“We want to make the youth express themselves in the internet economy,” says Ninad Vengurlekar, founder of Utter, which is on a mission to enable lakhs of Indian youth to speak better and earn better by offering the last-mile skills in spoken English fluency.
In 2015, when Ninad quit his job at IL&FS to become a tutor at Teach India, he realised that most students could read English, but many had trouble writing and speaking the language. In a week, two students dropped out as they couldn’t handle the stress. “I noticed that this wasn’t a problem of language, but of self-esteem, where they couldn’t express themselves,” he says.
He started a WhatsApp group and soon realised that once students were put in a private zone, they found it comfortable to communicate. This was the biggest insight from his many years of experience in the edtech sector.
“If you put learning on chat, it’s easy because of the byte-sized nature of the conversation. If you want to learn fluency, you have to be in a conversational ecosystem.”
Teaching English through technology and human intervention
Coming from an edtech background, he was convinced that tech could not entirely take over from humans when it comes to teaching – you needed a combination of both. After spending two years in R&D, in 2018, he along with co-founder Amit Bhadbhade, launched Utter app on Play Store, as a combination of chatbots and live tutors.
Students on the platform learn through chatbots and if they have doubts, they send a query on the platform and someone responds through the live tutoring feature. Ninad says that although they could have kept the app free and let it go viral, they wanted to create an impactful product, for which they needed paid users.
“When you charge for the app, people tell you exactly what’s wrong. In edtech, if you have a free model, you can rarely build a great product.”
Utters offers individuals in the age group of 18-35 products such as Utter English (Rs 249/year), Utter Multilingual (Rs 199/year) and Utter Whitelabel (Blue Collar workforce training), in association with Betterplace Solutions. “English learning is not just about language learning, it’s about building personality, job opportunities and self-esteem,” says Ninad.
The 15-member team is building functional courses that focus more on the communication than the language aspect. They are also looking to introduce Utter Pro, a premium version of the app that will provide services in a dedicated tutorial model, by early next year.
Challenges along the way
Like any other startup, Utter had its fair share of challenges, the biggest one - Indians being used to the concept of ‘free’. Although it was difficult to convince users to pay for the product, today, from 0.5 percent paid conversions, they have reached 4 percent paid conversions. “Ideally, we can’t be appealing to all customers, and that’s okay. We are building a valuable product for outcome-focused users now.”
In the last 18 months, Utter has onboarded a lakh paid users, with 4.5 lakh users learning on the app every month. Eighty percent of their revenue is from the B2C segment, and they intend to focus on the B2B2C model as they continue to scale.
What makes them stand out
Utter currently has 42 lakh registered users and user engagement rate just below Duolingo. One of the factors that set them apart from other edtech startups is their blended learning model, which is a combination of chatbot and humans. What makes them unique is their byte-sized content, byte-sized learning duration and byte-sized pricing that is focused on solving the customer’s biggest need – getting a job.
Winning investor confidence
Utter has raised Rs 9.5 crores across four rounds from angel investors and Unitus Ventures. On how they were able to do so in a competitive market with established players, Ninad says that they were able to tick every box when it came to Unitus’ criteria of funding. “They wanted to know if we were creating material impact for the underprivileged section of society, as well as our scalability and monetisation capability.”
Ninad says that are three top trends he has noticed in the edtech market. First, the government has got serious about online education, with the recent budget stating that online degrees will be considered real degrees. This gives startups like Utter the opportunity to tie up with universities and offer certified English language programmes.
Secondly, the entire world is conversing on the internet (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok) and this leads to conversational commerce. “We are best positioned to take advantage of that trend. Our tutors are converting students to paid users once the free session is over and convinces them why they need to pay to reap better benefits.”
And finally, less hard skills are required to make more money. A lot of hard skills that were considered important are no more skills. “Technology has taken over hard skills, and humans are just delivery channels. Soft skills will help people improve their income and we facilitate that.”
The JioGenNext experience
Utter was part of the eighth cohort of the JioGenNext accelerator programme. Ninad says the association has immensely helped them in their growth journey. JioGenNext helped set up meetings with senior experts in the Reliance ecosystem who gave them a chance to showcase a live demo of their app. "When we saw such a huge organisation like Reliance interested in us, we started dreaming big," he says.
The mentoring provided by Reliance leaders helped them improve their product and make game-changing strategy decisions.
"The most important lesson we learnt is that every feature in our app has to be linked to a monetary outcome."
He adds that their experiences on how they built Jio and Reliance enabled Utter to raise their benchmarks.
"They are so focused on delivering customer value and building a business that’s a win-win for everyone."
Milestones and the road ahead
Utter has been awarded the top 10 edtech startups @ Next Billion Edtech Prize 2019 and they were also one of the top 15 startups selected as a part of Google Accelerator Program. They have also been rated #1 on Google Play under online learning.
With a year-on-year growth of 300 percent, they have subscription revenues of Rs 2 crores. Today, they serve clients like Betterplace, Cambridge University Press and so on. In fact, Betterplace has implemented Utter in over 30 companies across India, including Amazon, Accenture, etc. The founders are now focusing on monetising the Indian market and may consider tapping the global market two years down the line.
Looking ahead, Ninad says in the next three years, their vision is to reach 7.5 crore users and grow 10x in terms of overall metrics.
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