We speak with Interactive Cares Founder and CEO Rare Al Samir about the evolution of Interactive Cares, the huge opportunity in the edtech space in Bangladesh, how Interactive Cares has built a fast-growing sustainable business, the state of Interactive Cares operation today, and the strategic direction going forward, the challenges for the company today and its ambition, his lessons from his entrepreneurial journey, books, personal growth and much more.
This is a fascinating conversation that offers crystalizing insight into the fast-evolving edtech landscape in Bangladesh and one of the prominent players in it. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed doing it.
Be bold and enjoy!
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. We spoke with you a few years ago. I think we can start by backing up the trajectory of Interactive Cares from 2020 to today. How much has the company changed and evolved over the last two years? Where do you stand in terms of product, organization, and business? What are some of the major changes?
Rare Al Samir: In 2020, we were in the very early stage of our operation. That was, in fact, the founding year of our company. We were mostly focused on product market fit. We were exploring and trying to understand the market. We were a young team. We were working hard to find a product market fit, prepare ourselves for raising investment, and achieve our final ambition.
We are an entirely different organization today. We have grown significantly over the years. Our team has grown significantly. Our platform has grown both in terms of the number of courses we offer and the users we serve. For instance, right now we have over 105 courses on our website and app whereas we had some 5 courses in 2020. The number of students on our platform has exceeded 80,000.
In those early days, our primary focus was on courses. Towards the end of 2021, we adopted an ambitious vision. We are now focused on employability and creating placement opportunities for Bangladeshi young people. Because we are seeing more impact in this space and we think our team is more capable to solve the problems. The course market is already crowded. We have almost reached a market saturation point. Since we have excellent access to the industry and companies across sectors, we are trying to create placement opportunities for our students, which we believe put us in a different category as a company in the market.
In terms of traction and product, our product is now much more polished. We are constantly taking feedback from our customers and working on them. Our students now receive an integrated learning experience in all the courses they take on the Interactive Cares platform that include recorded content, live classes, and daily and weekly support sessions to help students solve problems, and once the course is completed, we provide them job placement opportunities.
At the same time, we are helping companies in hiring quality talent through our student network. Every day we are getting new requests for hiring from different companies around the country. This year, we started knocking on the international market. We are in conversation with several Singapore-based startups for creating placements and hiring opportunities for our students there.
Overall, we have grown significantly.
Our revenue has grown 20x compared to 2020. In terms of the number of students, we had merely a few 1000 students in 2020. Right now, it's more than 80,000, and we have experienced at least 20x growth in the number of students. We were a team of about 7-8 people in 2020, today, we are now around 40 people.
In the last three years, we have reached more than 20 million people across platforms. We have worked hard to make an impact. We have tried many different things from courses to master classes to events and we have received excellent responses in all these areas.
Ruhul Kader: That's an excellent overview. Let's break down different major themes there one by one. First, your thesis seems quite different from 2020. Back in those days, your thesis was more like building courses, skill development, those things. You still prioritize those things in terms of employability, and skills but you are also tying up placement with that core thesis. You are partnering with companies, building courses in skills for which there is a high demand in the market, and then training people on those skills and then connecting them with relevant jobs and the companies and those kinds of things. Standing today, could you please talk about what is the evolved core thesis of the company? What is the vision now?
Rare Al Samir: Our vision is simple: to create employability and to create one million job placements within the next few years. Now the question is how we can do that. We have seen in the market research when we entered into the market, what are the main reasons for a student being unemployed after their graduation?
One of the major reasons is the gap between academia and industry, where students are learning skills that have little demand in the market. Companies are looking for more practical and polished candidates and it is hard for students to prepare themselves following the existing academic curriculum. The ones who can still prepare themselves are a small number of students who are conscientious and work hard.
To give you an example, many people who work in the digital marketing space in Bangladesh necessarily didn't study digital marketing when they were in college. If you look at the existing university curriculum, universities don't teach digital marketing. But when these students enter the job market, they essentially have to work on these areas and it could be a challenge for many. This is just one example. There are many more similar skills that are core to today's world of work but our students don't learn at school.
The same goes for web development and similar skills. In many of these areas, students often learn the theoretical basis of these areas more than the practical aspects. So they lack the practical understanding of these skills. So when they join a tech company after graduation or go through a technical hiring process, they need to go through that practical development process. So that learning is also missing.
There are many other similar challenges. Many universities don't have professional development and career placement kind of initiatives. They usually don't connect students with potential recruiters and companies. As a result, students usually come out of university with little knowledge about what are the leading companies and what are the companies that offer better career opportunities. This knowledge is also missing in the market.
We understand these gaps. We have done surveys and we speak with our students regularly, we have partnerships with 50+ university clubs and we have partnerships with over 50 companies. We have listened to the pain points of both groups. Recruiters say that they don't get ready candidates. In many instances, they can't find half the skills they are looking for in a candidate. As a result, in many instances, they are forced to hire under-skilled people.
On the student's side, the common pain point is that there are not enough jobs in the market. Our goal is to address these two pain points for these two groups of stakeholders.
Our vision is simple: a student will take courses on our platform, will be certified by our partner university, will get certificates, and after completing the course, they will get jobs at our partner companies. We want to build a bridge through which we want to address two challenges: improve the state of employability of our students and narrow the gap between academia and the industry. We want to provide courses on specialized and practical learning that universities can’t accommodate because of various limitations and the constantly changing reality of the market.
Ruhul Kader: That’s an excellent ambition. If you look at the progress you have made, where do you stand in terms of this vision, of creating employment for one million people? There are several parts to this I think. One part is, what are the skills that you're paying attention to and training people on? Second, in terms of relation with the university where universities will offer and certify the courses, what kind of progress have you made there? Third, how many companies are you working with now for placement for your students?
Rare Al Samir: I'll come to these things step by step. First of all, the skills part. Right now we have 100 plus courses on the platform and these courses cover several categories. The first category we are focusing on is technology learning. This is the vertical we are focusing more on at this point because technology learning is the most scalable skill and it allows us to help our students find opportunities both in Bangladesh and in the global market. Technical skill is increasingly becoming important for all kinds of fields. No matter what industry you work in, tech is going to be a common requirement. So we want to focus on this vertical and it remains one of our core verticals.
We are trying to offer a complete learning environment to our students where they not only get the best course materials, they have the best teacher, the best platform, and everything in between.
Our second category is freelancing under which we cover skills like video editing, graphics design, UI/UX, SEO, etc. Bangladesh is the second country in terms of digital labor. There is a huge opportunity for freelancing. The number of registered Freelancers in Bangladesh is almost six lakh and the number of unregistered freelancers is more than 50 lakhs. It is a big and growing market. COVID has pushed the demand for freelancing jobs and remote jobs through the roof. We want to play a leading role in this vertical. We want more people to come to freelancing. This can create more employment opportunities. We have an excellent number of students in these courses.
The third category is jobs and recruitment. We have seen that it is not enough to only talk about freelancing and tech jobs when it comes to employment opportunities. A significant percentage of our students try government and private jobs such as BCS, bank jobs, and so on.
There are various lackings in how students prepare for these jobs. It happens that many students take BCS preparation for 3-5 years and still can't crack BCS. One main reason behind this failure is that they don't follow a proper strategy to prepare themselves. Over the last year, we have worked hard to build some high-quality courses on BCS preparation. We have worked with teachers who are BCS cadres and ranked number 01-03 in BSC exams in previous years. Together, we have created courses where students can get a comprehensive strategy to prepare for the BCS exam.
At the same time, we have introduced regular live exams, free exams for BCS students so that they can prepare better. We are launching similar courses for bank job preparation and other private and public jobs that have demand and need in the market. This is one of our major verticals.
Another vertical we are paying attention to is higher study. Every year, some 15 lakh Bangladeshi students prepare for higher studies. Out of this several lakhs students go abroad for higher studies. To help these students we have introduced courses on IELTS, GRE, and TOEFL and we have SAT and GMAT in the pipeline that we plan to launch soon. Some of our teachers who teach these courses live abroad and are doing Ph.D. and Masters in countries like Canada and the USA. We are preparing students through these courses.
We have other ambitious goals. There are a ton of discussions around the 4th industrial revolution. Skills like blockchain, IoT, AR, and VR are seeing a growing demand in the market. There are no suitable courses on these skills in Bangla. We plan to introduce courses on these skills in the coming days.
This year we are also working to go international and attract international students. We have already launched one course on startup fundraising taught by a renowned Singaporean angel investor. We plan to launch a few more courses for international audiences. These courses will be in English and we plan to bring international trainers to teach these courses along with Bangladeshi trainers.
To talk about the next part of your question about how we work with universities and companies and the progress we have made there and plans going forward. Let's start with the company partnerships. So far, we have partnerships with more than 50 companies. Under the partnership, these companies will recruit IC graduates when they require hiring and we will also be able to send them details of our students once a batch ends. These companies need skilled people. We have students who we are confident are a good fit for these companies. It is a win-win for both of us.
All of these companies hire several times every year. The market is quite big and there are always opportunities for skilled people.
Apart from these partnerships, we host three Career Fairs per year. Last year, we organized two career fairs where more than 300 students got placements. Over 100 companies joined each of those career fairs including companies like Foodpanda, Enosis, Brain Station 23, Shopup, and many other leading startups, software companies, and digital marketing agencies. Moreover, 50-plus University clubs attended. Several thousand students attended these fairs. We have tried to cover every aspect of the placement.
We are signing partnerships with new companies every week. Our vision is to work with placement for our students across industries. We are also looking to build similar partnerships with international companies. Post-COVID, remote work has been on the rise. Many international companies are now regularly hiring people from Bangladesh because they can hire better talent at a competitive cost. This opens up new doors of opportunities for us.
On the academic collaboration side, we have been in talks with a few universities for a while. They gave us suggestions. After that, we started working with two leading private universities now. However, we have not announced it officially yet.
Ruhul Kader: These are some very interesting things. Coming back to your product, you offer all these different courses. Could please talk about how these courses work? Do you offer live classes, are these courses recorded only, or they are blended with both live and recorded? Are they short-term or long-term? Tell us about how these courses work.
Now if I talk about our model, we have an integrated model. First, students get recorded video content for each particular course which they can access for a lifetime on our app and website. For each course, we arrange weekly and monthly live classes where students can get help if they face problems while studying the materials — if they watched the video and couldn't understand a particular aspect of a topic, they can seek help for this during these weekly and monthly live classes. During these live classes, students can interact with the teacher as well as with other students who are taking the same course. Third, every course has a private community group where students can ask in real time if they face any challenge or can't crack a topic and get replies from the course teacher, our support team, and also other students in real-time.
Still, if a student needs further support, we arrange live support sessions. Students can book these sessions on our platform using the calendar and get personal support from the teacher. Teachers provide personalized support during these live sessions where they share screens or take other more useful approaches to support the student.
Each course comes with assignments and projects. The students who do well in these assignments get the opportunity to join our secret talent pool group. These students get further support for professional and job readiness skills such as mock interviews, portfolio preparation, and so on. These are the students we recommend to our partner companies. They are the best of the lot. These students often get placements at the end of a course. This is the overall experience of a student.
Ruhul Kader: How do you work with these companies that have partnerships for hiring your students? What is your arrangement with them? How does that product work?
Rare Al Samir: There are several aspects to this.
One, under the partnership our partner companies verify the courses that we offer, give us feedback on the content and quality, and they also help us in preparing the course outline since they have an understanding of the market needs and relevant skills. Since we are working to prepare our students for the job market, it is useful for us to have feedback from industry experts and prepare the course curriculum accordingly. Apart from that they attend our job fair. We invite trainers from these companies to train our best students. And finally, we give them access to our talent from where they could hire.
The service is free for these companies for now. They get to access ready talents and hire with more certainty than otherwise since we recommend only the best ones. And they don't need to pay us anything. However, from June this year, we are planning to create a model where we might ask for some sort of fee from the companies since we are helping them to hire the best fit. Hiring is expensive and effortful for most companies. If we could help these companies to hire better and save them time and money, we believe they will be happy to pay for the service. However, for now, we are trying to popularize this product, so it remains free for now.
We are working on another interesting product which we are calling Job boot camps where we plan to launch specialized boot camps in partnership with these companies. For instance, we partner with a software company to launch a boot camp on WordPress which will be taught by trainers from that company, they will use real-life examples from their company. At the end of the Bootcamp, they will hire a few graduates from that Bootcamp. We are currently working on the product and hope to launch it soon.
Ruhul Kader: As you noted earlier, edtech is a fragmented market. There are many different players. What sets Interactive Cares apart from others? What are your competitive advantages?
Rare Al Samir: The first thing that I would like to draw attention to is our vision. For every other player, they offer you a course, you take it, end of the story. For us, it does not work like that. We don't merely sell courses. We focus a lot on the success of our students. That's why we pay close attention to post course success of our students and we ensure that they get placement. We focus a lot on the job placement aspect of our students. You take our course and if you do well, we work very hard to ensure that you get a job after passing the course. We are a job-focused learning platform where we try to make job placements for our students. Our focus is employability. This is where we are different from any other player in the market. There are not many companies in the market that address this aspect.
The second aspect is our learning method. We provide a comprehensive online learning solution. Students get recorded classes, live classes, and live support sessions, they get a support group to receive problem-solving support, and then there are projects and assignments and a job readiness program with every course.
Some platforms offer either live classes or recorded courses. But the number of platforms that offer a comprehensive education is not that many. We are even unique in that small group that offers that.
The third differentiation factor is we are obsessed with our learners. We are constantly taking feedback from our learners and improving ourselves. The improvements that you see now are the result of that obsession. Our customers tell us what they want and what is missing and we supply them with that. We speak with our learners all the time. In education, trust is of paramount importance. Trust is what drives brand image and customer retention. We have worked hard to build a relationship of trust with our learners.
Another important factor is our teachers, which are the key to any institution dealing with education. Our teachers belong to the top one percent when it comes to their specific field. In education, along with the platform, teachers also play a vital role. We have always tried to work with the best teachers and we will continue that effort. These are some of the differentiating factors for us.
Ruhul Kader: That’s excellent. I want to learn about the business model of IC. How do you work with the teachers and other stakeholders? Now you are working with companies for placement and potentially, you'll be charging these companies for hiring candidates through you. And you plan to eventually work with universities as well for certification. Can you talk about the business model? How does the pricing work and so on?
Rare Al Samir: Our primary business model is that we sell courses and earn from that. In terms of our collaboration with teachers, we have two models. With some teachers, we pay them one time based on the course hours and other metrics. With some others, we have revenue-sharing collaboration where we share revenues with them from the course regularly when the course is live.
In terms of pricing, there are three types of courses on our platform. There are normal integrated courses where students get recorded videos, problem-solving live sessions, projects and assignments, and certificates after the course. For these courses the price ranges from BDT 1000 to BDT 2000.
We have an exclusive program we call Career Path under which, along with an excellent course we provide a job readiness program and different placement opportunities after the completion of the course. For these courses our pricing ranges from BDT 5000-10,000. These are six-month-long programs where there are weekly live classes and several hundred videos, 30-plus projects, an excellent job readiness program, career fairs, and job placement opportunities.
We have another program we call Learning Path. It is a two-month long program where pricing starts at BDT 2000. The program includes video learning classes, live classes, and capstone projects, and the program ends with a group project. This is how our pricing works for different programs.
Rare Al Samir: What are the major cost centers for you?
Rare Al Samir: As you noted, teachers' remuneration and overall course-making is a major source of cost. Marketing and production are some of the major sources of cost for us.
Ruhul Kader: Can you give us an overview of the company today in terms of business and operations? How big is the business -- you may tell us about the number of students and similar metrics? And how big is your team and how the company is structured?
Rare Al Samir: We are a profitable company. We have been profitable since the beginning of our journey. We plan to maintain profitability as we move forward. We of course want to grow, which is a priority for us but we want to grow sustainably.
Since we have over 100 courses, we get some new students in almost all of our top courses every month. We are also introducing 5-7 new courses every month. We have more than 80,000 paid users and more than 2 lakh registered users.
Ruhul Kader: How many of these 80,000 paid users pay you monthly?
Rare Al Samir: The 80,000 paid users that we have are the people who have bought at least one course on our platform. Our repeat users are about 70% who have bought more than one course on the platform. Apart from that we are adding 8000-10,000 new customers every month.
Ruhul Kader: Can you give us a sense of the scale of the edtech industry in Bangladesh? How big is the industry? Where do you see the industry going?
Rare Al Samir: I think edtech is a big industry in Bangladesh. If you look at the verticals, you have K-12, you have an admission test, you have job and recruitment, and you have skill development and freelancing. Then if you consider, there is a big market in the kids' learning segment. Combinedly, it is a nearly multibillion-dollar industry in Bangladesh. I'm pretty sure that in the next few years, this market will increase by about 5x to 10x.
The landscape has significantly changed after COVID. The pandemic has taught people that edtech is much more than Facebook, and Youtube videos. It could be an alternative to physical learning. It is possible to provide many offline education services online and that too better and in a scalable manner. When you are going to physical coaching, it is time-consuming given the traffic and all the hassles, which can hamper your learning experience. Compared to that you can learn online conveniently. Moreover, online is 5-10 times less expensive than any offline coaching service.
If we consider the market such as BCS, job preparation, and skills development, edtech makes even more sense. Because you can learn flexibility in your own time. You are probably someone who is working full-time or a full-time student and it can be a challenge for you to go somewhere to learn in person. Online allows you to learn in your schedule and from the comfort of your own home.
We have seen that for some lessons online is much more effective than online. For instance, programming. Because it requires repeated practice and reminders. When you learn programming online, you are seeing a code on the screen, you have the recording of the entire class and you can revisit it if you don't understand something. That is not possible offline.
Similarly, you can learn from some of the best teachers online who you probably don't have access to in the offline world. The number of excellent teachers is limited. Similarly, the number of excellent coaching centers is limited. Even if you want to, you can’t go to a teacher who lives in another part of your city or lives in another Country. So offline limits your opportunity to learn better. Contrary to that, we have teachers and students from abroad who are teaching and learning online. We have students from almost 22 countries, of course, Bengali students. You can’t do this in the offline world. There are a ton of upsides to online learning.
I think online learning has huge potential and we can take it to a different level in terms of scale. What is needed is that we provide effective and outcome-based learning. If we can do it, the market is there and it will grow.
Ruhul Kader: If you consider other players in the market, what are some of the competitive advantages that Interactive Cares have over other players?
Rare Al Samir: Apart from the excellent course and platform benefits, we are providing job placement support to our students which no other platform is offering. We follow an integrated learning method where we touch almost every aspect of learning so that our students can learn effectively online. We are a customer-focused company. We provide superb service to our people which is a huge competitive advantage. We have some of the best teachers on our platform, which is a huge advantage for any online learning platform.
We consider ourselves as one of the leading companies in the vertical we operate. If you take the number of students, number of courses, number of placements, and number of partners in academia and also in industry, these numbers indicate that we are one of the leading players in the market.
That being said, the market is competitive. We are seeing new players entering the market every month. We are also seeing players shutting down. For the new players, I would say the market is really hard right now. If the existing leaders do well, it would be difficult for the new players to find space because the market is already crowded. I believe that companies that are working hard and providing quality will survive eventually.
COVID accelerated the interest in the edtech space. However, that acceleration has slowed down. In the current market, students would only go to the platform that they feel cares about them and will provide tangible benefits.
I think we don't nearly talk enough about the benefits of the edtech platforms and services. I think people should talk more about the upsides of online learning so that it reaches more students and people and they can take the benefits of learning flexibly and learn from the best teachers and get other benefits such as placement and career development support. I believe that edtech services can make real differences to places outside Dhaka because students in those places don't usually get access to quality education and edtech can change that for them. Moreover, edtech is more affordable than offline coaching.
Rare Al Samir: What are the challenges for Interactive Cares now?
Rare Al Samir: We are an early-stage company with an ambitious vision. Funding is a challenge given that we want to grow and expand. The ambition we have and the vision we have need meaningful investment to realize and it is hard to raise money in this economic environment. This slows down the speed of our execution. This is one of the major challenges. We are making meaningful progress in all other aspects and have cracked some of the major challenges.
Ruhul Kader: What are some of the long and short-term plans for the company going forward?
Rare Al Samir: In the next two years, we want to grow our revenue 5X compared to last year. We want to increase our job placement 10x. We want to grow company partnerships 4x and we want to start global placement this year.
We want to launch the University Specialization Certification Program. This is common in edtech across markets. Companies like Upgrad in India, Emeritus in the India, Coursera, and edX in the USA run university certification programs. We want to run a similar program in partnership with one university at least this year in collaboration with a leading university in Bangladesh. That is one of the goals.
If I talk about long-term goals, along with growing our business in Bangladesh, we want to build a global business, especially in emerging markets where unemployability is a challenge. We also want to partner with global universities and bring globalization to education. Finally, one of our main ambitions is to reach one million job placements.
Ruhul Kader: What are some of the lessons you have learned from your journey so far in building companies and dealing with the challenges of being an entrepreneur?
Rare Al Samir: I have learned a lot from this journey. Entrepreneurship is hard and it pushes you beyond your limit. I don't think I would have grown as much as I have over these years as a person if I didn't start my own business.
In purely practical terms, I have learned a tremendous amount because I had to learn these skills. I had to learn communication, storytelling, finance, technical skills, leadership, and so many other things. I would say that I would probably do something like one-tenth of this if I didn't get into venture building.
I'm 100% satisfied and motivated personally because I have learned so much. I'm a different person. If I had worked for another company or gone abroad for higher studies, I don't think I would have grown as much as a person. So I feel lucky and motivated to work even harder.
The second aspect is that I'm able to work on my passion and on the problems that I want to solve. Building your own business allows you a lot of freedom. You can make your own decisions. More importantly, I can see the impact of my work which brings me a ton of satisfaction. These are the lessons that motivate me to push myself further and work harder to achieve my bigger ambition.
Rare Al Samir: Can you share your top three lessons about building companies that you have learned over the last couple of years?
Rare Al Samir: Number one, be passionate. Number two, be patient. Number three, be hard working until you achieve your goals. And number four, don't stop trying until you give your highest effort.
Ruhul Kader: How do you stay productive as a founder? How do you deal with the challenges of being an entrepreneur?
Rare Al Samir: For a founder, managing time well is important. We need to go through so many things in a day — business meetings, business operations, fundraising, investor relations, and partnership dealings, unless you are mindful of your time, it can be hard.
I think you can follow a few strategies for productivity which I try to do. Number one, I use task management apps and Google Calendar. This allows me to organize my days and important tasks. I know my most important work and have a schedule to follow. Unless I put down my work in my calendar, it happens that I forget about important tasks after a meeting.
Second, taking a walk or running daily is a good thing to clear our heads as well as to maintain our health.
Finally, I listen to podcasts, read books and watch inspiring videos. This allows me to take my mind off work and learn and improve myself.
Rare Al Samir: Three books and three podcasts that you would like to recommend.
Rare Al Samir: This is not a podcast, I watch Shark Tank India. I have learned many things watching the show. That is one thing I watch regularly. I listen to an Indian Podcast called Figuring Out Raj Shamani where he brings in successful founders and talks about business building and life. I follow the YC YouTube channel. I listen to the 20-Minute VC Podcast by Harry Stebbings.
If I talk about books, Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blitzscaling by Reed Hoffman are two of my favorite books. Recently, I finished reading Ashani Grovers Doglapan. I enjoyed the book.
Ruhul Kader: What's your approach to personal growth? Do you have any structured approach to learning and growing personally?
Rare Al Samir: I usually set a yearly target for learning — skills I want to learn and books I want to read and so on. When you are a founder, you need to learn many different things — a bit of coding, design, product development, and so on. Having a basic understanding of the core aspects of your business allows you to understand various problems and make better decisions.
I set quarterly learning targets accordingly — I want to learn these skills this quarter and these skills next quarter. I design a growth path for myself and try to follow through.
Ruhul Kader: I think this is a good place to end this conversation. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me. I enjoyed the conversation.
Rare Al Samir: Thank you. I had a good time speaking with you.