Gagan Goyal could easily be the real life Phunsuk Wangdu from 3 Idiots. He is a six-pointer from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai who wants to pioneer hands-on science education in India. He tried his hand at different business models and today, has arrived at a model that works, thanks to a nimble footed approach to fixing his earlier mistakes.
Plan A: Robotics workshops
While studying in IIT, Goyal attended numerous workshops and competitions on robotics around the world. In countries like Singapore and the U.S., he observed that high-school students could think and assemble robots to perform different functions. Immediately, he knew robotics could be used as a platform to tutor Indian college students with practical understanding of technology and fundamentals of science.
After a brief stint at Hindustan Petroleum, in 2006, Goyal launched ThinkLabs, a company whose plan A was to conduct robotics-based workshops for engineering college students. ThinkLabs used to organise a project-based workshop in a college over the weekend. Multiple groups of students formed teams and took part in the workshop. ThinkLabs charged each team to participate in the training session. Goyal says, “The model worked, but we wanted to scale further. When we started talking to Seedfund, our outlook towards business changed. We were thinking scale and leadership in a particular category.” He thought employability focused training in embedded systems and automation could help the company build scale.
Plan B: A capital-intensive model
In 2008, Seedfund invested in ThinkLabs, and Goyal and team set out to launch “the NIIT of robotics and embedded systems education.” The company was talking big. Goyal wanted to open several centres where training in embedded systems (hardware and chip design) could be imparted. Several reports suggested that demand for students in the job market was tremendous. ThinkLabs opened its first brick-and-mortar facility in Mumbai. A second one in Bengaluru followed soon. There was a problem, however. Demand was not as expected and the job market in the embedded systems area was hit and both these factors affected its cash flow. Goyal says, “We had to come up with a solution. We thought to ourselves, we are a knowledge company, there is no point investing in these capital intensive centres.” And subsequently, the Bengaluru centre was closed down.
Plan C: Fixing the mistake in Plan B
Goyal was onto Plan C. He decided to use the same curriculum, to conduct a long-term training program in robotics and embedded systems, but this time inside college campuses. Since he was not investing in space, the pricing of the training programme came down as well. In this model, ThinkLabs attracted students directly from the college and advertising costs came down. It also helped the company manage its resources better keeping in mind the seasonal nature of the business (students wouldn’t attend external classes during exams and the cost of managing a permanent center was not there in this model). In early 2010, two colleges signed up. Over the next year, they signed up over 20 colleges, several of them signing five-year contracts.
Goyal’s plan of offering hands-on technology curriculum, supplementary to the regular curriculum, inside college campuses, had worked.
In parallel, Goyal was going after one more target market – school students who would be interested in practical science education. He thought everything from motion and force to electricity and magnetism could be taught well through the use of robotics in a classroom. The curriculum was tweaked, relevant hardware and software was designed and ThinkLabs started making pitches to the heads of schools. Today, in just two years, the company operates 95 robotics labs in schools across India.
Goyal’s thinking is not very different from this Chinese proverb: “Show me, I might remember. Involve me, I will understand.” ThinkLabs is showing us what a nimble footed entrepreneur can do to make a business work.
Key lesson learnt from the ThinkLabs journey:
ThinkLabs is actually creating a whole new category within the education sector. When you are a category creator, there is very little you can learn from the experience of other industry players. Like Goyal did, you will have to take the risk, launch, learn and modify, as the business demands. In ThinkLabs’ case, market demand was not a problem. The problem lay in a business model that was too capital intensive. Goyal was building a knowledge company that was spending precious venture capital funding on building centres rather than on enhancing the curriculum and bringing in sales. Of course, Goyal found the problem and fixed it before it was too late.