At startup50, we had a panel discussion with leaders from the education sector, to understand the finer nuances of running a business in this space. A few excerpts from this session…
India’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is filled with various education startups. From certification courses and online tuitions to platforms for e-learning and IIT coaching, there are several new ideas being explored.
However, unlike the rest of the conference wherein we invited entrepreneurs running new-age businesses to speak, for the panel discussion on education, we decided to invite leaders who’ve been this business for over a decade. Our thought process was that education businesses, inherently, are long-term in nature, so we put together a panel featuring Nirmala Sankaran, Founder-CEO, HeyMath, a 15-year old ‘startup’ focused on creating curriculum and tools to make math education fun; S. Vaitheeswaran, CEO, Manipal Education, one of the oldest educational institutions in the country; and Shankar Muralidharan, Director Marketing, Woxsen School of Business.
The panelists specifically spoke about the art of building a brand in the education sector and why it is fundamentally a long-term business.
HeyMath’s brand truths
Nirmala Sankaran says that in 2000, when her husband and she setup HeyMath, they first defined the purpose and the mission from which they have not veered away at all. “No teacher left behind,” was the motto of the venture, and the employees too have been oriented towards this mission, thus strengthening the brand image. “We are enablers, and we cooperate with customers in building our product,” explains Sankaran.
If you visit HeyMath’s office, you’ll know why. HeyMath’s offices recreate the environment of a college campus, lively and fun with no hierarchy based on gender, age or experience. The customer is part of the process and invited to co-create and design courses with the team.
“Even after 15 years, we function like a startup. We customize a lot, based on customer requirements and encourage self-motivation in our team,” she adds.
Constant engagement with the customer, to be trusted, to provide the right content, continuous learning and learning on the fly are some of the important lessons the venture has learnt over the years.
Even after 15 years, we function like a startup. We customize a lot, based on customer requirements and encourage self-motivation in our team” – Nirmala Sankaran, founder, HeyMath
Manipal Education – blending old with the new
For Manipal University, not letting go of sound practices learnt and implemented over the years, and introducing latest teaching methodologies have enabled it to remain a leading name in education, according to Vaitheeshwaran. He pointed out that two factors to be kept in mind are, one: education starts paying the investor (learner) only after he or she is done. Secondly, brand name alone is not enough, content and quality are important. “We were an established name in medical education in Malaysia. Every fourth doctor in the country was an alumnus of our institution. When we branched out to non-medical education, we thought our name would carry us through. But in the first year, students joined only for our short term courses before they enrolled themselves for the four-year courses,” he cited an example.
To service 30 million youth in higher education, technology is necessary. “We have introduced asynchronous modes of learning,” he says. Adaptive education is the latest in this segment, where traditional and modern methods are used for learning. Especially with shortage of teachers and abundance of ready courseware available online from reputed universities, the Manipal group encourages students to learn by themselves and visit classes for practical learning through case studies and demos.
“We will never stop spending on education, even during financial crises. So there is no downturn in this segment,” he concludes.
Woxsen School of Business – the need for a focused vision
Shankar Muralidharan stressed that though an education business is different from ones in other sectors, the fundamental requirement is to have a focused vision. At Woxsen, the key goal of the founder is to join the league of extraordinary business schools by 2020. Muralidharan admits that this is a big, audacious goal, but it helps having such a vision, to ensure what the school does day-to-day aligns with this end goal.
“The first decision was to make Woxsen an entrepreneurial school where entrepreneurship is a compulsory subject and to make sure at least 5-10 per cent of the students become entrepreneurs,” he explains. Woxsen also planned to have a stake in such businesses started by their students.
The second challenge, according to him, is the lack of focus on scale. “Any business must be scalable,” he stresses. In education business too, scale is important. Institutionalizing education business and empowering the employees are important.
Have a vision, be scalable and rope in the right people; These are the three critical aspects for any education venture, he concludes.
Education businesses are inherently long-term and the only way to build a brand is to impact the customer positively
It is paramount to have a focused vision – big, audacious one at that. Then ensure, day-to-day operational roles match this grand vision.
While the most well-known institutions (Harvard, IIMs, et al.) were started several decades back, it is important embrace technology, adapt and offer new methods of learning, even if you’re a renowned institution