Monday, June 01, 2015

Higher Ed Start-Ups - Must India Be on the Agenda?

I have faced this personally. When I tried to raise money for an Education Start-up in the UK, I would regularly get asked, during investor pitches, what our key markets would be. By default, everyone would assume that we would do India, specifically because of my heritage (UK Private education sector worked like that - minority ethnic founders enrolling students primarily from their ethnic groups), while I, cognisant of the complexities of the Indian market (see my earlier post here), would be far more circumspect. 

Revisiting those discussions, and the experiences since (our sales efforts will go nowhere in India, but would eventually find traction in China), I still think that an innovative education start-up should have an India plan.

The reason is obvious - India would simply be worlds largest market for Higher Education. China has more students right now, but India is at a different demographic point than China, and the growth in India would be far more dramatic. English works in India - which is necessary for a global company - though one must have a plan for remedial English education factored in the business plan. And, finally, because India is at that strange point where its college education is out of sync with the general improvements in school education, thereby churning out a lot of High School diploma holders whose aspirations are insufficiently met by existing colleges.

All this points to that the key questions on Education Innovation will be settled in a country like India. Can millions be meaningfully educated? Can modern mass education really enable economic development? Can a modern service economy be sustainably built in a country with the largest number of illiterates in the world? Can this modern education solidify the democracy, or would it undermine it? Can education technology be the solution in a country with poor bandwidth but greater mobile phone penetration than cars or refrigerators? Will English become a common language for large scale Higher Education, or one would be able to find platforms with different languages working together? Higher Education in India, notwithstanding various challenges, is really one big experiment to answer all those critical questions.

That most key issues in Education are being played out in Indian marketplace means any global start-up should treat this as a CORE market (I am capitalising the word as this refers to the Core/Context model, rather than the generic meaning of the term). This is big and critical, and this is where winners and losers will be decided. This is not the market to try things out first - and in that, my reticence to go to India first in my business was justified - but this is where the innovation must work at scale. From that standpoint, even it is resource hungry, building a scalable and sustainable model in India should be the holy grail of Education Start-ups.

Indeed, there are parallels in other industries worth considering. Cisco, which is perhaps one of the most innovative networking companies, squarely puts India as a mission-critical core market. Uber, which has just appointed a President of Operations in India, is getting there, as India has grown to be its largest market outside United States. Uber proves the model in India - just as Whatsapp proved its model in China - and that would more than justify its astronomical valuation. Any Education Start-up that can pull India off will also hit gold.

I remember someone telling me that he believed that the Google or Facebook in Education would come from India because it is indeed the most exciting education market in the world. I also talked elsewhere about what I thought was a great missed opportunity, the rise and fall of NIIT and Aptech, the two true national scale education companies which failed to imagine and raise their game. Despite the great market opportunities in India, the Indian start-ups often can not see beyond the social divisions that mark India. In that sense, a Global Start-ups blindness about the complexity and diversity of India can be rewarding, because they can, at least conceptually, make an India plan, which is a good start-point.

So, yes, India must be on the agenda, despite its complexities. It should be mission critical and core, and a market an education start-up can not ignore. It would be resource hungry and might not be the right market at the seed level, but it is definitely a market to win when a firm reaches Series A or B of funding. It is so big and dynamic that it would need its own innovation (a point forcefully made by Rama Bijapurkar in her Never Before World) rather than being a passive recipient of a global strategy, but the idea of a market-driven strategy should not new to start-up.

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