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Started as a Small Operation, Bohubrihi Sees Excellent Growth and Matures Operation. CEO Yanur Islam Piash Shares What’s Next for the EdTech Startup

In this excellent conversation with Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader, Bohubrihi co-founder and CEO, Yanur Islam Piash, shares about the latest developments at the fast-growing ed-tech company post our conversation about a year ago and lessons he has learned in entrepreneurship.

We cover Bohubrihi’s growth, evolving operation and business model, expansion, strategic ambition, growth plans, and priorities for 2021 and the future of online learning in Bangladesh.

Interview and edited by Ruhul Kader, composition by Tithi Chowdhury

Future Startup: Could you please give us an overview of Bohubrihi Today? How much have you evolved as a company since we last spoke about a year ago? 

Yanur Islam Piash: Last time we spoke, we had 2000 students and 13 courses on our platform. Today, we have some 72,000 students. The number of total courses has grown to 50 including both regular courses and Career Tracks. 

We have launched a new category of courses we are calling Career Tracks. Career tracks are a series of courses that empower students, by gaining confidence, to start a career in different industries. The goal for our career track programs is to onboard learners from any stage of their learning journey and prepare them as qualified resources ready to enter the market. 

To put it simply, the career track program is a collection of the best job-oriented online courses, designed, and routined in a way that makes the approach effective for learning and mastering.

Using a comprehensive and timely approach, we aim to deliver something more than just traditional video lessons over shared screens. We want to humanize the process of online learning with full-time mentor support, live discussions with the instructors, grooming sessions, counseling for job-hunting to even probable internship placements with our partner companies, and personal feedback on every project done by the individual participants.

We now have 3 career tracks. Two of them are on web development and the other is on digital marketing. We will soon launch new career track courses on other skills such as graphic design, practical accounting, android app development, etc.

In the past, our courses were mainly on office suites and software. Of late, we have focused more on software-based technical skills. We have courses on popular courses on tests such as GRE, IELTS, etc. 

We are one of the top ed-tech platforms in the online education niche in Bangladesh and are working relentlessly to create new courses on a wide range of topics. 

We have always focused on the quality of our courses over quantity. Feedback from our students tells us that our courses are of superior quality and offer greater value than the courses on the same topic available elsewhere. 

There is a need for a skilled workforce. Our goal is to contribute to filling the gap. 

We have grown from a four-people team to a team of 15 people. Additionally, we have a team of 8 freelance writers who write for our blog. We now work with an agency for our media buying and we have consultants in a few areas including content marketing and marketing in general.

We want to scale up our marketing strategy and get more people on our platform. We are working to hire software experts for our engineering team. As the CEO, one of my priorities this year is onboarding the right people. 

Apart from creating more high-quality courses, we are also building version 2.0 of our current platform and building an app. In 2021, building out our tech platforms is a priority for us. 

We have been testing a few things and wanted to see whether there is a real demand for our services. We now have an understanding of the market and are ready to take full advantage of it. 

We also plan to explore a few other areas in our niche. We have a growing user base. We want to overcome the barriers of e-learning to reach more people. We want to test some of our strategies to that end this year. 

Our revenue has grown. When we spoke last time, our monthly revenue was less than BDT one lakh. It has gone up meaningfully. When we first launched our career track courses, our monthly revenue went up significantly which later helped us to make several key hires. 

We aim to grow further. We are under-distributed and could generate more revenue with our existing courses. We are under-marketed and with the right marketing, we should be able to grow further with what we have already done. 

Many people fail because they overlook the basics and become over-ambitious. Keeping your focus on basics and maintaining the quality consistently is important. Focus is the key to excellence. Trying to do too much at once is often a road to disaster.

Future Startup: You were experimenting with a B2B LMS product. How are you doing there? 

Yanur Islam Piash: We are working with Asiatic for a Grameenphone project. Grameenphone has selected 300 university students to help them build competence in three areas under the “GP Explorer 2.0” program. One of the skills is Digital Marketing which they will learn from our platform.

We have collaborated with ULAB. ULAB is planning to provide 20,000 students a free course on “Diversity, Pluralism, and Tolerance” which consists of 14 lectures. Several professors from renowned universities around the world have worked on that. We managed the content production part of the course and the course will be launched on our platform.

We have provided 4-5 of our courses to the employees of Loosely Coupled Technology.

The corporate clients we have so far have reached out to us. We have not started marketing there yet.

We are working on a new product called “Bohubrihi Bites”, which is part of our overcoming the boundary of the e-learning plan. We have a lot of people who do not have access to laptops or other technologies and mostly rely on mobile phones. They don't get much access to e-learning platforms. In some cases, they don't have the financial capability to take online courses. 

We are launching “Bohubrihi Bites” for this group of users. We will divide a course into small segments and send them via SMS. Bohubrihi and Loosely Coupled Technologies are working on this together. Loosely Coupled Technology is facilitating the technology part.

Through “Bohubrihi Bites”, telco users will be able to buy small packages such as a daily package for 2 BDT or a weekly package for 7 BDT, or a monthly package for 30 BDT and get access to small-sized e-learning contents. 

We have already developed “Bohubrihi Bites” and will launch soon. The generated revenue from “Bohubrihi Bites” will be shared between three partners. We are in talks with a leading telco to distribute our content through their app.

Future Startup: Last time we spoke, you were more like a marketplace. Experts used to create content on Bohubrihi’s platform and get a commission. How does your model work now? 

Yanur Islam Piash: We have shifted our platform from the marketplace model to a more controlled and curated platform where we work directly with individual experts to create courses instead of opening up the platform for anyone to create courses and distribute through us. 

Our current model has limitations in terms of scalability on the supply side, we can’t scale the number of courses overnight even if we want to, but the upside is we can ensure the quality of our courses and we have no challenge when it comes to scaling the user base and in terms of business model. 

Considering the ed-tech market in Bangladesh, if we allow anyone to create courses on our platform like Udemy, we would not be able to maintain the quality. Instead, we have become quite selective and work directly with experts and get involved in the entire content creation process.

We have two models for working with experts who create courses on our platform. One is the commission-based model where we share the revenue earned from a course with the instructor for a certain period. We prefer to own the copyright, because often courses are not static, and promote the content ourselves. Once you create a course, it is not the end of it. You need to update the course from time to time and probably with different contents and ideas. Owning the copyright makes it easier for us to invest in a course in the long run. 

In the other model, we find the instructors for a specific topic, request them to create a course for us for a one-time payment. They create the content and get paid for it. In this model, we own the copyright. And it is not a revenue-sharing model. 

We own all of our career track courses. The instructors are paid a one-time fee for the course creation. 

We provide active mentorship and learning support to learners along with courses. For example, if you are taking a career track course, you can access the instructor, ask questions and ask for learning help. For career tracks, mentors are paid a fixed monthly salary for continuous support to the learners.

Our career tracks are often broad courses and offer a deep understanding of a topic. In many instances, it requires more than one instructor to prepare a career track course. Moreover, we always update our content based on the feedback of the learners. Since there is more than one instructor and we are updating the content based on the feedback of learners, it is often tough for us to manage a revenue-sharing model. Hence we go for a one-time payment model where we buy the course copyright. 

Future Startup: You have over 70,000 users on your platform now, what percentage of them are paying users? 

Yanur Islam Piash: 20% of our students are taking paid courses. The rest are taking free courses. And we have a healthy conversion rate for free-to-paid users.

Future Startup: How does your current commission model look for the course creators? 

Yanur Islam Piash: The commission an instructor gets can vary from 25% to 40%. Two factors affect the percentage of commission an instructor gets. One is the tenure of commission - for how long we will be paying the commission for. Two, what role the instructor is playing for example if an instructor also provides support to the learners he gets more commission. 

Instructors can also promote their courses. For the sales they generate, they get an additional 20% commission or a certain affiliate commission on the sales they generate. However, promoting a course requires time and most instructors don't do it.

Roughly, an instructor can get upto 60% commission from Bohubrihi.

Future Startup: What are the major challenges for Bohubrihi now? 

Yanur Islam Piash: The main two challenges are finding the right people and figuring out the right marketing strategy. We need top-notch people for our engineering team and other operational areas to get to the next level. 

The data and the feedback from our users show we have achieved product-market fit. It is time for us to grow. For the post-product-market fit growth, where optimization of different areas of a company is required for scaling up, we are building our capacity. We are doing several things to address these challenges. We are working with consultants to optimize our operation in several areas. 

To sum up, coming up with the right strategy for the next few years and building the right team are the key challenges for us at this point. 

Talking to our customers regularly has been the biggest driver of our growth. Our learners are smart and cooperative and their feedback has helped us to be on track. We have been lucky to attract a group of users who are super smart and really into learning and offer extremely useful feedback. And we have always been willing to listen to our customers and do the work to deliver a high-quality product to them.

Future Startup: Regardless of the challenges, you have grown significantly. Have you raised any investment since we spoke last time?

Yanur Islam Piash: We have had two angel investors since the beginning of Bohubrihi. We have not raised any funds other than that.

Future Startup: What are some of the things that have helped you in growing your business? 

Yanur Islam Piash: I would say three things: ensuring the quality, getting customer feedback, and acting on the feedback. 

For a long time, we did not have any dedicated people for customer service. We, founders, used to handle customer service which has helped us to understand our users better. We have been obsessed with quality and users. 

We track every action of our users on the platform. If we see something interesting or unusual, we reach out to get insight. Sometimes our learners give suggestions as well. We conduct surveys to get user feedback and then improve our service based on that. 

Talking to our customers regularly has been the biggest driver of our growth. Our learners are smart and cooperative and their feedback has helped us to be on track. We have been lucky to attract a group of users who are super smart and really into learning and offer extremely useful feedback. And we have always been willing to listen to our customers and do the work to deliver a high-quality product to them. 

Second, we have been quality-obsessed. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the e-learning boom. Many people choose to produce courses that are not of high quality and be opportunistic. We never followed that path. We have always tried to put our best effort to ensure quality and create the best learning experience for our learners. 

We are far from our quality ambition. However, we have put our best effort. We have tried our best to ensure the basics and be transparent regarding our service. 

Bohubrihi has become quite popular among undergraduate students over the last year. Word of mouth has helped us in our growth. We have worked with university students and clubs as an e-learning partner. This approach has helped us to build a network resulting in establishing our brand.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic like many other e-learning platforms, we have made a few of our courses free — mostly, our premium courses. These are high-quality content. Many people came to take these courses for free. For many people, good quality educational content in Bangla was a new experience. As a result, we have got a lot of visibility, and a lot of the learners who took the free courses later took our paid courses as well.

Financially, we have always been sustainable. Because we have always been frugal and strategic about our investment. We have invested mainly in course production and marketing which helped us to generate revenue. This year, however, we are planning to invest in technology and launch an app. 

To sum up, looking back, we have not done anything different than ensuring the basics on our platform such as a well-functioning platform and high-quality courses, consistent communication, etc.

Future Startup: You are right. Ensuring the basics is often the most difficult task to accomplish.

Yanur Islam Piash: Many people fail because they overlook the basics and become over-ambitious. Keeping your focus on basics and maintaining the quality consistently is important. 

Focus is the key to excellence. Trying to do too much at once is often a road to disaster. 

I always struggle with dealing with too much at once. I could immediately see when I’m not focused and not doing the basics well. For example, since we are an early-stage company, we are always under-resourced and I get to deal with multiple issues at once and when I’m going through a phase of that I can always tell the struggle. 

Future Startup: From 4 people team to 15 people. Throughout the past two years, you have grown significantly. What are the lessons you have learned in this journey so far? What are the challenges that come with this growth?

Yanur Islam Piash: Staying focused is the hard part. With growth comes operational complexities and the temptation of growing even faster. 

Second, growth never gets easier. Growing from one user to ten users is one kind of trajectory and growing from 10 to 100 is a different kind of trajectory. 

Growing revenue to BDT 5 lakhs was tough. But going from 5 to BDT 10 lakhs is tougher. The more you move forward the harder the path becomes and you have to be strategically savvy to grow. 

Sometimes things get overwhelming and that’s when you struggle.  

Hiring and team management is a challenge. I have experience of managing teams from my university life. Managing a team in a company, however, is an entirely different experience. It is not easy to guide your people and manage them as a leader. In the beginning, we, the co-founders used to do all the work. But now we have to delegate responsibilities among the team members and I think I still need to learn how to do that properly.

Sometimes while dealing with the operational issues I get too occupied with it that I do not get time to think about the big picture and vice versa. Balancing between these two sides, the daily operations, and our ultimate goal, is a balancing act that you have to constantly deal with. I’m learning to do that. 

Company-wise, the main challenge is scaling the platform, growing the number of courses. We now have to produce 10 courses using the same amount of time we used to make one course in the past. Meeting the deadlines of course creation has become a challenge for us as most of our instructors are professionals and we need to balance time with their work and other schedules. 

Marketing is a challenge as well. As I mentioned earlier, we have a lot of low-hanging fruits and we have unrealized growth that we could achieve using our existing resources and courses. We are working with our agency to optimize our digital marketing. 

For long-term growth, we are focusing on content marketing. Content marketing goes well with the e-learning platform. We are hoping to get good outcomes from content marketing.

Maintaining quality instead of looking for a short-cut solution is a challenge. I can offer a 90% discount on our courses. But then Bohubrihi will be known for its discounts, not for its quality. We want to grow while maintaining our quality. Sometimes it is hard to manage your temptation. 

Future Startup: Feeling overwhelmed is common for early-stage founders as you mentioned. How do you deal with it? 

Yanur Islam Piash: From my personal experience, I can say for an early-stage founder having mentors who genuinely want to guide you and help is important. Having a conversation with my mentors helps me to deal with my stress a lot. When they say that they have faced similar challenges in the early stage of their business and provide suggestions, it relieves my stress and helps me to think clearly. Talking with my mentors and board members helps me to deal with any challenge I face in my business.

Staying focused is the hard part. With growth comes operational complexities and the temptation of growing even faster.

Future Startup: How often do you talk with your mentors and board members?

Yanur Islam Piash: We have three members on our board and we have a messenger group where we share our thoughts casually. We often talk about different things in that group.

Regarding the mentors, the frequency of consulting them varies from person to person. I often talk with some of them. With some of them, I talk when it’s urgent. So far they have helped me a lot and even when they can’t provide any guidance, at least they encourage me to face a challenge.

In January, we faced a major technical issue with our website. Both of our backup databases went down and the last backup was from three months ago. We did not have any technical professionals to handle the crisis. I thought all of our data was gone. It was one of the worst days of my entrepreneurial journey. I reached out to one of my mentors and he took time out and resolved the problem himself and helped us in server migration. I consider myself to be very lucky to have people around me. 

Future Startup: It is wonderful to have such people around you.

Yanur Islam Piash: I feel privileged for having these people.

Future Startup: How much have you evolved as a founder?

Yanur Islam Piash: Well, that’s difficult to answer. However, I can think more clearly now than before. I’ve matured naturally since I had to and continuously have to deal with challenges and crises. 

Managing the day-to-day operation is easy. But dealing with the stress and feeling of overwhelms is tough. I have to some extent learned to deal with these overwhelms more efficiently than before. 

Overall, I have made some progress but learning is a never-ending journey. And challenges progressively get tougher. 

Future Startup: There are a lot of things happening in the e-learning vertical in Dhaka and the market of e-learning has grown meaningfully over the past two years amid the pandemic. What do you think about the e-learning market in Bangladesh?

Yanur Islam Piash: The industry is still at an early stage and most of the e-learning platforms are focusing on a small market. We are still learning. Though more learners are joining e-learning platforms, the number remains small. There are distribution challenges. And everyone is targeting the same small segment.

There are a lot of opportunities if anyone wants to think outside the box and try to reach out to people outside the regular users of e-learning platforms. New startups can be founded to facilitate the distribution of online education.

The other important challenge is making people understand the value of online education at scale so that they are willing to pay for that. Anyone who can solve these issues will become the market leader within the next few years

E-learning in Bangladesh is still more like an impulse purchase. Most people don’t feel the need to learn a new skill online. For the vertical to truly grow, this mindset has to change. 

To my understanding, the market remains limited to few urban pockets at this stage and we need to move out and expand across the country which would not be easy. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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