Bengaluru-based Unacademy started as Gaurav Munjal’s YouTube channel in 2010 and was incorporated in 2015. In early 2020, it became the second edtech company after Byju’s to enter the unicorn club — it is now valued at $3.4 billion, has raised $880 million, boasts 6,50,000 subscribers and 60,000-plus educators, conducts 1,50,000 live classes a month and has taught more than 62 million people till date.
The first official for-profit venture that I wanted to start was when I was in my third year of college. It was Flat.to, a platform for student accommodation. Aakrit Vaish, the founder of Haptik, had come for a guest lecture to our college and he mentioned that he invests in start-ups. After the lecture, I went and told him that I was building a website that can help students find accommodation around their colleges. He gave me an offer of ₹10-20 lakh for equity in the company but I decided to join Directi, where I worked for one year. I quit Directi and started Flat.to. Aakrit was our first angel investor. That’s where we learnt about building a product. I was 23 then. In 10 months, Sumit (Jain) of CommonFloor had become a good friend. Sumit gave us a good offer, which Aakrit made 3x.
CommonFloor that time was a 300-400 member organisation. It had raised venture capital, which I hadn’t. I thought I could learn a lot from Sumit, and eventually the deal happened and I moved to Bangalore. This was within 10 months of starting the company. I was with CommonFloor for a year-and-a-half. I was helping them with marketing. Flat.to pivoted into Flatchat, which was like Tinder, but for finding roommates. Quikr killed it when it acquired CommonFloor.
Around October-September 2015, I quit Flatchat, and we decided to take Unacademy (a YouTube channel then) full time. By this time, Unacademy was already doing a million video views per month. It was a YouTube channel that I had started in college, and Roman (Saini) and I were contributing videos to it. The idea was that if Roman and I can make videos, which can impact millions of people, can we empower more such educators?
When I started Unacademy, I had no idea what market I was building for. We wanted to build test prep (vertical), computer programming content, K-12 content. What we were really excited about was that I created some videos and Roman created some videos and those got millions of views. We knew how we can get educators online and help them create content. We eventually ended up in the test prep direction and realised it’s a multi-billion dollar opportunity.
Make or Break Moment
First, when we launched our educator app. Nobody was building a platform, people were building content companies, but from day one, our focus has been on building a platform. When we launched that, we made it very easy for people to create educational videos through a $100 smartphone. I think that was a disruption. For platforms to succeed, you need to start with the creation tool. If you make creation easy — Instagram made creation of beautiful posts easy, Tik Tok made creation of entertainment videos easy — that’s the starting of a platform. When we made our educator app, we made it super easy for people to create educational lessons. When we were making videos on YouTube, the learning curve to create an educational video was three hours. We got it down to three minutes. Second, we acquired Wifistudy (in 2018), which helped us enter the government exams market. Another milestone was when we launched the Plus subscription. Within 11 months, we had 72,000 paid subscribers.
During the Pandemic: We had been a product-first company from day one. It’s the background of the founders too. Our teachers have been working remotely since the beginning. (During the pandemic), we came up with the concept of remote studios. Earlier, a few classes were being taken from studios in our offices, and then we found a team that could make a makeshift studio in 48 hours. That helped us scale up our operations.
Doubt clearing tool: We launched a product where you could connect to a teacher even for a one-on-one doubt clearing interaction. Let’s say you are a physics student and preparing for JEE. You can quickly get in touch with a teacher for a 10-minute session or something like that. Products like these ensure that our NPS (Net Promoter Score) is high.
I was not good with feedback. I used to give feedback publicly. I still do that for my leadership team because they are senior people and can take it. But for junior members of the team, we prefer a one-on-one feedback. I have always been a very aggressive founder with strong opinions about everything who used to get very, very angry if something was not done his way. But today, I have evolved into accepting that I need to be more patient and tolerant, and that I need to let people find solutions on their own. If I keep telling them what to do, thinking that only I know the best solution, they will not grow. This has been a four-five year journey. When you work with different kinds of people, when your organisation grows, you learn these things.
We have been lucky to get some of the best investors on board, whether it’s Blume Ventures, SAIF Partners, Nexus, Sequoia or Steadview. There have been times when I have said no to investors. And there have been times when investors have said no to me. In retrospect, I think I’m very happy with the group of partners, and our investors who became directors. Having a solid board of directors is something that is very, very essential.
Marketing & Sales Lessons
Branding is not about having a branding campaign. It is about what you stand for; and you tell the world. Apple stands for beautiful products that help you create stuff. That message is there in everything that they do. We stood for empowering educators and making it super accessible for learners to access high-quality content. Everything we were doing, even if it was a tweet or a blog post or how our educators were posting, communicated that.
At present, we have one successful product. I want us to be a company which has multiple successful products. K-12 is one. We are doing other experiments. We want to get to a $100 million annual revenue run rate in K-12 as soon as possible. We want to continue launching more categories in test prep. Right now, when it comes to notes and assignments and that kind of content, we are not the best. We want to have an academic team and do better at content. We are already the largest (edtech) brand in the country. At the start of the year, I had a goal of becoming the number one and not the number two brand. With the kind of stuff we have done, whether you see Google Trends data, or YouTube trends data, we are ahead of competitors in core brand searches and top-of-the-mind recall by spending 1/7th of the money that they spend.
1. Interview with Fortune India, May 2020 2. Inside the Mind of Gaurav Munjal, Founder Unacademy, India’s largest education platform. 100x Entrepreneur podcast 3. IVM Podcasts. Gaurav Munjal: Unacademy/ EdTech/ Multilingual Education.