As entrepreneurs in the online education sector, Jairaj Bhattacharya and Shashank Pandey took an unconventional approach when they started ConveGenius in 2014. Instead of going after high-paying markets in metro cities, ConveGenius caters to schools in rural and semi-rural parts of India.
“We wanted to start an edtech firm for the market where it’s needed the most and where school infrastructure was broken. We were determined that tech could bridge that gap,” Jairaj Bhattacharya, co-founder and CEO of ConveGenius, told KrASIA.
Bhattacharya made a point to mention how the company’s approach to online education differs from other players. While other edtech startups focus on creating their own content, ConveGenius mines publicly available resources for study materials that are in line with government-approved curricula. The firm then converts the content into mini games and videos, and prepares interesting tests for students. The core idea is to make learning easier and more fun for children.
“Since we gamify the basic concepts of different subjects based on the school’s curriculum, it helps students not only understand the subject, but to do better in their school exams,” Bhattacharya said.
Rather than go after students and parents in metro cities, Bhattacharya and Pandey preferred to work with public schools, because they wanted to focus on the bottom 100 million users who are disconnected from technology that can aid their education. For now, the company does not charge any fees. It earns revenue by securing grants from corporate social responsibility programs. In other words, corporations sponsor the courses offered by ConveGenius.
In its early days, when the company approached schools to develop partnerships, teachers and school administrators gave them a lukewarm reception. “We faced a lot of challenges in convincing schools—understandably so, since many schools don’t even have basic necessities like toilets and regular water supply. Spending their time to implement tech-led education was far from their immediate concerns,” Bhattacharya said.
Even schools that did show some enthusiasm in their product couldn’t adopt it, since they lacked computer labs. To overcome this hurdle, the company launched its app, giving teachers the capability to track students’ progress. However, that required all students and teachers to have access to smartphones or tablets before ConveGenius’ product, CG Slate, could proliferate among rural schools.
The company set out to solve those fundamental problems too. “We had to raise funds to ensure schools have sufficient tablets for children to use our product,” Bhattacharya said.
Between 2015 and 2016, the company pulled in INR 97 million (USD 1.3 million) in two funding rounds from a few angel investors, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Benori Ventures. The cash helped them partner with OEMs like Samsung, Lenovo, and others to pre-install CG Slate in their tablets and give these to schools.
But even after offering free course materials and tablets, CG Slate’s uptake still wasn’t up to company’s expectations. In its six-year journey, the company has brought on board a mere 5,000 schools across the country. In total, India has over 1.5 million public schools.
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A new chapter
As schools shut down in February and March when COVID-19 cases rose in the country, the company changed its approach from B2B to B2C. It created a chatbot-based teaching assistant that sends videos, study materials, questions, and gamified content to students over WhatsApp.
The company transferred its bank of educational materials to its conversational AI platform. “We partnered with WhatsApp, which allowed us to integrate its API with ours, and built a conversational layer that works seamlessly between WhatsApp and our product,” Bhattacharya said.
To use WhatsApp for learning, parents or children have to send a message to a specific number through WhatsApp. Once students are registered, they start receiving the course materials. ConveGenius also created a separate bot to generate students’ progress reports for teachers at schools that were already working with the company.
“Using WhatsApp also led to virality, as students regularly forward study materials to their friends. We have been looking at how to integrate this with more and more use cases of our conversational AI platform,” he said.
The company claims 5.4 million students in semi-rural and rural areas use their curated course materials to study online via WhastApp. Now, ConveGenius has plans to raise Series A funding, which Bhattacharya said will help the firm reach 50 million students. Once ConveGenius’ userbase hits this number, the company will start charging a minimum fee from schools, but base revenue will be drawn from ads and sponsorships. ConveGenius already has 60 clients that pay for advertisements that run before and after its tutorial videos.
Among scores of VC-backed edtech companies in India, ConveGenius stands out as it has found a way to monetize without burdening parents with hefty fees. “We are building a platform where quality education can be provided at a minimum cost,” Bhattacharya said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.