Every edtech that wishes to build a sustainable brand must ensure that quantity does not become the enemy of quality.
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
Playing the long game is an idea widely preached but rarely practised by entrepreneurs. The long game requires that the pursuit of business success be based on sustained efforts over a considerable period of time. It requires an ability to resist the ever-present temptation of instant gratification. In his highly influential classic Built to Last, Jim Collins examines companies that go beyond the logic of fast growth and transform into institutions that can last a hundred years. Collins draws a sharp contrast between clock-building and time-telling and highlights the importance of timeless fundamentals.
The edtech sector today may be in turmoil. However, our decade-long attempt to build TalentSprint into a trusted platform for deeptech education reveals certain best practices that may be of some interest to other edtechs that wish to consider them.
From the beginning, we chose to focus on serious learners and serious learning. Free or gimmicky programmes aimed at grabbing market share tend to attract non-serious learners, which lead to neither meaningful outcomes nor paid customers. Learners must have agency and take accountability for their learning journey. They must pay for their learning by investing their time, hard work, and money. Consequently, by launching aspirational programmes that stretch intellectual boundaries and present challenging learning curves, we have helped serious learners feed their curious minds, acquire new skills, bolster their resumes, and get a handsome return on their investment. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Our focus on serious learners has resulted in a 95 percent completion rate, a high benchmark for the industry.
While reaching a multitude of learners is important, making a positive impact on their lives is even more so. Every edtech that wishes to build a sustainable brand must ensure that quantity does not become the enemy of quality. Mindless pursuit of scale (a term investors love to the exclusion of everything else) at the expense of outcomes ultimately destroys word of mouth. The edtech sector is replete with companies gone bad for precisely this reason. To strike a contrarian note, our Pega partnership programme, now in its seventh year, plans its learner intake in close alignment with real industry demand. This ensures that all learners certified by the programme have a high certainty of finding premium industry jobs.
Since there is always a natural cap on how much an impact programme can scale, we believe edtechs that embrace horizontal scaling instead of vertical are more resilient. Vertical scaling involves taking a small number of blockbuster products and pummelling in huge enrolments by throwing large marketing budgets at the problem. Horizontal scaling, in contrast, involves continually creating state-of-the-art niche programmes that can deliver high impact within sharp target segments. Case in point: Our first-of-a-kind Women Engineers programme, offered in partnership with Google, fills the acute gender diversity gap faced by big tech firms. Similarly, as India positions itself as the next global manufacturing hub, we have been working with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) to roll out new-age executive education in semiconductor design and digital manufacturing.
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Important as product innovation is, it is incomplete without pedagogical innovation. Most learners have traditionally grown up in an environment of passive learning where pejorative phrases like ‘spoon feeding’ are commonplace, where faculty are supposed to lecture and students are expected to pass multiple-choice tests. Edtechs need to annihilate these practices and usher in active learning.
In our version, learners arrive at active learning through problem solving. An immersive environment helps them imbibe four critical skills: Learning to learn learning by doing, learning with peers, and learning without fear of failure. Instead of lecturing, instructors present challenging problems and guide learners to find their own solutions through a process of stumbling, exploring, discovering, collaborating and presenting. We are reminded of Confucius: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”
A key differentiator for every edtech is its technology platform. Yet, edtechs are not mission-critical systems; they can’t be compared to platforms that undergird telecom satellites or stock exchanges. This provides an economic opportunity to embrace open source software and integrate off-the-shelf components in ways that drive down the total cost of building and operating edtech platforms by orders of magnitude. This is referred to as frugal engineering. For example, we built our award-winning platform iPearl.ai on top of Open edX (an open source learning management system from MIT) with a shoestring budget and a young engineering team, and passed on the savings to our learners.
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While it is fashionable in the edtech sector to appoint high profile cricketers and Bollywood stars as product ambassadors, it appears unconscionable to collect hard-earned money from students and transfer that to super-affluent celebrities who do not need that wealth. Similarly, there have been media blitzes of edtech founders showcasing themselves as gravity-defying, larger-than-life entrepreneurs. As is now obvious, these marketing strategies have backfired.
In contrast, prudent marketing requires focus on superior word-of-mouth and higher customer referrals. Since the beginning, we have focussed scientifically on quantitative measurements of learner delight and used the Net Promoter Score framework (NPS) for planning, monitoring, and improving our offerings. With a current company NPS of 85, we have exceeded targets we once set for ourselves.
Edtech is currently getting a bad rap on corporate governance. It is a self-inflicted wound. Publishing audited accounts within three months of financial year closing and appointing credible independent directors to the board does not require any rocket science. Every edtech can and should do it.
The bigger question is whether edtechs realise they should serve a purpose bigger than just making money for founders and investors. In Deep Purpose, Prof Ranjay Gulati says, “Leaders orient their organisations existentially around the North Star of purpose, articulating a conscious intent to conduct their business in a more elevated way. Purpose in their minds is a unifying statement of the commercial and social problems a business intends to profitably solve for its stakeholders.” Very wise words to live by. The writer is founder and CEO of TalentSprint, an NSE Group Company