EdTech is a hot topic these days anywhere in the world. Bangladesh is no different. Like many other digital services, online education has seen significant growth in adoption over the last two years. With the growth in users, came attention from investors. Once a slow vertical, the sector quickly became an investor darling globally. In Bangladesh, online education companies attracted some of the biggest deals in recent years. Today, the entire sector is on the verge of going mainstream and changing how people teach and learn in Bangladesh.
Sohopathi, previously Online Sohopathi, is one of the important players in the vertical. Officially launched in 2019, Sohopathi runs an online education platform where students can take live courses from mentors for a fee and a free questions and answers platform where anyone can ask and answer questions for free. While there are several live-course platforms in Dhaka, Sohopathi says it offers unique benefits to students and enjoys unique advantages in that it blends personalization and social aspects in learning. Students can take live courses individually for a higher fee where personalization is high or in groups where fees are low and learning is less personalized. On the other end, Sohopathi plans to use the free Q&A platform as a tool for building a social aspect on its platform where students and learners share and interact with each other.
To understand more about Sohopathi, its product, operation, and ambition going forward, and the state of ed-tech in Bangladesh, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader spoke to Shadman Majid, the co-founder, and CEO of Sohopathi.
Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today?
Shadman Majid: I was born and grew up in Dhaka. I went to Saint Joseph for schooling and Notre Dame College for my higher secondary education. Then I went to BUET where I studied CSE. After graduating in 2018, I worked for Samsung R&D Institute for one and a half years.
Sohopathi began in 2017. We were still students at that time. After graduation, we were doing it on the side with limited progress. In 2020, after one and a half years of trying, we won a competition and received some investment which changed our trajectory. The investment allowed us to start working full-time on the venture.
So although we started in 2017, we formally incorporated the company in 2020 as Mainframe Lab. To that end, Sohopathi is a brand of Mainframe Lab.
Future Startup: What was the motivation behind starting Sohopathi? In what context did you start the company? How did you put together initial resources?
Shadman Majid: The early Sohopathi was founded by a group of BUET and MIST students. How Sohopathi came into being is a detour. We participated in mBillionth, an app competition, in around 2017. We created an app where people could post notices for missing people. We built an early version and submitted it in the early stage category of the competition. To our surprise, we won. We all were students and it was a big deal for us. It gave us a kind of validation.
However, the excitement did not last because we quickly found out that our award-winning app has a total of zero users. We received coverage in the newspaper and all that but it did not help with our app user number. We realized that “we are working hard on this product, if it is not useful, it does not make sense.” That was the trigger for our pivot to education.
Being BUETians, we were into teaching students. I have been teaching students since 2013. The same is true for the rest of my co-founders. We taught classes all across the country for different coaching centers. For example, I taught at Udvash and Sunrise. While visiting these suburban and rural places, we saw that the majority of students didn't have access to quality education.
For example, students in Dhaka have access to the best teachers and facilities. But that is not the case for many students in rural and semi-urban areas. In many areas outside Dhaka where we took classes, many schools did not have any physics or chemistry teachers. As a result, students used to value our classes highly — a BUET student coming to teach them was a big deal for them.
That helped us to see a gap in the education market. Although we had several e-learning platforms and students could access free video lessons on Youtube, personalized education was not a common feature online.
The student-teacher ratio in Bangladesh is quite skewed which makes it difficult for teachers to pay personalized attention to students. Contrary to that, many students possess excellent skills who are capable of helping their peers. This was my personal experience at BUET where our best classmates used to help others. We thought this could help address teacher scarcity in the country.
That was the context. We thought since there is a teacher shortage in Bangladesh and good teachers are not equally distributed, we have to connect teachers digitally so that students can get personalized help. Second, we have many students who are capable of teaching others, which we call peer-to-peer learning. If we can give them a platform, they can be useful to others. Sohopathi began as a combination of these two ideas.
We started as a simple Q&A platform where students/anyone could ask and answer questions. We wanted to build a platform through which students from anywhere in Bangladesh can get direct help from the best teachers and student peers.
The beginning of Sohopathi was kind of a pivot for us since our earlier missing people-finding platform did not get much traction. Since we were already popular teachers in different coaching centers, we thought it would be easier for us to attract students aka users, quickly gain popularity and generate revenue from ads.
Future Startup: So you built a Q&A platform where anyone can ask and answer questions? What happened after that?
Shadman Majid: We started in 2017 as a Q&A platform. Initially, as a Facebook page and group. We have always wanted to add a social aspect to online education. To a certain extent, we wanted to build a Facebook for education where anyone can contribute. Students can contribute both as mentors and participants. We created a team with students from top universities to answer questions on the platform.
We created a Facebook group and page. Since we had some popularity in the student community, we received a huge response in those early days. Students have a ton of challenges but there are not many platforms that address these challenges. We received so many questions that it quickly became a challenge to tackle everything. We had a team of 60 people, all volunteers, who used to respond to questions.
We worked this way for a while. It helped grow awareness of Sohopathi. Currently, our page and different groups have more than 2 lakhs of students connected.
After a while, we decided to turn it into a website where students could ask questions and get answers. In two years, we had created a platform of almost 15,000 questions. We had students from all across the country using the platform. We have changed the platform since.
In the first two years, we did not have a business model. We did not have paid employees. After one and a half years, we could see that the model was not working. That's when we realized we needed a better model to survive.
Future Startup: That's an interesting trajectory. Started as a social service platform for helping students and then had to change the model to survive. Then what happened?
Shadman Majid: We started to try out different ideas for survival. For example, taking workshops in different schools and colleges. For the first two years, we were hesitant to introduce a paid model. We were not sure whether people would be willing to pay. Running the workshops changed our perspective. When 100 students paid for a programming workshop we took at DU, we were convinced that people want to pay for learning.
That led us to experiment with different models. For example, we introduced a paid online model test feature for university admission test students. It helped us to earn some revenue. But we could not relate it directly to our model.
Then we thought what if we create a product attached to our free Q&A platform where students could get personalized support for a fee. The Q&A platform will remain free but for personalized help, students will have to pay. That's how our online mentor service came into being in the middle of 2019. Students personally or in a small group of 3-5 can learn from a mentor for a fee. Anyone can be a mentor from students of DU or BUET to a peer who understands the subject well.
We started with a commission-based model. The model has since evolved.
We received excellent responses. Our first student, I still remember, was from outside Dhaka. It was a big deal for us. This was before the pandemic. The model worked and generated some revenue. But the volume was not enough for us to sustain.
Future Startup: What did you do then?
Shadman Majid: This led to a turning point. We were running using the money from workshops, online exams, and other sources. We also took a co-working space around this time at Daffodil Business Incubator Center. With the workshops and other revenue, we tried to bootstrap the business. With a small team, our operational expenses were meager. Despite that, it became a challenge to run the operation. Then we applied to the Grameenphone pre-accelerator in 2019 and got selected. That was a major turning point for us. More so because we failed there. At the end of the accelerator program, we came last among the selected startups. And rightly so.
We did not understand the demand for building a business. We did not have responsibilities assigned among co-founders. Sohopathi was not incorporated as a business at that time. We did not understand that you need to have a weekly plan, a target, and KPI and make progress accordingly. As a result, the three-four months of the GP Accelerator was a big challenge for us. We were having to set and achieve quite big targets every week. But we did not know-how. We did not know how to set these goals and achieve them. Moreover, none of us were full-time. We eventually realized that if we continued working this way, this would not go anywhere. We either have to start working full-time or discontinue Sohopathi.
We all did a reality check whether we could move full-time or not. That led to some changes. Although we are four co-founders now, we had a few other partners who played an important role at that time but could not continue with us.
In September 2019, we almost decided that we might have to shut down the shop. We applied for several programs and competitions but were not getting any response.
Just 15 days after that we became one of the finalists in a jointly organized competition by Tiger IT Foundation and MIT Solve called Tiger IT Innovation Challenge 2019. Out of 500 startups, we became one of the top 15. The competition was designed such that the top 3 winners would receive investments and business building support from Tiger IT Foundation.
We did not expect that we would get selected as finalists. The selection announcement came on 30th September 2019. We realized that we have to win this thing or go home. It was a difficult competition because a lot of established companies were on the list. We worked hard for 14 days and took an excellent preparation. The final event consisted of a pitch and questions from judges. Since we took good preparation, we managed to respond to the questions satisfactorily. The final was on 14th October and we became one of the 3 winners.
That was a turning point and changed our trajectory. We decided to work full-time. We would now have investment. That's how Mainframe Lab came into being in December 2019 as a company.
Future Startup: So you received an investment from Tiger IT Foundation. What happened after that?
Shadman Majid: Yes. We received an equity investment from Tiger IT Foundation. We started working full-time after a while. We rented an office. We had some people working for us, mostly students, so we brought them under payroll.
While we started with much excitement, the next year was very difficult for us. We did not know that investments take time to get executed. I left my job in January 2020 and started full-time in February. But it took another six months to get everything sorted. Those six months were some of the hardest and productive months for Sohopathi. We already had an office and paid employees. We were generating some revenue but that was not enough.
The good thing was that the difficult situation pushed us to grow up. We spent time understanding our product and exploring ways to grow it. Using a combination of cost-cutting, investing from our pocket, and revenue generation, we managed to survive those six months. By the time investment came after six months, we already had a roadmap.
We finally received the investment in August.
Future Startup: You had a dedicated mentor service. Apart from that did you have any other feature or product at that time?
Shadman Majid: We had mentor services. We also launched a B2B platform for coaching centers and managed to sell it to several coaching centers. We have since incorporated it with the main model of Sohopathi.
Future Startup: You received the investment in September and started building a team and further building your product. How much has changed over these months?
Shadman Majid: We did not have a proper operation in September 2020. We have since developed a proper operation where work is defined for everyone.
On the product end, our platform is completely automated now. Students can buy our course, pay online and start taking courses online without any interaction with us. Payments of the mentors also directly go to their bank account without our manual intervention.
We have launched an early version of our app. In the next few years, our goal is to develop and incorporate social aspects into the app that we discussed earlier.
On the sales side, we have an excellent pipeline for finding, acquiring, and onboarding customers. We use SMS, calls, and other acquisition activities. We have over a thousand campus ambassadors — mostly school and college students — who help us with marketing and sales. We offer them a good incentive for bringing leads.
We have made several improvements on the content side. Since we are an open platform, mentors, students, and everyone can submit content. But the content library was not organized before. We now have people for illustration and video editing and have since organized our content library.
We have grown our revenue almost five times since 2020.
Future Startup: These are some excellent developments. Could you please give us an overview of the company today in terms of your product and team and operation, etc?
Shadman Majid: As I mentioned earlier, we have an open platform where students can share their problems and get answers from other students and peers, and teachers. And if they need personalized help, they can learn directly from our mentors for a fee. Students can take these lessons individually, as a small group, or in a big batch.
Pricing is different for each model. For example, students can take lessons for 500 taka a month or 5000 taka a month. The difference is in personalization. If you pay more, you get the personalized service. You can learn from the same mentor in a batch for a lower fee. Quality does not differ when you are learning in a batch.
In a nutshell, product-wise, we have a platform where students can ask questions and get answers for free. We have a mentor-led teaching model where students can learn from dedicated mentors by paying a fee between 500 taka to 5000 taka.
On B2B, we have an online exam solution for educational institutions. We plan to build an LMS integrating both our online exam and mentorship services for educational institutions. These B2B services will also help us to get B2C users.
As we move forward, we aim to improve sharing and add gamification to the platform. We want to allow learners to interact more freely within the platform via content sharing and helping others. Once we do so, we would be able to capture the whole journey of a learner in terms of weakness, strength, interest, and improvements in all subjects. This will help us to suggest everyone with the most suitable content and mentors, compatible with his/her learning style.
The most exciting plan that we have in store is to combine the B2C and B2B aspects. Using our platform, educators and educational institutions can share or upload educational content for free like a Youtube channel and build their own student community/fanbase. Students will be directly able to interact in each of the individual mentor communities like Facebook. On top of that, these individual mentors (educators + educational institutions) can launch their own paid courses within the platform, maintaining their own identity.
We are a team of 20 people with separate domain expertise in software development, product design, sales, and marketing.
Future Startup: How do you pay your mentors?
Shadman Majid: We use a mixed model. For one-to-one and small batches, we use a commission model where we take a commission and pay out the rest to the mentors. For big batches, we get into a fixed per student payment model with mentors. It is a mixture of commission and subscription.
Future Startup: I'm curious if you offer mentor services to educational institutions for their students, would not it cannibalize your B2C business because students who go to coachings and schools are the same students you are targeting for your online paid mentorship service?
Shadman Majid: We view it differently. Although students can use our exam and mentorship services through their coaching centers, they still get a variety of services through us. So there are still reasons for them to come to us separately. Also, as I mentioned in the previous question, we are now allowing them to build their community within our platform, which can increase their income by 2-4 times.
On top of that, many students will connect to our platform through onboarding these institutions. While they might not use our paid products, we hope many of them will use our Q&A which will enrich our content library. Many of them will eventually become mentors on our platform.
We aim to make teaching partly automated. Now when people ask questions on our Q&A platform, it takes some time to get answers. When they seek any explanation video on Youtube, it takes up a lot of time since the contents are not dedicatedly organized. But once we have a large enough content library in terms of videos and Q&A, this would become easier. We believe more learners and educators joining our platform will help us to achieve this goal.
Future Startup: How many users do you have now?
Shadman Majid: We have over 3500 active recurring paid users. In B2B, we work with about 5 educational institutions. Almost all of them are from outside Dhaka. Geographically, 60% of our users are from outside Dhaka.
Future Startup: That's very good. Because what we are seeing in online education is that users are mostly concentrated in urban and suburban hubs such as Chattogram, Dhaka, etc. But as the many players in the space claim, the market is bigger outside Dhaka because students in Dhaka already have good learning opportunities. How do you see that? Have you already been able to break that silo?
Shadman Majid: Our observation about this is that although our product is online if we want an audience from outside urban hubs, we have to reach out to them offline. We have to invest in offline marketing. If we don't have good connections with schools and colleges, it is hard to take this service across the country. For students to use our service, they have to know and understand it.
To that end, we have planned that we will go to schools across the country once the pandemic ends to onboard students. If we can reach students offline and build collaboration with schools, it is possible. It will take time but it will happen.
Future Startup: EdTech has not been able to break out in Bangladesh yet. Although we talk about internet and mobile phone penetration and other positive tech developments, the number of students using online education services remains slim. For example, in K12 there are some 20 lakh students who take SSC and HSC exams every year. Compared to that, edtech companies don't yet have a sizable user base. One challenge we identify is that edtech companies in Dhaka are not well-funded and without funding, you can't essentially spend on marketing, innovation, and other areas. Being an insider you have a better view of things, what are the challenges to the growth of edtech in Bangladesh?
The second challenge is a lack of willingness to pay. We had to tweak our pricing multiple times to address this challenge. We have been in discussion with an Indian partner to launch a French language course. We ran a survey and found out that students are interested but they would not spend more than 200 taka for a French language course. People perceive online products should be cheap. Most importantly, students don't see online as an equal alternative to offline. For example, many students are happy to spend 10,000 taka offline but they are unwilling to spend 2000 take online for the same service. Changing this perception is a challenge for edtech players in Bangladesh.
Students include internet prices with the cost of courses. For example, when we offer a course for 500 taka, students say for taking a 500 taka course I need to spend 500 taka on the internet, which means the course originally cost me 1000 taka.
Finally, devices are a factor in user experience. You get the best experience out of our content when you watch them on a laptop or desktop. But most of our users are mobile users which degrade their experience and as a result perception of value and quality. We are now paying attention to our content to make them more appropriate for mobile consumption.
Future Startup: Is there any difference between your app content and web content?
Shadman Majid: Not yet. But we have been considering how to serve mobile users better. Moreover, the app is designed to be more interactive and handy for users who are already active paid subscribers of “Sohopathi”. Our survey tells that 80% of users interact with us through mobile. To that end, mobile is the biggest platform.
Future Startup: Course completion rate is a challenge for edtech companies. In the past, I have enrolled in multiple courses and left without completing them. Coursera and other platforms have also reported similar phenomena. What is your experience and take on this?
Shadman Majid: Since we offer personalized teaching, students take our courses by paying a monthly fee. In some instances, students pay for six months at once.
Our retention rate is pretty high for one-to-one courses, almost above 85%. The rate is a bit low, about 55%, for large batches where 100/150 students learn from a mentor in a batch. When personalization is higher, retention and completion are higher.
Future Startup: What are your plans for the next few years?
Shadman Majid: We are planning to reach out and collaborate with 50 top-level high schools/colleges across 30 districts over the next 1 year. In terms of the mentor side, we plan to build a network of 3,000 top-quality educators of Bangladesh on our platform. Besides, as our K12 courses grow, we plan to bring more of these skill-based courses and blend both. We will not focus on it much at this moment. We want to build it slowly. But in the long run, we plan to offer these courses. The ambition is that students will get all kinds of support for personalized learning.
In the next 6 months, we want to grow our daily app users to 50,000 contributing users who will not only use our platform but also contribute. It will help us to grow our paid user base as well as enrich our content library.
We want to build a great product that is stable and has a growing user base. We have a fair amount of momentum within the team and using that we want to be ready to raise VC investment worth 1.5-2 million USD by the end of 2022.
Future Startup: What are some of the major challenges for Sohopathi?
Shadman Majid: Reach is a challenge. We want to reach more people and have to find a better approach for doing it.
We have to build a truly superior and different product. This is a competitive market. Everyone can claim great teachers, courses, and others. But none of the platforms are claiming social aspects of learning. “Sohopathi” is aggregating the best educators from Bangladesh in a single platform and enabling them with the powerful opportunity of interacting with students directly, all over the country. That's a very big differentiator for us. We want to further build on that. To do so, we have to onboard the high potential teachers and bright students in our platform as mentors, who have a great reputation within their geographical community. This is a big challenge, as it requires a massive amount of networking and partnership.
Communication is also a major challenge for us. If we are not communicating well, people misunderstand our product to be an online tutoring platform which we are not. We are looking to create a strong brand message and deliver it to the mass people in the simplest possible way. We did not invest much in marketing before. Now we are building a team to look after the market and we hope to achieve some results in the coming days.
Future Startup: How do you differentiate yourself now since we are on it?
Shadman Majid: Currently, most educational platforms are creating their educational content. This makes the content production cost very expensive. On the other hand, “Sohopathi” works like a social community, where educators from anywhere can share their educational content and grow their student base. This makes content production highly scalable, enabling us to provide a diverse and personalized content pool for all learners.
We are providing a 360-degree personalized learning solutions live-course platform. There are a few other live course platforms that are trying to provide the same value that came to market after the pandemic. But we have been able to build a product that is superior and better, through the diversity of the contents generated basically from our users.
Finally, we have built a platform where every student can participate and contribute. This means that the platform will grow even more powerful and effective, as more users sign up. Since we are more focused on building the community and crowdsourcing the best learning content, we can easily expand to any vertical. We simply have to moderate the contents and everything else will fall into place. It means our content production cost is almost zero. We simply moderate these contents.
Future Startup: While online learning companies have proliferated over the last few years, it is not an easy business. Compared to that you have done relatively well. What are some of the things that worked for you?
Shadman Majid: We have taken customer feedback seriously and iterated quickly based on the feedback. As I mentioned, our pricing was quite high before. We changed the pricing based on user feedback a couple of times. Almost every week, our co-founders dedicate a separate time for talking with the students and mentors personally, to understand and empathize with their pain points.
Second, we have always focused on tech and automation. Although we have a long way to go, we can scale things quickly because of the tech work we have done so far. Whenever we are faced with a problem, we try to come up with a technology-first solution. The combined skills of teaching and technology of our founding team help us enormously in this regard.
Future Startup: How do your marketing and growth work?
Shadman Majid: We use direct calls and SMS for sales. We run social media promotions and other activities to collect these numbers and then send SMS to these numbers. As I mentioned, we have a campus ambassador group from different high schools and colleges universities who help us. Our campus ambassador network is very robust and we already have over 1,000 ambassadors from different educational boards combined. We have dedicated Facebook groups for school level, college level, and university admission seekers. Using our strong ambassador network and social media groups, we have already built a community of 200,000 people.
There are different student groups on Facebook we have been doing a paid collaboration with of late. Under these partnerships, we offer these groups commissions for sales they generate. These groups are also a valuable and cost-effective resource for bringing in solid leads and regular recurring users.
In short, we are using a combination of direct sales, partnership, and ambassadorship.
Future Startup: One of the challenges early-stage companies and founders face is managing human resources? What are some of the challenges you face in managing people and how do you deal with them?
Shadman Majid: Managing people is indeed a challenge. We have faced it. After months of struggle, we have been trying to find a balance. We have realized that it is more important to hire people who are willing to learn and stay with you for a long time than hiring super smart people who will not stay. We have been trying to find people who will stay with us, learn and grow, and around whom we can build teams.
Change in people is bad for early-stage companies. That's what we have found. The problem with hiring highly skilled people is that you can’t essentially incentivize them. It is hard to keep them motivated.
What we have found useful in terms of keeping the team in sync and motivated is keeping in touch regularly. We do it regularly — if not daily at least every two/three days.
We arrange small celebrations for achievements big and small. Highlight people who are doing well while helping the ones who are struggling. We focus a lot on these things. We can't pay people a lot or offer a lot of benefits. We need to pay a lot of personal attention to our people. We try to do it.
Future Startup: How do you deal with the challenges of being a founder?
Shadman Majid: I maintain a schedule daily and after a certain hour in the day, I stop working. I spend time with myself every day and it helps. I try to see things positively. When I'm not able to complete a task on schedule, instead of being self-critical I try to see the glass half-full.
Future Startup: Lessons worth sharing.
Shadman Majid: The first lesson is that you can't afford to have an ego when you are building anything. In the early days, it was usually difficult to handle my ego. I have gradually learned not to take my feelings seriously. It is useful.
We often take longer than necessary to make decisions. We should make decisions faster. These two lessons stand out for me.