Founder and CEO of Yoda Technologies, Salman Goni, reflects on his entrepreneurial journey, talks about how Yoda Technologies came into being, how the company operates, its business model and product details, the state of Yoda Technologies’s business today, its ambition going forward, shares his thoughts on the challenges of being a founder, taking it one day at a time as an antidote to stress of building a business, the importance of never giving up in entrepreneurship and much more.
Could you please tell us about your background and what you are working on now?
I started my formal career with Unilever. However, I was with British American Tobacco for a brief period before Unilever. I came from a humble background. My mother was a professor and my grandmother was a principal. It is safe to say that I grew up in an education-oriented family and a family of teachers.
I have always been fascinated by education and the way we are taught. I had my own share of skepticism regarding formal education and how much we learn at school. When I was a university student, I wanted to start teaching, that’s how I landed on my first tuition. When I got my first tuition through a tuition agency (middleman), I had to give away my first month’s salary as fees.
Fast forward, a few years later, I had graduated and was sitting with a friend when I realized I wanted to stop students feel as powerless as I did when I had to share my first salary as a tutor with the tuition provider. Thus, I began my journey with Yoda.
Could you please elaborate your path to entrepreneurship?
A few years after graduation, I started Treehouse, saved up some money. I could have opened up another branch in Dhanmondi, but I wanted to delve into Tech.
The idea to work for someone else never occurred to me. I thought that if I start something of my own, it would allow me the opportunity to test my own ideas and do things in my own way.
I wanted to be adventurous.
I knew that there would be ups and downs, but at the end of the day, even if I fail, I would know that I tried.
What went into building the initial operation of Yoda Technologies? How did you put together initial investment and other things to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like and the challenges you faced.
I think the biggest challenge I faced was that I’m not a Tech-guy; I’m a marketing guy. I’m a Tech-savvy person but I could not build a Tech company by myself. My friends were all busy with their own jobs, so I couldn’t approach them for help. The companies I approached told me that my idea would be very hard to execute locally.
The first thing I did was finding a good CTO. Once I found our CTO, I decided to move forward.
Luckily, I had saved up a bit of money from my other ventures. I decided to invest in the venture myself first. So I didn’t have to approach local investors. I knew that if I had approached them at that stage, they wouldn’t value my product and I would probably end up losing my equity.
This year, in Jakarta, we were lucky to meet a lot of interested international investors at Tech in Asia. We are currently in talks with a few of them.
Startups are tough. You need everything that you have got. And I believe it is no easier for any other founder.
Could you please give us an overview of Yoda Technologies in terms of services you offer, how many users you have, the size of your business, etc?
Yoda is a marketplace for tutors, where we connect learners and tutors. Most importantly, you can find verified tutors on Yoda.
The special thing about us is that we go to each university and get the tutors from the respective universities. We don’t charge any commission from parents or teachers.
Our numbers so far have been great, especially after winning the BASIS National ICT Award.
We have more than 4, 000 verified tutors and we have given over 2, 500+ tuition jobs. The best thing about our business is that by providing over 2,500 tuition jobs, we have managed to touch over 2,500 families as well.
What is your business model? How have you grown your revenue?
Yoda currently runs on a freemium model. All our services are free and we don’t plan on charging any commission from tutors from their monthly earnings. We also don’t charge parents. The service remains free for both tutors and parents.
Our live online tutoring service will launch for the public very soon, as we are currently doing alpha testing with selective tutors. As Bangladesh’s first, the technology we have developed for online tutoring is WAVE (Whiteboard Audio Visual Environment) and hope that it will be more beneficial for students. We plan to monetize using technology. The model is more like Tinder and LinkedIn where you have a free version and then for using more features, you pay a small fee.
We’ve already showcased our technology in front of a global audience in Jakarta and in Vietnam at Apicta.
How big is your team? Could you tell us about your culture at Yoda Technologies?
We currently have a team of 17 people - 10 full-time employees, and 7 part-time interns. We’re growing every day and looking to hire more.
After working for an MNC, I realized that I wasn’t fond of the corporate culture and wanted to work in an environment that was more upbeat and casual, which is why I stress the importance of friendliness at the workplace. The team is more like a family and there’s always a place for everyone’s opinion.
On average how many customers you serve per month? How have you attracted customers and grown Yoda Technologies? Could you tell us about the strategies and activities that you carried out to achieve the growth?
We serve more than three thousand active users. We launched our Beta version in March 2019 and have provided tutors to over 2,500 households. The number has been growing consistently every month. In the month of October alone, we’ve seen a tuition request growth rate of 180%.
Our main focus is on quality. Currently, we are only visiting the quality institutions in Dhaka and recruiting tutors from there. However, gradually, our plan is to expand outside of the city. We know that there isn’t a shortage of tutors. What there is a shortage of, however, is quality tutors. With the existing tuition agencies neglecting quality, our mission is to curate the quality of tutors. If you don’t have quality, where does the demand come from?
We are also a platform where tutors are verified. We are spending heavily to visit every university before getting our tutors.
We have largely grown through word of mouth. When people found out that we do good work, they started referring us to other parents, which have helped to grow consistently.
What are the lessons you’ve learned in terms of growing a business? What other entrepreneurs can learn from your growth journey?
I have learned how important employee-morale is, and that if you cannot pass your vision to your employees, your company will perish.
Companies are built by the team. There is no alternative to working as a team.
My suggestion to founders would be to learn more about fund-raising, growth, and team-work. It’s always best to talk to founders who are in the scene with you.
There will be a lot of people out there willing to pay for your idea, to support it, but if your team and your product are not ready, don’t set out. Otherwise, people will take advantage of you.
Find the right people. Take your time to find the right people. Don’t think local, think global. Start small, but it is always good to aim higher.
What is your advice for founders who are just starting out? What are some lessons you’ve learned?
I have learned that in a startup your product will never be perfect but that doesn’t mean you should wait for it to be perfect and then launch your product.
Build an MVP that works and launch. Launching early is one of the best strategies there is. You take your product early to the market and take customer feedback and in the process, you build a product that people want.
It is also very important to know your numbers and the industry you are in.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced? What are the challenges now?
The biggest challenge I found in the early days is finding the right programmers and then hiring quality people at a reasonable salary.
My personal understanding regarding startup as a founder was a challenge as well. Understanding how a startup works and how to scale was a big challenge. I invested time and effort in my own education - I watched Y Combinator videos and attended startup events in Dhaka and talked to other fellow startup founders. It has been of great help in preparing myself as a founder.
Currently, the biggest challenge is finding and retaining good talents for the key roles.
Have you raised investment? If yes, how much have you raised? What are the plans now? What does it take to raise investment?
We are bootstrapping right now, hence we haven’t. However, I have invested a great deal of my hard-earned money.
We do have interested investors locally and from abroad, but we are in no hurry. We plan to close the deal soon.
What should founders, who are trying to raise investment, be mindful of?
Founders should remind themselves not to be hasty. Don’t raise investment too early. Ask yourself whether you really need to raise investment. If the answer is a resounding yes, then only raise the investment.
Be mindful when choosing your co-founders. Your co-founders have the ability to either make or break your company.
How do your sales and marketing work?
Currently, we are focusing on activation and creating awareness in the market. It’s important for parents to understand what we stand for - our aim is to help them find the best tutors that can help their child grow.
What are the goals for the future?
We are launching our online technology called Whiteboard Audio Visual Environment (WAVE) very soon for the public. It enables tutors to teach online on a two-way interactive platform. All you need is access to the internet and a laptop/computer and you can teach and learn Live!
Right now, we are operating in Dhaka. We plan to expand to other parts of the country and within the next year, we plan to expand to other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Our main goal right now is to solve the problems in the local market and then grow globally because our product solves the international problem of learning. Tuition is a great deal not just locally, but outside the borders as well.
According to a GIA report, the global tuition industry is worth about 100 billion dollar and online tutoring contributes only 5% to the global education market. The prediction says that by 2022, the tuition industry will be 70% online.
The future is online, and our product is just right for that. The fourth industrial revolution is knocking at the door, and Yoda aims to prepare today’s students for that by changing the way we teach.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building Yoda Technologies?
My experience of working at MNCs and my previous entrepreneurial experience have helped me in running my own business. It has helped me with a lot of skills like management and critical thinking. I learned how to minimize costs, to hire people and to set up a team.
In Bangladesh, there are few options for people to learn about startups. I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to raise money and operate a startup. The biggest advantage I had was that I wasn’t a first-time founder.
How do you deal with challenges and stress that come with being a founder?
It becomes a part of your life. I try to enjoy my work. The startup journey consumes you. You’re always thinking about your struggles.
I try to travel in my breaks and spend time with my friends.
When I’m under stress, I talk to my advisors - ones who have been through what I’m going through now.
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