“I cleared my PMP Examination and it's a wonderful experience to achieve this landmark. Special thanks to Simplilearn for the excellent classroom training, the online course access and Webinars”— Shrinivas Chatla, Service Product Manager, Nokia Siemens Networks
Shrinivas Chatla is one among many who has tried the digital medium of learning for professional certification offered by Bangalore-based start-up Simplilearn. It was started in 2009 as a blog by Krishna Kumar, an engineer, to share his experiences on management. Within a year, it metamorphosed into a commercial business venture. Before starting the company through his blog, Kumar has personally trained and facilitated around 3,000 people across 100 countries within six months of starting blogging.
It is Kumar’s second venture. The first one, TechUnified, was established with four friends; it was bought in 2007 by a listed company. After the successful exit from his first venture, Kumar was looking for a new one.
For any professional looking to enhance skills and career growth, it has become common to acquire certification in the respective area. In a country like India, where hundreds of training centres exist, it is tough to find the right one. To address the needs of many preparing for examination, Simplilearn has selected an innovative way. It is a an SaaS-based online learning platform, into certification preparation for professionals.
“The first venture was a core technology firm and we were working in sectors like wireless and business solutions. We sold it for around Rs 49 crore and I was exploring various ideas to start a new venture. As a blogger, I started writing blogs on various self-help issues. Within a short period, my blog became a hit and then I decided to pursue it as a business venture,” said Kumar.
Using technology and the internet, Simplilearn has transformed the small regional classroom-based training to a global delivery model which allows learners to reduce the cost per trainee significantly, compared to the traditional certification training.
According to various estimates, the education market size ranges from $200 million to $5 billion. The edu-tech segment is sometimes put at least at $1 billion and is expected grow at a 15-20 per cent compounded annual rate over the next five years.
Unlike other large entities in the training business that focus on corporate segments, this one has taken a new path. Simplilearn has positioned its training offerings around certifications and concentrates on individual needs. “With the potential of the internet and other digital mediums, we realised that reaching professionals across the globe was not a limitation; it gives an easy route to penetrate more markets,” said Kumar.
Simplilearn follows a global delivery model, allowing it to keep net cost per trainee significantly lower than some leading rivals. Through the online e-learning module, webinars and independent trainers, it provides flexibility for a user. Of its total revenue, around 70 per cent comes from markets abroad and it is expected to continue in the same way.
A person can join by signing into the company website and opting for any of the 50 courses offered. “Our training is not centred around ‘star-trainers’, which enables it to offer a seamless quality of instruction through independent trainers, in combination with online and interactive courseware offered through the e-Learning module and live webinars. Our blended training model makes it easy for professionals to prepare for project management certification examination,” says Kumar.
Simplilearn started operations in 2010 as a company. It offers courses in the online mode, by classroom training and webinars. It also offers expert faculty services through chat support 24/7. The courses designed for online delivery include audio-visual elements for improving one’s skills. It offers around 50 online courses for executives in streams such as project management, IT service management and financial management, quality management and technology certification.
It is a step-by-step blended learning model, a mix of certified instructor-led classroom training and learning management systems, training with simulation tests, audio-video content and video tutorials to maximise the success rates in examination. Simplilearn offers online courses starting from Rs 4,000; for a classroom session, the fee starts at Rs 15,000. The company has accreditation from many global certification providers for the content and courses offered. So far, Simplilearn has trained around 35,000 professionals, across 135-odd countries.
“When I was doing my blog, I realised one thing through the feedback of 3,000 people, that working professionals need flexibility. In each module of the courses, we are offering flexibility to students; they can study whenever and wherever they want to learn. The 24/7 support through experts is an add-on for each enrolment,” Kumar said. “We brought this differentiation into our offering, which none of the players in the field offer.”
The road ahead
Started as a blog by a person, it employs a team of 250 — trainers, content creators and support staff — and the revenue is growing at 400 per cent yearly. By the end of 2013, it has planned to offer around 100 courses in various skill segments. On an average, every day the website gets around 4,000 people and it trains 2,500 every month. It began in a small office and plans to shift the operations to a bigger one.
The interesting part of its growth journey is that the company spends little on direct advertisement. It says the volume of people joining is mainly driven through referrals, wherein a person who clears the course recommends Simplilearn to others. “The majority of our users are through referrals and that is a testimony for us,” said Kumar.
There is also the affiliate programme — anybody can promote Simplilearn through their website, portals or blogs. If a person joins a programme through an affiliate, the company pays them 20 per cent of the course fee as a reward.
“For a business like ours, it is very difficult to scale up quickly, due to the availability of skill to develop content and solutions for courses. We were able to provide 50 courses and as we plan to offer 50 new ones, it is very difficult to find trainers. Content is a challenge, as it requires great domain expertise and precision,” said Kumar. Despite the hurdles, the team intends to spread the reach and also penetrate deeper into existing geography.
The company faces tough competition from Edusys, another Bangalore-based company. This is an early starter, founded in 2004, with offices in the US, UK, Australia, Singapore and India. Edusys offers courses to large companies; Simplilearn focuses on individuals.
“Corporate employee training is an easy way to increase the scale of our business. But that is not our model; in an individual training model, we get more time to concentrate on each client. We don't conduct test for students, after the course they need to register for examination and write online test in a Prometric centre,” said Kumar. Prometric is a test development provider which conducts test for many professional organisation.
In August, the company raised an undisclosed amount from IndoUS Venture Partners, a venture capital firm. “Education is an important sector for growth in India and across the globe. Many professionals are looking for options to enhance their skills. Simplilearn offers its client to do a certification course in a much easier way,” said Rajesh Raju of IndoUS Venture Partners.
The company has four members on its board — Kumar and Raju, Sumit Jain, who is vice-president at IndoUS Venture, and Shashwat Kumar, partner at Khetal Advisors, for driving the company’s future. With lots of plans, Kumar has an advice to budding youngsters with a dream. “Don’t be scared in what you do; have full strength, faith and confidence in yourself,” he says.
“Generally, people say the family’s support is must. But when I started my first venture, I didn’t inform my parents that I resigned from a well-paying job. We struggled here and we made our dream come true,” he says, with satisfaction.
Simplilearn is in a good niche area, one attracting a lot of attention internationally. The convenience and affordability of online learning is unbeatable, as the success of companies in this space has shown, especially in higher education in the US. It addresses many of the challenges facing working professionals, from pursuing additional education and skills training to further their career in an increasingly competitive and ever-changing market.
The major strength of Simplilearn is that professional certification like Project Management Professional, Cisco Certified Network Associate. It is a niche market, with no distinct leader in the online space. The affiliation of Simplilearn with all leading certification providers creates credibility and trust among its customers. With venture capital-funding, it will be able to focus on execution and scaling, as against many other start-ups that don’t have the money.
However, the focus is primarily on the IT sector and this is a weakness. For, IT is a sector frequently affected by ‘trends’ and, hence, subject to the ebbs and flows of the industry. It has opportunity to diversify into new verticals — like retail, pharma, hospitality and other areas, particularly where unique skills plus compliance is required. Aligning with existing IT training networks to offer blended learning models is another opportunity. Another threat in the segment is that there is no barrier to entry, with several players in the online training/Learning Management System (LMS) space.
founder and CEO, TutorVista.com, one of the first e-learning firm in the country, now part of global education solution provider Pearson