07 Feb 2017 14:55 IST

How professionals UpGrad(e) to entrepreneurs

Serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala wants to change lives via online education venture

StartupIndia, which launched 16 January 16, 2016, has a lofty mission of creating the next million entrepreneurs in India. Online education start-up UpGrad, which took off in November 2015 with a course on entrepreneurship, has a similar ambition.

Given the same goals, the twain had to meet. And it did on the first anniversary of StartUp India this year, when UpGrad became the government programme’s official education partner.

Co-founded by media magnate Ronnie Screwvala along with Mayank Kumar, Ravijot Chugh, and Prabhav Phalgun, Mumbai-based UpGrad offers a free four-week online course to wannabe entrepreneurs through Startup India. “It’s a shorter, compact version of our paid 15-week entrepreneurship programme,” says Mayank.

Three modules

The four-week course is divided into three modules — idea validation, how to set up a company, pitching and fund raising.” Even before it had formally launched, says Mayank, there were 17,000 registrations, and the hope is that one lakh people will register by the end of three weeks. The eventual target is a million people.

“We sought them — they did not seek us out,” admits Screwvala, with disarming candour, describing how the partnership with the government came about. As Mayank says, “The idea was that since UpGrad already had an entrepreneurship programme, could we build the ecosystem further by partnering with Startup India.” For Screwvala, who turned entrepreneur two decades ago, getting involved in UpGrad was a careful choice. “I was clear that anything I get involved in to have impact, he says. “We are going to change and influence lives,” he adds.

At the same time, he clarifies that UpGrad has been set up with profit goals. “This is clear business. We want to create multi-billion dollar company.”

The building block

Screwvala, who founded UTV group (which he exited in 2014), is now invested in 15 ventures through his VC firm Unilazer Ventures, and is promoting UpGrad and USports (a sports company) heavily. He says he was actively looking to do something in the education space and a friend suggested he meet Mayank, who had a business plan. Mayank been involved in the education space for the last 10 years either advising companies or deal making. “I had raised close to a billion dollars for companies in the education space,” he says. The meeting with Screwvala clicked and UpGrad was born.

Cumulatively, the founders have invested about ₹ 30-40 crore in the venture so far, says Screwvala and there is no external funding.

Upgrad currently offers four courses– entrepreneurship, digital marketing, data analytics and product management. While the flagship course aims to create entrepreneurs, the focus in the other three is to help individuals move up in their corporate career. The courses range from 9 months to 11 months and cost anywhere between ₹50,000 and ₹2 lakh and are created with industry and academic participation.

The impact

A year after it started, UpGrad did an impact assessment. Four batches comprising a total of 400 students have graduated. Of these 10 per cent have found funding. “Sixty per cent of the students who came in with no business idea have quit their jobs and started up,” says Mayank. As for those who already had start-ups, about 45 per cent pivoted their business.

Take Romil Jain, founder, Gentclub.in, a styling and shopping service for men, who says when he joined the course, he was still prototyping his product. Today, he has over 5,000 registered users and says the entrepreneurship programme was almost like a launchpad.

About 90-95 per cent of the students complete the course, says Screwvala. “That’s the crux. Without them completing, our programme won’t succeed,” he says. By contrast says Mayank, in free programmes, the completion rate is only 10 per cent. “We have put in place a strong student support team. A lot of human element is involved. That hand-holding is very much required to achieve 90-95 per cent completion,” he says.

But massive open online courses such as Coursera, Udacity are all turning paid now and may pose competition for UpGrad. Apart from these global competitors, there are desi players such as EduRekha and Simplilearn in the same space, so UpGrad cannot afford to be complacent. The differentiator will be in the courses they offer. “We are the only ones to have an online course on entrepreneurship,” says Mayank.

The goal is to end March this year with 2,000 students. Isn’t getting students a challenge? “We have both online and offline activation, we partner with various organisations such as TiE, YourStory, SIDBI, co-working spaces and incubators,” says Mayank. But bulk of the acquisition comes through online channels.

Scaling up

A clear path has been laid for scaling up. “Our overall outlay will be about ₹300 crore in next three to four years,” says Screwvala. Of this, ₹100 crore is allocated to B2C business – the current model in which students are directly targeted. Another ₹100 crore will be allocated towards B2B business which UpGrad will expand into. This will be in the area of corporate learning. There are also plans to go international, especially to South East Asia.

Eight new courses are on the anvil as well. These will be in two buckets – data and digital, and will see programmes such as design thinking, digital transformation and UX/UI. “Data and digital are the future. We don’t see them as niche, they will be mass. We feel inclination to pay will be higher for these courses, if you get it right,” says Screwvala.

Will Screwvala fund any of UpGrad’s students ventures through Unilazer? He says he has closed his purse-strings to new ventures. “Besides, it will destroy the credibility,” he says simply.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)


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