In 2012, Agarwal wrote a book that sold half a million copies. It strengthened his resolve that non-technical subjects don’t require a college degree
Image: Hemant Mishra
While he was studying engineering, Varun Agarwal saw the changing digital world and realised one did not require a degree to do what they want to, just the right skillset was enough. “That’s the first time I realised what research can do and how much you can learn from Google,” says Agarwal, 32, who had wanted to be a filmmaker but ended up pursuing engineering because of societal norms. Looking up things online, Agarwal learnt how to write a script, use a camera, to edit and soon started making short films and videos on his own. In 2007, he created a video for music band Pentagram, which got 100,000 views. That was his first taste of virality, and he had done it without a film school or degree.
Since then the engineer-turned-content-creator-turned author-turned-entrepreneur has tried and succeeded at varied things, and has now relaunched his educational content venture Grades Don’t Matter, which creates short, snappy content around a concept or career, by a celebrity or influencer from the field.
Grades Don’t Matter is a culmination of the various things Agarwal has learnt and done since his graduation, and of his philosophy. In November 2009, while speaking to a friend, Agarwal delved into entrepreneurship with Alma Mater, a startup that independently created merchandise of various schools and colleges in India. Without any formal learning in commerce, entrepreneurship or business, in three years he created a million-dollar company. “The success of Alma Mater proved to me that eventually the education system will be based purely on what skills you can learn and what mindset you have, rather than actually go to college,” he says.
In 2012, while running the company, Agarwal decided to write a book. How I Braved Anu Aunty & Co-Founded A Million Dollar Company sold half a million copies, which further strengthened his resolve that non-technical subjects don’t require a formal college education.
After the book, colleges started inviting Agarwal as a public speaker. Though his first 15 speeches bombed, he gradually got the hang of it. The video of his 25th speech, where he talked about his journey on INKtalks, went viral, garnering almost 4 million views on YouTube. Agarwal realised that public speaking was a career option that you needn’t learn formally. He followed these with two parody YouTube videos that again went viral with millions of views, reinforcing his view that talent, not education, is what you need to be a YouTuber.
Even as he continued working with Alma Mater, he knew he wanted to get into education. After he exited the company in late 2017, Agarwal gathered a team of 30 people at a 3BHK flat in Bengaluru for three months, where they started working on Grades Don’t Matter, going on to launch it in April 2018. He worked with kids who didn’t have formal experience but more than made up for it with fresh ideas and new perspectives.
The startup worked on a simple concept: To help a person figure out what they could do with life. It did this by changing the way people consume educational content; not just bringing offline educators online, but also helping people figure out careers in a way Agarwal couldn’t. The videos were short and snappy, with dollops of entertainment and a celebrity voice. To create those, Agarwal sat with an Attention Deficit Disorder expert and put in animated visual cues and pop-ups that let the focus hold. The celebrity experts onboarded ensured that even the most mundane subjects became interesting. Each course consisted of 10-12 videos, all under 10 minutes, giving an overview of the field. Within three months, Grades Don’t Matter had made 300 educational videos from across 25 alternative career options.
Besides the overview, there were answers to outcome-based questions: How to get a job in the field, where to get it, skills required and the money to be made. The startup got over 60,000 users and, Agarwal claims, 7,000 paid subscribers with a ₹99 per course fee. Even success stories of students started flowing in: Four set up a restaurant in Bengaluru; one student in Jabalpur started a beatboxing YouTube channel; tech startups launched after the entrepreneurship course.
But Grades Don’t Matter had a run of less than two months. Agarwal believes the Indian market wasn’t ready to pay for content back then. In the next 1.5 years, he wrote two books that will be out soon, and continued speaking in colleges asking students and their parents what they wanted to learn. Now, he has relaunched, particularly because he believes that the way content is created and consumed in India has changed with the rise of streaming platforms, subscription-based models, and more people willing to pay for content. The demand for ‘alternative careers’ has also increased.
“The aim now is to take the 25 courses to 300 for phase I,” says Agarwal, talking about the relaunch of his venture. Initially, Agarwal will add up to 80 courses on the website and app. For phase II, he wants to create long-form content for around 15 fields. The courses will be three to six months long.
Biswapati Sarkar, creative director at The Viral Fever and an educator on Grades Don’t Matter says, “Be it stand-up comedy or web series development, several new industries need new talent. While there is tremendous demand for education and training in these new fields, there is no platform where you can learn from the first-hand experiences of professionals. Grades Don’t Matter fills that gap.”
Agarwal’s content team spends a lot of time researching and culling out data for every course. While it is possible to learn these courses from YouTube too, a consumer will have to spend a lot of time and effort researching. They prepare a raw script for the celebrities and the shoot is done in two to three days, working less than three hours every day.
With its relaunch, Grades Don’t Matter has modified its business model where consumers will have the choice to buy one course or a subscription that will give them access to all the courses. The startup is also moving from focussing only on alternative careers to all kinds. The relaunched programme will also contain a super skill initiative, a set of 12 life skills including personal finance, communication, health and yoga, among others, with each skill covered in a four-day programme.
“I think as the courses expand over a period of time, Grades Don’t Matter can turn out to be one of the most valuable learning experiences for first-timers in these industries,” adds Sarkar.
Eventually, Agarwal also wants to work on a live classes-based model, where the course will be followed by a Q&A session with an expert answering students’ queries in real time.To increase its reach, all the content will either be translated or recreated in local languages. The team has identified three languages to initially go with— Hindi, Tamil and Bengali.
Using celebrities in educational videos is not new but what makes Grades Don’t Matter different from a MasterClass is that the latter, says Agarwal, provide any outcome. “If it’s a MasterClass on filmmaking by Martin Scorsese, for example, you learn how Scorsese makes his movies. It is subjective, the art and the craft from the celebrity’s perspective.” At Grades Don’t Matter, the outcome becomes a priority. If director Nitesh Tiwari is teaching filmmaking, he talks about filmmaking as a profession, and not specific to his techniques.
To deal with the traditional mindset of going for conventional courses, in the last episode of the course, the celebrity also speaks about the realities associated with the field—it is, in effect, made for the parents: “The experts don’t try to sugarcoat it. Amish Tripathi says writing a novel is not a full-time career right now, but if he keeps at it, he will eventually get there,” says Divyansh Sharma, content head, Grades Don’t Matter.
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(This story appears in the 28 February, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)