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Ayman Sadiq: The making and evolution of 10 Minute School, and the psychology of entrepreneurship (Part I)

Ayman Sadiq is the founder and CEO of 10 Minute School, one of the largest edtech startups in Bangladesh. Ayman has received several awards for his work. In 2018, he received a Queen's Young Leaders Award for his work to improve access to education for young people in Bangladesh. The same year, he was named on Forbes Asia's 30 Under 30 list. Ayman is an original thinker and a wonderful human being.

10 Minute School started as a small bootstrapped operation in 2015. The company has since experienced phenomenal growth and become one of the most important online education technology companies in Bangladesh. Early this year, 10 Minute School raised its first external investment from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program. How 10 Minute School has come this far is a fascinating story and offers invaluable insights into entrepreneurship and building things from scratch. 

In this fascinating interview with Ayman, we talk about his path to entrepreneurship, the origin, and the early days of 10 Minute School, how he navigated the challenges of being a founder in the early days of the company, the evolution of 10 Minute School over the years, the state of 10 Minute School today, the psychology of entrepreneurship, what it takes to build things from the scratch and much more. 

This was a much longer interview, so we had to divide it into two parts. Come back early next week for the fine installment of the interview. Enjoy! 

Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. What are you busy with these days?

Ayman Sadiq: We are going through an exciting time at 10 Minute School. We are primarily busy with two things. We are building the business and also preparing for our next round of funding. 

On the business side, we are working on launching several new products. We have two main verticals: academics and non-academics. 

On the academic vertical, we have recently introduced live classes. We used to take these live classes on Facebook and Youtube before, mostly for free. We then launched a paid course and in our first paid batch some 17000 students joined. We ran that live course on Facebook. It gave us a validation that there is a huge demand for live classes. But running live classes on Facebook is not scalable. And the experience is relatively poor. So we launched live classes on our platform—web, and app, in January. We have currently 26 active live class batches for students from class 5 to class 12. We are currently covering Science, English, ICT, etc. That is one of the major projects that we have launched recently in the academic segment.

In the past, our videos were on either whiteboards or pen and paper. We have turned our teaching materials into 2D content and replaced almost 25,000 videos with animations. We have started working on 3D models for a select number of subjects. 

In the non-academic segment, we have introduced several new courses in English, skills development, and corporate segments. Many basic courses have excellent demand and are relatively low-hanging fruits such as graphics design, English for professionals, videography, video editing, personal fitness, etc. We have them on our free-tier but did not launch advanced versions. We have launched advanced versions of all these courses under our paid tier. Free courses will still be free. But paid versions have additional materials and supports. 

On the fundraising side, we’ve closed our seed round early this year from Sequoia. In addition, we’ve recently received a small seed fund from Startup Bangladesh Limited. 

We have opened the discussion about our series A. But it will take some time since series A is more complex than the seed round. So 30%-40% of my time goes there.

People of 10 Minute School
People of 10 Minute School

Ruhul: Today, 10 Minute School is a huge organization and popular brand. You have multiple products and services. You are probably the largest ed-tech platform in the country. But you started it as a small operation and in a quite organic manner. In an interview you did a while ago you reflected on your IBA days and your experience of transitioning from science to commerce. You said it was a difficult time. You said in that interview and I quote: “the transition from science to commerce made me feel like a fish out of water”. You said that experience partly inspired the idea of 10 Minute School because you got tremendous help from online learning materials. But I could not find any more details about the origin and early days of 10 Minute School. How did you come up with the idea and get started? How did you build the first product and get the initial traction?

Ayman Sadiq: I passed HSC in 2011 and then went to IBA, Dhaka University, the next year to study business. I started teaching private tuition right after getting into IBA in 2012. From June, the same year, I started teaching classes at Mentor’s, mostly in their admission test batches. I was teaching mathematics and mental ability to students just a batch younger than me. But they used to treat me like some kind of a math guru. It felt good and motivated me to do even more. So I would research new tricks, hacks, and tips online to make my teaching more interesting.

Mentor’s had an evaluation system for teachers. I almost always scored in the top. As a result, I used to teach large batches where students could do three classes for free and you had to take admission to continue.

In those days, many university admission aspirants would come to me for discounts for admission coaching. Many would say I came to Dhaka with this seven thousand taka and the admission fee is like thirteen thousand, what do I do? I was just a fresher at IBA and just started teaching so I did not have any power to recommend discounts. Many teachers had some authority to provide a 5%-10% discount but that would not help many of these students. Many of them would need a 50% discount which I could not help with. On top of that, they had other expenses of living in Dhaka. Seeing these students struggle financially was a sad experience for me. And I knew that if we could not do anything for them, they would have to return to their districts and their life would be completely different.

At the same time, I was struggling in IBA. I was from the Bangla medium. I studied at Adamjee Cantonment College and did not have any seniors from Adamjee in IBA that I knew at the time. Initially, I also suffered from a minor inferiority complex because everything was in English. Moreover, coming from the science background, I was struggling to grasp core business subjects such as accounting, finance, etc. I had a hard time cracking accounting. For help, I used to watch Khan Academy videos on accounting online. It was super helpful.

I eventually came across a channel on Youtube that had 17 videos on 17 chapters of the accounting textbook. These were excellent learning materials that helped me to grasp the basic concepts of accounting. 

That’s how I got the idea of uploading my classes online. I thought I could do the same thing. I could upload what I was teaching in my classes and people could watch them from anywhere with an internet connection. Nobody would need to come to Dhaka or pay for it.

The idea first came in 2012. I was good at making presentation decks. My students used to love my slides. I started to share the idea with my students and they were usually very positive and enthusiastic about it. Throughout 2012 I shared the idea with many people and everyone encouraged me. In 2013, I started to reach out to some people about how to build a website. I had zero ideas about website building. I had some savings from teaching at Mentor's, and I paid a few people to make a website. It was the relatively early days of the web in Dhaka. They would give me some WordPress templates and this and that but the site was not making any progress. I quickly became aware that this was not going anywhere. So another year went by doing this back and forth.

In my third year of university, I thought I have to do something now. Since the website was not coming along, I decided to start with a Facebook page. Let the website go and let's start with a Facebook page, I thought. So I started with a Facebook page in 2014. In 2015, I gradually built a small team. And we launched our website in 2015. 

That's the struggle. I got the idea in 2012. There was no big Idea. I just wanted to upload free videos online. Not a company. Not a youtube channel. Just free videos that people would be able to watch. Then it took me two more years to come up with a solid plan and open a Facebook page. It took another year to launch a website. That's the backstory of 10 Minute School.

Ruhul: So you launched your website in 2015. Then what happened? How big was your team at the time? 

Ayman Sadiq: At the time, my entire team was my student base. I was teaching at Mentor's. There was a batch at Mentor’s from which 9 students got into IBA. They had a group and used to play Poker together. Their name was Poker group. They joined me. Then a few more people joined me. Then we had a few people in tech. Everyone was working voluntarily. 

We launched our website on 17 May 2015. Interestingly, the same day I was on my first international trip to Brunei, Darussalam to attend a summit on entrepreneurship. The summit had delegates from 30 countries around the world. I was selected from my country. I was selected because of 10 Minute School.

We launched our website at 12:30 am. We did that intentionally because we bought a cheap hosting service from ‘HostGator’ which costs US$2-5. We knew the site would not survive if we had large traffic. Our Facebook page had a significant following at the time. Not at the scale of today but people knew about our work. We knew that our website was not capable of handling large traffic. But we didn’t expect that it would go down so quickly. Within 27-30 minutes of going live, our website was down. 

When our current CTO called to inform me that our website went down due to heavy traffic, I was in transit at the airport. We had to manage credit cards and all that overnight and buy a little more expensive hosting service. We worked on that throughout the night and the next morning, we relaunched the website. 

When I came back, I figured out that I have six more months left before graduation. So I have to do something. Since I was an IBA student, people had high expectations that I would eventually join an MNC. Moreover, I was an active participant in all kinds of student competitions and won major competitions such as Biz Maestros, Brandwidth, Future Leader League, etc. It was as if I already had one foot at an MNC. But I wanted to do 10 MInute School, but I knew I would need money to do it. We had an unspoken rule that after graduation you don’t teach students anymore. My primary source of income was tutoring at the time. I used to earn good money during the admission season. But the problem was I would not be able to tutor after graduation, where would the money come from?

So I made a nice proposal and started to submit it to large companies such as Telcos, Banks, FMCG, etc. The companies I was supposed to work for. After submitting some proposals, I got some meeting opportunities, thanks to IBA alumni seniors. I went and pitched my idea. But we needed relatively large funding which was difficult for many of these companies to give. Moreover, I was still an undergrad student at the time.

Interestingly, around this time, we had a session at Robi where they gave 10-12 IBA undergraduate students a tour of their different departments. I came to know about their CSR department there. I thought this is the department I need. I managed the number of the department head, contacted him later, and eventually managed a meeting. In the meeting, I showed them videos of 10 Minute School. They were impressed after watching the video and agreed to support us. 

However, it took me 8 months to get to the final agreement. We started the conversation in June/July and locked it the next year in February. In our first year, we got a sponsorship worth BDT 70 lakh from Robi. I’m immensely grateful to Robi for having faith in someone like me who was just a fresh graduate at the time. I could not believe it myself initially. That helped me to pursue 10 Minute School full time.  

So instead of looking for a job after graduation, I started to focus on building 10 Minute School. Alhamdulillah, fast forward 7 years later we are by far the biggest ed-tech organization in Bangladesh. We have approximately 30,000 free videos on our platform. Every day around 20,00,000 students take lessons on our website for free. Our paid tier has 33 courses on different skills. In K-12, we have 26 batches running currently. I am very happy with how far we have come.

Ruhul: That's such an inspiring story. You mentioned you had a small team before Robi's sponsorship. The Poker group that joined the 10 Minute School team after they got into IBA. How did you pay them?  

Ayman Sadiq: Only one of them used to get paid and the rest of them worked completely voluntarily. I was their teacher, so it made sense from that point of view. Moreover, when they got into IBA, they came to see that Ayman bhaiya participates in a lot of competitions and wins a lot of different things. I was quite popular. Moreover, working for 10 Minute School was kind of a cool thing to do. So in a way coolness was the appeal initially. Most of them did not get paid. The ones who got paid used to get paid BDT 5000 or 6000.

Ruhul: So you got a sponsorship from Robi and managed to have a runway for a year or so. What happened after that? Did you plan to build the largest ed-tech company in Bangladesh or what were you thinking?

Ayman Sadiq: No! My thought process was simple: I would make more videos and teach students. I love to teach. How could I do it at scale? Using the power of media that is video. But there were some positive side effects of working with Robi. 

To work with an MNC, we had to prepare everything. After getting the sponsorship from Robi, we had to prepare all the documents. We had to register the company, get TIN, and all the relevant documents. I had to work very hard in the process of vendor enlistment at Robi. But since we had to clear all legal issues at the time, it made a lot of things easier for us later. We formed the company through that process. If that didn’t happen I don’t think I would have taken that hassle that early. Maybe we would still be just a YouTube channel.

When I officially started working full-time at 10 Minute School, I gradually realized the need for other things such as a team, a workspace, partners, co-founders, investors, etc. Then as they came along, we managed to get them one by one. That’s how 10 Minute School became what it is today. 

But I never had any plan to start 10 Minute School just because I wanted to found my startup. It did not start as a startup project. I wanted to be a teacher and became an entrepreneur as a by-product. 

Ruhul: As you mentioned earlier, from your background it was quite normal that your family expected you to join a large multinational company after graduation. But how did you figure out that I would get some sponsorship and pursue this thing full time? How did you deal with the idea of never pursuing a secure career path? How did you deal with it psychologically? 

Ayman Sadiq: It was very difficult. I had probably gone through some of the most difficult days of my life. After shooting videos I would often lie on the carpet and think about my life’s decisions. It was a tough decision and involved a major tradeoff. 

Since I decided to pursue my dream, I had to let go of my chance to join an MT program after IBA. After graduation from IBA, you have this opportunity to join the MT programs of big corporations. It is usually a one-year window that closes next year. I cut off that path for good. I could join the next batch, but usually, a senior batch does not go with the next batch. Leaving that for good was a difficult choice. I was worried about that. I did not have this much understanding back then.

So I would wonder what if my idea fails. Then I told myself to see what happens next. My plan was to run the operation for the next two years with the funding we got from Robi, although it was supposed to be spent in a year.

Ruhul: What about your parents?

Ayman Sadiq: My parents had expectations. But they never put pressure on me, for which I am grateful to my parents. At the time I myself didn’t understand what I was doing. So it was hard to explain it to my parents. Of course, my parents were a little concerned. It was not possible to convince them with money and by telling them about the future. 

The press and media coverage we received at the time helped because when your parents see that the Prothom Alo published a story about you, they take it seriously. If I'm not doing anything meaningful how come Prothom Alo or some TV channel feature me. That being said, they never put pressure on me which was a huge upside for me. My parents have always been supportive. 

Ruhul: What are some of the major lessons from those days? One aspect is you managed a meaningful sponsorship in the early days. The second aspect is about: how did you deal with the uncertainty of leaving the option of pursuing a secure career? How did you deal with it psychologically? How did you manage and navigate your environment? 

Ayman Sadiq: We were quite lucky to get the sponsorship. There are hardly any companies other than us that have managed to get this much sponsorship on a year-on-year basis. My lesson from this is that for many projects an alternative investment model could work well in the early days, which did very well for us. We not only received sponsorship from Robi, but we also got sponsorship from a lot of other companies. A lot of companies such as IPDC, Unilever, Walton, IDLC, etc supported us. If you have a project which has a social impact, you can try to figure out an alternative investment or sponsorship model for that and apply for impact funds. This is important. For a lot of projects that students start during their university time, they can explore this.

For this, a small tip is to build a brilliant pitch deck. Since I had the experience of participating in both local and international business competitions, my pitch deck was really good. Since I came across very high-quality pitch decks in these competitions, my standard was very high as well and that helped.

If my first pitch in the first meeting was not good, I wouldn’t get a second meeting or other following meetings. So skills such as making pitch decks, presentations, meeting etiquette, etc which I learned from different competitions helped me. Looking back, I think more than the idea, execution played a crucial role in our success. Our potential sponsors and supporters were impressed after seeing my etiquette, experience, and skills and that was the reason they took me seriously and overlooked the fact that I was just a fresh graduate. 

I think being presentable and articulate is important for early-stage founders. As a founder, you are the ambassador of your company. If the ambassador does not look, walk and talk well, it may make it difficult for the company in the early days. If you can’t communicate well, it can make getting support difficult for you in the early days. So this is the lesson from that experience. I did not understand this back then but I can see in retrospect that this has played an important role.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I can tell you now that the experience of attending various business competitions helped me a lot in the early days of 10 Minute School. Otherwise, the path would have been more difficult.

My second lesson is about risk and tradeoffs. Life is a game of opportunity cost. Everything has an opportunity cost. To get something you will have to give something. Every decision has an opportunity cost. When you are doing something, you are giving up on the chance of doing something else. For me, I left the chance of a lucrative corporate job when I decided to pursue 10 Minute School full-time.  

When you are a student, this cost is low. But the day you graduate, you are no longer a student and your opportunity cost of doing almost anything suddenly goes up. The day you graduate you suddenly become unemployed. People expect you to get a job. Doing anything else means you are not doing a job. When you choose a path other than a secure career path the opportunity cost becomes massive. So I think starting something when you are still a student is massively underrated, something that everyone should try. 

If you are a student and want to do something, I would say try it. When you are a student, your risk is low and your opportunity cost is low. To me, life is an opportunity cost and the right time to take risks is when your opportunity cost is low. That's the second lesson I figured that I think can help other people.

Ruhul: When you got the Robi sponsorship in 2016, what stage was your product at the time?

Ayman Sadiq: We only had our website. We continued with only the website until 2018. Our online distribution channel was very strong. Our Facebook and Youtube presence was quite strong. We launched our app in 2019. 

We now have 28 million total subscribers across digital channels. Of course, there is some double counting. The number was quite significant in those early days as well. We had around 100k subscribers on our YouTube channel and a bit higher than that on Facebook, which was a big deal back then. I'm talking about 2016. It helped a lot.

We didn’t have an app because we didn’t have a team to build an app. We could not afford it either. So the product was basically website based.

To keep the server cost low, we used to host all videos on YouTube mainly and embed them on our website. So youtube was where we streamed videos. Our website had videos embedded, and then quizzes, notes, guides, etc. That was the initial product or MVP.

Ruhul: What kind of courses did you offer back then?

Ayman Sadiq: We were offering SSC, HSC, and admission test courses. We did not have classes 1-8.

On skill development, I started with the skills I had such as case solving, presentations, PowerPoint, Photoshop, public speaking, CV writing, interviews, etc. We had some 9-10 courses on different skills. Back then these skills seemed very important to me because I was at that stage. All of our courses were free.

Ruhul: How much has the product evolved over the last few years? How do you think about the product now? How much has this thinking changed over the years?

Ayman Sadiq: In the past, we used to think in terms of content. We did not think from a product perspective. We now have a product thinking and think about the product as a whole, as an experience that includes the contents, app, website, user experience, UI, navigation, etc. We now focus on the overall experience of the product instead of focusing on the content alone. That's the difference.

The way we teach has changed a lot. In the past, it was mostly on pen and paper. We gradually moved to whiteboards, and then digital boards. Then we started using 2D animations. We are now working on 3D animation. The quality of our videos has gotten better with time.

In the past, we only had the production team. Now every content goes through a process where multiple teams are involved. For instance, before making content the curriculum team makes a map of the entire content, and then the material team makes the necessary materials for the content. Then freelancers make the PowerPoint slides. Then a teacher takes online classes using those PowerPoint slides. Then it is checked by our Quality Assurance Team and then the SEO part is handled by the content management team. Then it is listed on the platform by our Tech team and then the marketing team distributes the content. So we have a process now which was not there before. 

In the early days, it was just making videos and uploading them. The other layers gradually came into practice. Now the contents on our website have to go through multiple layers before they get uploaded.

We now include factors that are important from a pedagogical point of view. We integrate everything necessary from a pedagogical perspective for online learning.

Ruhul: Can you give us an overview of 10 Minute School today i.e. organization, team, etc?

Ayman Sadiq: We currently have 28 million social media subscribers across platforms. Our app has been installed 3.4 million times with a 4.4 average rating on PlayStore. It is the highest installed ed-tech app in Bangladesh with the highest rating.

We have 30,000 free videos on our website. More than 100,000 quizzes and many notes and guides for students.

So far, we have completed more than 2500 live classes.

We are a team of 300 people and growing. We have offices in two locations in Dhaka.

We have two verticals: academics and non-academics. In the academics section, we cover 1-12 and university admission. In non-academics, we cover all the skills development courses and recruitment exams.

People of 10 Minute School
People of 10 Minute School | the company has built an empowering culture over the years

Ruhul: You mentioned that you started with content for SSC, HSC, and university admission exams and some skills development courses. Today, you cover almost the entire universe of education. How did you make the expansion decision? Was it organic or do you have any theory behind expanding into new verticals? What was the thinking behind getting into multiple verticals? 

Ayman Sadiq: The strategy was simple. We started with one vertical because we identified the pain point in that vertical. So we started by making content for the university admission test exams. When we came to see that we had covered almost every aspect of the admission test, we started to think about what to do next. Then logically we started making content for the HSC exam since it has the same syllabus as the university admission test. Then came SSC.

Then I started to make videos on skills outside academics as they are important in practical life. This was how we expanded initially. Then eventually we started to make videos on more skills and other classes as well. The skill development segment grew gradually as it is. And SSC and HSC gradually expanded downward to cover more junior classes.

Ruhul: This is interesting. The expansion into new verticals came naturally. But many people try to say that you should focus on a single vertical until you get to a significant market share and so on. 

Ayman Sadiq: From the beginning, since we were the early player, we created markets in many of these verticals. When we saturated one vertical and did not see any growth path ahead, we moved to a new vertical. We figured out that at this moment with the current state of internet and smartphone penetration, it would be hard to penetrate deeper than we already have unless we go for paid acquisition. But the paid acquisition was never our plan and we did not have the capacity either. Whenever we felt like we have achieved what we wanted to in a particular vertical, we moved on to the next vertical. That was an easier route for us.

Ruhul: How does your pricing work? Can you give us an idea about your revenue/paid users just headline numbers so that our readers have an idea? 

Ayman Sadiq: For academic courses, our fee is BDT 750/per course and for non-academic courses, the fee is BDT 950/per course. This is the basic pricing. Currently, our academic courses have almost 100,000 enrolled paid students. The number of enrolled students in the non-academic courses is way higher—almost 500,000 courses sold, actually. If you divide 500,000 by 1.3 you will get the actual number of users. Our estimation suggests on average each user buys 1.3 courses. That's more or less the number on the business side.

We have some high ticket courses such as IELTS, BSC, Admission Test, etc which cost between 2500-3000 BDT.

Ruhul: How does your relationship with teachers and other stakeholders work? 

Ayman Sadiq: We have hundreds of teachers for the K-12 segment. These are all famous teachers from different coaching centers. We have students from BUET, medical colleges, and IBA who work as teaching assistants. The teachers in our K-12 segment are brilliant students and are popular teachers. They have cracked admission test exams themselves, have experience teaching students offline, and can provide an excellent learning experience to students.

We follow a pay-per-class model, where teachers take classes and get paid for each class. We have a rating system for teachers that helps us to maintain teaching quality and provide bonuses and incentives to the best-performing ones. This is the model we follow.

In the non-academic segment, we have two models. 

One is where we pay the entire course fee to the teacher for making a course at once. The second is a profit-sharing model, where teachers prefer a profit-sharing model over a one-off payment. So we share the profit from the course with the teacher for an agreed-upon period.

We prefer the first model, which is a one-off payment because it is easier to manage with fewer business implications. Because a business can go through both ups and downs. And during downtime, the teacher in the latter model gets paid less which can create some confusion. While we prefer the one-off model, we also in some cases go for the profit-sharing model.

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