Interviewed by Rajat Jain
Kalpit Veerwal who has just completed his 3rd Year Of Computer Science Engineering from IIT Bombay, founded AcadBoost Technologies Pvt Ltd in his second year. In the past year, his startup has grown into a profitable venture and he has also launched SkillBoost recently. He is a rage among JEE aspirants and is a Limca Book of World Record Holder for having scored a perfect 360/360 in JEE Mains 2017. In this interview he describes in detail his journey so far, managing his startup venture with academics, his motivation and future aspirations.
- A brief idea about what AcadBoost & SkillBoost do?
We are building an online learning ecosystem that encapsulates a student’s education right from early classes, learning skills, all the way to getting a job. AcadBoost is about the academic side of things (JEE, 9-12th, etc) and SkillBoost is all about skills (coding, entrepreneurship, personal finance, design, etc). Our ultimate aim is to ensure that everyone can make a career based on the skills and knowledge they have, even if they can’t get into good colleges.
- What provided the motivation for the start-up idea? Is this your first venture? How long did you ideate and whom all did you consult before officially beginning it?
I had plans to be an entrepreneur even before I joined IIT. I have always wanted to make a big impact and starting a company seemed like the way to go for me. I tried my hands at a lot of side hustles and projects right from my first year in areas like social networking, delivery, AI, SaaS, etc. I started working on AcadBoost in 2018 and incorporated in 2019. It evolved as a channelization of my blog/YouTube channel which I was doing since 2017. Most of entrepreneurship is self consultation, though many mentors (some from DSCE(Desai Sethi Center for Entrepreneurship), and even some not from IITB) helped me along the way.
- Given the multitude of opportunities present on campus like placements, higher studies, etc., what motivated you to go for a start-up?
While I do enjoy academic exploration, especially Physics and Energy Sciences, I am more of a self-study guy than a follow-school-curriculum guy. This is a core value in both the platforms we are building. So a formal research career path seemed dull to me. I am not the kind of person who can follow corporate rules and work on given projects, so a job was not an option either. The only option left was starting a company and I liked the idea of it. It works, so I stick with it. Plus I have always been passionate about education & knowledge.
- Briefly describe the journey so far, like finding co-founders, finding the right team, mentors, resources, seed funding, challenges, success in deploying your product. (mention any stats for better insight)
AcadBoost started out as a blogging platform for guiding students in different segments like JEE, CS, Startups, College and Productivity advice, etc. I connected people who wanted to mentor their juniors with those who wanted help. It had an ad-based business model. I am a solo founder.We launched officially on 25th December 2018 (I was in my 2nd-year winter break at the time). It blew up and we ended up getting loads of traffic – the server crashed on day 1 as we got 10 times more traffic than even our safety level margins (we expected 10,000 visits in the first month – and we achieved this on the first day due to viral effects on Quora – a place where many academic mentors already exist)A major challenge was handling traffic and constantly pushing out content for such a wide audience. I hired some amazing people to help me with content and marketing. I self-funded everything – it was difficult but we are now profitable enough to not need any funding to grow.We have been constantly launching new products and content – blog, video format content, paid courses, Android app, SkillBoost in a video format, etc. We are soon launching an iOS app, and launching courses and apps for SkillBoost as well.
Statistics: We have ~30,000 learners who have spent more than 34,000+ hours learning on our platform as of June 2020. This growth was really unexpected and has given us a proof-of-concept. We are soon moving to a subscription-based model which we expect should multiply these numbers tenfold by 2021.
- Do factors like precious PoRs, CPI, etc. make it easier to get funding, or are these factors not important in the start-up world?
Some investors do care about your college, but almost no one asks what your CPI or PoRs are. These might be useful in a corporate job setting, but they don’t add any value to your company (unless your company does something related to your POR, in which case experience helps).
- What are your expansion/future plans?
We have already built end-to-end content for Classes 11-12th, and we are planning to expand to 9-10th and Skill Learning by the end of 2020. We want to make an entire ecosystem where students enter early on, pick up skills and academic learning, and end up getting good jobs, join great universities, or start their own companies. We see companies doing these tasks individually – there are JEE platforms, coding platforms, or skill learning platforms – but I think what we need is an end to end solution. We plan to accomplish this by 2021.I want to work in areas of AI, Genetics, and Energy in the future. These are very investment heavy and risky fields which don’t really attract investment in some niches (nuclear energy, for instance). If AcadBoost and SkillBoost manage to achieve the kind of growth I think they should, I would like to start a company in those areas in a few years. My next company will probably be in AI, though I am yet to figure out what product or market I will serve.
- What, according to you, are the essentials for a startup?
Consistency, constant product improvement, superb customer satisfaction, and amazing distribution. Missing on any of these can kill your business.
- What were the highs and lows during your journey? Any interesting anecdotes?
There are almost daily/weekly mild highs and lows, and then there are extended periods of highs and lows. One of the do-or-die moments was during my 4th sem endsems. The server load was increasing as we had quite some content at this point with a huge audience – we rented external servers and it was becoming really expensive to operate as we didn’t have any revenue except ads. I almost ran out of all the cash I had, and I had to pivot to another business on the side just to stay afloat. The exams/assignments also added to the workload. However, things worked out and we survived until monetization of the platform (which happened in late 2019)
- What are the sacrifices you had to do for your startup? Is it difficult to maintain a work-life balance?
Business is tough. There is so much to take care of – making sure everyone is doing their tasks, product, marketing, sales, finances, reputation & customer satisfaction, etc. Pursuing a degree in parallel complicates it further. I don’t really have too much time for myself but I like what I am doing so it is fine. Taking out a fixed time every day for yourself helps. I do enjoy playing the piano, working out, making YouTube videos, and learning new things (reading/YouTube) on a daily basis.
- Given that, yours is a startup in the highly competitive educational field, what made you initially believe that it would succeed? What kept you going?
At this point, I believe every market is highly competitive. We have an amazing distribution, and we stay lean. This enables us to provide more value at a lower cost than our competitors – enabling us to grow. Also, we are building an end to end solution which I don’t think a lot of people are doing. If you fail in JEE, you would still have an opportunity to learn something at SkillBoost and pursue a career.
We have had great growth until now. I think we have got the initial push needed to succeed. I would be happy if a bigger company starts working along these directions. We are still in an age-old education system and it has to be changed. If I do it – good. If someone does it faster than me – great!
- What do you think can be done to improve the start-up culture in the institute?
I think that we need to promote a culture of encouraging those who step out of the herd instead of seeing them as outcasts. I don’t think there is a lack of talent or opportunity. I believe there is a lack of awareness and a fear of failing. Solving these should be prioritized.
- What are the preconceived notions/myths about the startup world that you thought were true before entering it?
I think the biggest myth is that you need funding to succeed. We have not raised a single rupee of investment (although I did end up putting a lot of my personal cash to keep the site running initially) – it was tough, but it was worth it. I don’t think we need to raise any money in the near future for growth. This is great as we have full control of decision making and don’t burn cash unnecessarily.
- What help did you receive from the institute? Desai Sethi Center for Entrepreneurship/ Entrepreneurship Cell/ Profs? How did you approach them?
I did take courses on Entrepreneurship. I was working on some other projects back then, but the experience was great nonetheless. They are really great for those who want to start learning about business without prior experience. I really admire the work that DSCE, SINE, and E-Cell are doing. The staff and professors are really helpful.
- How is your team working through this pandemic?
We have always been remote and since ours is a digital platform. we have seen greater engagement during the pandemic. It feels great that we are adding value to people’s lives even in these tough times. We have not faced any issues working remote till now and according to me the future is working remotely.
- You didn’t experience the job culture, as you’ve been into your own startup during college. Do you think you’ve missed out on something?
I did have issues managing people at the beginning but it is improving now. I personally think that “job experience” is overrated – you can learn management on the go! Early start more than compensates for lack of experience.
- How are you able to use your core CSE knowledge in your startup?
We are a knowledge & technology company and any knowledge is definitely useful. We are designing various software tools to make learning easy, and my learnings at IITB about software design help a lot. We are soon expanding to Engineering and I am sure CSE knowledge would be helpful in both the content and the software design.
- What advice do you have for a student who is at the same crossroads as you were back at the time of starting-up?
My advice would be to not start a company. It is really difficult and not worth the effort in most cases. Do it only if there is something you are really passionate about and willing to put ~10 years of your life for.
If you still want to do it – great, you have what it takes. I would suggest that you start as soon as possible. Start making money via side hustles and invest it into starting a business once you come across a good idea. It takes ~1 year to make enough capital & do ideation, good market research and proof of concept, and another 1 year to get decent traction for your business. Right now is the best time to start.