An IIT aspirant's study room is like the Chamber of Secrets. At every turn, you are faced with a dozen books scribbled with doubts to be cleared at a later time, which, in most cases, never comes.
With the HashLearn Now app, aspirants can have their doubts cleared at any hour of the day by banking on students from top institutions. "Getting you your own Dumbledore," the app flashes, referring to the headmaster of the school of wizards in the Harry Potter series as it finds a tutor in less than four minutes.
In other words, HashLearn aims to disrupt the way the coaching industry works in India by imbibing elements of social networking.
HashLearn Education Pvt Ltd has two products to offer. HashLearn.com, which went live in December 2014, is a platform where students post their queries and exchange inputs on many major exams, such as the IITJEE, GMAT, GRE, SAT or BITSAT. HashLearn Now, which is the more recent offering, is a mobile-only product that connects students with tutors for private sessions any time of the day.
Co-founder and CEO Jayadev Gopalakrishnan says HashLearn.com is like the Twitter for education while HashLearn Now is akin to WhatsApp.
Gopalakrishnan is a serial entrepreneur with 14 years of experience in education and mobile. He has previously worked as president of retail education at Pearson Education Services, MD at test preparation platform Tandem and CEO of mobile games and apps developer Tinfo Mobile.
Gopalakrishnan set up the company along with Gokul Janga, its CTO. Janga is a technologist who was the former country head of the India Development Center at Aventail, a network security product company that was acquired by SonicWall. He also co-founded Mapunity, a social technology company that built Bengaluru Transport Information System â€“ India's first real-time traffic monitoring system. Prior to that, he worked for DHL in San Fransico Bay Area.
The app was launched after HashLearn in June acquired Edvice, a company focused on mobile-based tutoring co-founded by BITS Pilani alumni Shashank Murali and Binay Kumar Shivam.
Potential market, competition
Every year, an estimated 13 lakh to 14 lakh students take the first part of the Joint Entrance Examination for admission to the country's top engineering colleges including IITs. Of these, about a 10th reach the second stage. A large number of these students, if not all, take coaching either from individuals or private institutions. It is this potential market that HashLearn is looking to tap into.
Including primary and high-school students who take help from private tuitors, the overall coaching market is a Rs 1.5 lakh crore industry in India, according to a survey by the industry group Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.
While the coaching industry is dominated by offline players, the number of companies in the e-learning segment is rising. The segment has established players such as Khan Academy, which provides tutoring through videos, and upcoming players such as FlipClass, Buddyschool, Tutorindia and 2tion. However, none of these provide tutoring through a mobile app.
HashLearn's model involves taking on board students of premier institutions such as IITs to tutor aspirants. "Since these students have cracked the exams themselves, they do not need any training and can become productive on the platform instantly," said Gopalakrishnan. HashLearn Now is focused on aspirants from tier 2 and tier 3 cities who may not have a desktop and depend on their phones for internet.
The tutoring sessions typically involve one-on-one chat and last 15 minutes on average. This is different from the time-bound videos or long-form content that dominate the private coaching market.
The startup earns revenue by charging a small fee from aspirants for the tutoring sessions. The fee can either be on a "pay as you go model", where students can top up HashLearn's wallet for as low as Rs 49 and get a certain number of free minutes, or the unlimited subscription model, where students can get as many sessions as they want for Rs 499. Tutors are paid on the basis of the number of sessions they take.
The company claims it is doubling its user base every month, though it refuses to reveal the actual number. It claims also that it has 54 per cent repeat users. The company says teaching sessions have happened as late as 1.30 am to as early as 5 am, indicating that tutors are available even at odd hours to help learners.
HashLearn does not have any marketing strategies, and the cost of customer acquisition is limited to the free 30 minutes that every student gets after signing up. The company also has a referral programme, where a student gets 10 minutes free if a friend signs up.
The company said it will revamp its site over the next three months though it didn't disclose details. The mobile app had recently won the third edition of StartEdu competition, organised by Unitus Seed Fund and Sylvant Advisors. The prize included $7,500 (Rs 5 lakh) and a chance to pitch to Unitus for seed investment of up to $151,000 (Rs 1 crore). The startup hasn't revealed the outcome of the pitch.
While HashLearn hasn't disclosed whether it has received funding, the ed-tech space is generating a lot of investor interest and many startups have received investment in the recent past.
In September, MockBank, a startup that provides online mock tests for government jobs, had raised about $400,000 (Rs 2.6 crore) in seed funding from Blume Ventures and others. India Educational Investment Fund had invested an undisclosed amount in two Indian education technology startups â€“ Report Bee Edusys Pvt Ltd, a cloud-based learning platform and Guru-G Learning Labs (India) Pvt. Ltd, a gamified platform for teachers.
However, investors are in two minds about the scalability of HashLearn's business. Angel investor Ajeet Khurana, who has not invested in HashLearn, said the company can create a small, profitable niche for itself because the market size is large and engineering aspirants are willing to pay.
"Using text chat for micro training sessions of 10 minutes or less for engineering aspirants is an interesting twist to the usual method of coaching. This presents a nice value-add to students who are being coached elsewhere and need the equivalent of a second-opinion," he said.
But Khurana is doubtful whether this mode of coaching and problem solving can replace mainstream coaching. "Recruiting trainers will be less of a challenge. Large-scale adoption of this mode of learning by students is the greatest challenge that HashLearn faces," he said.