It was early 2002. Vivek Varshney was appearing at his first campus placement interview at IIT-Kanpur. The young man from Kasganj district of Uttar Pradesh, some 110 km from the temple city of Mathura, was the first from his family and village to make it to the top engineering institute. When he cracked IIT, his parents, friends, relatives and teachers had rejoiced for days. For somebody who completed his higher studies at a Hindi-medium school, he worked for his father’s small kirana store for hours every day and then studied late at night, breaching the IIT fortress was an incredible feat. It was a proud moment for a father who always needed a helping hand but spared his child some months to prepare for a grueling examination.
Now, at the campus, Kanpur, Varshney wanted to land a plum job — as expected of all IITians — and make his father feel extra special. Across the table were top executives from one of the top tech MNCs. The interview began, with Varshney taking on all the hard questions and his fist in the air coming out of the air. He thought he had a nailed job.
Three years later, in April 2005, Varshney was still on his maiden job for hunting. IIT-Kanpur at the 14 interview rejections of The Hustler from the Hindi Heartland. Now he was about to appear for his 15th interview, and he had his reasons for believing that ‘Lady Luck’ might be the best smile this time. First, a change of place — Varshney was in Lucknow. The nightmare of Kanpur, he reasoned, was a thing of the past. Second, the venue was IIM, not IIT, where he had one of the few candidates to remain jobless.
“I wanted to remove the taint of failure,” he says, adding that multiple rejections at IIT had shattered him. His poor communication skills in English were something he could not digest. Disillusioned, he had gone to Kota in Rajasthan, taken up a teaching job and had had 10 months. “At ₹ 40,000 per month, I was one of the highest paid young teachers,” he says. Money, though, couldn’t douse his hanger. He started preparing for the CAT (Common Admission Test), worked on his vocabulary, honed his writing skills and resolved to crack IIM, which he did in his first attempt. Now, at IIM-Lucknow, the wronged man found an opportunity to redeem himself. And lastly, Varshney believed he was a changed man who was more confident and better equipped to handle stress situations.
Interestingly, they were still bequeathed to mental demons. Though Varshney had a cleared CAT, the elite ‘ABC’ of IIMs — Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta — had a place for him. The problem was still ‘language’. “I scored poorly in group discussions and the interview,” he laments. At IIM-Lucknow, Varshney’s first job interview was with Morgan Stanley. The first question was a yorker. “Why IIM? Why did you join? ” Varshney stayed mum for a few seconds. He knew that everybody who joined the premier management company had a clear future path out of their heads. For Varshney, though, it was all about reclaiming his honors. “I was looking for a better career prospect,” he muttered.
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The follow-up question made him open his heart to the need. “Did you try for a job at IIT?” Varshney replied instantly. “Yes, I did. And I got rejected 14 times, ”he underlined boldly. “I wanted to be honest.” There was another reason to be candid. Varshney wanted to face the harsh truth and not run away from it. After a few more questions on the stock market, the interview ended abruptly. The candidate feared the same outcome.
Lady luck, however, smiled, and joined Varshney as she joined (equity research). The maiden job and an 11-month stint did him good for the world. His next stop was Deutsche Bank, where he worked for close to two-and-a-half years. Then came a stint with ICICI Venture as associate vice president. And the last innings, close to five years, was again with Deutsche; This time he was vice president when he quit in January 2016.
Over a decade of employment, and Varshney had it all: Name, fame and money. He had avenged his humiliation. There was nothing more to prove. Or was there something? Varshney tells Forbes India what made him leave his cushy job and plunge into entrepreneurship when he launched a personalized hybrid learning and test practice platform in SpeedLabs in February 2016. ” says a former investment banker who opened his first hybrid coaching center in Powai, Mumbai. But why hybrid learning, with offline being the core, when is the world going online? After all, Byju’s, Unacademy, Vedantu et al were hyper-aggressive in heralding the brave new world of edtech where tablets would replace books and copies, and a stylus pen would be the new writing instrument.
Varshney never believed in an online-only world. “Online lectures were the biggest fraud perpetrated during the pandemic,” he reckons, arguing that teaching loses its impact when done over the electronic medium. The Pandemic, he underlines, created a need for online teaching and learning. “But it was a forced choice. It’s not real, ”he says, explaining the three parts of education — lectures, self-study and assessment. Over 70 percent of the learning outcomes, he claims, happen through self-study, which improve personalization, analysis, mentoring and feedback. “Most of the so-called edtech biggies just focus on the lectures,” he says.
SpeEdLabs wanted to take a hybrid model of converting students into offline classes. “Offline is where coaching and teaching will take place,” says Varshney. Online, he adds, will practice practice-based AI (artificial intelligence) -enabled analytics that will offer insights into areas of focus and weakness, doubt-clearing sessions and mentoring for students. Obviously, most investors are out of reach of the idea of being hybrid and offline. The world was moving fast and online as it looked. “Can you take on Byju’s and Unacademy?” and “Does offline and hybrid stand a chance?” Naysayers raised the doubts.
Varshney, though, was his conviction in the firm. He quit his job, pumped in sav 40 lakh from his savings, and took another ₹ 40 lakh from friends. From 2016 until 2019, he kept teaching at his Powai Center. The beginning was slow but steady. From ₹ 27 lakh revenue posted in FY17, the numbers jumped to ₹ 1.6 crore in FY19. A year later, Covid came calling, the world shut down and education went online. Varshney still kept chanting his hybrid mantra.
The efforts, and confidence, are now off. Revenues increased from ₹ 2.7 crore in FY21 to ₹ 5.1 crore in FY22. The FY23 for the run rate is ₹ 25 crore. “Hybrid is the future,” he says. With offline classes back and forth over the last few months, and all the major edtech players hopping onto the offline and hybrid bandwagon, Varshney feels vindicated. “I am not Nostradamus, but I knew it would be a big farce,” he says, adding that the venture raised $ 4 million from investors including Mumbai Angels, LetsVenture, Ecosystem Ventures, SucSeed Ventures and India Discovery Fund , managed by 35 North Venture. Interestingly, Haldiram Family Office bought a 10 percent stake in the startup last May.
The backers are delighted with their bet. SpeEdLabs is a segment of the edtech market that is huge and ripe for disruption, reckons Prakash Iyer, CIO (chief investment officer), Haldiram Family Office. “Our investment is about the conviction that competitive exams have changed forever and for the better,” he says. A tech-first approach to learning gels well with emphasis on classroom teaching. SpeEdLabs, he lets on, has been successful in offering its learning to coaching partners, and this has helped it scale up.
The challenge for SpeEdLabs will now be up to speed. Varshney reckons his startup is well-poised to grow at a furious pace. A three-year pilot at Powai, and a hybrid model of the benefits of seeing the world will only accelerate. “Only those who take risks can make an impact and change the world,” he says, alluding to the decision to stay hybrid when herd and norm were online. The success of The ABC, he adds, lies in the word ‘success’. “The two Cs and Ss,” he points out, “stand for courage, conviction, sweat and steady.” The only degree you need to succeed in life, Varshney maintains, is relentless hard work.
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(This story appears in the July 01, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our archives, click here.)