Fahim Siddique and Shourov Barua are co-founders of Ostad, a Dhaka-based education technology company that provides live online courses and skill development solutions.
Ed-tech continues to gain popularity across markets. In Bangladesh, there has been a growing conversation around online education over the years and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the growth. As computer technology and internet penetration converge in the coming years, the internet is likely to shape education in many ways.
In this wide-ranging interview, Mr. Fahim and Mr. Shourov talk about how Ostad came into being and has grown from a small operation to a growing ed-tech player in Dhaka, the state of Ostad today, and ambition going forward, shares their takes on building ed-tech startups, and reflects on the lessons they have learned from his journey, and much more.
Composed by Tithi Chowdhury and interview and edited by Ruhul Kader
Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to do the interview. I wanted to begin with learning about the early days of Ostad, when and how did you come up with the idea of Ostad and then get started? Could you please walk us through the journey of early days?
Fahim Siddique: In my third year at university I remember having a discussion with my friend Abdullah Al Musabbir, who is a co-founder of Ostad, about building a startup. We used to participate in different competitions and were aware of the growing startup scene. I studied Mechanical Engineering from KUET — I started my undergrad in 2014. Our team grew gradually and we accelerated participating in more competitions. Although we failed in most of them, every competition was an opportunity for us to learn something new.
In 2018, we became fascinated with the idea of the sharing economy. This was the time when ride-sharing was making waves in Bangladesh. After much thought, we decided to work in skill sharing and eventually, launched an app for skill sharing where users could see and book a tutor to learn something offline based on locations - sort of uber for skills.
We gradually built a business model to generate revenue. Although our offline model was working and attracted a lot of attention, we eventually had to pivot to online when the coronavirus pandemic came.
In 2020, we launched our online platform where we started to provide live courses and teach skills through live streaming. Our first course was on IELTS preparation. Gradually, we have launched other courses across several subjects.
Our target is to provide our learners the best learning experience from the best tutors. In terms of teachers, we bring industry leaders and the best experts on a subject. All of our tutors are top-notch. So far we have taught 1000 people.
Shourov Barua: In 2018, there was a craze about Pathao, which was based on the sharing economy concept. Since then we have been trying to contribute to this vertical. We tried out different ideas and finally decided to build a platform to share skills.
The theme of the Hult Prize of 2018 was to create a 10,000 skilled workforce and make an impact in the life of one million people. We realized that by skill sharing we can do that. We became the champion of the Hult Prize and went to Mumbai to participate in the next round. After coming back from Mumbai, we started working together to build our app and improve our features. In the meantime, we had started onboarding instructors on our app. We also participated in R Ventures where our idea was selected as Investable.
One of our seniors gave us office space in Pantha Path for our offline classes. However, then the pandemic happened and we shifted our offline classes to online classes.
Fahim Siddique: We started working on our business in November 2019. In February 2020, Ostad was officially launched. In the beginning, we only had a couple of courses on programming.
From March, our business started to expand and generate some revenue. In May 2020, we raised angel investment and started our full-fledged operation in June 2020.
Future Startup: When you decided to go full-time, how did you put together initial resources, I’m assuming you are just out of university at the time? And you started off with your offline courses?
Shourov Barua: Five of us invested money from our savings in the business. Our CTO Shariful Islam Mubin built the app. From November 2019 to May 2020, we managed everything ourselves.
By then we had already started to generate revenues. By May 2020, we generated revenue worth BDT 47K. We had some 50 users.
Fahim Siddique: For our offline courses, we used to take submissions by google forms. We started with Scooty training. We first launched our service in Khulna where we used to provide scooty training to women. We also launched some courses on programming.
In February 2020, we started our online live classes with an IELTS course. We received an excellent response which convinced us that there is a market for this. We gradually added more online courses on different skills such as spoken English, GRE, etc.
We then dived a little deeper into the market to understand the needs and demands. We came to see quite a bit of demand for engineering skills such as MatLab, SOLIDWORKS, Simulink, etc, and added them to our platform. We now have an excellent list of courses that cover several fascinating verticals.
Future Startup: Do you still provide offline training?
Fahim Siddique: We do not provide offline training anymore. We had to shut down our offline training due to the coronavirus pandemic. We pivoted our business online. It has been a positive change for us since online offers scalability. The response has been very positive as well.
Future Startup: You raised an angel round in May 2020, could you tell more about the experience of fundraising?
Fahim Siddique: After starting our operation, we ran some analysis to understand the market and our business better. We realized that we are onto something and decided to raise investment. I created a draft of our business model and a pitch deck and started to reach out to different investors. Eventually, we got introduced to Mr. Maazz and reached out to him. He listened to our pitch and liked the idea.
I made a list of 40-50 angel investors and reached out to all of them. I sent them my pitch deck. Mr. Maaz was among the firsts to respond back and eventually, he invested in our company.
Future Startup: How did you find the information of those angel investors? How long did it take to close the round?
Fahim Siddique: I mainly used LinkedIn to connect with potential investors. We started to contact angel investors in April 2020. We finally closed the investment in June 2020 from Mr. Maaz. It took us around one month to close the round after starting the discussion.
Future Startup: Could you give us an overview of Ostad today?
Shourov Barua: Ostad works on skill development. Skilled human resources is a key challenge in Bangladesh. We regularly hear stories about a lack of skilled workers. Our goal is to contribute to solving the problem and create one million skilled workforces in the next 5 years.
We select the skills and courses based on market demand and real-life applications and feedback of learners and then collaborate with industry experts to create courses. Our courses are live, real-time, and interactive.
We currently have courses on 30 different skills in 7 categories including Higher Studies (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, and IELTS), Language (Arabic, Al-Quran, Spoken English, etc), CSE (Developing web application, PHP, etc), Freelancing and Office tools. We are the first online platform in Bangladesh to offer an Arabic language course. Our Spoken English course is hugely popular.
We currently have over 50 instructors creating courses on a long list of subjects. Our instructors are industry experts.
So far we have trained over 1000 people in 80 batches of students. Our learners have spent more than 20,000 hours on Ostad’s platform.
Future Startup: How does your product work?
Fahim Siddique: We provide live classes. Unlike the recorded classes, which is what most ed-tech platforms provide, our classes are interactive — learners can directly interact with teachers and each other and have the best learning experience possible online.
We have built an intuitive and easy to use platform that makes teaching and learning simple. Suppose someone wants to take Ostad’s GRE course: first, he will have to make a booking. We then provide a free orientation class for people who are interested in taking our GRE course, where we give the outline of the course. After the orientation class, we take confirmations from the users if they want to attend the course.
Confirmed learners then are provided with a link to a WhatsApp group. The group helps them to ask the instructor any question relevant to the course outside the class. The instructor can share learning materials with the group as well
When a learner gets admitted to a course, he or she is given access to our platform. After every live class, the recording of the class is saved on the dashboard that a learner can review anytime.
Joining the classes is simple. 10 minutes before the class the “Join Class” button becomes active and learners can join the live class by clicking the button. It is the same for the instructor. The instructor has to click on the “Start-Class” button to start a class.
Along with live classes, there are mock tests, assignments and relevant coursework. For example, in the spoken English course the learners have to practice in the breakout room. After the completion of the course, we provide learners with certificates.
Shourov Barua: A report by the University of British Columbia suggests the course completion rate of recorded courses in online platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, etc is on average 15%. In some cases, even less than that.
Amid the pandemic, Coursera introduced “Coursera For Campus” where more than 100 Bangladeshi Universities subscribed and more than 1.2 million people enrolled in those courses. According to several ambassadors, the course completion rate of those courses is less than 5% and more than 70% of students didn’t even start the course they subscribed to.
In pre-recorded classes learners don’t get a learning partner with whom they can discuss the learning materials. The learning experience is not optimum either. As a result, they do not feel motivated enough to finish a course.
When a learner pays for a course, s/he should be allowed to get instructions from the tutor during live classes. That is exactly what we are working on. We start this from the orientation class. In spoken English class, we separate the learners into practice groups so that they can practice.
In the web development course, the instructor gives learners assignments to build a website within 7 days. Learners have dedicated WhatsApp groups to collaborate with each other. We work hard to offer a learning experience that works for learners. Hence our course completion rate is 92%. When a learner misses a class, we and the instructor contact them. Our goal is to reach a 100% course completion rate. Although we provide class recording after every class, we usually do not provide recording if a learner doesn’t join the class, unless he or she has valid reasons.
Our platform is designed to make it easy for everyone to use. The instructor does not have to send links after scheduling a class. The learners can attend classes just with a click. After the class, recordings are saved in their account and learners can revise anytime they want.
In most instances, during online classes, students write queries in the comment section, and because of the large number of comments, the teacher usually can’t answer all the questions. In our courses, the learners can directly question the instructor. We call Live Interactive.
We are also working on our own video conferencing tool which we believe will significantly reduce our cost.
Future Startup: Are you going to launch the video conferencing tool independently or only for your platform?
Fahim Siddique: It is mainly for our platform. We are calling it “Hello.Ostad.app”. We have built it to reduce the cost of online classes. Currently, we use a third-party platform and it is quite expensive, which, as we could see, will keep on growing as we grow the number of students.
Future Startup: Do you think your business model has some challenges in terms of scalability as every time you have to create a course all over again? Every time you start a new batch for a course you have to create new learning materials for the batch and the instructor has to take classes again. Do you see this as challenging?
Fahim Siddique: We have multiple course models for each skill depending on the levels such as beginner, advanced, etc. of the learners. Although we offer live classes, scaling the number of students is more of a technical challenge than an accommodation challenge, which is the same if you do recorded courses. There are some scalability challenges, I agree. But we have significant upsides as well in terms of the quality and interactiveness we offer to our students.
Our one instructor can take classes in multiple batches at the same time. It happens when there is usually a large number of learners. We have specific outlines and materials for each course and we can use them in every batch.
Future Startup: How does your business model work? How do you work with the instructors?
Shourov Barua: We have an excellent relationship with our instructors. Due to the nature of our model, we depend a lot on our instructors. For each course, we make a per batch fee to the instructor. As well as, there is a commission attached to it depending on a few factors. Our pricing is designed in a way where we add remuneration for instructors at the beginning.
Fahim Siddique: Commission depends on the number of students in a batch, instructor’s dedication, course module, resources, etc. We currently have over 50 instructors.
Future Startup: How are you doing business-wise?
Fahim Siddique: Our burn has decreased significantly. We have made some changes in our strategies which helped us to get more users and reduce customization cost. We plan to further optimize our operation. The lifetime value of customers (LTV) has increased. Users now spend more time on our platform than before.
On average we have about 250-300 students per month and the number is growing. Our ticket size has been increasing consistently. Before, the average per student spent was BDT 3000. It has grown to BDT 3500 per student.
Future Startup: How big is your team?
Fahim Siddique: We are a team of 7 people including five co-founders, one content manager, and one customer relationship manager. We have a small team of freelancers who work with us occasionally.
Future Startup: What are the things that have helped you to achieve the growth?
Fahim Siddique: So far we have been growing organically. We try to understand the market and create courses that have demand in the market, especially those where interactive classes are important. This strategy has helped us to grow without spending much on marketing.
We are offering a markedly different learning experience from any other options in the market. We tell that story through our promotional activities on social media channels. We offer our learners a journey where we provide all the resources for learning a skill and it opens new doors of opportunity for them.
Shourov Barua: I want to add two things here.
For our Facebook page, we make videos of our instructors. Suppose we made a video on our Data Science course. We never tell our learners we will give them discounts and they should sign up. We try to make them understand why data science is important and what it means to take the course. When we create value, the number of shares on social media increases. For example, the video we made on the Holy Quran course reached a huge audience.
Future Startup: How do you determine which course has demand in the market?
Shourov Barua: We use several tools to gauge the demands such as trends in the industry, real-life application, and feedback from our learners. For example, suppose one of our batches has completed a course on MatLab. Then they tell us that they want a course on Simulink. That’s one way we know what skills people want to learn.
We keenly observe the market to understand the demand. We also get inquiries from industry experts who want to create courses with us. We have an instructor registration form on the website that anyone can fill up if they want to create a course with us.
We look into a field and try to measure up the potential career path for a student in that field and then design courses where we might help. We discuss with our mentors and instructors to understand and design courses. Suppose for someone majoring in Electrical Engineering, there could be upto 14 courses. We could launch some of these courses. The same goes for other majors.
Future Startup: What are your priorities now?
Fahim Siddique: We plan to launch our app in 2021, which we believe will improve the experience of our learners. We have a plan to add a resource management system to our website, which will help us to share our resources efficiently. We are working on our assessment system and hope to launch it soon. Adding an assessment system will increase user engagement on our platform.
We are working on some plans around B2B business, focusing on corporate training in 2021.
Finally, we want to train at least 20,000 people by 2021 and comprehensively cover all the seven categories we have.
Future Startup: What are some of the lessons you have learned so far in terms of building a company from scratch?
Fahim Siddique: I have found two skills to be of critical importance when it comes to running an organization: communication and learning. Excellent communication both within and outside the organization means you can manage things well and build new connections and relationships. Communication is critical for the functioning of your team and bringing the best in your people. Similarly, sales and external relationship management are also about communication.
Second, companies are fast-evolving entities. Unless you are learning daily and upgrading yourself accordingly, you will not be able to compete and grow. Experimenting, trying new things, making mistakes, and in all of it having a process for learning has been critical for me.
Shourov Barua: For me, getting the opportunity to work with so many industry experts has been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot. The most important lesson would be looking out for different perspectives. It is always useful to have a different perspective.