Ambition and Acquisitions: An Interview with UpGrad CEO Arjun Mohan

interview with arjun mohan

If you thought learning stopped at school then think again. People the world over are now cottoning on to the fact that they have their whole lives to learn, and having a job or being far from the cities shouldn’t stop them.

Expected to grow by USD14.33 billion until 2024, India is arguably one of the world’s hottest markets for online education — and this was going to happen regardless of the pandemic. That’s thanks to ever-increasing internet availability; this year is the first year there are as many rural internet users as urban ones. Then there’s the fact the government passed sweeping legislation in 2018 the New Education Policy recognising degrees offered online by universities.

And upGrad, which specialises in upskilling professionals of all stripes, is leading the charge. One year after the pandemic began, it has been a huge time for the edtech company that is backed by A-list Indian entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala. There’s been acquisitions. Hot advertising campaigns. Oh, and huge user growth to boot.

We’ve been working together with upGrad for a while now, primarily on their media buying and planning. Here’s what their CEO Arjun Mohan had to say when we managed to catch some time for a chat recently. Stay tuned for the scoop on where they are heading in the future hint, you might be seeing upGrad on your shores soon plus the benefits they see of TV advertising and sports partnerships.  

Are you ready to upgrade your marketing strategy? Get in touch with us to chat here.

Do you feel like the edtech vertical was ready to boom? Or do you think it’s been influenced heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated stay-at-home regulations?

The edtech ecosystem was experiencing growth even before the arrival of COVID, and people were gradually shifting from a traditional to a hybrid medium. However, the arrival of the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online learning and has made professionals, organisations and offline institutes switch gears and accept online as a viable option to operate amid such critical times. Owing to its flexibility and feasibility, for the near future learners would prefer to take up online programs from the comfort and safety of their houses. 

Also, as the trend continues, with more and more renowned universities adopting online learning and investments reducing in infrastructure, the cost of education will substantially be reduced. For that, we are enabling 100 or more universities and colleges, which includes MHRD’s NIRF Top 100 universities (India’s primary University rankings), to seamlessly replicate their classes online.

You have made many acquisitions lately, including Rekrut (a recruitment platform) and The Gate Academy (an app for exam preparation). How do these acquisitions help to strengthen your core business?

upGrad is one of the top online education brands to watch
Our recent acquisition of Rekrut India is a significant step in making upGrad a career powerhouse for professionals, as it has now opened the floodgate of career opportunities for our learners. The acquisition enabled us to access an extensive network of 100+ recruiting experts and adaptive products, allowing us to provide end-to-end support for learners across the lifecycle – from learning to employment.

Then there was our acquisition of The Gate Academy, which marked our entry into the test-prep market. The move provides upGrad a growth opportunity in a new market and deeper penetration in the semi-urban and rural markets, which is in line with our core vision of making India employable by adopting the mantra of LifeLongLearning. 

Most recently, we have announced the launch of upGrad Jeet, a souped-up version of The Gate Academy, that will largely focus on the Hindi-speaking small-town folks who are looking for mid-scale government jobs. With every strategic move, we are ensuring that our company leads from the front as India emerges as the teaching capital of the world.

I know you’re a big cricket fan, Arjun. How important do you see sports partnerships (i.e. with the IPL) as a part of your marketing strategy?

For Indian companies, the IPL is an important marketing tool
Talking about 2020, the sudden outbreak of the pandemic had imposed restrictions on shoots, and therefore, fresh content on TV became limited. The situation was similar for live sports; nothing with Indian cricketers had happened in the past months. Therefore, IPL 2020 was the first in both fresh content and live sports after a long time, and has successfully created a television viewership record with an overall consumption increase of 23 per cent as compared to 2019

Also, given the glitz and glamour of the T20 League and excitement for a live cricket tournament, we feel it is the most opportune occasion and an important marketing element that shouldn’t be missed. After all, it offers a window to reach out to a larger audience, one that’s looking for meaningful online education programs to assist with their career growth.

With which channels have you seen the most success in the last year?

Initially, with the onset of the pandemic, we had seen a rise in television viewership, as people were confined to their homes. Therefore, keeping the situation in mind, we looked at more mass media such as TV, supplementing it with digital. While we continued to advertise targeting the big metropolitan areas due to new launches that we had in 2020, upGrad was also more active in the smaller towns. Such short-term changes are a conscious shift to align with our long-term business objectives.

Can you give me a bit of a background behind the #RahoAmbitious campaign? What was the story there? For me, it leaned heavily into nostalgia – which can be a very powerful tool for marketers.

Our upGrad brand campaign Raho Ambitious revolved around our aim to rekindle the spirit of ambition and passion for learning among today’s working professionals. The idea was to provide one million working professionals with a better learning sphere and equip them simultaneously with the perfect blend of business acumen and technical capabilities. Since education in India is typically associated with discipline and seriousness and is yet to become a part of popular culture, the campaign was designed to reiterate upGrad’s core belief of outcome-based learning through emotional messaging and real-life career transitioning journeys of learners. Such a two-fold approach was aimed at breaking the stereotypical notions attached to education and also reignite viewers’ hidden ambitions.

From a teacher to upGrad CEO – sounds like a truly exhilarating journey. Would you please elaborate on the path that led you here?

Times may have changed, but at heart, I’m still a teacher. The journey has not only assisted me to evolve as a person but many qualities I have gained have helped me to navigate the corporate world, too. That includes mentoring students and reportees for their personal and professional growth, the ability to simplify and present things in an interesting way and staying updated with relevant industry insights.

My first stint in edtech was with the education tutoring app BYJU’S as a faculty for the CAT (IIM Entrance Exam) an exam for admission into an MBA. Here I used the pedagogy and training ideas we developed in our CAT coaching to build both our JEE (the IIT Entrance Exam for engineers) and medical entrance products. Eventually, when the company grew, I picked up sales and marketing as well, because of my keen interest in customer understanding which I had accumulated during my experience in teaching. 

Personally, I believe we must always keep learning and upgrading our knowledge or otherwise our professional growth will stop. This indeed kept me going and encouraged me to gain new skill sets and attain business acumen, which in turn helped me carve a steady path from BYJU’S to upGrad.

Where is upGrad heading in the future? There are rumours online about internationalisation and expansion coming up soon…

We have crossed the mark of one million learners in five years and aim to reach the next million in the next 18 months. upGrad’s initiatives to grow even more involve expanding on our roster of the top companies and their learning and training needs. Then there’s our great lineup of Indian and global universities, a list which will expand threefold in 2021, as well as growth in the test prep and recruitment sectors via mergers and acquisitions, with some more to be announced in the first quarter. And that’s not all: we’ll indeed also be focusing on international expansion in the APAC and Middle East regions, as well as the UK and USA.

Thank you Arjun! We look forward to seeing where upGrad goes from here on its journey.

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