In July 2016, years after getting married and having two children, Anuradha Agarwal decided to quit her husband’s company and run her own startup. She became quite a sensation and a local hero in her hometown Jaipur—a northwestern Indian town also known as the ‘Pink City’.
In Jaipur, as Agarwal describes, educating a girl child was considered Western propaganda and as soon as a girl finished her 10th exams she would be married off. Agarwal’s parents started looking for a match for her when she was 17. She considers herself lucky, as her parents couldn’t find a suitable boy for her and let her study further as she was good at academics.
She managed to complete her engineering degree in computers and later an MBA in finance. However, she wasn’t allowed to accept any of the job offers that she received as they were all out of Jaipur, which her family wouldn’t let her do.
It was only after she got married that she was able to leave the city and moved to Gurugram with her husband.
It was then that her finance background came in handy, and working in a proper corporate setup made her begin to feel confident about herself. Soon, she joined her husband’s firm where she would meet entrepreneurs every day, learn about their work, and find out if they were suitable to invest in.
In 2015 after the birth of her second child, she took a break and moved to Jaipur to her parents’ house. It was then that she realized how desperately other women in her circle of family and friends wanted to learn English. Initially when they asked her to teach them the language, she directed them to a few websites and apps. But they quickly ditched those platforms as “they were trying to teach English grammar and big words.”
They wanted to learn conversational English. They told Agarwal that they would freeze when someone in a shop or a restaurant spoke English to them. Intrigued by their request, she started teaching them functional English involving different scenarios by writing down dialogues between two people on paper. These, Agarwal says, became a hit among their friends as they started suggesting different scenarios.
This method had its limitations even though they had started speaking to people in English; their pronunciation was still a problem. Agarwal moved on to recording the audio of these hypothetical and situation-based conversations, which she would later circulate via WhatsApp. The challenge with recording audio conversations was that they sounded monotonous, Agarwal says, which led her to create animated videos.
She says she didn’t even realize when she started enjoying making these videos, which she would then upload to her Facebook page.
In June 2016, someone from Bangladesh approached her on Facebook requesting her to create a tutorial from Bengali to English for his mother.
“That was probably my light-bulb moment when I realized this could be a huge market opportunity,” Agarwal, co-founder, Multibhashi, told KrASIA.
From speaking a language to talking money
With the help of a small team, Agarwal launched the first version of the Multibhashi app in early 2017. The app was basically a compilation of all her previously made animation tutorials. Agarwal says while making the app, she ensured she kept the look and feel of the app similar to Facebook and WhatsApp as almost all the users of her videos are comfortable with the interface of these two platforms. Hence, she didn’t want to introduce a new interface and confuse them.
By the end of August 2017, she managed to convince investors such as Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, CIIE (Centre for Innovation Incubation & Entrepreneurship) in Ahmedabad, and Villgro to invest an undisclosed sum of money in Multibhashi. After it raised the seed round, Agarwal says the product kept improving as the team started to add more languages and features.
Currently, the company teaches 11 Indian languages to 1.5 million registered users. Most of its users, Agarwal says, come on the app to learn English and come from tier 1 as well as smaller towns.
“Most of our users come from the lower job pyramid. Users from metro cities work as delivery boys, waiters in restaurants, or are guards who have moved to bigger cities from their hometown to get better earning jobs,” she says.
According to her the most important reason users come to Multibhashi to learn English is because they either want a better paying job or are looking for a promotion. “Professional aspiration remains the top reason for users to come to our platform.”
The company has also partnered with corporates in the field of banking, hospitality, and education institutes, to provide English language training.
The two-year-old company initially had no revenue model, but Agarwal says monetization was always at the back of her mind and in between she would send out feelers to her users to see how they felt about paying for a certain feature. “If somebody is ready to pay it also demonstrates the strength of the product,” she says.
Six months ago, she launched tutor-led classes on the app which allows users to learn any language from an actual person either through a video call or over phone call for a subscription fee that ranges anywhere between INR 200 to INR 5,000 (USD 3 to USD 70).
Earlier this month, Multibhashi again raised an undisclosed amount of money from a Japan-based English tutoring company Rarejob. Although the Japanese firm, which is a publicly held company picked up a minority stake in Multibhashi, its main intention for investing was to learn about the Indian startup ecosystem.
While looking for an investment opportunity in India, Rarejob saw a lot of physical as well as app-led English tutoring companies, but it claims they didn’t seem scaleable. “Among these varied players, Multibhashi stood out with its unwavering focus on learning outcomes and a unique model to deliver real learning outcomes with a combination of self-learning and tutor led learning. The Company has spent the last couple of years perfecting the delivery of real learning outcomes,” Rarejob said in a statement.
Talking about other players in the space, Agarwal says most of them are trying to teach professor-level technical English which is full of grammar and vocabulary-led classes. “We use the everyday conversational method approach to teach users the facets of English speaking,” she says.
This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind South and Southeast Asia’s tech startups.