Startup Mantra: Shining spot to nurture ‘spark’ in kids

Updated on May 30, 2022 05:47 PM IST

PUNE With the education scenario in India evolving and becoming upbeat over the past few years, Indian parents also seem to be evolving in their choice of career options for children

Kunal Malik (L) and Maneesh Dhooper, co-founders of PlanetSpark. (HT PHOTO)
Kunal Malik (L) and Maneesh Dhooper, co-founders of PlanetSpark. (HT PHOTO)
BySalil Urunkar

PUNE With the education scenario in India evolving and becoming upbeat over the past few years, Indian parents also seem to be evolving in their choice of career options for children. Not only are they paying more attention to developing softer skills such as spoken English, confidence, public speaking abilities and recital, debating, and performance-oriented skills in children, but are also trying to inculcate career and lifestyle skills, in their primary years.

Edtech startup PlanetSpark is doing an early education intervention through a structured curriculum, to ensure that coming generations grow up to be confident communicators, and do not struggle with similar communication skills-related challenges faced by more than 90 per cent of the world’s population today.

Founded in 2017 by XLRI graduates and hostel wingmates, Kunal Malik and Maneesh Dhooper, PlanetSpark has produced successful podcasters, YouTubers, and authors so far from amongst its students.

In the beginning…

Malik and Dhooper met 13 years ago on their first day of MBA at XLRI Jamshedpur. Their friendship cemented as the duo participated in B-plan competitions and other committees together. Before launching PlanetSpark, Malik worked with an FMCG (Fast-moving consumer goods) company for five years wherein he worked across the supply chain and sales business partnering roles. He was involved in key initiatives such as driving sales capability, leadership interventions, performance management and learning and development amongst other things.

Dhooper had got placed with a global pharma company headquartered in Switzerland. He was instrumental in setting up the Africa Learning University in the company. With the startup ecosystem heating up in India in 2014, Dhooper returned to start his first edtech venture in skilling space. Dhooper, however, failed to scale it up and decided to join another hyper-growth startup in the education domain.

Says Dhooper, “I had my share of learnings from the first startup. I was working in the skills space for elder kids, but that experience helped me realise that to create an impact and bring about the fundamental change you need to work with younger kids. Also, while running the company I realised complementary skill sets are necessary at an early stage in a startup to be successful. That’s when I decided to partner with somebody who brings in complementary skill sets whenever I do my second startup. That’s the reason why despite having a lot of time, energy, and savings, I decided to join another startup.”

Co-creating

Dhooper and Malik reconnected in 2017 while they were in Gurgaon. “We both were passionate about education and wanted to do something of our own. Having over hundreds of cups of tea, market study and meeting a lot of schools, and parents, we co-created the idea of PlanetSpark. The overall mission was to help children become more skilled and prepared for the future. We both spent a lot of time narrowing down on what would be the specifics. We envisioned building the world’s largest education company focused on inculcating and honing communication skills in children,” said Dhooper.

Latent need

Dhooper and Malik took nearly five months to narrow down what was the customer need. Sharing his insights, Dhooper said, “We understood that there are two types of needs in parents. First is the remedial study where parents want their child to be better at school. But the bigger need was to make their children successful in their future. A decade back, parents were obsessed with their children cracking exams for engineering and medical. However, those people now in the age group of 35-45, want their child to be empowered with the right skills. Communication skills are the most important skills and they are connected to success in almost all jobs, but those skills are not taught in schools. We realised that the billion-dollar idea would be we help the world get better at these 21st-century skills.”

Dhooper further explains, “65 per cent of our demand is coming from tier 2 cities like Jalandhar, Bareilly, Agra, Coimbatore, etc. These are cities where parents want their kids to have excellent communication but they never thought that it was possible. With live learning coming of age, it has become very easy because parents now have access. With a click of a button, parents can get a free demo and experience the product and then take a call whether they want to enrol their child.”

“Communication essentially helps children in every walk of life and any profession. Even for a tech-role candidate, communication becomes important while leading a team and inspiring and motivating people. Our view on the skills market is power skills will be the key differentiators of people,” says Dhooper.

Team building

Sharing their team-building experience and hiring strategy, Dhooper said, “We did not have a fancy office to show but we wanted to give a great impression of our company. Also, we did not want anybody to feel that it’s easy to join a start-up. So, we hired a conference room and ran the process there. We also talked about our personal journey and personal backgrounds with the people being interviewed. We could not get anyone through referral, which is ideally the best way, but we made sure that there was role clarity.

“We had created a very interesting job description and put it on an online platform. It was slightly humorous and creative and it also had the profile of both founders. Pictures of work that we had done so far were also included in it. It helped us get some people who were willing to take the risk,” said Dhooper.

Creating achievers

PlanetSpark platform leverages powerful technology to provide live online classes to K12 learners on English communication, public speaking, grammar, creative writing, debating, Vlogging and other ‘new age’ skills.

Says Malik, “The increasing inclination towards communication skills can largely be attributed to the age of the internet where the opportunities for even children to make successful careers and monetise their speaking skills are limitless. It is these opportunities that are also making young and new parents more inclined towards investing in the communication skills of their children now, more than ever before.”

Dhooper says, “We went really deep into the curriculum and now we have more than 165 transformational journeys for kids. We help them become confident communicators. We have kept our primary offering as live 1:1 class in public speaking and creative writing. Recently one of our students gave a TED Talk while another girl published her own book at the age of 12. PlanetSpark kids have become TEDx speakers, YouTubers, podcasters and Published Authors across 13 countries including US, Middle East, Europe and India.”

Go-to-market strategy

Revealing how they scaled up the market, Maneesh said, “We were very obsessed with developing our product. We had to research and create our own methodology for designing the curriculum. After creating a lesson, we piloted it with around 8 children and did extensive feedback. There was a lot of rigour in building the product. Our go-to-market strategy is very strong on tech and product-led growth. A large number of customers come through organic channels and positive word of mouth. We have built a fairly strong community of children where they refer other kids.”

As of now, PlanetSpark has recorded an annualised revenue run rate of 135 crore while its average revenue per unit is 46,535. It has trained over 22,000 children, so far.

Spark Tank 2.0

PlanetSpark has announced Season-2 of its flagship investor pitching competition, Spark Tank. Children under the age of 17 years will present their million-buck business ideas to impress the investor-jury, in a bid to bag investment from them.

The first season of Spark Tank was introduced in December 2021 and was judged by active Angel Investors, Prof. Dhruv Nath and Tanya Singh.

Malik said, “Through this bi-yearly competition, we aim to make children ready and more passionate for a successful entrepreneurial career. Furthermore, seeing children’s growing interest in the startup ecosystem, we have now also opened the competition to children outside PlanetSpark.”

Future plans

In the near term, PlanetSpark founders are looking to expand internationally, with a launch in South East Asia expected this year.

“We are currently present in native (where people are native English speakers) and preferred markets (where English is not the main language but preferred). We want to further consolidate in these markets like India, South Africa, the Middle East, etc and then enter into non-native markets like China, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, etc. We also are expanding our offerings to other 21st-century skills like critical thinking, etc. Currently, we are in the K12 segment, but in the future, we would also cater to the school to college transition and college to job transition segment, essentially covering the entire spectrum of the population.” Adding further he says, in long term, we want to own the entire power skill space globally for kids.

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