. This outcome plays a huge role for us. In the last year, we decided to focus on learning outcomes instead of revenue and other metrics. When we focus on the user's learning outcomes, other metrics are automatically taken care of. We need not worry about revenue, retention, or references because they are all taken care of by the users whose learning outcomes we are improving. Our key metric is always the user outcome.


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