When Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Junior, the coding platform had raised $11 million in funding, most of the money was still in the bank and it was cash-flow positive. Bajaj isn’t a typical entrepreneur — he is an author of three novels, worked as the South Asia head of Discovery Networks, and as a yoga teacher for a year.
Bajaj has said in the past that practising yoga helped him become more dispassionate. A quality that, perhaps, helped him as WhiteHat Junior came under fire from critics, such as Pradeep Poonia and angel investor Aniruddha Malpani, for what they called misleading ads and the quality of its teachers.
WhiteHat Junior went on the offensive, slapping defamation suits against Poonia and Malpani. The startup dropped the case against Poonia recently.
Bajaj opened up to Moneycontrol on Whitehat Junior’s ambitions beyond a coding platform for kids, his plans for international markets, coping with criticism, and the next chapter of his journey.
We last spoke when WhiteHat Junior’s acquisition was announced by Byju’s, sometime in August last year. What has changed since then?
Bajaj: We have entered more markets. At the time of the acquisition, we were in the US, the UK, and Australia, and there were 10 countries people had signed up completely organically.
We made a deliberate effort for the first time in local-language markets where we had to set up the entire operations from scratch. So, that was Mexico, Brazil, and subsequently, Indonesia. We now have what I call a ‘753 Strategy’, which is seven countries — India, the US, the UK, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia.
In terms of courses, we were only doing coding. We launched maths a few months ago and we are also launching a music course, where kids are going to learn guitar and piano online.
We are going to launch English learning and science. In terms of formats, we are now creating native courses for the mobile, where the teacher can actually teach kids on the mobile, to kind of go deeper into markets like India and Mexico. We are also going to the B2B channel. More than 125 schools have already signed up to take WhiteHat Jr coding in India, and subsequently, we will be rolling out the B2B, across the world.
We have grown from 7,000 teachers to 12,000 teachers on the platform.
How did the second wave of COVID-19 impact your business?
Bajaj: From an overall business perspective, about 70 percent of WhiteHat Junior’s revenue comes from outside India. So, from an overall business perspective, if I look at my testimony right now, about 70 percent of WhiteHat Jr revenues come from countries like the US and the UK. In those countries, there has been actually a return to normalcy. So those countries have not been impacted.
Thirty percent, which is India, I think that the huge wave of adoption happened in the last wave of the pandemic. This time, we are seeing a more organic increase. We are continuing to grow in the pandemic, we are not seeing a wave of new users. All of that had happened in the last wave. So, I would say the trends are a little bit more organic.
Even the CEO of Zoom has spoken about Zoom fatigue. So is there fatigue when it comes to online learning?
Bajaj: If I look at the US, the UK, Australia, and Mexico, the growth has been very, very continuous, very predictable, consistently strong. When traditional education companies tried to teach online, it was not edtech in the pure form of an entire interaction between curriculum and a product that’s very delightful to kids.
What was happening was that there was a curriculum being taught on technology. So for the kid fatigue on Zoom, because I can see with my own daughters every day, right? A lot of it is linked to the fact that it is not edtech in its pure form where curriculum and tech are completely integrated and seamlessly work together to delight kids. We do about 30,000-40,000 live classes a day and the rating that students give is about 4.8 out of 5.
Once they get exposed to this kind of learning where tech becomes a tool of creation, there are emojis coming and there are points and gamification. We’ve integrated that entire system.
WhiteHat Jr was also in the news recently for withdrawing its defamation suit against Pradeep Poonia. What led to it? Is this a signal perhaps that you are more receptive to criticism because the perception was that you’re not?
Bajaj: On the legal side, I cannot comment. But we are in the public domain for a while and there has been so much positive and negative feedback every day. And I would say, I’ve always been very, very open to that. And I continue to be extremely open. And I would say we actively seek it out in so many formats, right? Every class is rated, every month, there is an NPS (Net Promoter Score) send to the parent, you know. We’ve just had so many mechanisms to get the feedback.
(NPS measures customer experience and predicts business growth. It is a tool to gauge customers’ overall satisfaction with a company’s product or service and the customers’ loyalty to the brand.)
Will you also drop the defamation case against Aniruddha Malpani?
Bajaj: I can’t comment on the legal side.
But has that been your biggest learning as an entrepreneur last year? That you will perhaps have to be more receptive to criticism?
Bajaj: We started the company in November 2018. I would again say that we were able to build in multiple markets because I was trying to get better daily. If I look at the first version of the product to the product 18 months ago to the product now, it just kept improving daily, because, I would say, I’ve been a creator before, right? I would say, like for a creator, the best gift is user feedback. I’ve learned a lot as an entrepreneur, and I learned daily. This act of wanting to get better daily has been really a part of the DNA right from the start.
What would your advice be for an edtech entrepreneur starting off today? Does it make sense to build long-term or sell at the right time, in say 2-3 years, like what you did?
Bajaj: I would say that the choice is extremely personal. In my case, the choice was like an entrepreneur who’s at 25 versus an entrepreneur at 40, who would think differently. I started entrepreneurship after a reasonably successful career, as Discovery CEO, and before that, a career as a writer. In that way, I felt like everything that I could do on my own, I could accelerate with Byju’s, which is exactly how the last year has played out. We are in more countries, we are in more courses, we have more students.
You also have an unusual background. You’ve led Discovery, you’ve been an author, you’re also a yoga teacher. So do you still see yourself running WhiteHat Junior for the next 3-5 years?
Bajaj: Actually, these things are more similar than dissimilar. The conviction to create a 300-page novel is very similar to what I experienced at a startup. You have to have that conviction that looks I have to show up every day, keep building it, and, eventually, this will turn into a company or will turn into something that thousands of people use.
I’ve seen three industries now. All have somewhat similar stats, right? A novel, a startup, and a media channel. There is a 90 percent chance that it will fail together, There is a 9 percent chance that it will probably break even and there’s a 1 percent chance of success.
It requires real conviction that you look to enter a game knowing that there is a 99 percent chance that you’re not going to succeed. I’m also going to write a non-fiction novel now as I think I have learned a lot in this journey.