Starting an EdTech Company During a Pandemic

Samta Varia, Founder of Virtual PreSkool, Beginners Hindi Classes Age 6-10

On January 1, 2020 I was excited for the year ahead. I recharged during the December holidays and was ready to work on ShaadiShop as 2019 has been the company’s best in its 5 year journey. But a few months into the year I found myself starting an Edtech company during a pandemic.

It was hard. At first, I was emotionally and mentally shocked and kinda whiplashed from the speed by which the pandemic spread and changed life across the globe. I went through a series of (normal) emotions – denial, wanting to give up, feelings of loss, and anger.

Gave Myself a Break

Then I did something that I wish I had learned to do a long time ago. I gave myself a break. I gave myself time to process everything that I was feeling which enabled me to manage the stress and negativity that was looming in my mind 24/7.

I went for long walks. Normally I listen to an e-book, a podcast or music while I walk. Instead, on many days, I just listened to myself. To be honest, during that time many of my thoughts were negative. I processed self doubt, anger, and feelings of hopelessness.

What saved me from going down a dark hole was self awareness. I recognized that:

  • I was going through something major
  • That I needed time, and
  • That things would get better

At particularly dark moments, I reeled myself in and repeated those 3 things to myself. And it made all the difference because I just let myself be in the moment.

The Idea for Virtual PreSkool

Most startups iterate. Virtual PreSkool today is not my original idea. The initial concept was virtual classes for children age 3-5. I partnered with an experienced Pre-k teacher from a top US school district to develop lessons. She taught the classes while I handled all of the business aspects – website, marketing, accounting etc.

However, it wasn’t working out. Teacher’s schedules were already packed, parents wanted classes at all varying hours. Teaching virtually for that age group was a brand new, (unwelcome) concept for parents and teachers. Getting a 4 year old to sit and pay attention to a screen is no joke.

Pivot to Virtual Hindi Classes

After a few months of iterating I abandoned the original concept and pivoted to teaching conversational Hindi, virtually. Many of my friends have asked me to teach Hindi to their kids. It’s not that there weren’t Hindi classes for kids already but my offering is unique because I was born and raised in the US. Whereas most Hindi classes are taught by native speakers.

I, on the other hand, am English as my first language. This differentiator gives me the ability to relate to my students and vice versa. I got the idea to try this pivot so the next step was to build a minimal viable product and test.

I built a basic website and posted it on my personal Facebook page. And the response was pretty great. Prospects were enthusiastic, supportive and seemed interested. But that’s not the same thing as converting to a customer. Within 1.5 weeks I got my first student. That might sound fantastic and it was! I was ecstatic, but keep reading. They were very happy. And they asked me to lower my prices. I refused so they walked away.

That was in July and now, mid-November 2020, I teach 3 classes per day, 5 days a week.

Advantages of Pivoting to Virtual Hindi Classes

Immediately there were several advantages:

  • There’s demand. Parents want their children to connect with their roots and many can’t teach it themselves.
  • No reliance on 3rd parties. I teach the classes and develop the lesson materials myself.
  • Nimble. The new idea allowed me to become super nimble. I built the website, myself in 2 days, announced my new business on my personal Facebook page and I had my first student within a week and a half.
  • Fun! Also, I wanted to do something that brought me joy, where I could bring joy and make an impact for others. Life is short and I want to enjoy every moment.

Disadvantages of Pivoting to Virtual Hindi Classes

  • Comparatively Smaller Market Size Virtual Pre-k has a broader appeal to anyone with a 3-5 year old child whereas Hindi classes appeal to a much smaller audience. It’s still a very large, viable audience, just a lot smaller than general Pre-k.
  • Luxury good. My Hindi classes are a luxury good. Within the market I have to find the people that value learning Hindi enough to invest time and money in it. Many people feel that learning the language ought to cost nothing and/or be organic because grandparents or by being exposed to the culture through the temple and the community. General Pre-k is an essential part of any child’s education and development.

Cheers to Trying and Failing

I was able to build the website for Virtual Preskool myself, without hiring a developer, in two days because of my experience creating and managing the ShaadiShop website. Otherwise it might have taken a couple weeks or longer.

Things I Have Learned

Teaching online – well I should say, excellent teaching online, is not simply taking in class lessons but virtually. You can’t just hold up a bunch of flash cards up to a camera. Well you can, but the outcome won’t be great. It won’t even be good. Teaching virtually is a totally different thing. I researched a lot and found no precedent for the way pre-k and kindergarten teachers have been teaching for nearly all of this year.

Like anything in life if you want to do a stellar job it requires thoughtful consideration.

Switch From B2B to B2C

I’m learning everyday. This is the first time I’ve ever worked in a business-to-consumer company. The 18+ years of my career have all been in business-to-business products. A major difference is the length of the sales cycle. It’s much much shorter in B2C. There’s more continuous account stewardship compared to B2B. I’m working with children so there are more security and safety aspects.

Creating lessons that children will find interesting and learn from takes a lot of thought and creativity. I have students from age 3-15. Unlike most schools that bundle students together by beginner, intermediate and advanced, my classes are grouped by age. In my opinion, it makes for a much better class environment for my students and myself.

I’m speaking from experience. I remember being a teenager taking dance classes with a bunch of 7 year olds and not enjoying the experience at all.

Building Lessons + Adjusting My Style Based on Age

I teach every age from 5 to 15 years old. Everything is different about each class. The way the students learn, effective ways to interact with them, what and how I say things. Also, the pace of the lessons in addition to the at-home practice materials that I develop myself.

The Experience 5 Months In

I’ve been teaching Hindi classes for about 5 months and I love it. I’m stretching my creative muscles constantly. It’s gratifying and fulfilling when a parent shares that their child is enjoying the class or it has inspired them and of course that it’s making a difference in their ability to speak Hindi.

I have my not so great days and lessons that were a flop. And when that happens and the darkness seeps in, I revert to the method that I shared at the beginning of this post and give myself a break, time to process and get back to it. I have had some of my greatest breakthroughs, fresh ideas, and insightful moments during those times.

Conclusion

Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster. There are constant ups and downs. Sometimes a single day is a like a roller coaster. That’s one of my favorite aspects of being an entrepreneur – that’s what makes entrepreneurship exhilarating. I think a lot of people make it sound glamorous because all too often we hear about the success stories of those who made it ‘big’. And the journey sounds like it came out of a Strawberry Shortcake book where everything was roses.

That’s the opposite of what it’s actually like. It’s lonely. It’s messy. And you fail a lot more than you have wins. People are ready to trash your idea. People expect perfection from the onset.

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