Byju Raveendran, the making of an 'accidental' coach

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
In a video ad featuring children talking about their favourite subjects appears a man in a black T-shirt. Using animated squares, this man, Byju Raveendran, quickly explains the Pythagoras Theorem. All the ads for this company feature teachers, but the man who takes on Pythagoras is the founder and chief operating officer of Bengaluru-based Think & Learn, one of India’s fastest growing education startups.

A few years ago, when Argentina faced Venezuela in Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium during a football match, Raveendran sat in the audience with his chief marketing officer, Pravin Prakash. Out of the blue, Raveendran told Prakash that there were 81,000 people in the audience.

“The very next moment, the commentator announced that this was a record attendance for an international football match in India; Byju was off by just 20 in a stadium where the capacity was over 100,000 then,” remembers Prakash.

Tales of Raveendran’s passion for crunching numbers abound. When on fast-moving trains, Raveendran is known to do quick calculations for no reason whatsoever: he correctly deduces the speed of the train based on the distance covered and time taken. He does the same when in cabs on highways.

A fast-talker known for his seemingly boundless reserves of high energy, even before the 36-year-old launched his app in 2015, there were no apprehensions about the app’s success.

Aarin Capital was the first to invest in Byju’s, in 2013, and it partially exited the company in 2016 after making ‘more than a 10-fold return’. Then last September, Byju’s raised $50 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and existing investors like Sequoia Capital, Sofina SA, and more.

Then earlier this week, Brussels-based firm Verlinvest invested about $30 million in Byju’s. The technology platform is looking at tripling its revenues to Rs 300 crore this year. The moment is certainly pause-worthy: it’s been a long, hectic journey for Raveendran, the son of two teachers from Azhikode, a coastal village in Kannur, Kerala.

“With the recent rounds of funding from Verlinvest, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and other investors, our focus is to create products for the international markets,” says Raveendran. “We want to capitalise on the core strengths that we have developed in the last four years .i.e. creating high quality learning modules, videos and interactives across segments/grades,” he adds.

Currently about eight million students use the Byju’s app, spending about 40 minutes on it daily. It reaches over 1,700 towns and cities. But even before the app was launched, the Byju brand had the markings of an urban legend. Here’s a man, an engineer by training, who was working with a UK-based company and appeared for Common Admission Test, or CAT, in 2003 and scored a 100 percentile.

The story goes on to say how he received a call from all the six premier management institutes, and how he turned them all down. In 2005, Raveendran took the test again, scored a 100 percentile again, and turned down these institutes, again.

Then after seeing that the friends he had coached had also cleared the exam, Raveendran began tutoring a class of 35 CAT aspirants in 2006. Word of mouth about a Math teacher who demystified the subject spread, and within six weeks, Raveendran was in an auditorium packed with 1,200 students.

Even the name Byju’s Learning App was a result of everyone referring to these sessions as ‘Byju’s classes’: the name stuck because ‘Byju’ was no longer just a first name, it had become a brand.

Much like a sportsman, Raveendran understands the significance of a good team: the core team at Byju’s has people who were once Raveendran’s students, like Prakash, the chief marketing officer, and Vinay Ravindra, the chief content officer. Raveendran’s wife, Divya Gokulnath, who holds a director’s post in the company, is also one of his former students.

Before the virtual classrooms and the app took off, Raveendran would hop between cities all five days of the week, and then take sessions in Bengaluru on weekends. Now, besides coaching for exams like CAT, UPSC and GMAT, Byju’s also offers tutorials for school students, right from Class 4 to Class 12.

In a very Steve Jobs-move, Raveendran now sticks to wearing black t-shirts paired with denims. And one might be forgiven for thinking that Raveendran spends hours in the gym because of his well-muscled physique, but his fitness is largely attributed to sports.

A cricket all-rounder who also plays table tennis and badminton well, it’s common for a sports arena in Bengaluru to reserve the football ground for Byju and his team a few times in a week. These football games essentially start after midnight, and go up to 2 AM or 3 AM.

“Once the app took off, there were regular meetings with investors, so the midnight games started only because Byju was constantly travelling,” says Prakash.

“If you go to Byju’s engineering college in Kannur, they still remember him as the guy who had attendance waived because of sports,” shares Prakash. They also remember him for topping the Math and Science Olympiads.

It is often said that in regional schools, even English is taught in the regional language: the scenario was no different when Raveendran was enrolled in a Malayalam-medium school. But his parents remember him waking up at odd hours to tune into sports news by BBC.

The next morning, Raveendran would compare notes from the radio broadcast to what appeared in Malayalam newspapers, thus following developments in sports as well as achieving fluency in English.

The man who learnt English primarily from sports commentary is now looking to expand abroad, mainly to English-speaking countries where the app can be used. “Currently, there are no products like the Byju’s Learning App. Our product will revolutionise the way students are learning across the world today,” shares Raveendran.

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