The target addressable audience for job-oriented exams in the country is huge, with close to 8 crore people annually appearing for government exams alone. The dearth of good coaching centres regionally, prompts students to migrate to metros to study. Oliveboard started in 2012 with an aim to provide convenient learning to aspirants residing in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, for having a chance to crack competitive exams. Today the company is the largest pure play online test-prep platform for Banking and Insurance exams in the country.
In an interview with Mr Abhishek Patil, Co-Founder & CEO of Oliveboard, we attempt to track the organization’s transition from providing technology solutions to offline coaching institutes to cumulating 7 million users on the platform. We also look upon how Oliveboard leverages its expertise in Data Analytics to provide customized learning solutions to students.
Q. How did the idea of coming up with Oliveboard arise and how has the company’s journey been since its inception?
It all started when I and my co-founder witnessed our relatives moving from fairly large Tier-2 cities to Bangalore and take up a rented house for 3 months, just because they wanted to put their child in a coaching institute. The perception at hand was that good coaching and quality teachers are available in majorly cities such as Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Back in 2012 and 2013, we also witnessed an inflection point where all exams especially the graduate competitive exams had started moving online. Therefore we started Oliveboard with a vision towards personalizing education for all. When we started in 2012, we began with the MBA space, which had online exams. For a couple of years, we moved to a B2B model which didn’t work out well for us. Then in late 2014, we made our big pivot into job-based exams. Within the Recruitment category, we started with Bank exams and have introduced more categories, which have seen more traction than the MBA and the B2B space. By 2015 or so, we started doing so well in Banking and Insurance that we became the most popular pure-online player in that segment. Since then we’ve added 40-50 exams across different categories. We just started Civil Services a few months ago. We have now moved away from the B2B model of providing technology platforms to coaching institutes. We also operate a Campus placement offering for colleges, but to a small extent. Larger focus is on the B2C segment.
Q. The online test prep ecosystem itself would be segmented in 2 halves. One would be companies catering to school students such as Toppr, Vedantu and Byjus, while other would be catering to college students and professionals such as Testbook, Gradeup, Oliveboard. How do you feel these companies differ from each other, if we keep the product and target audience out of it?
Lot of them have chosen to offer a blended approach with distribution and delivery both offline and online. Our focus has been clearly set on online, given the larger problem of accessibility issues in small towns that we intended to solve. Our focus is on Delivering Outcomes. Given our tech background, we wanted to leverage that to identify all weak areas of the student as well as assist them to overcome them. Therefore even from a results or recommendation standpoint, we’ve been ranked higher due to our focus on using data to deliver recommendations to users. We crunch data based on numerous students for the same test and we are able to provide a relative benchmarking at a very granular level to provide a comprehensive analysis and facilitate relative comparison, which ultimately is the essence of exam taking.
Q. How has Oliveboard achieved scalability operating in the industry since 2012?
We have about 7 million registered users on our platform spanning all 28 cities and all 9 UTs in India. While the major coaching institutes in the industry have about 150-200 centres covering 50 cities, we have subscribers in 2,200 cities and towns in India. That’s essentially the gap that we are talking about. About 80% of our user-base comes from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities.
Q. How does Oliveboard’s business model function, with respect to its different product offerings?
Earlier we used to license tests, then we moved to freelancing and now we completely own the content. Today, 80-90% of our content is built in-house. Our model is a freemium model, where users can gain access to multiple features. They can then upgrade to a 3 month, 6 month or 12 month package. We have an option for students to pick practice plans apart from an option for students that opt for full courses along with the practice exams and tests.
Q. What are the bottlenecks that online test-prep players in the industry face?
Internet and tech connectivity issues have been largely solved with the coming of affordable data plans by Jio. Then, there is the trust problem in making payments online, but that is also getting gradually reducing owing to new payment platforms. The other aspect towards challenges is the Content Scaling side. Our platform can actually scale to any subject and any exam category today. However, building content quickly which essentially includes the teachers, textual content, MCQ content, video content, live-class content is one of the challenges. Then one of the most crucial challenges is moving people in Tier-2 Tier-3 cities to adopt online methods for test prep. About 80-85% of the market still relies on traditional modes of preparation. Customer acquisition to get these users online is not only one of the biggest challenges in test prep, but also every online business today. Again the perception and the motivation towards learning from online modes and resources is also one thing that we are trying to solve.
Q. One of the major attraction points for a Test Prep platform is a Customer-Centric and Customer-focused approach. How does Oliveboard map Customer Satisfaction for its learners?
We offer live classes as well as live practice along with a small element of recorded videos. We do have doubt clearing sessions that happen outside of live classes in small groups. We offer a live practice feature which allows them to synchronously practice with other candidates. We see the highest engagement in live practice sessions, where multiple students are practicing together with the faculty. We started Live classes last year in January, before which we ran recorded videos for a year or so. The engagement levels, both in terms of average time viewed and number of hours viewed, are 5-7x more, in comparison to the recorded videos. All of this is because of the perceived value that students see with live classes. Live doubt asking, collaborative learning and all elements of live learning contribute to simulating the actual classroom experience online. Course Completion is also a metric that we look at in Online Test Prep. In our case, we essentially place a cut-off that if a student completes x% of a course, we consider it completed. 55% of our users actually complete the course, which essentially means that they have gone through 60% of the course material.
Q. How has the demand for Test Prep been impacted due to the COVID situation? How has Oliveboard’s business been affected due to the pandemic situation? What are the strategies that the company is leveraging to make the most out of the increasing familiarity of people with online learning?
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for Ed-Tech, with students majorly migrating to online learning methods. We have almost doubled the free content available to students especially during April and May. We see this as a great opportunity to move a lot of offline-coaching based students to online earning avenues. In terms of engagement we’ve been it go up by 30-35% during the lockdown period. Our focus is on driving customer acquisition. Our customer acquisition cost has dropped by a quarter during this period as well. The percentage of first time learners that were converting during this period is also up from 30% to 43%. We’re also seeing users tell us that their perceptions or reasons towards not choosing online, were broken just be using the free services for a while and seeing the value that online provides, at just a fraction of the offline cost.
Q. What are the marketing strategies that players leverage for student acquisition and expanding user base? Is Oliveboard focusing more on offline marketing or online marketing?
While the top players in the Undergrad segment have formed a major marketing base out of offline acquisition or offline sessions, because the user is not the same as the buyer in that case. The decision making time can also be higher in this case. In our case, people are writing several exams every year. There are multiple exams in each category here. Decision-making cycles are quicker because they themselves are the users. Offline marketing is something that we do as well, but predominantly we delve on digital itself. For us, Organic is far more. But what you see is most players are inorganic and ad-related spends would dominate their marketing efforts, especially in case of B2C players. But a lot of them do a lot of external spends on social media and search as well.
Q. What is the future growth scenario that the industry would witness? What would be emerging trends or new technologies that would impact competition and business growth in the future?
There’s a growing consensus now that online is the way to go. Even offline players and teachers are now figuring out online delivery channels for their predominantly offline learning methodology. Large usage growth has been through mobile apps. While the mobile usage trend is well documented so far, personalization and use of AI within systems will get accelerated further. One of the new things that might develop can be AR-based content or new ways of content consumption, generation and delivery as well.
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