AttainU CEO Divyam Goel on how their edutech startup provides a scalable college alternative software engineering course
Growing up in a typical tier-2 town of Lucknow, Divyam Goel got a normal middle-class Indian family upbringing. His father a civil engineer by profession worked in the public sector for 35+ years, mother, a school teacher and grandfather, a college professor, inculcated in him from the very beginning the importance of education and sports in one's life.
With the availability of the right support system and guidance at the right time, Divyam went on to pursur Computer Science Engineering at IIT Bombay and graduated in 2012. After a short stint with Microsoft in India, Divyam moved to Bay Area to be a part of the team which set up growth engineering at Uber. Eventually, he moved to India with the Next Billion Users (Google Pay) team at Google. Divyam wanted to work on an impact first problem and use his skill set to solve for scale, and that is how AttainU was founded in 2018.
Divyam Goel, Co-Founder & CEO - AttainU
In this exclusive interview with CrazyEngineers, Divyam spilled his heart out to our direct questions about his entrepreneurial journey so far. Read on!
CE: How was the IIT Bombay experience for you Divyam?
Divyam: Having grown up in a media dictated society, JEE was embedded in me as a means to a financially rewarding career. The initial two years at IIT Bombay took some getting used to the fact that this was the beginning and not the culmination to actual career focused learning.
Along with studies, cultural group activities also piqued my interest, in some of which I was able to break new ground and contribute back. I made some great friends who still serve as a network of brainstorming and fun.
IIT Bombay being an established brand name in the domain of engineering world wide, provided me the initial launch pad to jump start my career.
CE: How was your experience working with various organizations like Microsoft, Uber and Google?
Divyam: In my case, majority of the professional learning happened on the job. I was fortunate enough to make it to the right places at the right time to have great mentors who were equally focused on my personal growth. Another key learning was the importance of softer skills in life, which I believe contribute equally if not more, towards career growth.
Experience at both startups and established firms helped me understand the nuances of product development and organizational building in early stages and transitioning to more stable structures at the right stage of the company.
Working in the Bay Area with startups and top tech companies like Uber and Google is the highest aspiration for any software engineering graduate in India. However, over the years I started looking internally at the purpose of life in whole. It made me realise that life is an outcome of probabilities, and anything worth working towards needs to have an impact more outreaching than the individual self. Six years, one startup and two big company experiences later, the impact of my work started taking precedence over financial returns. Having identified Education, Healthcare and Public Infrastructure as the top three problems India that must be solved at scale to evolve into the next phase of development, I moved back to India in late 2017.
CE: When did you first think about the idea behind AttainU? What made you decide to pursue it?
Divyam: Before the idea, the problem had to be identified and most importantly I needed to have enough rational conviction that this is a problem I wanted to spend the next 10 years working on. With this in mind, I spent the next 8 months diving deeper into and separating the first principle facts from the fluff in the education domain in India. During this phase, I spoke to many people at length covering the entire vertical, kindergarten to professional skilling as well as the entire horizon from the work NGOs were doing in the extreme rural areas to the premium B-schools of the country.
Research led us to two realizations - 1) to be able to solve a problem at scale in a free-market approach, a for-profit model is the most efficient way, 2) it makes the most business sense to start with the problem where customer motivations are most aligned to benefit from the solution.
With the above two realizations, we narrowed in on the higher education space, starting with recent college graduates as our main target audience. Being first-generation college-goers, it’s upon graduation when students get disillusioned and have the highest motivations to learn the right skills which companies are looking for.
CE: Tell us about AttainU. How is it different from its competitors?
Divyam: AttainU is an online education startup providing high quality, college alternative software engineering course with specialisation in full stack web development basis an Income Share Agreement model.
AttainU uses a centralized, online college simulation approach, facilitating immersive interactions between aspirational learners and domain experts while delivering consistent learning outcomes at scale. AttainU is what a college is supposed to be i.e. taking students with no prior core domain expertise all the way to being great entry level experts in the domain.
1) 90% completion rate in an online medium - Removing the location obstacle from learning.
2) Zero to One course i.e. from no coding background to high-quality entry-level software engineering - Making it possible for anyone willing to put in the effort to learn.
3) Tech-first platform approach, allowing us to deliver consistent learning outcomes at scale.
4) Placement related payment model (Income Share Agreement) - Removing the money obstacle from learning.
Zero to One Skilling -
Our learning tracks provide a zero to one learning opportunity i.e. neither our industry partners nor we care about the degrees a person has. We take students from scratch all the way to expert entry-level software engineers in the industry. We have also had students, without any degree or with diplomas skilled through our programs and get placed in the end.
Online Model with 90% Completion Rate -
In the past edtech platforms like Coursera and Udacity have struggled with completion rates. Though our high-engaging managed marketplace approach we have been able to achieve 90% completion rates in an online education model. This makes it possible for everyone to benefit from our courses, without the need to move cities and take on additional living expenses.
Completion Rates - Coursera 5%, Udacity Nanodegree 12%
CE: What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early months of operations?
Divyam: Once the exact niche space and the problem were settled upon, we had to identify the go-to-market solution. For this, we built upon the insights from the past and present. These included the fact that self-paced recorded solutions to education don’t work. We as human beings don’t have enough motivation to follow through slightly longer, slightly complicated solutions by ourselves. Also, there were some companies, trying out online live college simulation models in different domains, in different parts of the world; and they were seeing a very high level of student engagement in the same.
A few challenges we successfully solved:
-> Building the right team - early on we spent time internalising who we were as a team and the kind of people we wanted to work with going forward, this was the genesis of our company culture document. Following this we scientifically worked and iterated on how to most efficiently assess for the role related skills, culture and company stage fit.
-> Ensuring learning outcome quality as we scaled - data driven iteration + setting up simple to follow yet effective processes ensuring proper accountability, escalation and visibility.
CE: Tell us about the market you are targeting.
Divyam: There are 9 Million College graduates per year in India. Out of which only 15% are able to make it into white collar workforce. Going by the trends in the last decade and the numbers in China and USA this will increase 3x over the next 7 years. On the other hand there is a global high-quality talent shortage starting with Software Engineering and Financial, Business Services. Technology sector is said to have a shortage of 4.3 Million Workers by 2030 and Financial, Business Services a shortage of 10.7 Million by the same year.
In India 56% of employers are estimated to have a hard time finding appropriate talent. As per the latest Info Edge report Software Industry hiring grew fastest amongst all segments at 39% and within that fresher hiring saw the most growth at 18%.
Globally India is the only country with a working age human surplus. We started AttainU to ensure that our demographic numbers convert into a dividend instead of a burden.
CE: Tell us about your team.
Divyam: We are a small team with high efficiency where every individual holds multiple responsibilities.
I am the CEO & Co-founder, AttainU and Vaibhav is my Co-founder at AttainU. Before AttainU, Vaibhav was a founding team member at GeeksforGeeks, back in December 2015. After GeeksforGeeks, Vaibhav wanted to work on the deeper education quality problem at the college level, which led him to join AttainU. Mayur Nawal is our Chief Product Officer. He is an IIT Bombay 2013 Electrical Graduate. Right after IIT Bombay he bagged one of the most coveted jobs of Project Manager at Schlumberger at the time. His passion for impact led him to leave behind his illustrious career and pursue UPSC preparation. After a few attempts at UPSC, he jumped ships to join AttainU seeing it as an opportunity to fulfill his desire of creating wide scale deep impact. Mayur takes care of our teaching vertical.
The AttainU Team
Arkesh Jaiswal is a BITs Pilani, CSE alum. Previously he has worked on key tech pieces at Stayzilla, Gameday and Playment. Arkesh takes care of our vertically integrated tech platform allowing us to scale high quality consistent learning outcomes. Arkesh is our CTO. Pramod Kumar is an IIT Bombay, 2015 Chemical Engineering graduate. His passion for education, previously led him to cofound a few educational ventures in the K12 space. He successfully scaled those to cater to 3000+ students per year. Currently, he is our Chief Business Officer and looks after our placement and money collection piece.
CE: Describe a typical day at the office.
Divyam: At AttainU, we are a bunch of mission oriented people. Although we do have team segregations, but everyone strives to work towards furthering our goal of solving the higher education problem in India every day. This means continuously iterating on the enrollment, teaching, tech and placement pieces to make them more aligned towards the student learning and industry requirements. We rely heavily on data driven iterations and ensure that all our processes are built for scale. A typical day involves working both on the individual piece as well as coordinating with other teams to ensure the goal of the company is being furthered at the fastest pace possible while ensuring product quality.
CE: How did you get India's top brands like Swiggy, Meesho etc. to get on board as your hiring partners?
Divyam: The problem we are trying to solve equally impacts the speed and the resource requirement of tech companies. Indian startups which have grown fast are acutely aware and impeded by the unavailability of work-ready tech talent. We were able to use our network to reach out to the decision makers at these companies and present to them an effective solution to this problem.
Furthermore, our curriculum has been created with active inputs from some of these companies. Lately we are also seeing our graduates being our flag bearers in the industry and repeatedly bringing their companies back to hire from AttainU.
CE: Tell us about your fundraising experience. How did you go about it?
Divyam: I was able to get the right set of mentors to guide me and help me build by outlook towards fundraising. I look at fundraising as a long term partnership where chemistry between people involved takes precedence above everything else. Through the network of mentors I was able to connect with the right set of investors to lend us their experience and financial support to be able to solve this problem together. We have been grateful to get early support from prominent angels and founders including Shailesh Rao, Nikhil Rungta, Manish Kumar (KredX), Anil Gelra (HolaChef), Samyakth Capital and LetsVenture.
CE: How do you plan to scale up from here? What are the immediate expansion plans?
Divyam: Future Plans - Over the next year we want to cater to 8000+ students, expand into more software related tracks, enhance our tech platform and optimize our completion and placement rates further. In the longer term we see AttainU as a horizontally diversified college platform.
CE:Where do you derive your inspiration from? What makes you get up and get stuff done every single morning?
Divyam: Our students are our inspiration. The fact that we are creating a positive impact in their lives by helping them jump start their careers and be a part of a fast growing economy is what drives us. We are continuously striving towards serving more and more students and creating a positive lasting change in their lives. This is just the beginning and we are getting good results with our teaching-first approach. We have a long way to go towards solving the higher education problem in India for each and all alike.
CE: If you had to go back and do one thing differently about your career, what would you change?
Divyam: Each point and experience of my career has helped me for who I am today and has contributed to my learnings and way of thinking. However, if I have to point out one thing, having the career progression and work satisfaction understanding I have now, I would maybe go back and plan my school and college academics to focus more on the long term.
CE: What according to you is the biggest factor that determines the success of any startup business?
Divyam: The Team. A startup is only as successful as its team. When it comes to solving difficult problems, they can not be solved by one person. A strong and motivated team with the attitude of getting things done is essential towards ensuring value creation, by breaking down and solving problems one by one over and over again till the time the elusive excellence is achieved.
CE: Entrepreneurship is a life-changing experience for many. How would you describe yours so far?
Divyam: It’s a great learning journey. As said by many before me, a startup is like compressing a longer journey into a much shorter time frame. What this means for the founder is that many things, primarily around organization building, product and team alignment and finding the right set of financial backers have to be figured out fast on the go and have to be iterated upon as per the stage of the company. One always needs to be proactive in learning. All of this is only possible, when one has the internal motivation to push through all the odds and keep going forward.
CE: If you were to share one piece of advice with fellow and wannabe entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Divyam: As an entrepreneur, it’s most important to have self conviction on the problem one is trying to solve. The most valuable resource is time and if one is to devote a significant chunk of their life to a particular problem, that internal conviction exceeds any other essentiality.