How did a nondescript YouTube channel become a unicorn startup?

Nistha Tripathi’s ‘unstartup’ traces the gravity-defying ascent of Unacademy

GN Bureau | June 6, 2022


#business   #edtech   #Unacademy   #startup   #Education  


Unacademy is the biggest example of how success doesn’t have a single refined route. It stems from an idea, led by perseverance and unmatched dedication. It is a story of friends who gave up successful careers to join hands and create an astounding edtech startup. Being the company that rewrote the rules of startups with unflinching focus, Unacademy harnessed the power of common sense to derive unprecedented growth and valuation. Nistha Tripathi's Unstartup (Rupa Publications) is the story of a company who ignored conventional advice to become a 3x unicorn. If you believe you have it in you to create the next unicorn, this book is for you.

The journey started when Gaurav Munjal and Hemesh Singh quit their jobs at CommonFloor and Roman Saini quit the Indian Administrative Service to start a YouTube channel that helped students prepare for competitive exams. Six years and 49 million users later, Unacademy has changed the way Indians learn and also democratized access to high-quality education.

If COVID-19 was a trial by fire for every industry, edtech was one of the sectors perfectly poised for a boom. Many online education startups were in the fray but only a few survived. Unacademy not only outsmarted the competition, but also surpassed every projection and created a new yardstick of success, becoming a $3.5 billion valued edtech startup.

In ‘Unstartup’, Nistha Tripathi traces the gravity-defying ascent of Unacademy. Drawing on numerous conversations with people in and around Unacademy including its founders, board members, advisors, current and ex-employees, Nistha takes the reader through a page-turning rhapsody of startup strategies and lessons. These insider accounts and anecdotes reveal the day-to-day thinking, decisions and discipline of a unique (un)startup.

Reams have been written about the glitz surrounding startups, but it is the daily grind, small choices and critical pivots that no one tells you about. ‘Unstartup’ offers a ringside view of how Unacademy ignored conventional advice and created its own playbook for success.
 
Here is an excerpt from the book:

CIVIL SERVICES BECKON

Roman wrote the UPSC preliminaries in 2013 and by the time the mains and interview results were published, it was 2014. ‘I still remember the date I got my final results—it was on 12 June 2014. I had cleared it and secured an All India Rank [AIR] of 18.’ The celebrations had been in full swing when he got a letter to report for the civil services foundation programme at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie, scheduled to start on 1 September.

Although Roman and Gaurav had parted ways in 2008, when they had joined different colleges, they had kept in touch about their YouTube channel Unacademy and creating videos for it. Gaurav had even asked Roman to make some videos on how to crack the medical entrance exams. But Roman had not followed through. Gaurav had been creating a few videos ever since 2010, but was busy with Flatchat. Now that Roman
was free from competitive exams and academic burdens, they decided that he would create UPSC-focused videos on Unacademy. In June and July 2014, Roman provided content for a few videos, which were then dubbed over by a voice artist. These videos did not turn out great and it was decided that Roman would go to Bengaluru in August to spend more time with Gaurav and create more videos.

‘When I was in Bangalore, I got a call from Ravindran sir who is the director of the famous IAS coaching institute Vajiram & Ravi, based in Delhi. He had invited me to give lectures to their students. So I decided to return to Delhi for that. It was a very big coaching institute and had more than 15,000 students enrolled. In my lectures, I would mention videos I had been creating on the Unacademy channel and would tell the students to subscribe to the channel,’ Roman told me.

The month of August would test Roman’s commitment and productivity to no end. He would give lectures at Vajiram & Ravi in Delhi, travel with Gaurav to Jaipur to give a TED Talk at the Jaypee University of Information Technology (JUIT), meet Sameer Guglani of Morpheus in Chandigarh. Still, he managed to publish 15 videos on the Unacademy channel before heading to LBSNAA on 31 August.

THE IAS LIFE

Nestled in the beautiful Garhwal Himalayan range, the LBSNAA campus inspires awe and pride alike from anyone who is fortunate enough to get an entry. A new chapter was unfolding for Roman, but his days at the academy were poles apart from those of his fellow candidates. He was riding the waves of opportunity on the back of his academic excellence but unlike other trainees, his heart still did not know its destination.

The day at the academy began at 6 a.m., when the trainees were taken for morning exercises. Between 7–8 a.m., everyone chilled out, took a leisurely shower, and donned crisp formals before heading for breakfast at the mess. After an hour-long breakfast, they would attend the academic sessions from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Roman would instead sleep from 7–8.50 a.m., suit up in 10 minutes and head directly to the classroom.

Why? Because he was creating videos for Unacademy till 3 a.m. and needed to catch up on his sleep. ‘I was perhaps that one officer who had the least number of meals in our mess. I would stock up on Wai-Wai noodles and biscuits so I didn’t have to waste time eating,’ Roman adds with a chuckle.

The academic sessions covered the basics of district administration, project management, dealing with various stakeholders, etc. Afterwards, trainees would rush out to socialize. As the saying goes, IAS marriages are made not in heaven but in Mussoorie. IAS officers are notorious for marrying fellow officers and the after-class hours were the perfect time to find suitors. However, Roman had his priorities clear. Whatever time he was able to sneak away from the classroom and personal phone calls was poured into making videos for Unacademy. No matter where he was—on a trek to the Himalayas or on the beaches of Andaman—he kept recording three videos every week for the next year. The only break he allowed himself was in the evenings when the academy held musical performances. The guitarist in him could not resist humming and strumming a few chords during those cultural nights. Even then, he would keep creating content long after everyone was asleep.

The challenge for Roman was not just time management, it was facing the undercurrent of dissent from his fellow officers as well. No one liked the fact that he was creating videos and posting them publicly. Since he wasn’t doing anything illegal, nobody could stop him, but eyebrows were raised. It only made Roman want to rebel. He would create even more videos after receiving warnings disguised as well-meant advice.

Meanwhile, he was becoming better at decoding YouTube growth hacks. At times, he would record tactical videos advising UPSC aspirants on ‘How to Read the Hindu Newspaper in 90 Minutes’, ‘Common Mistakes/Myths about UPSC’, ‘How to Prepare for UPSC’ and so on. In some of his topical videos on ‘Art & Culture’, ‘Environment & Ecology’, he would discuss sample questions. As luck would have it, many of the questions he shared in his videos ended up appearing in the UPSC Preliminary Examination in September 2014. The word spread that Roman’s videos covered the questions which had been asked in the exam and overnight, the number of views on his videos shot up. Within two months, the number of Unacademy channel subscribers had grown from 8,000 to 24,000.

[Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]

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