Rajiv is based out of Delhi-NCR and writes stories on startups, corporates, entrepreneurs of all kinds, and yes, marketing and advertising world. His ‘historic feats’ include graduation in history from Hansraj College, master's in medieval Indian history from Delhi University, and PG diploma in journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Another forgettable achievement was spending over a decade at The Economic Times as his maiden job. For the first seven years, he learnt the craft on the desk, and the remaining years were spent unlearning and writing for Brand Equity and ET Magazine. What keeps him going, and alive, apart from stories is the heavenly music of immortal legend RD Burman.
February 2014, Softways Coaching Institute, Allahabad. Alakh Pandey was super confident of pulling off a class act. And why not? The 22-year-old from Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Uttar Pradesh, who had just dropped out of an engineering college in Kanpur, had been burning the midnight oil to thoroughly prepare the second chapter of Class X Physics. After quitting engineering in the third year, Pandey came back to his hometown, joined an institute in Allahabad to teach physics and had got an opportunity to work at another coaching academy.
The idea was to maximise income. The young dropout had been drawing Rs5,000 per month from his first coaching class in the evening. “I didn’t want to lose this chance of doubling my salary,” recalls Pandey, who started taking tuitions when he was in class 8. His first tryst with coaching happened when he cycled a few kilometres to teach some half a-dozen students of Class 9 when he was in the first year of higher secondary schooling. “The vibes that you get from teaching a bunch of curious students is a big kick,” he underlines, adding that his cycle was stolen when he was in class 12, and he could not afford a new one.
Later, at Softways Coaching Institute in 2014, Pandey was about to enter the class. The vibes, though, were negative and he got anxious for two reasons. First, four Physics teachers had quit from the coaching institute. Pandey didn’t want to be the fifth one. The owner of the institute has asked Pandey to prepare the second chapter as his predecessors had tried teaching the first chapter, and the students were apparently exhausted and bored with the same lesson. Second reason for jitters was a packed class. Pandey had never taught a class brimming with 40 students. “It was overwhelming,” he recounts.
Somehow, the young educator maintained his composure and starting teaching second chapter: Work. “It didn’t work at all,” he says. To understand the concept of Work, he lets on, an understanding of Force was a pre-requisite, which was in the first chapter. The students, unfortunately, didn’t have a grasp of the first chapter. And Pandey had not prepared the first chapter. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to start with Force,” he says. Within minutes, students started reacting. “Your definition of Force is different from what is written in the book,” said one of them. “What you are teaching is missing in the chapter,” said another student.
Pandey panicked. He quickly grabbed a book, glanced through the pages for five minutes, and then put it on the table. Newton and Dyne, he underlined, are the units representing force. The class drew a blank face. Pandey realised there was something missing. The dramatist—Pandey was actively involved in street plays and theatre during his school and college days, and in fact at one point of time thought of taking acting as his career—got into his act. “1 Newton=10 to the power 5 Dyne,” he said. What he uttered next had a thunderous response. “Ye daayan nahin dyne hai (This is not a witch, but Dyne),” he said. For the next hour, Pandey managed to get the full attention of his students. As a teacher, he explains, one has to be engaging, loud, funny, sarcastic, strict, and let the initial content flow in a slow pace.
Cult following and the ‘Takla’ gang
Students started falling in love with the Physics-obsessed teacher, his animated way of teaching, and his swag. “Some thought I was crazy,” he recalls. Well, there were reasons behind people’s perception. In 2016, Pandey launched PhysicsWallah as a YouTube channel to reach out to more students, and got his first tattoo: A symbol of Pi just below his left shoulder. The same year, he got another one inked on his right forearm: E=mc2.
P for Physics started becoming synonymous with P for Pandey, and he started packing a punch. “The only rule is that there is no rule,” he says, alluding to the ever-changing world of laws of Physics. The ‘five feet, five inch’ educator shaved his head, used his old jeans as a canvas and inscribed it with formulae of all kinds, became famous for his sudden outbursts in the class, and always pushed his students to give their best.
There was something else too. Loading YouTube with free lectures, which could be understood by all students and keeping the charges for paid courses to a bare minimum helped in fanning Pandey’s popularity across Tier II, III cities and beyond. His animated style of teaching, constantly changing his facial expression, inimitable voice modulation, and talking to kids in Hindi and Hinglish [blend of Hindi and English] made the this son of the soil strike an emotional connect with students in the hinterland.
At times, though, the students got ‘excessively’ motivated. Inspired by Pandey’s mannerism, many students started shaving their heads. All wanted to look like Pandey sir, and the ‘Takla Gang’ (Gang of Bald) swelled. “I never wanted a cult. I asked all of them to focus on studies and nothing else,” he says. And at times, his way of motivating kids raised eyebrows. Take, for instance, the way he used to start his class. Students were supposed to sing “hum hongey kaamyab.” (We will succeed) before the start of the class. “I used to motivate a lot,” he says. “And it was hard-core motivation.”
False start, poaching & coaching
Six years later, in May 2020, the educator’s motivational cycle got punctured. After a heady growth in YouTube subscribers--over 22 lakh in 2019 from just under 4,000 in 2017—PhysicsWallah was rolling out its app in response to demand from students who wanted full-fledged courses for engineering and medical preparation. The pitch got amplified due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Pandey decided to go online, and was all set for his maiden live session. A steady stream of Class XII students bought the nominal engineering annual prep package of Rs999 and started logging into the app for the Physics class.
The PhysicsWallah app, however, could not handle the load. There were close to two lakh hits and the app crashed. Pandey was furious with his tech team, who assured him that the problem would get fixed. The next day, the app crashed again. By the fourth day, over 35,000 had enrolled in the course and the app was still not working. “I was shattered,” he recalls. There were over two million subscribers who were religiously following Pandey on YouTube. “I thought they would feel cheated,” he underlines. The tutor starting refunding the money, his dream came crashing and live classes were being replaced with recorded sessions. Things, however, went back to normal after a few weeks as the technical glitch got fixed. Students started coming back on the app, and PhysicsWallah was back in action.
A year later, in February 2021, came another crashing moment. This time, it was an existential crisis. By the end of 2020, Pandey had managed to get close to 42 lakh subscribers on YouTube, and the daily active users were in mid-lakhs while the number of monthly active users had crossed the 13-lakh mark. Suddenly, Pandey popped up on the radar of well-funded online edtech rivals who wanted to have a pie of PhysicsWallah. One of the more aggressive competitors offered Rs75 crore for a 10 percent stake.
Pandey declined. True to Newton’s third law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, however, the reaction was disproportionate and vicious. The edtech goliath--Pandey doesn’t want to take name as it might lead to defamation—decided to flex its bulging financial muscle and use Rs75 crore to ‘kill’ PhysicsWallah. While the weapon was money, the means was poaching. Most of the top educators at PhysicsWallah were offered insanely outrageous amounts of money. “Some got offer in crores,” he says.The resignation letters started trickling in. Every passing day, a handful would put in their papers. Pandey’s six-year bootstrapped journey—built upon offline stints at coaching centres since 2016—suddenly seemed to have hit a dead end. Students were getting anxious as some of the ‘star’ teachers started leaving the company. Word started spreading that PW (PhysicsWallah) was about to die, and Pandey was seething with anger.
YouTube, which had given Pandey his identity, turned out to be his saviour. The educator donned the avatar of an angry young man—like Salman Khan’s lovable-yet-ferocious character Chulbul Pandey of Dabangg—and made an explosive video. “Tum ek lekar jaogey, main 100 Alakh Pandey Khade kar dunga (You poach one and I will get another 100 Alakh Pandeys),” he thundered. The post got over 2.3 million views, his rivals got the message and students started cheering for Pandey, the underdog, yet again.
‘Pushpa’ and the unicorn
A few months later, Pandey posted another video. This time the message was in Allu Arjun’s signature style from the Telugu movie Pushpa. “I am coming up with more free and low-priced content,” he said. “Competitors, be ready,” he warned. “PW naam sun kar paav vaala samjha tha kya (You thought PW stands for a guy selling paavs). “Ye PhysicsWallah hai. Jhukega nahin,” (This is PhysicsWallah, and he won’t surrender.” Dramatics, Pandey confesses, has a strong influence on his teaching.
Cut to June 2022. Pandey has continued with his aggression. In a first for the first-time founder, PhysicsWallah has raised $100 million (about Rs750 crore) at a valuation of over one billion in its maiden round of funding. So how does it feel to be a unicorn in the very first round of funding? “Bachche bade khush hongey (Students would be happy),” he beams, as he rolls up his sleeves and exposes his latest tattoo on his forearm: The face of Albert Einstein, which he got inked two weeks ago. “I didn’t know what unicorn is,” he breaks into a hearty guffaw at his corporate headquarters in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.
The sprawling office on the first floor of the 10-storied building is all about Physics. Every cabin is named after a concept. While Pandey’s den is named ‘energy,’ and has the formula of E=mc2 printed in bold fonts on his door, others are named ‘light,’ ‘force,’ and ‘gravity.’ The walls are painted with symbols, formula and icons, Pandey’s room is decorated with awards from YouTube for his staggering subscriber base.
“Does PW stand for profit wallah?” I ask. The nerdy educator, dressed in black full-sleeves shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers, fills the room with a boisterous laugh. The reply comes after a minute. “We have 60 percent Ebitda margin,” he claims. “Hum to woh business kar hi nahin sakte jo loss main chal raha ho (We can’t do a business that runs in losses),” he contends. “I can’t run a loss-making business. I will get depressed.”
Back during his college days, Pandey says he had slipped into depression for over six months. In the third year, he was struggling with his studies. He had opted for mechanical engineering thinking he would get to study Physics. But the labs were empty, teachers skipped lectures, and students mugged concepts to clear exams. “I could clearly see that there is no future for me,” he recalls, adding that his seniors at college had settled for marketing jobs that earned them some Rs 4-5 lakh.
Disillusioned, Pandey skipped his exams, and called up his elder sister, who, along with his mother, has always been a pillar of support for him. “Bhai, tu kuch bada karne ke liye bana hai (Brother, you are made to do something big in life,” was how she would constantly motivate him since childhood. The education loan of Rs1.80 lakh that he had taken for his studies was also bothering Pandey. “How would I repay? I can’t continue,” he broke down after confessing to his sister over the phone. “Come back home immediately. I will take care of the loan,” said his sister, who was working with Tata Consultancy Services. “Nobody knows about her sacrifices. But she is the reason I could come so far,” he says. “It has not been an easy journey.”
Pandey had started taking tuitions when he was in class 8. His father, a contractor, sold their house and tried his hands at running his own business a couple of times. “But he failed,” says Pandey. The reason, he reckons, might have to do with investing money in the venture and maybe then thinking about how to make money. “That’s the reason I am very conservative when it comes to spending,” he says. Financial hardships and high medical expenses of their father not only forced Pandey and his sister to start tutoring kids to earn some money, but it also forced their mother to look for a job when she was 52 years old.
All this meant Pandey could not pay attention to studies. Though he took a break and decided to give himself a year to prepare for IIT, persistent financial troubles forced him back to coaching. While relatives maintained a distance from the family, the ones who helped financially did more harm by trumpeting the charity. For Pandey, the emotional scars are still there. And this comes out when he tries to motivate his students to study hard in his YouTube videos. “Think about your family and the sacrifices they are making to make you study,” he says.His backers are delighted with the pace of growth. “PW creates long-tail value for learners by delivering high-quality education at a democratic price,” says Sandeep Singhal, managing director at WestBridge Capital. Underlining that Indian edtech ecosystem has grown considerably over the last two years, the VC reckons that PW is one of the rare start-ups with a profound understanding of the education that Bharat today needs. “The founder's focus on learning outcomes of students excites us."
So now that Pandey is a founder of a unicorn startup, has the tough journey ended? No, comes the reply. “Our aim is to bring about a revolution in education by reaching out to millions of students in a sustainable and affordable way,” Pandey says. “I don’t know how edtech startups with thousand crores of losses are able to sleep,” he wonders. What gives him happiness, he underlines, is the massive love and backing of his students. “They are my real assets,” he says. “And the journey of PW has just started.”
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