When Ninad Vengurlekar’s phone rings, it is likely to be somebody who wants to know about Uttar (answer). “Utter,” says Vengurlekar, about the app that teaches English through an Andriod app. “Uttar,” insists the person on the other end. For 3.2 million users in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Kuwait, Utter is no less than an answer. The Pune-based startup, which was launched in 2017 by Vengurlekar and Amit Bhadbhade, is on a mission to make non-English speakers conversational in the language, and hone the fluency of those who have a rudimentary knowledge of it. Their learners range from blue collar workers to IT professionals. Utter is one of the 15 startups in India selected as part of 2019 Google Play’s App Excellence Programme for 2019. Vengurlekar talks to Dipanita Nath about the journey. Excerpts from the conversation:
How important is it to know English?
Let me give you an example. We have a learner who said he was working at one of the leading IT companies in Pune, drew a salary of Rs 70,000 and was embarassed that he could not converse with his colleagues and bosses, who were from IITs and IIMs. ‘I am not fluent in English and I have to use the right English in my meetings, my emails and even in my office WhatsApp groups’ he told me. This category we call Aspiring White Collar — they are white collar but don’t act like one. My first students — when I was a volunteer for Teach India in Mumbai — were from around a chawl and had been educated in Marathi and Hindi. These children told me that they had never gone to Phoenix Mill or a Cafe Coffee Day because they thought they wouldn’t be allowed in because of their lack of English skills. Expressing oneself in English is directly linked to low self-esteem among millions of people. There are shared cab drivers who want to learn a few basic sentences, such as ‘I am stuck in trafic’ or ‘I have no change’ to communicate with their customers who do not understand the local language, nor Hindi. In the Internet economy, the urban, semi-urban and rural cultures are converging into cities, and English is the medium of expression as well as income generation. Youngsters know they need this skill to survive and succeed in today’s economy.
How did you hit upon the idea of Utter, an app that merges education and technology to teach English?
When I was teaching English to children from the lower socioeconomic bracket, as part of Teach India in 2014, one day, a girl student came out of the class with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘Sir, mere se nahin hoga’. For her, the English classroom experience was a life-threatening situation. I realised that English cannot be taught merely as a language because people are not looking at it like a language. They are looking at it as a lifestyle and a form of expression. A boy in the class said, ‘Sir, why don’t you form a WhatsApp group?’ These 11 students decided that they would communicate on WhatApp only in English. We did that. On the first day, there were 400 messages on the group in English. Almost all in wrong English. They kept sending voice notes and English videos. And I had a difficult time correcting those errors on WhatsApp. But what I saw in 2014 was spectacular — 500-600 chat interactions a day between learners who refused to contribute a single sentence in English in the classroom. When I saw these interactions and the subsequent learning on WhatsApp, I called my cofounder Amit Bhadbhade and said, ‘I have just seen the future of how learning will happen in the next 5 years! We have to build a English learning platform on Chat!”
Is that why you built Utter on Chat?
Conversations can change the world. The internet is all about conversations — Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and even TikTok are all about byte size videos, posts, memes and images that spark conversations. The world has become one huge conversational network. People are judged by their conversations.
I realised that conversations have infinite power to change people’s thinking. Since byte-size conversations have become so powerful, why couldn’t it be used to teach English? When someone says he wants to learn English, he means conversational English. And what better than Chat to spark conversations?
In 2015, we packed our jobs and decided to create an app that encompassed all those features that I missed while teaching my learners using WhatsApp. We added bubble level features for translations, dictionary, in chat corrections inside Utter. Chats are designed in a vertical format but we decided to add horizontal features by focusing on the bubbles — where a tutor would mark a wrong bubble in red, correct spellings. When you press on a word inside a bubble, a dictionary would open. You long press on a sentence and you get its translation in 109 languages. We had initially decided to call the startup Conversity. The name was changed to Sling and finally, to Utter.
How important is the design in an app such as this, and how did feedback help in evolving the app?
The first person we hired was a designer. We gave him equity in Utter. This is how much we deeply value design. Mobile interfaces are what make or mar apps. Utter is a simple looking app where we have worked hard on reducing the commotion on the screen so that the learner is focussing on the content and not the icons and colours. It is not just the visual design but academic design is critical as well. We built the first version of the app with only live chats. It was free. People started engaging with live tutors and expecting more and more live sessions on the app. We started with five tutors. In six months, we had 650 tutors. People were spending an average of 10 hours a month chatting with live tutors. Looking at the heavy traffic, we eventually redesigned the app as a combination of chatbots with live tutors.
Since this is a largely untapped sector, what were your early learnings and miscalculations?
I was working with IL&FS education. In 2008, Amit and I collaborated with Tata Docomo as part of an initiative to make education accessible through mobile phones. That was the pre-smartphone era, when feature phones were the thing. We launched English Seekho, a 45-session course of five-seven minutes each in 10 Indian languages. It dealt with typical curriculum, how to speak in a supermarket and railway station and so on. People started subscribing but complained that they did not want to talk in English in a supermarket. We asked them what they wanted, and they said they wanted to talk to girls (and their peers) in English. They wanted to speak English with the office receptionist when they did cold calls for sales or jobs. I realised, ‘These learners need something that is functional and that which can elevate their social status among their peers’. We made the content all over again, focussing on situations where they wanted to express themselves in a social and professional surrounding. We decide to do away with the supermarket, bus and railway stations because we realised these guys would never speak English there. Once we changed the content from academic to functional, we got five million paid users in four years, each paying Rs 30 a month. We saw the big picture — the way learning will go. And it was chat.
What research or training did you undergo in this field?
As Vice-President at IL&FS, I was heading school sales and skill content, new media and education. I have been in edtech since 2001 and have seen the entire journey. I realise the biggest problem in the country is that technology wants to get teachers out and teachers want to get technology out. This has created a big challenge in the educational institutions today. I believed that the only way to go forward is to marry the two — machines and humans have to seamlessly go together. This was our strategy. In 2004-05, I went to Harvard for my postgraduation in education technology. I worked with the team that was working on launching Open Course Ware (OCW) at MIT, as a part of the Massive Online Open Course movement. The purpose was to make the entire curriculum of MIT available online for free. They envisioned a world where education would be available from the top universities to millions of learners across the world at a fraction of the costs these institutions charged. It was unbelievable the, it was a revolutionary idea. I was glad I was exposed to such thinkers in 2005, because it is they who made me look at edtech in a transformative way.
What is your business model for growth and revenue?
I have always told my team that we are not a tech company. We are an academic company. When the company was set up in 2015, we had Rs 1 crore in investment from former colleagues and seniors. I have a house outside Pune, on a hill, and we started work there. The aim was to build something that changed the way students learned. We don’t think that because we are delivering social impact, we should harp on it and elevate our status professionally. We focused more on making our idea commercially affordable to the learners and viable to us. I have always believed that if you can commercialise social impact, there is a greater opportunity to enhance the circumference of your impact in the world. Which is why, when many VCs advised to focus on growth, we said, ‘We will focus on revenues’. We did not focus on revenues merely to make profit; we realised that in edtech a product is perfected only when paid users demand higher and higher impact from it.
We charge between Rs 200 and Rs 500 a year. The number of potential paid users are huge — over 500 Million in India and over 1.7 billion globally. So the user base is unlimited, what is required is monetisation plan built on the foundations of academic impact and engagement.
What is the future of Utter?
Utter wants to focus on teaching English in the context of careers and jobs. We want to be the engine for job creation in the internet economy. Today, technology has transformed almost every industry into services. And the skills required to succeed in a service industry are not hard skills, but soft skills. In a country were over 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 35, we need engines like Utter that will help youth to convert their education into well paying careers the moment they get out of the academic institutions. Utter wants to be that bridge that will help them take that leap into the future. We want them to improve their incomes and get a small share out of it to build a billion dollar enterprise. It is difficult, but not impossible.