Cracks are beginning to show on the impressive facade of the Bangalore-based Think & Learn Pvt. Ltd, better known as the proprietor company of Byju’s, the heavily advertised online tutorials app which can be accessed through all Internet connected digital devices, including India’s 870 million cell phones.
The rapid transformation of Byju’s into one of India’s most valuable companies (market cap $21 billion or Rs.157,500 crore) is attracting increasing criticism, especially in social media. According to critics, the company’s sustained high decibel TV and social media ad campaigns featuring Bollywood and test cricket stars who cheerfully invite children to sign up for initial free tuitions, are actually data gathering allurements. The next step is for the company’s heavily incentivised sales tele-callers to pull out all stops to persuade parents to sign up for long-term tutorials by generating fomo (fear of missing out) apprehension in parents and children.
Parents pleading unaffordability are offered installment payment facilities and surreptitiously connected with non-banking finance firms with hardknuckled loan recovery agents. Competitive firms (White Hat, Edurite, toppr, Akash FIIT-JEE etc) have been bought out while a charmed circle of investors continuously drives up the company’s valuation. Meanwhile a growing number of dissatisfied parents are flooding social media with complaints about connectivity and/or lacklustre tutorials.
The rising tide of criticism of India’s most valuable unicorn arouses disturbing memories of some other game-changing ICT (information communication technologies) enterprises which have disappeared into the woodwork. For instance in 2011, Tutor Vista purchased by multinational education behemoth Pearson Plc for $127 million left the London-based company red-faced with an expensive lemon. Earlier there was Educomp Solutions whose equity share price topped Rs.5,000 in 2008. Caveat emptor!