What do you do if you have a start-up idea that not many but you believe in?
Or to be more specific, would a person who earns a few thousand every month spend in lakhs just to upskill himself or herself?
The answers to these seemingly disparate questions lie in an incredible journey of Suraasa, a startup that was one among those that made a strong impact in 2022. Last month, the new-age startup was in the news for having raised $1.2 million from notable investors in a seed round.
The round was led by Inflection Point Ventures, and saw participation from NB Ventures from the UAE, SuperMorpheus from Singapore, Vinners and SucSEED Innovation from India.
Founded by Rishabh Khanna, a cognitive scientist, Ankit Khanna, ex-Smart Cubes and Sahil Makker, ex-Booz Allen, Suraasa focusses on preparing teachers for national and international career opportunities by upskilling them.
However, behind every success there is a story of perseverance and struggle. Not everyone believed in the idea when Suraasa commenced its journey.
In a free-wheeling conversation with TICE, Khanna gives insights into the startup’s journey.
Q: There are now more than 80,000 startups in India. Majority of the startups, they don't survive beyond the fourth year. And I believe you made much more efficient. So, can you tell us some of the beginning of your journey?
A: Suraasa started in 2018, I think the background comes from much before that. The core team and I have been working on teacher education for almost a decade. And while we were bringing our programmes for teachers in schools, taking the solutions to schools, we always realised there was +something always missing from the ecosystem play perspective.
What happens in a school is that you go to a school. They like your program. They buy your program. They ask, let's imagine a 100 teachers, to take your program. But out of those hundred teachers usually 10 to 15 teachers are really motivated to learn it and take it to the classroom. There will be 50-60 percent teachers who are like - we will see as it goes. And the last 20-30 percent people don’t really care about what is happening in those programs.
And what is missing part in that is that the person who is making the decision for the learning of the teachers is actually, a bit disconnected from what the teacher really wants.
Q: How would you do it? Would you go to schools and then teach teachers?
A: At that time, we were going to schools and then teaching teachers. And then, We have always been teaching teachers. We have never taught the students. We are a teacher education organisation. We skill the teachers.
Q: It is a subset of the bigger set. Did you think that it had so much potential to become so profitable?
A: That is where we have to kind of realign the structure. It's not the subset. It's the core set of the bigger set. If there are no qualitative teachers, we all know what happens to education. And I understand your question. Is it scalable enough?
So, the very simple answer to that question is: There are around 70 million teachers around the world right now. And the World Bank numbers say there is a requirement of another 30 million teachers today. And the requirement will become almost another 69 to 70 million teachers by 2028-2030. The problem that we are trying to solve is that there are no large sources that can create so many teachers globally today. And, the problem is becoming bigger because the current teachers are leaving and the youth doesn’t want to become ‘teacher’. So, the demand-supply gap is continuously increasing.
And that's what we're doing. We, today, don’t sell to schools. We don’t go out and sell our solutions to any particular schools. We sell directly to teachers and only those teachers who are aspiring to become better. So, we are like a higher education skill-tech platform, where a teacher comes to us. The teacher pays to us. Our main program is called PGCTL – it is Professional Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning. It is accredited from multiple countries. We charge almost Rs 3 lakh for that.
But then, the teacher gets outcomes that were unimaginable for them before. So have you ever heard of a teacher going to the US at a salary of 64 lakhs per annum? You only hear that about software engineers, doctors, architects, banking guys and everything. Right?
Q - How many countries are Suraasa courses accredited?
A - I'll answer from the perspective that how many countries accept it today, right? So we did something, our first accreditation came in, in the UAE, in Dubai. Our second major accreditation came from UK. So today we offer a UK diploma which is accredited by an organisation called ATH, which directly works under the Office of Qualifications of the Government of UK.
So the diploma that we give as 120 International credits and is accepted around the world is that as it is, or with equalization, it's like a higher education degree, but it directly works straight away. And what we do is, let's say even if a teacher was from India and did not want to go abroad, wants to teach in India.
So we have had graduates who had a salary of 15-20,000 Rs in a school, they completed a programme and they got salaries of one lakh rupees per month.
Q - Can you give a broad timeline of your journey? Because there will be so many startups who will be interested in knowing your story.
A - When we started in 2018, we started with our own investment, we had our learnings and money from our previous work. It was under the name of “Underlay Transmission Learning”, it was a different brand altogether. And what we wanted to do was create a solution for teachers. So we were actually in the MVP stage for almost two and a half years. But unlike many other startups, we were profitable from the second quarter itself.
So whatever you give a building, we will take it to the market, we will test it, we would make revenue on that, take the product to the next level, and then the further level and the third level.
And by December 2021, we decided that now we are ready to launch. By that time, we are already done, revenues of over 3 million dollars we had already done that's cumulative for those two and a half years. And so we were profitable. And that's when we said now we have to scale with a simple vision of making India the export hub of teachers.
Q - So there was a hidden market which nobody realized but since you sell it on the ground, because you've done it doesn't the ground you guys knew it.
A - Yes! You think about yourself and your kids, if they are going to the school. How many teachers have you met in your life who have been a fifth standard math teacher for the last 10 years? They just don't know how to grow.
There is a like latent energy. There's a latent possibility there. But there are so many teachers who are sitting at a salary of 15,000 20,000 25,000 for the last 10 years.
Q - What you just said raised two questions in my mind - how did you kind of gain regulatory acceptability? Say if CBSE doesn't approve of your programmes? Or how did you go there? How did you approve that part? And also the school?
A - We knew that regulatory bodies around the world hold teacher education so close to their heart. Next, just like nuclear energy. I think first, its nuclear energy and second is Teacher Education. So they don't want to give it out. And that's why Ministry of Education and your NCTE, CBSE, ICSE keep teacher approval very close to their heart. So we did not want to solve that problem, we clearly said that we will not solve that problem. And we didn't. So we went and we said, how many teachers in India have a B.Ed already, but they can't grow?
You will be surprised that there are almost 10 to 12 million teachers in India who have a B.Ed but they are not able to grow. They are waiting for somebody to come and resolve their problem.
So our solution did not get recognition. This is a very important point here. Most of the people think because you got approval, you started growing! No, it doesn't work like that. In skill tech, you grow when you create a product which really gives the outcome. So in that 10 month journey, a person has to work so hard, that when they come on the other side schools scrape for them. And that's what happened.
Q - Now you have successfully raised funding which made big news. What expansion plans? How is Suraass now looking to go further?
A - We've always envisioned ourselves to be a teacher career Lifecycle Management organisation. So till now we have launched teacher programmes such as How do you become a better teacher? Or how do you really become a teacher?
We will be launching programmes for principals, for vice principals, for coordinators, for assistant teachers and anybody in any part of their journey to directly come to Suraasa to see where they are, what is the next logical practical milestone for them. Work with us for 10 months, 12 months, 6 months and achieve that growth that they want with whether it's within their own school, a school in their neighbourhood school in another city in another state or another country. So the idea is that we are building this large community where when a teacher joins us, we help them we nurture them, and we give them a lifetime support of growth, whether they want a new job or a new designation or any kind of of promotion.
Q - You began a very unusual idea. Were even your family members supportive of your idea?
A - Family was never involved in the business. The family has their own other things. And but I understand your question, it's a very radical decision very against what really people think about teachers.
Q - What I wanted to ask was that not many people would think the teacher would pay so much, because as you say, they're earning 15,000. So practically, they are paying more than what they earn in a year to you to get your course. And it's not even a year long course it ends in 10 months. So how did you convince people?
A - So when we started reaching out our first, the first problem that we wanted to identify was why would somebody come to us? What is that pressing need that somebody has that they would want to come in and enroll with us and pay us that kind of money? So we identified these people who are looking for us! We can't actually go and create a need, we have to identify people who have a need. And you remember, earlier in the conversation, I mentioned that there are those 10 to 15%, teachers in the schools who are really always looking for what the school is bringing, and they are the ones who are motivated. The other 80% are not! We actually built the product for those 15-20% people who wanted to move.
Q - Everything appears that one thing led to another and everything went very smoothly. But you must have had your share of challenges. Was there no unexpected failure?
A - Of course, there were many unexpected failures. To be true, most of the failures are unexpected. You expect failures, but you don't know where they will come from. So you know that something will fall, something will fail and you keep yourself open to that but you keep doing your thing knowing that once that will work out the impact, the vision that we have created that is be big enough to take care of everything. So I'll give you one small example. So when we were coming to India, one of the major challenges for us was will teachers pay three lakh rupees?
Q - How do you convince your clients?
A - While we were creating our own solutions, we knew that initial 100-200 people came in and question that you are an internet company, we've never heard about you before and everything. But we kept finding solutions until one day, we got to hear about this story that there was this teacher who was getting divorced, she was in very bad situation.
She came back to, you know, away from the husband's life. And again, around 10k-12k salary. She came, she met our counsellor. She sold her jewellery that she got back in from her in laws to register in our course, we have no idea.We had no idea that she sold her jewellery. She enrolled in the programme, and in the six months, seven months, she got a salary of 80,000 rupees per month.
And then her accommodation and kids accommodation and her and her kids education for free. Other than the salary. So for her, her life changed.
Now, while we were trying to solve for people who might have been able to that money from a co applicant like asking the husband to pay for them or asking the brother or asking the wife to pay for them. We could have never imagined that somebody will be able to trust us so much that they'll go and sell their things to enroll into our programme. And when we heard that story, it was a success out of the first few failures of teachers not paying because they thought it was very expensive. And then when a teacher like that goes out and tells our story to others, and says Guys, I trusted them, and this is what I got. And I'll make sure I'll get make all that jewellery back and I will make my life here after life changes.