Friday, 23 November 2012

An Interview With Sanjay Bhadra

Around thirteen years ago, I met Sanjay for the first time when I joined an MNC Bank as an inhouse lawyer. An alumnus of IIM Bangalore, Sanjay was roughly my age and as different from me as chalk from cheese. Whilst I constantly suffered from verbal diarrhea, Sanjay was one of those silent ‘fundu’ chaps who people went to for counsel when they needed serious advice. Recently I found out that Sanjay had co-founded a start-up with a couple of other friends and I persuaded him to tell me a bit about his start-up and himself for Winnowed’s readers.

Winnowed: Sanjay, you’ve recently set up Spanedea. How many of people are involved in this start-up?

Sanjay: There are two of us. My co-founder is Nitin Bansal, my batchmate from IIM Bangalore, veteran of Airtel, Unitech and his prior education start up.

Winnowed: And what exactly does Spanedea offer?

Sanjay: Spanedea is an online marketplace for live and interactive teaching. On Spanedea, students and teachers meet in a virtual class, which is typically held in a 1-to-1 or very small class format. The virtual classroom is equipped with audio visual tools designed for a teaching environment. If you can teach something, anything, and want to offer your services to students, then all you need to do is register yourself on Spanedea and put up your profile along with details of the course you propose to offer. Students who wish to learn from you can contact you and take lessons from you. If you are a student and want to learn something, say you want to learn programming or a foreign language like Russian or French, serious formal lessons rather than ‘tourist learning’ mind you, or you want to prepare for the GRE or GMAT, you can locate an appropriate teacher on Spanedea and take lessons from that teacher. Teachers fix their own rates and students can optimize learning as per their own needs and resource constraints. Feedback from students is automatically reflected on the teacher’s profile page and will be visible to prospective students. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Winnowed: That sounds fantastic! How is payment made by the students? Is it made directly to the teacher or does it pass through you?

Sanjay: The students pay us, and we keep it safe until the classes are delivered by the teachers. A small revenue share is deducted from the payment finally made to the teachers.

Winnowed: Can someone in say, faraway Guwahati take French lessons from a teacher based in Pondicherry?

Sanjay: Of course. That’s the idea. Or for that matter prep for GMAT Verbal from a teacher in LA!

Winnowed: Talking of ideas, when did you get this idea?

Sanjay: Well Nitin and I have both been immersed in thoughts about how education can be changed improved or by the Internet. We have observed lots of content based ventures make attempts to serve this market - by content I mean video or interactive tests, games etc. Our plan is simple; connect people - teachers and learners, and support them with infrastructure and tools.

Winnowed: Does Spanedea have a core philosophy, an ideology, I mean, something like an USP, you know what I mean.

Sanjay: (laughs) yes we do. Is there any business which doesn’t have one these days? We believe that ‘People Teach People Best’. We don’t think a student can learn from a stale video recorded lecture which will not allow any interaction with the teacher. At Spanedea, our teachers diagnose the student’s exact learning needs and provide precision teaching. Every student has different needs and access to good quality teachers and personalized education helps the smart students to advance faster and the 'challenged' students to get the handholding they require.

Sanjay Bhadra at his Spanedea office

Winnowed: Who are your main competitors?

Sanjay: There is nobody quite like us (Sanjay laughs). From a perspective of mindshare there are a number of players operating in the same space. There are video sites such as KhanAcademy, Udemy, Coursera etc. Then you have technology education companies such as NIIT and Aptech. Finally there are a number of online classes providing exam support in subject such as GMAT, GRE, SAT etc. Names like Manhattan, Princeton Review, Kaplan etc. come to mind. We compete with all of these. Still we believe we are different, unique even. We want to be the answer, whenever the question is ‘where do I find a teacher’? Some of the these sites that provide ‘content’ could actually be used by our teachers like ‘textbooks’

Winnowed: What are your long term plans?

Sanjay: We have already launched Spanedea, and have students who have made paid enrolments into courses; right now GRE prep seems to be hot. Importantly we continue to search and evaluate passionate and high quality teachers. Application development is continual and we are still recruiting for development, UX and marketing. Spanedea has over 80 campus interns across India; they are presently studying in different colleges and our Facebook community has crossed 20,000 fans. As a long term goal, we aim to be the teaching destination of choice for the very best independent teachers and the online learning service of choice for discerning students who have a lot at stake.

Winnowed: Has Spanedea been affected by the current economic climate? Do you expect the Indian’s economy to look up anytime soon?

Sanjay: Honestly, we are too small to be affected by the economic climate. From a trend perspective, and to throw in a cliche here, in a fast changing world, learning cannot stop. You are never done learning, never safe from having to re-skill yourself. I think independent teachers or niche institutes will play a very important part in keeping all of us productive.

Winnowed: Would you say that your previous jobs and work experience have helped you in this enterprise or do you regret not having started this venture even earlier in your life?

Sanjay: Obviously experience helps. Experience is not an automatic knowledge dispenser though, one must constantly grind out learning from it! In general, whenever the idea (and the plan to realize it) occurs - I would say just do it!

Winnowed: Tell me a bit about yourself – what do you do when you are not working?

Sanjay: These days, I don’t have much free time. When I am not working. When not working, I am still thinking about working. I follow sports though scores on the Net, and late night replays on TV!

Winnowed: Now that you are your own boss, have your working hours reduced?

Sanjay: Now I serve customers, so I have many bosses. Working hours are probably up; but honestly no complaints!

Winnowed: Do you have any advice for an individual who is currently in a secure employment and is making plans to start something on his own?

Sanjay: Ask yourself if you really are secure and what security means to you – that’s all. Talk to people who have taken the plunge and are three or four steps down the road. Give yourself adequate time to get it right - expect a marathon!

Winnowed: Is there anything the government could do to help entrepreneurs like you?

Sanjay: In general, I suppose rules and regulations could be simplified. Not sure if expecting the government to help is a good idea!

Winnowed: Will you be looking for venture capital funding anytime soon?

Sanjay: Yes we are looking for capital, but we are looking at the colour of money also! Experience in building a consumer business, thought leadership in education, experience in and of the US markets - we have a wish list in evaluating the potential source of funds!

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