Pyoopel CoFounder Bharat Patodi On Their Fast Growing 'Free Online Test Prep' Startup
Growing up in a liberal Jain family in Indore, Bharat Patodi was allowed to question everything around him. Their six member family had cousins and guests coming over all the time. Recalling his childhood years, Bharat remarks, "The 90s was a brilliant time for anyone mildly interested in liberal ideas to grow up. I read a lot, got intrigued, debated, participated in sports and overall had a lot of fun growing up."
After completing his graduate degree in Computer Applications and an MBA from FMS - Delhi, Bharat founded his own content design studio in his hometown Indore. Before doing his MBA, Bharat had worked at a test prep institute, where he met Swati Choudhary, his future co-founder at Pyoopel. Swati has done her MBA from IBS Mumbai. The duo was always sure that they wanted to work on something together in future.
Bharat has been writer at heart. After doing his MBA, he decided to follow his passion for content writing, while Swati was interested in a marketing role and together they could solve a key problem. That's when Pyoopel was born. With an aim to meet the coaching needs of students living in remote areas, they built Pyoopel from scratch as a free test prep company.
In today's exclusive interview, we feature Bharat Patodi of Pyoopel to take you through his ambitious journey in the world of startups. Read on!
Pyoopel Co-Founder - Bharat Patodi (R)
CE: Tell us more about your startup Questome.
Bharat Patodi: I started Questome Learnings Pvt. Ltd. in 2009 when I had completed my graduation and was preparing for higher studies. It was a content development company where we were creating high-quality content for test prep institutes and publishers. Essentially, we were selling 'questions'. It was a niche and exciting industry. Most of our clients weren't aware that something like this could be done. We faced a lot of problems in this venture. We started out as freelancers for the first three years which was the time I did my MBA. Then we explored Mumbai for a year. I had to come back to Indore (my hometown) because of personal reasons. For one and a half years, we had an amazing run. We found some pillar clients who were ready to give repeat work to us, we hired an enterprising young team of 10+ employees and had started getting international clients too.
It was at that time, that we made some bad managerial decisions, got unlucky and two of our major clients pulled out because of market conditions. We lost a few clients because of missing out on deadlines. It was a tumultuous time for us. We lost all our savings and had to lay off all our employees, most of which had become personal friends. It was extremely hard. We were even personally threatened for non-payment of salaries to some of our employees. But in the end, we were able to pay everyone their dues and move on. We don't hold any grudges against anyone. We had enormous fun with all our colleagues.
We worked long hours, slept very little, learnt a lot and most of all had tons of fun. It was a learning curve that we had to endure. It was one of the best times of our lives.
We still occasionally take up writing projects with publishers in Questome, but it is not our mainstay now. Questome has become the parent company for the Pyoopel brand.
CE: How did Pyoopel happen? What was the motive behind starting the company?
Bharat Patodi: After having burnt our hands at content development and another web based idea that Swati and I had tried at that time, it was necessary for us to consolidate and look for something that we could do together. We thought it over, realized that I could handle content, she could handle marketing, and hence it made sense for us to create a content based online company that we could market. But you would say this was similar to what we did before. We changed one thing, we went B2C.
We thought the content that we work hard on and create for the test prep institutes gives us nothing back in terms of business reach and marketing. Why don't we create the content for the people out there?
It started out from there, we pivoted a lot and then down the course one day, we became a free test prep company. It was not premeditated, we will not claim that. We have learnt it in the market, and see this as not just a great thing to do for the students, but also as a scintillating opportunity for a company.
CE: Why the name 'Pyoopel'?
Bharat Patodi: Pyoopel is a turn on the word 'pupil' which means student. When we were brainstorming on finalizing the domain name, we consulted a dictionary which listed the phonetic for pupil as 'pyoo -pel' with an inverted 'e'. It made sense so we stuck with it.
CE: How does Pyoopel system work? How many new online test and coaching courses do you introduce on daily/monthly basis?
Bharat Patodi: We have a small team but we are dedicated towards launching a new free course every month. We have about 8 free courses on the website as of now.
CE: How was response to Pyoopel in its initial days? How has it changed now?
Bharat Patodi: The response to Pyoopel has been tremendous.
The students that we talk to, most of them get this 'Aha' moment when we mention what Pyoopel is all about.
There is no one doing what we are trying to achieve and it gives us the kind of raw energy that is needed for a venture like this.
CE: What are the team's efforts currently focused on? Where do you see the company two years from now?
Bharat Patodi: By December 2017, Pyoopel wants to make sure that all students in India and abroad have the option of free test prep available to them. We want to create amazing free courses that are completely detailed and can help any self-motivated student to completely prepare for any test prep without having to pay anyone.
CE: How many courses, students and instructors are currently on the portal?
Bharat Patodi: Currently, we have 8 completely free courses on the website for the following test prep: CAT, CMAT, CLAT, GRE, Bank Exams (Hindi and English), SSC (Hindi and English), NDA, CDS. We have 9000+ students registered with us. Till now, I was the only instructor, but we have now finalized another instructor who is going to take up a new course on the website. It will be an exciting surprise for Indian students.
Also, we have 4 contributors (volunteers) who have started helping us out on different aspects of specific courses. These are people who have a passion towards the idea of free learning. We encourage others to join hands with us and create free learning for everyone in India.
Sneak Peek at a Pyoopel Course
CE: What were the biggest challenges you've had to face so far?
Bharat Patodi: For Pyoopel, the biggest challenge has been to keep doing what we have started. We aren't drawing any salaries for more than a year now. Making ends meet and still creating more content and marketing has been tough.
CE: Is yours a bootstrapped startup or have you raised funding from external sources?
Bharat Patodi: Pyoopel is completely bootstrapped on our end. Most of the money has been put in by Swati Choudhary from her savings from her previous job at ICICI as a wealth manager.
In August 2015, we conducted a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for raising awareness about free test prep and funds for our newer, better studio. It was a successful campaign in which 100+ backers from all over the world supported us.
CE: How do you differentiate yourself from the competition?
Bharat Patodi: Well, first of all, we are completely free. We do not charge students for any content related to test prep on the website.
Many online test prep providers lure students in with the promise of free coaching, but in the end the student is routed to a page where she/he has to pay to watch more. We do no such thing.
Secondly, we have always been content creators. We know what kind of content works and what doesn't. Our video quality is already at par with the best in Indian market. Beginning next year, we would start challenging the international players. I'd say, even more from the 'free' choice, people would recommend Pyoopel for the quality of our content.
CE: Are you hiring engineers at your startup? What are the skills or qualifications you look for in the potential candidates?
Bharat Patodi: Currently, Pyoopel is looking at creating a small editorial team that we will nurture and that will grow with us. You can say that this team would be the extended layer of people around the co-founders. We want to hire people who are passionate about free learning. People who believe that making money is an awesome devotion and that it has to be done by hurting the least number of people possible. We want to hire people who believe India's first generation MOOCs will be the biggest and the best thing to hit people in 2016-17.
Skill-set Required: The person should be great at specific basic subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, English, Hindi, Economics, etc. People who have written books/papers on these subjects, or have prior teaching experience will be preferred.
CE: What is the best part about running this startup?
Bharat Patodi: The best part keeps changing, and that's great by itself. Everyday, you experience something more. The money, the glamour, the hype surrounding startups may be all great (I am not there, so I can't say anything about it), but one super thing for me in my work is that I rarely get bored.
CE: What would you say to our fellow engineers about startup life?
Bharat Patodi: No advice. I'd rather relate to you what we have seen till now with regard to the spurt in funding that we see everyday around us. You can draw your own conclusions then:
For the really talented out there, money will come to you. For the IITians, the investor will come to you. For the smaller, simpler beings like us, who have vigour, vision, passion but are not specialized at anything in life (don't start blaming the education system here, we are equally responsible), the bill collectors will come to you.
Not all investors will be interested in your great idea that will create a huge customer base. Most Indian investors are enthusiastic if you show them a business that is making money with every transaction. This is symptomatic of a newer market opening up to smarter ideas. The scenario will change in a couple of years, but I don't think you would be reading this interview then.