Episode 45 / December 29, 2019
Inside the mind of Gaurav Munjal, Founder of Unacademy
#Podcast with Gaurav Munjal, Co-founder, Unacademy
“Every single mistake that entrepreneurs do 99% of that is already documented somewhere.” – Gaurav Munjal
Since his childhood Gaurav was an innovative person, at the age of 12 years, he created a similar to KBC-like quiz which was demonstrated amongst his classmates and the school.
In 2013 he started Flat.to (real estate platform for college students and bachelors across India) which later become FlatChat and got acquired by CommonFloor in 2014.
In 2015 he Co-founded Unacademy, which was originally a YouTube channel started back in his college days. Today Unacademy gets 140Million views / month on its youtube channels + app/web.
In this podcast, Gaurav shares his experience of scaling & creating a dent in the Edtech space, as well as lays down the path to how can one grow personally & professionally as an Entrepreneur.
0:53 – Journey from a 12-year curious kid to Founder of Unacademy
03:32 – First Entrepreneurial Journey Flat.to (Real estate platform for college students and bachelors across India) (Later FlatChat)
09:12 – How he got started with Unacademy in 2015
09:54 – Learnings for building a product for Large markets
11:02 – Mistakes as a first-time Founder & Learnings
14:37 – “Learning should be part of a CEO’s schedule.”
17:05 – What do his notes or learning structure look like?
18:03 – How does his recall process work to revisit his ideas or tasks?
19:09 – Key milestones of Unacademy over the years
24:11 – Is storytelling a major pillar for an entrepreneur?
25:38 – Building a successful company that will create a dent in the Industry
28:25 – What is Unacademy replacing in the physical world?
32:42 – Getting the best educators on Unacademy
35:50 – How being an Obsessive founder helps him compared to other founders who are more relaxed?
37:53 – How does he transfer his passion for learning among his team members?
39:27 – “The values of an organisation are not what they put up on the wall, it’s what you do every single day!”
40:00 – Distribution & Branding at Unacademy
41:22 – What have been the Growth levers for Unacademy from 2015 – 2019?
45:16 – Cracking Monetisation
54:57 – Book recommendations by him for the listeners
Podcast Transcript below
This is Siddhartha Ahluwalia. Welcome to the 100xEntrepreneur podcast. This episode is brought to you by Prime Venture Partners an early stage VC fund, led by Amit Somani, Shripathy Acharya and Sanjay Swami. Prime is often the first institutional investor in category creating tech startups and FinTech, SaaS, healthcare and education such as MyGate, Quizizz, MFine. To know more about Prime, visit primevp.in. Today I have with me Gaurav Munjal, founder of UnAcademy, the largest learning platform. And right now their focus is on test prep. Gaurav, welcome to the podcast!
Gaurav Munjal 0:39
Thanks a lot for having me here. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. In fact, this is one of my most listened to podcast on Spotify. You’re doing a good job. Keep it up.
Thank you. It really means a lot. Gaurav, we love to know more about your journey, your background before UnAcademy, before Flat.to . Where did the desire for entrepreneurship and solving problems came in?
Gaurav Munjal 1:07
I think the desire was not to solve problems. I think when I was in sixth standard, I told my parents, I told my dad who’s a doctor that I want to be a computer engineer. And he told me that no, you will be a doctor, but I think he eventually saw the passion in me for programming and computer science. I remember when I was in seventh standard, I had built a KBC kind of a quiz program on QBasic, and that time the programming assignments that we were given were quite simple. But I, I learned on my own and I built that and then the entire class was shown that product because it was like a game that you answer a question you get points it was like KBC, but on QBasic, a very simple version. And I think I love that part. I loved creating stuff. And eventually, in 2010, or 2011, and somebody told me that what you do is very similar to entrepreneurship. So I think the goal was not to solve problems. The goal was that I really love creating stuff. And eventually, I realized what I can create can have a huge impact on people and can solve different problems. Now, whether it’s about creating a blog, or a podcast or a YouTube channel, I was very much into these things during college and now but in a different manner. So, I think that’s how it started that the spark was there to build stuff. And I think I’m still doing what I thought I would be doing at the age of 12. So I’m happy about that. Valuations and fundraising and, you know, this whole entrepreneurship, VC game that came very late, but that inner Spark, to create something, to bring something into existence that didn’t exist and that helps people or for that 12 year old kid who got joy out of showing that program to, let’s say, to 30-40 classmates. I think that’s that. That’s all it is. I think I’m one of the few lucky, fortunate people to have found my calling very early on. And I’m just following it.
Tell us more about your first entrepreneurial journey Flat.to
Gaurav Munjal 3:38
I think before that, if you have to talk about the seeds of entrepreneurship. Though, it was not a profitable venture but I would like to talk about our school had a magazine called xRays. I was in Xaviers Jaipur. And when I was in 11th standard, I had a lot of good ideas about the magazine. I didn’t understand, this is 2017 and why the magazine is still on paper. And I went to the committee, and they did not like the idea. Then I went to the principal of the school and I said that I want to start the online version of the magazine. And that was the first time when I purchased a domain name. I started a website. I took credit card from my uncle. And then I used Google AdSense for the first time. I got my first Google AdSense cheque when I was, 15 or 16 years old. I think that’s entrepreneurship for me to create something. For example, we placed ads on the school’s website we launched and then we became like an official committee of the school. And then we had bunch of blog posts. We were talking about what first standard students are speaking about their teachers, which teacher do they like the most. we have things like that, and we were doing events and the site we started getting a lot of traction. Well, I remember getting like a $200 Google AdSense cheque which I gave it to my school. And even today, eXrays is the school’s office website. I think that was it for me, a 16-17 year old guy who wants to create something and is able to. So, I think one of the things that I want to talk about is that I have been very persistent from day one. So usually, if I want to get something done, I get it done. I’m not usually afraid of rejections. I can get rejected hundreds of times and still keep on trying. So, I think that’s where it started. And then the first official profitable venture or for profit venture, which I want to start was when I was in third year of college which was Flat.to which was like, a platform for student accommodation. Aakrit Vaish, who is now the founder of Haptik, came to our college and he mentioned that he invests in startup. Then I got excited. And after the lecture, I went and showed it to him that I am building a website that can help students find accommodation around their colleges, and then they can pair up with other students and stuff like that. So he gave me an offer probably around Rs 10-20 lacs for X percent of the company, but I decided to join Directi. I worked with Directi for one year and then I quit Directi and I started Flat.to with Aakrit as our first angel investor. And that’s where I learned about building products. I was 23 then, just out of college, I’d worked one year with Directi but I learnt only Product Marketing and the rest everything, whether it’s sales, whether it’s ops, I didn’t know. But then in 10 months at Flat.to , I had also met Sumit of CommonFloor. We had become good friends, Sameer from Morpheus had connected both of us. In fact, that’s how the two of us know each other. You and me. I remember I met you long back in Morhpheus.
2015 at the Morpheus Goa Retreat.
Gaurav Munjal 7:26
Yes, that’s when and then that time I think we were discussing about the products that you were building. But coming back to the story, so Sameer had connected me and Sumit. And we were planning to raise the next round. And I told Sumit this and Sumit kind of gave us a good offer, in which Aakrit made 3x and I was making some money but more importantly for me, I like, what Sumit was building that time CommonFloor and it was at that time a 300-400 member organization and the scale was very different. They had raised Venture Capital, I had not raised venture capital, I had raised angel investment from Aakrit. And I thought I could learn a lot from Sumit. And eventually the deal happened and I moved to Bangalore and this was within 10 months of starting the company. And then I was with CommonFloor for one and a half years where, not officially, but I was helping them with marketing. Flat.to pivoted into Flatchat, which was like Tinder, but to finding roommates. And, I still remember a lot of people used that product. Quickr, eventually killed it, when Quickr acquired CommonFloor, which I’m not happy about. But that’s life. So, in fact, I just tweeted some time back that if anybody wants to start something like that, again, I would be happy to fund it. I still own the domain flatchat.com. I purchased it after Quickr forgot to renew it. But yeah, I think that’s the journey. Sumit and I became very close friends. We used to discuss a lot about and I learned a lot from him about sales and about operations. So and then somewhere around September 2015, I quit FlatChat. And we decided to do take UnAcademy full time. By this time, UnAcademy was already doing a million video views per month, because Unacademy was a YouTube channel that I started in college. And then Roman and I were contributing videos to that YouTube channel. And, we decided to make UnAcademy into a platform. The idea was that if Roman and I can make videos, which can impact millions of people, can we empower more such educators. And here we are four years later, we have a long way to go.
What are your learning on building for large markets after your first stint or you will say first Flat.to acquisition happened.
Gaurav Munjal 10:05
You would be surprised to know that I never thought about large markets. Today I do. Because I have learned a lot. But when I started UnAcademy, I had no idea what market I was building for. We wanted to build test prep, we wanted to build computer programming content, we wanted to build K-12 we wanted for people to learn English. I think, what we really were excited about is that I created some videos and Roman created some videos and that got millions of views. And we knew how we can get educators online and help them create content. And eventually we ended up in the test prep direction. And we realized, Oh, it’s a multi billion dollar opportunity and then we built products around it. But to be honest, I had no idea about what market we were targeting when we started.
Any mistakes from the first venture where you said, No, this is not going to happen in UnAcademy?
Gaurav Munjal 11:08
See, I was 23 year old. I was an angry young man. I did a lot of mistakes. I had no idea I’d run college committees where I was the president. But this was the first time, I was running a company. I hired too many people too fast. We were not mindful about the burn. This is when we had 20-30 lakhs in angel investment in Flat.to. Then I was not good with feedback. I used to give feedback publicly. Today I still do in my leadership team, because you know, those are senior people and they can take it. But to junior members of the team, we prefer one on one feedback. I think, I always have been a very aggressive founder who had very strong opinions about everything. And who used to get very, very highly pissed if something was not done his way. But today I have evolved into accepting that I need to be more patient and tolerant. And I need to let people figure out the solutions on their own. Because if I keep telling them what to do thinking that only I know the best solution, they are not growing. And I am too staunch about my opinions. So I think and then this is like a four year or five year journey. It’s not like this happened in a few months. I think, when you work with different kinds of people, when your organization grows, you learn these things. But yeah, I think I’ve changed a lot as an entrepreneur, it’s a long way to go. There is one of my favorite quotes that mastery is not a destination, it’s a process and it’s a journey. So, one of the things that I keep doing is that I keep reading a lot. I keep watching a lot of content of the people that I like for example, I really like Jack Dorsey, or Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk, or, any other founders and I keep listening to podcasts watching their videos, which I think is a fundamental mistake that entrepreneurs today do. They listen to some podcast, but they don’t do structured learning. That’s also the advice I keep giving to founders that every single mistake that you’re about to do 99% of that has been documented. There is a book called Startup Playbook by Sam altman of Ycombinator. I remember, when we were a 10 member team at UnAcademy. I took 10 printouts of that, and I gave it to everyone. And I said, please don’t work for the next three hours. We all have to read it, and then we’ll do a meeting to discuss the points. I remember even when I was working out in 2015-2016, I was watching YCombinator videos. Entrepreneurship is a science and it’s like if you have to become a surgeon, you spend a lot of time learning. You spend a lot of time learning the theory and then you spend a lot of time practicing it. Why don’t we do that when you want to become an entrepreneur. People don’t even read a single book and they start their company because you know xy said, a friend said so or an investor said so. So I think this habit of learning also developed with time. When I started Flat.to, I did not read that much. But, now I do.
How much time do you, say today, being a very busy CEO, dedicate to learning in a week?
Gaurav Munjal 14:44
I think there is no concept of a CEO as a busy CEO. For me, learning is my part of the schedule. For example, 5- 5:30 every day is dedicated for learning. I don’t think learning is something that you do outside of your schedule. For example, the statement that I am a busy CEO, how do I find time to learn? That’s the fundamental problem. I mean, if I’m running a company, reading books or learning from my mentors will help me run that better. That should be my number one priority. So I think, I would like to thank Bhavin of directi, who was also the director of the first company I have ever worked at. And eventually, Bhavin joined us as the Board of Directors, and he’s a friend and a personal mentor to me. He started recommending books to me. And every book that he recommended, has had a huge impact. I remember the first time I read Traction, or the first time I read 22 Immutable laws of branding. It just made me see things differently. And one of the things I liked about Bhavin and when in fact, it’s his birthday today, and we were just discussing this in the night, that people who are able to build very solid companies are the ones who see this as a sport, and whose goal is to play the sport well. And when you want to excel at a sport, you have to spend considerable time training, which we don’t do. We think that will will go directly into the final match and will win, but we have to practice, we have to spend considerable time training, which means that we have to spend time learning, we have to see what other companies are doing. We have to see, for example, Traction/GTM strategy/distribution strategy of major companies, leaders at UnAcademy spent considerable time studying those strategies. Hey, this company is doing well. How do they get traction now? Do they acquire users? How are they able to scale? How do they acquire their supply.
Do you take notes? Just for the audience, what does your structure look like for learning.
Gaurav Munjal 17:11
Yeah. At this very moment, I have probably 8000 notes in my Notes app. I use Apple notes. I have my work dashboard. I have my meeting notes. I have my learning dashboard. My learning is very structured. Every meeting that I do probably ends up with certain notes. In the same app, I maintain my diary. So, it’s very structured. Every idea that I get is documented here. Then there are structured meetings for the week. There is an organizational framework. And if you don’t track these things, it’s very difficult to be productive at any stage whether you are a five member team or a 500 member team.
And for you, there is a recall process also that you at the end of every week or weekend, you visit these notes back from a week?
Gaurav Munjal 18:14
I spend close to hour and a half on these notes. So I do document it. For example, I have something called as a work calendar. In the work canlendar. It’s not a to-do list. But let’s say I got five ideas today. Now these ideas can be long term ideas, or these can be fixes that I want to do. I will just put them under 20th December, or 21st December. I’ve been doing this for the last two-three years. And I have hundreds of such items. And whenever I complete it, I tick it. Now every day I go to these points of the last 30 days or last 40 days. And I pick and then some of them I prioritize over others. It’s a very structured process. I was in fact planning to write a blog post regarding that.
I’m looking forward to it. Gaurav, tell us about the journey of Unacademy in key milestones.
Gaurav Munjal 19:16
We founders do a very interesting exercise. We keep writing stuff. You know, sometimes some small thing happens and that’s like a butterfly effect. And sometimes a big thing happens. Instead of a milestone, we say when we look back in retrospect, like oh! this is one of the reasons we have reached where we have reached. And I have a list of those. So first thing is that when Roman quit Unacademy and because he had built a brand on our YouTube channel, and he quit that, and he became one of the largest online educators in the country. When he quit that, that gave our brand a kind of boost. Second, when we launched our educator app, nobody was building a platform. People were building content companies, but from day one, our focus has been building platform. And when we launched that, and we made it very very easy for people to create educational videos through $100 smartphone, I think that was disruption because for platforms to succeed, you need to start with the creation tool. If you make creation easy, Instagram made creation of beautiful posts easy. Tik tok has made creation of entertainment videos easy. When you make creation easy, that’s the starting of a platform. So when we made our educator app, and we made it super easy for people to create educational lessons. When we were making videos on YouTube, the learning curve to create an educational video was three hours. But we got down it to three minutes in our educator app, and I think that was powerful. Then, the next next, I think, we we have been lucky to get some of the best investors on board whether that’s Blume whether that’s a SAIF, Nexus or Sequoia and in the last round, Steadview, I think there have been times I have said no to investors, and there have been times investors have said no to me. And in retrospect I think I’m very happy with the group of partners and our investors that funded Unacademy and became our board of directors. I think having a solid Board of Directors is something that is very very essential. And I was very wary of the fact that who was joining our Board and the chemistry needs to be there. And I’m very happy about the current Board we have and I think that helped us a lot in reaching where we have reached. Then we acquired Wifi-Study one year back, which helped us enter into the government exams markets like SSC, banking, railways, which was very good for us. And I think that was also a pivotal moment for us. And apart from that when we launched our plus subscription earlier this year, within almost 11 months now, we have 72,000 paid subscribers, and things are going well. So then we launched a plus subscription, which was live classes. That kind of helped us a lot and most recently, a pivotal moment was our first marketing campaign, the TV campaign and everything with the tagline “let’s crack it” and we decided that “Let’s crack it” is a tagline that we will probably forever use. Because “let’s crack it” talks about our goal to help the learners who really want to crack these examinations. And I think we have received the “let’s crack it” anthem, which was made by the Gully Boy team. It has received marvellous reviews across and things are going well. So, I’m sure I’m missing some more pivotal moments. For example, in the early days of UnAcademy, Sujit Kumar of Udaan and Kalyan of Flipkart also invested in us. And both of them have been very very strong mentors. Both of them have scaled their organizations, and I’ve learnt a lot from them. Getting Bhavin on board as a Board of Director was a very important moment because I’ve learned a lot from Bhavin. Having Shailendra from Sequoia on the Board of Directors, so you know, these four five people who I personally go to if I need advice or help. And I’ve been lucky to have them on board as advisors. I think that has been very pivotal for an UnAcademy.
So coming to the part of Gaurav as a storyteller, you have evolved beautifully as a founder in terms of the narrative, which you have built from day one. Was this the number one pillar to bring such great advisors and investors in UnAcademy?
Gaurav Munjal 24:29
I don’t know why they came. I think it was not one thing. If I had to say number one pillar, I think it was clarity. Many founders built because they want to build for a particular market or because they want to build because VCs are investing for that particular product. For example, I think that except a few companies, a lot of companies which started in the income share agreement market. That was because investors were funding those particular type of companies, or a lot of companies which started focusing on. So basically the point being that we were never building for anyone except ourselves. We had identified the problem. And that’s why we were very clear about it. So I remember an investor pitch, I don’t want to name the investor, the investor asked me ” Oh! Will you eventually do that?” I said no. And they were stunned because they were expecting a different answer. I think one of the reasons that we have been able to raise funds is because of our sheer execution capabilities, we have executed in a manner that is 20x, 30x or even 100x better than others. We have changed this industry. So, we just completed four years and I wrote a blog post about that. There are two types of successful companies. There is a successful company, which is a successful company and which creates value for shareholders. But there is a successful company which also creates a dent. The successful company, which also creates a dent eventually ends up moving the industry forward. They innovate a lot. They care about every small thing. For example, when you use an iPhone versus any other phone or when you go to an Oberoi versus any other five star. For example, Oberoi is one of my favorite brands. Why? Because if I told them about one brand of tea, which I like, every time I go there, they’re going to serve me that tea or if I call them for something twice, they will get very obsessed and they will apologize that they should have done it in the first place. That obsession for the customer, like that unparalleled obsession. And I think we have had that. So whether it’s the live class model, whether it’s the subscription model, whether it’s having hundreds of educators at scale teaching from their homes, or it’s hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, we have been the first or it’s even the educator app, or it’s the way our brand campaign is structured. Our aim is not to be a successful company alone. Our aim is to be a successful company and create a dent. I think investors see that and not just investors, potential team members. If I’m hiring great leaders for my team, they understand the difference between a successful company and a successful company which will also create a dent. And obviously the ability of us to communicate that well, has been there, but I wouldn’t say that, you know, I’ve been able to raise funds because I’ve been a storyteller. I think most founders are good storytellers. We have been able to reach where we have reached because of our execution capabilities, because we are focused on branding from day one, because we have innovated, and our focus has been to redefine the industry, not to just copy a working business model and build a better mousetrap. Our goal always has been that, how can we do this differently? How can we change the game? And, by the way, I forgot to mention that one of my most helpful mentors has also been Kunal Shah of CRED. I think he’s one of the most candid mentors and he has always given brutal and candid feedback, which has helped me improve as an entrepreneur. So, it’s also an advice to other entrepreneurs that please have mentors who tell you the reality when nobody else can. Because very few people will be honest and brutal. And if they are, don’t take it personally, don’t get offended by their brutal feedback.
So, what is UnAcademy replacing in the physical world?
Gaurav Munjal 29:25
See, the goal is to not replace anything in the physical world, for example, 80% of the country doesn’t have access to great coaching centers for these examinations. So technically, if a product reaches their smartphones, we are not replacing the coaching centers, they are getting access to the best teachers. Let’s say if they’re preparing for JEE. We have the best teachers of Kota teaching live on UnAcademy plus, and there is no bias that only the best performers can join the batch of best teachers, you can access the best content. So the goal is not to replace anything. The startup doesn’t start with replacing things from the physical world. The goal is to democratize education in a way where education should not be a privilege for the people who can afford it. For example, if I have to go to a coaching center in Kota, Jaipur or Delhi, that’s around $2,000, just as the fees, and then living expenditure and everything is probably $4,000 per annum, whereas our product for the similar exam is probably $400 for one year. It’s 1/10th. And we are reaching places where those centers are not reaching. For example, offline centers are not present in most cities. And 70-80% of our learners are from tier two or tier three cities. So I have nothing against physical centers. I think they are doing a great job and they will continue to do a great job. But we will give access to people who don’t have access and to those who have a biased access. For example, if you go to a physical center today in Kota or Jaipur, and if your rank is higher in their entrance exam, then you get access to the best teachers. Why is that? I mean through technology, if this podcast can be heard by every entrepreneur irrespective of their location, then if a teacher is teaching something great, that should be accessible by every learner, irrespective of their location and 10 standard marks. Why differentiate a student because the student has cleared NTSE, has got more marks in 10 standard. So I think that is one of the challenges that I faced as an entrepreneur, where a coaching center in 11 standard didn’t give me the right batch, because I didn’t get good marks in their entrance exam. So what they’re eventually doing is selection bias where they say that hey, we’ll pick the best students and will give the best resources to them. And then we will show that hey, out of the top hundred rankers xyz are ours. what we are saying is we will give the best access to everyone at an affordable cost, and we will reach where these physical centers can’t reach. I think physical centers will continue to exist. I think people who love our teachers, our product will continue to use our product. The goal is to not replace anything, the goal is to really build something that helps people crack their examinations. Our entire team is obsessed about giving learners and educators the best experience.
What has been the process that from day one, you have been able to get the best educators which you differentiate yourselves in on the UnAcademy platform.
Gaurav Munjal 32:50
So see, the founders of UnAcademy have been content creators themselves. For example, when I was in college, I used to run bunch of Facebook pages. Roman and I both are in the top 20 most followed Quora writers in the world. Now when you understand what creators want, then you are able to build an organization from a product, relationship management, content level that others are not able to. Because we have done it ourselves, that gives us an edge, but it doesn’t mean others can’t learn it. It’s just that we have been obsessed about it. For example, we have an educator delight team. And I’m publicly saying it that makes us different because overall, I want the industry to benefit from it. Now that educated delight team is obsessed about giving memorable moments to the educators. See all companies will pay the educators but the companies which makes the educators feel very, very good about themselves and feel that you know, even if they’re working remotely, they’re a part of a mission. That is the organization that will retain the best educators and and we do that through our educator delight team. We have events for them. We have contests for them recently, we did Secret Santa for our educators who are not even in our office, who are sitting at their homes, but they go crazy about the small things, you need to compliment them for the smallest of the stuff. And then obviously, you need to build that gamification around your product, that if learners can give them positive feedback, because for an educator, educator will consider himself or herself successful if learners benefit from their teaching, and if you have a product which can help that, you know, that thought of a learner or the fact that learner cracked something by reaching the educator, that’s powerful. So for example, we have a gamification built where learners can dedicate knowledge hats to educators, and every time it happens, an educator post that on social media because for them, that’s the satisfaction. Because money they can get from a lot of other places also. So I think we are more than anything, we have been very, very obsessed about making sure that our educators and learners have the best experience. For example, if it’s their hundredth class, they’ll get a cake and flowers from us that hey today is your 100th live class and then these small things matter a lot, which other people think it doesn’t. Because there is no direct ROI of this. You can’t measure the expense of the cake that I will send. You need to realize that at the end of the day, great organizations are not built on Excel sheets. Numbers are very important. But great successful organizations care about the small things which we do.
Gaurav, Obsessive is a word you mentioned continuously during our conversation. It is one of your leadership principles. And you are now interacting with many founders and investors. How being an obsessive founder helps you when you see others who are more relaxed about but building in the same fashion.
Gaurav Munjal 36:12
I mean, the negative side is that I have difficulty sleeping on most days because I’m too much worried about everything. But the positive side is that we are reshaping the industry as we know. We’re giving nightmares to all our competitors, about what our next move will be. Because most of them are worried about what will UnAcademy do next? Will they come in our segment or not? And that’s not something to be proud of, not that particular thing. But we are in general just proud of helping shape this industry. For example, every other education player is copying us right now. Every other education player is launching the subscription model that makes me feel happy, because we are changing the industry. I feel that great companies are built on obsession and paranoia. If you just want to build a successful company, it’s not needed. But if you want to build a successful company, which also creates a dent, which moves the industry forward, you need to build that. Andy Grove, the guy who invented OKRs as we know wrote only Paranoid Survive. In fact, Andy Grove, his management style, his leadership philosophies, have been very, very good. So you should read some of the things on the management principles that he has written.
Gaurav, you are a learning machine and you have said it again and again in this podcast that how do you learn. So in your team, and especially among your leadership team, how do you transfer the same passion of learning is difficult because as a founder disseminating that same values.
Gaurav Munjal 38:16
It’s not difficult if you use the right tools. One of the interesting part about our organization is that we will be using tools that probably other organizations would adapt 18 to 24 months later. For example, a tool I use is called loom. It’s a tool to share thoughts and feedback very quickly. And before you came here, I was just recording a loom video, which was like a 10 minute long video, because you have figured out the best tools and because we live in a world where you have products like Slack, so if I’m reading something, I quickly share my notes on slack. I have a reading notes group on WhatsApp. There are times when I start my leadership meeting with people watching a 30 minute video. So for example, if founders really want to build a culture of learning, they can. I have focused on learning, I can make my leadership focused on learning. But you know, and then that becomes your values. So the values of an organization are not what they put up on the wall. The values are the mission statement of an organization, is what you do every single day. Now, because people see me reading and sharing notes every single day, they get inspired, and they start reading. For example, I gave my entire core team a book, called The Score Takes Care of itself by Bill Walsh. And people read it. So, you know, culture is what you do every day. It’s not what you put up on the wall. So if you want to build up a learning culture start doing it.
Let’s talk about distribution in UnAcademy that you have been able to crack very successfully. You invested in branding from day one, what was the thought process behind it, when you had $1 million just in the bank account.
Gaurav Munjal 40:17
I wouldn’t say we invested because first brand campaign just happened a couple of weeks back. We always thought about it. Branding is not about having a brand book or doing a branding campaign. Branding is about what you stand for. And you tell the world. Apple stands for beautiful products that help you create stuff. And then everything that they do, that message is there. We stood for empowering educators and making it super accessible for learners to access high quality content and everything that we will do even if that was it was a tweet that we were posting, or it was a blog post, or it was how our educators are posting, we made sure that we communicated that. So, branding is about standing for something, and communicating that. That’s it and we have always focused from day one. We have made sure that what we are communicating what we stand for.
And in terms of other channels of distribution besides YouTube, because YouTube has been a phenomenal channel you shared that when you started the company UnAcademy the YouTube channel already had 1 million views per month.
Gaurav Munjal 41:36
UnAcademy was doing a million views per month
and today it’s doing almost hundred million views per month, the YouTube channel.
Gaurav Munjal 41:43
We are doing close to 140 million video views across our own platform and our YouTube channels per month.
So, what have been the distribution or growth leavers from 2015 to 2019 that you can share?
Gaurav Munjal 41:57
So, I would go back. Like the structured answer to this, if you read the book Traction by the founder of DuckDuckGo, he says that every orbit shift, let’s say, when you want to get your first hundred users; 2000 to 10,000 to first hundred thousand users, you need different traction channels, what strategy worked for you to get first hundred users will not work to get the next thousand or the next 10,000 users. I think Quora has worked very well for us during the initial stages of the organization. Roman and I were writing a lot on Quora about our mission about what we were doing and I think that helped us acquire great educators and build a brand around it. I think the fact that we got a lot of toppers of different examinations helped us. In fact have a brand called chamomile tea with toppers on YouTube. So YouTube, Quora, experimenting different things, you know, there is a bunch of stuff which has helped us and probably it’s not one traction channel; at different stages we have used different traction channels. For example, at the current stage, we are doing massive TV ads and newspaper ads and stuff like that. Because I mean that is needed for the next level of growth at different stages. YouTube has been one of the biggest channels
and paid advertising was there from day one?
Gaurav Munjal 43:18
No, no. Paid advertising, we started early 2019. For the first three years, we did not spend any money.
So no money spent on Google ads, Facebook ads.
Gaurav Munjal 43:26
So, the burn has been relatively quite less. For example, we have raised $88 million so far. And $60 million is in the bank. So, my entire series D of $50 million is still in the bank, my Series C money which was $21 million, half of it is in the bank. So we have been very, very mindful about burning less money. So you know, a lot of people get surprised when I tell them that out of the $88 million we have raised, $60 million in the bank, but that’s the reality.
What’s the reason behind one after the other fundraises when you don’t need that kind of money.
Gaurav Munjal 44:03
If I’m getting a great partner. I mean, when we raised series A, few months later, we also closed our Series B round, because when I met Shailendra, and then I met Mukul and Alok. And it was like, those people on the board will help me reach where I want to reach where all of us want to reach. And I think that’s why we did it.
But doesn’t that give the pressure of having a large exit? Because the more later stage shareholders you have on your board, the larger the exit as an entrepreneur, you need to get them.
Gaurav Munjal 44:40
Yeah, but what’s the pressure? That makes the game more challenging, which is a good thing, because if it’s easy to do, it’s not worth doing. So you would rather have a more challenging game, because that’s how growth happens. That’s how you evolve. That’s how your team evolves. I mean, ff anybody is given a bigger opportunity, why would a person not take that bigger opportunity and shoot for the moon? I mean that that has been my life’s principle that always choose the more difficult path, always.
Coming on to monetization, you started from this year Feb. And today you have more than 70,000 paid subscribers for UnAcademy plus. A very few brands in India and a very few online companies in India have been able to go distribution first for a long time 2015-2019 in your case, and they’ll crack monetization the way you cracked it. What was the thought process behind it? It could have gone wrong also have people not subscribed to UnAacademy plus.
Gaurav Munjal 45:45
No, it couldn’t have gone wrong because one of the things about us as founders and leaders at an Unacademy is that grit is there. We don’t give up. So, it would have been very difficult. And we pivoted a lot, by the way, in fact, before launching the plus subscription, we must have done at least seven, eight different monetization experiments. We did experiments of, if a learner can dedicate something to a teacher directly, and we take a cut, or if teachers can sell their individual courses, we did bunch of experiments. And we finally picked something. So it’s not like we just launched plus subscription. And we did a lot of experiments and a lot of things didn’t work. So you know, initially, the goal was to build something like a YouTube for education. And a lot of people understood that. And I think people know that. When you’re building a platform, you can always monetize later. But if you have a place where you have great educators and learners, you have supply and demand, eventually you can monetize it. And we were lucky to have also investors who were not pushing us for monetization at any point of time.
In India, traditionally, people haven’t paid for online content. What did you do differently that people started paying for the online content?
Gaurav Munjal 47:07
I don’t think it’s online versus offline. I think it’s the behavior if people pay to offline institutes to crack the exam, and you give them a product, which is 100x better at 1/10th the cost, why would they not? It’s not about content, because the final thing, it was not like, we were giving entertainment content or stuff like that. There were actual teachers teaching live. And 80% of the country didn’t have access to it. So I think that was wonderful.
What’s your vision for UnAcademy two or three years down the line? Where do you want UnAcademy to be? Is it an IPO that you are aiming at?
Gaurav Munjal 47:53
It keeps on changing. If the metric is valuation, and you want me to define that metric, though it’s not, the goal has been to build the largest educational platform with the world and test prep is how we start with eventually we want to go into everything, like starting with maybe K-12. If three years ago you would have asked me, I would have told you that I want UnAcademy to be a unicorn but I think UnAcademy will be a unicorn in 12 months. I think we will get there very fast. I think UnAcademy can be a $10 billion company. I think we can be a very, very large organization. We have fundamentals in place and the market is big enough. So I mean, if we are not able to be a very, very large company that means we fucked up something. It means we did something wrong. Because we have been lucky to get the right investors. We have been lucky to have such a big market opportunity. We have been lucky to be great product that now we need to focus and keep executing.
So Gaurav, you do a lot of introspection. Today, we are sitting on Saturday in Oberoi, where this is your introspection Day, what do you think as a founder, your strengths and weaknesses are as of today?
Gaurav Munjal 49:18
I think my strength is that I’m more obsessed than most people I know. And I think my weakness is that I’m more obsessed than most people I know because sometimes you are not able to cut off. So this level of obsession helps you be good at some things. But there are places where you need to let go. And sometimes that’s difficult for me. But I’m working on this and I will get there. So for example, maybe I can be obsessed on one thing, but I get obsessed about a lot of things, which is something that I need to probably work on, but I try and then I need to focus on my health because I think in the last two, three years, I have gained close to 10-11 kgs which I need to reduce. So I think if I had to fix one thing, then that these two things would be that learning to knowing the difference and where to be obsessed and where to let go. And though if I’m not obsessed about something that I want my team to be obsessed about something. It’s not like I let go and that particular thing will be bad. It just that I need to build a layer of people in UnAcademy who carry forward that obsession. And second is my health which which, recently since the past few months, I’ve started focusing very much.
Now coming on the side of Gaurav as an angel investor. Why do you angel invest?
Gaurav Munjal 50:52
I don’t. The only angel investments I have done are Unacademy team members were gone and started their own companies or my friends, or if a friend is saying that they’re investing in this company. I don’t actively angel invest. I invested in Nishant who was building Bolo and who’s now building Newton school. He’s ex UnAcademy and I have invested in Sumit who is now building OpenTalk. He’s my mentor. And he was the CEO of Common Floor, when they acquired us. I’ve known him for a very long time. I invested in Shashank Murli for TapChief because I have known him for a very long time. I don’t do angel investments. It’s not like I won’t do if I see something, but usually I have done in places where I knew the founder. I don’t actively go out looking for deals.
It’s just to show your confidence.
Gaurav Munjal 51:49
Yeah, I mean, if I like a product and if I like the founder.
You have become a true example of 100x entrepreneur.
Gaurav Munjal 52:00
Not yet because if I start believing I’m 100xEntrepreneur, then I would stop learning. I’m not 100xEntrepreneur yet. There is a long way to go.
Wow, you exemplify a very deep drive as an entrepreneur who is still very hungry as of this day.
Gaurav Munjal 52:17
Yeah, it’s not the destination. It’s not like tomorrow if I have hundred million dollars in my bank account, that’s my end goal. I am still that twelve year old guy who wanted to build a computer program that other people could use. So, because there is no destination. This is a sport that I play and I’m going to play till I am alive. So because there is no destination, that means there is nothing to be satisfied about. You have to always keep on learning and keep building stuff which create an impact. So Bhavin has this quote, which I believe in completely is that we all have a moral obligation to deliver according to our potential. And I think if I need to keep creating stuff till the time I can create stuff. So yeah, and that’s a moral obligation. So whether I’m 100xEntrepreneur or I feel happy about it, I can’t because I don’t have a destination. This is a sport, I’ll keep on playing and I’ll keep on getting better at it. And I’ll keep on taking feedback and I’ll keep on learning. And I’ll keep on building. With the help of my team and my founders I will keep on building great stuff.
Who are the three investors or three entrepreneurs, you would like to listen to on 100xEntrepreneur?
Gaurav Munjal 53:57
I like how Deepinder Goyal thinks and he knows that I like his blogs. So I think he would be a good entrepreneur to get on your podcast and then probably Bhavin from flock and Zeta. And Kunal from CRED.
Thank you so much for being on the podcast, Gaurav. It’s amazing to get into the mind of Gaurav munjal.
Gaurav Munjal 54:34
These podcasts sometimes help you introspect in areas that you had forgotten about. I think it was also a conversation with my own self about what are the things that I need to work on and, also to remember the things which have helped us get here, and thanks a lot for having me here.
On a final note, would you like to share some books for the listeners who want to grow as an entrepreneur like you.
Gaurav Munjal 55:04
So I have a blog, blog.gauravmunjal.com where I have a list of books. Pick up any book that has been mentioned. It’s a very low key blog. I kind of keep posting about the stuff I’m reading and learning.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai