How REPTO Has Become A Revenue-first Online Education Company In Bangladesh With Ishtiyak Sheyam, CEO, REPTO

How REPTO Has Become A Revenue-first Online Education Company In Bangladesh With Ishtiyak Sheyam, CEO, REPTO

REPTO is one of the few ed-tech companies in Dhaka that are doing well. The Grameenphone Accelerator Program graduate and its precocious Founder and CEO Ishtiyak Sheyam have proved that it is possible to build a revenue-first digital education company in Bangladesh.

In this excellent interview, Ishtiyak Sheyam tells us how he came up with the idea of REPTO, how he taught himself programming and built the first version of REPTO platform and strategies he used to get into GP Accelerator Program. He explains the business of REPTO, struggles, and challenges he had to go through, how he has built a revenue-first digital education company and how a sense of urgency and a mindset of getting things done have helped him throughout his journey.

This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it down into two parts. This is the part one. Please come back later this month for the second and final installment.

Future Startup

What is your background? Could you please tell us about your journey to starting REPTO.

Ishtiyak Sheyam

Growing up, I was a math and science fanatic and was a Math Olympiad Champion. I came to know about the world of online learning when I was at School. When I went to college, instead of attending classes, I spent a disproportionate amount of time on online platforms learning new skills. During that time I became passionate about computer science and did a handful of computer science courses on Edx and Coursera from different universities.

I was fascinated by this opportunity that anyone could take a course from Harvard University or MIT and lean whatever they wanted to learn. I was living in Chittagong at that time, and I thought that this is an incredible opportunity for people to improve their lives. I did about 60 courses between 2014 and 2015. I was intrigued, and that was when for the first time, I thought of creating a course myself.

Eventually, in 2015, I created an online course for Udemy on mathematical problem-solving strategies. I made good money from that course within three months. I invested that money in getting verified certificates for myself. I had students from different countries in my course India and Pakistan and a few others. But there was no one from Bangladesh. Later I made it free and promoted a bit through a friend of mine who had a blogging site, but it did not bring any luck.

Around this time I came to know about the growing youth unemployment in Bangladesh. One of the reasons being our education system does not pay much attention to developing skills that are in demand in the market. I thought we need practitioners of new skills such as SEO, digital marketing, data analytics, who have experience in specific fields, to teach these subjects. It was the initial motivation and objective of starting Repto, to help young people learn skills from people who have experience.

We built a website towards the end of 2015 and then started to reach out and onboard people who were teaching online in different platforms at that time. When Grammenphone Accelerator launched in 2016, I applied and got selected (GPA). We joined the program in February of 2016. I did not pass my HSC yet and supposed to appear for my HSC exam in April the same year. However, I did not sit for my HSC exam that year and instead stayed in the program. GPA was a necessary experience for me, and I learned a ton. The program ended in May 2016. That’s how our journey began.

Initially, the challenge for us was to sell a digital product, and that too using digital medium – we were selling online courses through our website. That was a tough call. On top of it, we were targeting regular customers, not the high-end audience who are used to coursera and Edx. We were reaching out to the audience in remote places in the country. So it was a challenge initially.

It took us about 12 months to figure out what makes a course sellable and what we could do to influence that. Today, we sell the highest number of courses in Bangladesh. When we started, our monthly revenue was around in hundreds of taka per month and from there by the end of 2016, our monthly sales were around BDT 50,000. This year, our monthly revenue is in tens of lakhs. This is alone from our b2c segment.

We started right away and we started to push our product with whatever platform we had at that time. I don’t think we would have come this far had we waited for building a nice platform, an app, instead of doing the real working. We started with whatever we had and then moved forward and that made all the difference.

Future Startup

Do you have a B2B business? How are you doing there?

Ishtiyak Sheyam

Towards the end of 2017, we launched our B2B business where we provide various training services to businesses. We have companies like Pathao and Sheba who have taken our service. We allow our B2B customers to take the content that we prepare for them and use it as they see fit. We also track users whether they have finished the lecture and so on. We are in talks with a number of important organizations for our B2b services.

We also have a Training and development service for business. For our regular users, we are building their skills profile based on their learning records and courses they have taken and their performance. This is something we have already started working on and we plan to dig deeper as we go. We also help companies to develop their learning and development plans. We first understand your needs and then we help you to develop a training and development plan that can meet your needs.

Future Startup

You have come a long way in your journey. What went into building the initial operation of Repto?

Ishtiyak Sheyam

We joined GP Accelerator in February 2016, and we first invested in new technology at the end of that year, in about November 2016. We had a platform before that but we finally started building the platform that we now have is no before than November 2016. Before that we had a platform, which I developed and which took me two days to build – we continued with that platform from 2015 to November 2016. We got into GPA with that platform and started generating revenue right away.

It was a valuable lesson for me in the sense that we did not wait for a perfect platform to start our operation. We started right away, and we began to push our product with whatever platform we had at that time. I don’t think we would have come this far had we waited for building an excellent platform, an app before start working. We started with whatever we had and then moved forward, and that made all the difference. That was one of the reasons GPA selected us. We already had an up and running platform, and we had about 3000 students at that time. All we needed at that time was to convert it into a business.

We launched the first version of our platform in Mid 2015. I was looking up on the internet how platforms like coursera and Udemy are built. I came to learn that to create a platform of near any of these platforms would require a pretty hefty budget. After much research, I came across a CMS, and I modified the CMS to my needs, and it became the first version of Repto.

It took me two days to get it done, starting from putting together a front-end, managing the domain hosting and then launching the platform. Since I did everything all by myself, I did not need much investment. I was and am a solo founder. When I applied at GP Accelerator, I needed a co-founder, and my mother became my co-founder.

Future Startup

I believe you receive good support from your family? We talk a lot about dropping out and entrepreneurial success and stuff, but I don’t think many people would show the courage to do so in practice and even fewer parents would allow their kids to do it but your family allowed you to do that and you could have convinced your parents. That’s rare.

Sheyam

Although my family has been very supportive throughout my journey, it has been tough for them. Because I dropped out from Higher Secondary, which is pretty rare. We are four siblings, two brothers, and two sisters and I’m the eldest child of my parents. As I said, it has been tough for them in the early days. Particularly for my mother. They had to worry about whether their son is going stray. In the early days, things were very fragile, and we could have failed any time.

The things have changed now. The chance of failure remains, but it has reduced significantly. The business has become pretty stable. We have grown consistently and so on. Although initially, they were worried but then gradually when they came to see that I’m not doing something bad and that things are generating results, they became convinced that this is something they can allow me to do without worrying much.

We launched the first version of our platform in Mid 2015. I was looking up on the internet how platforms like coursera and Udemy are built. I came to learn that to build a platform of near any of these platforms would require a pretty hefty budget. After much research, I came across a CMS and I modified the CMS to my needs and it became the first version of Repto. It took me two days to get it done, starting from putting together a front-end, managing the domain hosting and then launching the platform. Since I did everything all by myself, I did not need much investment. I was and am a solo founder. When I applied at GP Accelerator, I needed a co-founder, and my mother became my co-founder.

Future Startup

Let’s come back to GPA. You got into the program in early 2016 and then what happened?

Sheyam

I did not have a team at that time. So I made my mother my co-founder, and we became a team. However, she was in Chittagong, and I was in Dhaka, so it was not like a real team in the ground team. GPA had this requirement that you have to be at least two founders to get selected, so I used the trick to get past that requirement.

From GP Accelerator, I learned the importance of building a great team and how important a good team is for a startup. I would make a perfect example of what is the cost of running through a lousy team and then the importance of having a great team.

While going through GP Accelerator, I had built a team, but within a few days, they quit. I was all alone most of the GP Accelerator time. I went through a lot of struggles and challenges, and it was tough. Since I had no prior experience of managing a team, I made all kinds of mistakes. I had to completely let my team go and rebuilt from scratch a few time. I failed three times in it.

So we graduated from GPA towards the end of 2016, and that’s when my real entrepreneurial journey began. The first challenge after GP Accelerator was survival and not dying.

Future Startup

That’s an incredible story. One thing I like about REPTO is that you have been a revenue first company, which very few tech founders try these days. Could please give us an overview of Repto today including the size of your operation, growth, and business?

Sheyam

At present, we are a team of 13 people. We are a 100% complaint company. It took us a lot of time and effort to come this far. We have a strong team in finance and operations, which make sure that the ship is running properly. And then we have a sales and business team and a tech team.

We have over 68000 students, and we get about 500 new students per day on an average. We have about 150 courses, and of them, 85 are live, as we speak. We have over 550 affiliate marketers who help us promote our courses. We have probably built the largest affiliate network in Bangladesh. We have been quite successful there.

We have some major partnerships such as Grameenphone is one of our partners. You can buy Repto courses using Grameenphone mobile data through direct operator billing. We are the part of Grameenphone growth hacking program, and it took us over a year to get there.

We have a partnership with LICT program of Bangladesh Government where we developed an online version of all the LICT courses and students can take the course online from us by paying a small fee. We don’t essentially get paid by LICT authority, but we get the trainers, and other supports and students who take the course from us also get the certification from LICT, which is a pretty big thing for us. At the same time, when a student takes a LICT course from us, they not only take a single course, there are chances that they would take other courses as well. We are currently in the middle of raising an investment led by a prominent Bangladeshi business personality.

We have over 68000 students, and we get about 500 new students per day on an average. We have about 150 courses, and of them, 85 are live, as we speak. We have over 550 affiliate marketers who help us promote our courses. We have probably built the largest affiliate network in Bangladesh. We have been quite successful there.

Future Startup

You have raised money before as well. Could you tell me a bit about investment?

Sheyam

We have raised three small rounds of investment, seed, and family and friends rounds. We are currently in the middle of raising another round of investment.

We have worked hard to build awareness and reach to more people. We did not spend much on vanity metrics such as FB likes and stuff. Instead, we worked hard to develop real traction. We spent money only to sell, no other purposes. We paid all our focus on sales, instead of promoting for the sake of promotion.

Future Startup

Could you please explain your business model for our readers? You have developed multiple streams of revenue which is pretty impressive.

Sheyam

We have two approaches when it comes to working with trainers and teachers: one we buy the rights of the course and make a one-time payment to the teacher and the other is we help the teacher create the course and then we share the revenue from the course. We usually share 50% of the income from a course with the creator.

If a trainer invests in selling his or her course, we share 75% of the revenue. For B2B, the model is a little different and comes with a couple of layers of customization.

Future Startup

You have grown significantly in terms of revenue and users, how have you attracted users and expanded the business?

Sheyam

I would not say that we have done an outstanding job regarding growth. There are a lot more to be done, and we could have done better. One area we believe we have a lot to improve is the quality of our courses – we could have created higher quality courses. There is a scarcity of trainers as well as demand for the genuinely high-quality materials. So that’s how we think about growth.

Whatever growth we have achieved over the past years, we have worked for it. Online education is a challenging market. It is challenging for even advanced market and for us, it is even more so.

From the beginning, we have deliberately thought about growth and tried hard to come up with ideas to grow the business. Let me give you a couple of examples of what we have done to grow, so far. We have worked with popular trainers, who have a follower base who would like to take his or her courses. It has helped us build awareness in the market and leverage the popularity of our trainers. That has been a super helpful strategy in the early days to create awareness about us in the market.

Then we have allowed people to take our premium courses for free for a certain period. For instance, you could access a graphic design course for free for seven days. It has helped us to attract new users and improve conversion. Third, we have used affiliate marketing tool, which has enabled us to spread our words and also get a lot of traffic from Google.

We have worked hard to build awareness and reach to more people. We did not spend much on vanity metrics such as FB likes and stuff. Instead, we worked hard to develop real traction. We spent money only to sell, no other purposes. We paid all our focus on sales, instead of promoting for the sake of promotion.

Money has been a limitation for us, and we had to be wise regarding spending money. Whatever money we invested, we wanted to make sure that it gave us some return. We always calculate how much return we could get from spending one penny. Our average basket size is about BDT 2600, and our paid customer acquisition cost is about BDT 200. We have been trying to build a referral network, which has been our priority all the time.

Note: Interviewed on July 23, 2018

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