Exclusive Interview with Manan Khurma, CueMath Founder

Exclusive Interview with Manan Khurma, CueMath Founder

CueMath is a startup which is making mathematics easy for students by innovatively teaching them. In the process, they are providing jobs to homemakers, and students are leaning directly from teachers, not from any pre-recorded videos.

Today we got the opportunity to interview Mr. Manan Khurma, founder and C.E.O. of CueMath to discuss his startup, how he is helping the students, and how he impressed investors like Google.

Que- How did you get the idea of CueMath?

Manan- “I started teaching mathematics right from when I was in college. I graduated from I.I.T. Delhi in 2007, but even before that, when I was in my second year, I had already begun teaching JEE aspirants – mainly high school students who were in grades 11 and 12. So, from around 2005 to 2013, I was teaching high-schoolers. Teaching them helped me gain expertise into understanding how kids think about math, what problems they face, and I realized by the time they enter 11th and 12th standard it’s too late to have any major impact on their learning outcomes because by then their foundations have already been built in a way.”

“Math is such an important skill, especially in today’s age, so it is very significant to start much earlier. Kids start getting exposed to the subject right from kindergarten onwards, so you need to make sure that their exposure to math right from a very early age is done the correct way. When I say, ‘the correct way’, I mean they need to understand math by understanding what they are doing. We have to avoid root memorization of math formulae and concepts. I call it math by reasoning.”

“Basically, that was my inspiration- knowing that real problems lie in creating strong foundations. What was really needed is a math program that transforms math outcomes for young kids. So, in 2013, I decided to create a math program for young learners, and because not all kids are inherently self-driven, you need a teacher’s presence to ensure that they stick to the plan. That’s the reason I came up with this teacher-elect model, i.e., we have teachers setting up micro-centers in their homes, and they use the CueMath learning system to teach neighborhood kids and students.”

“There’s a background to this whole evolution that is quite important to understand. So, the way I think about learning outcomes is that great outcomes will happen if two factors or variables come together – one is great content (to be effectively designed) and another being the effort of the student. Hence, the valuable outcome is the product of great content and an equally concrete effort. This was my idea for CueMath.”

Que- Who are all in the core team?

Manan- “There’s me; I started the company five years back. Being the C.O.O., Govind Rajan runs the business on a day-to-day basis. Labdhi Chopda is the Head of Market Operations. Nikhil Pawar is the Head of Curriculum. We have two tech leads – Anushray Gupta & Maruti Borker – one of them leads the engineering team, and the other looks forward to building the next set of emerging platforms. This is our core team.”

Que- Please tell us about your funding and do you have any plans for next round in recent time?

Manan- “So far, we have raised about $18m from three investors – three institutional investors – starting with Unitus Seed Fund, who did our first seed round back in 2014. Then, we had Sequoia Capital who led the Series A round in 2016 and for the Series, B round couple of years back in 2017, Google investment fund (CapitalG, formerly known as Google Capital) raised around $13.5m-$14m. We have other angel investors as well.”

“Yes, there is a plan to raise the next round later this year. We will start working on it soon since it is the start of the academic cycle and a busy season ahead.”

Que- Why have you chosen offline home-based learning while everyone is running behind online learning?

Manan- “The first thing that comes to people’s minds when it comes to educational concepts is that they think about models such as online-based, offline-based, app-based, or web-based systems. However, we do not encourage looking at it from that lens. We are very clear about what we do. We are a math company, the core, and the D.N.A. being purely mathematics. Building a global math brand is our objective. From that perspective, we started by servicing young learners (age 5 to age 13). The best way to service these learners is to have an offline presence of a teacher. When a teacher is there with a student in person, the young student has a much higher tendency to be disciplined, and that is why the largest after-school learning program in the world is Kumon, the Japanese educational network that has centered around the world.”

“When it comes to online-based learning, we have already started a platform for higher grade learners (from grade 7 to grade 10) called LEAP, where we run live online classes. We think these learners are old and mature enough to learn through this mode, rather than an offline system. These are not pre-recorded videos, as in, it is not left to the learner to consume at his/her own pace. This is purely live, and we still ensure effort from our side by the presence of a teacher. It is a one on one live interaction where the teacher might be in Delhi, and the student might be in Chennai. It is all about how to service a learner, whether young or old, in the most effective way possible.”

Que- How is CueMath better than existing edu-tech startup for learning math, and what are all the services offered?

Manan- “Firstly, because we are only focused on math, we are the math experts – you can call it the go-to place for math learning! This gives us the ability to focus very deeply on creating powerful learning systems for math. No other player is focused like this on one particular subject. For us, math is not really a subject; it is more of a life skill. Every kid today needs to have great math skills to be pertinent ten years down the line because the most valuable jobs in the upcoming decade or so, will all have some element of mathematical thinking involved. We are living in the age of automation, and what we are trying to do is train the young generation to be relevant for future needs. We take a different approach in ensuring the kids are strong at math.”

“At CueMath, we do not train the kids to score marks, or for school exams, for us, that’s a shallow bar. A student coming into CueMath is tutored to be fluent and confident at mathematical thinking and analysis. Because of this sharp focus on math, we can serve in a better way compared to others, and that shows out in the way we deliver math concepts to students. We have different formats such as workbooks, tab-based activities, puzzle cards, handheld models, and so on. The best part about this is that a certain format does not restrict us.”

“For example: If you have to do a concept like fractions, what is the best possible combination to do it? The answer to this is that there might be some element through a handheld model or a workbook or puzzle cards or a combination of these two. We create a blend of these formats to help students learn effectively.”

“What we are chasing is the mastery of math concepts, not just good marks at school. As I mentioned earlier, that is a low bar. We are aiming for something much higher, i.e., wanting every kid to excel at math, and I believe that is a much higher bar to chase. In the long run, that is what will set us apart in the eyes of parents and students.”

Que- Why have you chosen only mathematics?

Manan- “Our point of view is that math is the defining skill of the future, and if you have it, you will have access to the most valuable jobs of the future. If you do not possess math skills, you will be as good as irrelevant, in the upcoming decade or two. Because of this whole rise of automation, A.I. and so on and so forth, a lot of the old jobs are going away. Not that new jobs won’t be available, but we are already seeing that people who have math and math allied skills possess a broader skillset and are a notch above the rest. Data science, programming, machine learning, etc. are all jobs of the future and there is an increasing demand for this kind of expertise.”

“In the next ten, fifteen or twenty years, we will see that there is a segment of people or young adults who have strong mathematical backgrounds and will excel in terms of access to jobs and another segment of people who will not have the required skills. From a future success point of view, I believe math is the most important skill a child needs to learn and master. We want future youngsters to be much more confident mathematical thinkers because that is what the future is going to be all about. That is the reason we have chosen math.”

Que- Any plans to add curriculums of class 9-12?

Manan- “We have already added class 9 and class 10 curriculum, which is on our LEAP platform. Learners from 7th grade onwards, till the 10th grade, will now be able to use the live online classes. K.G. to 6th will continue with the offline home-based center model. As far as grades 11 and 12 are concerned, it is on our agenda next year.”

Que- Tell us a bit about CueMath Universe and how is it helping students?

Manan- “I spoke about how different ways and formats of learning are used by the CueMath system, sometimes for the same concept. There is a certain sequencing methodology we incorporate in teaching any concept. Taking the concept of decimals, for example, our approach to decimals is quite different as to how a kid will go about learning at school. So, we will first make the child do modeling exercises on decimals using handheld models and manipulatives. This stage of learning is what we call ‘concrete’ stage of learning, as they learn with concrete physical models and build their understanding.”

“Then, they will be made to reinforce that concept through pictorial exercises – this is the graphics stage of learning. After this is when they are made to interact with the completely abstract stage of learning, using real problems starting with the basics. This sequence is C.P.A. (Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract) and is found to be very useful in improving their understanding. In schools or tuition classes, kids are directly pushed into the abstract stage. Rules are bestowed upon them, and they are assigned ten exercises to finish. What we are aiming at is a deep fundamental visual understanding of those concepts. Every mathematical concept has a particular strategy or format that is followed. That is how our approach to math is, and we call it math by reasoning.”

Que- How many teachers and students are associated with CueMath?

Manan- “There are about 4,000 teachers today and approximately 33,000 odd students. By the end of 2019, we predict to have close to 6,000 teachers and around 60,000 students.”

Que- How you control over the quality of teaching/education at different centers?

Manan- “There is the presence of a solid technology layer that monitors what each teacher is doing in every class. We have a system called C.C.S., which stands for Curriculum Compliance Score. This score is published for each teacher by every student on a fortnightly basis. Let’s say you are a teacher, and you have ten students. So, every alternate Sunday, you will get a score on a scale of ten, which will tell you how you did for that fortnight for all the students. It will show you a breakup for each student. We monitor these scores regularly, and this is how we track, from an academic point of view, whether a teacher has done her job efficiently or not. This is something we invested heavily in, using a lot of data points, collection mechanisms, and so on.”

“It is important to track daily as to what happens in each class. Today, I can take any center across the country, whether it is in Srinagar or Guwahati or wherever and I can tell you exactly what a student did in the previous class. We also get a lot of feedback from students and parents on how they are feeling about the classes. The students have the provision of rating the class after each session, and we have an 85% upvote where the students say they’ve enjoyed the class. The parents also send us to feedback monthly on how the teacher is doing. In cases where the teacher has done something incorrectly, or the parent is unhappy, the parent has the option to flag it to us, and we take corrective action.”

Que- Majority of people believe that the education system of India is not sound, so what’s your take on it and do you think that edu-tech startups will help in improving this?

Manan- “I think the education system in India, or for that matter anywhere across the world, is based on a legacy model that has been running for many decades– probably a couple of centuries now. That originated during the Industrial Revolution when there was this need to train people on a mass basis on the same set of skills. Let’s say a factory has 500 workers, and all of them need to possess the same skills. In that sense, it is undeniably like the classroom approach- which has 50-60 odd students, you teach all of them the same thing, and then you have a mass workforce with the same set of skills taught to them.”

“However, in today’s age, that model is not relevant anymore, because every student needs a different kind of development. We don’t need that kind of mass workforce anymore, mainly due to the age of technology and automation. What is required is to bring out the best potential of every student, and in that context, the current education system is not suited to do that.”

“Despite the best of intentions and efforts of teachers and school principals, and so on, the current education system is just not set up to succeed in today’s age. Now, can education startups solve this problem? Yes and no. If you solve the problem of both content and effort, you will solve the problem. A great learning system which includes effective materials and content, along with a system that ensures the effort of the learner, is vital. Of the two, I believe the second variable is much more significant, and that is what many, if not most of the startups ignore. How do you create a system at the scale that ensures that every learner is sticking to the program and the learning path that has been created? I think that is the real problem that needs to be solved today.”

Que- Usually, investors avoid niche specific startups so how you attracted all the best-known investors like Sequoia and CapitalG towards extremely niche-specific business, i.e., Mathematics taught by Homemakers at Home?

Manan- “I think once again, our core or differentiating factor or U.S.P., is not the model. It’s the fact that we do math. We have figured out one way to distribute this to the learner, which is the home-based center model. However, nothing prevents us from servicing a much larger segment of learners. We’ve already extended the program through the LEAP live online platform, for grade 7 and beyond. It is in our plans to start 11th and 12th-grade learning soon, and later maybe we can even start catering to professionals. Math is a global need, and the best thing about it is that math is roughly the same across the world. Once you’ve built out a product that works in one geography, you can take it anywhere across the world.”

“There are enough data and research that shows us that the market for math is unlimited. It is perceived to be the toughest subject there is. For every ten students who go to tuitions in India, at least 7 or 8 of them are bound to be taking math tuition – that is the kind of prevalence. No other subject even comes close. The need for math is universal. The perspective of investors has been that there’s a potential to build a global math brand. Any, one particular model does not define us as we don’t think of ourselves as a home-based center model. What we are is a math company, and we look to distribute our services by whatever means is effective for learners.”

Que- How you handle the situation when your point of view is different from your investors in the board meeting on some critical issues?

Manan- “If there is a fundamental understanding between the people who are running the team, the operational people and people who are on the board, I believe a lot of these issues are straightforward to handle if there is structural alignment in what we’re doing. There needs to be transparency in terms of what we are planning, thinking, and implementing. We make sure to present our plans properly and also the need to talk about not just the good stuff, but also the bad stuff like things that we have tried and failed at. The elements of transparency and honesty always help because, at the end of the day, the interests are aligned, and everyone wants to have a good outcome. In this way, you’re not at odds with the board. It’s only when you let small things get in the way that these things can be difficult to handle; otherwise, it is very straightforward.”

Que- Do you wanna give any advice for young entrepreneurs?

Manan- “Firstly, whatever you want to work on, it always helps to be super-passionate about what you’re doing because the journey of an entrepreneur is most likely to see ups and downs. In the initial phase, there are more downs than ups. You must have a strong mindset that no matter how many failures, the passion keeps you going. If there’s no passion, you won’t last for long. So, do not pick an idea you are not passionate about. Then, you got to figure out the right model to implement it. Once you figure out the broad area in which you want to work, the next thing to assess is the need for the product/service that you’re building & how big is the need. It is essential to validate this.”

“Another important thing is to figure out is what full path you can take to monetize your product or service. Any business starting out should plan to be sustainable. It is necessary to have a product or a service that people will buy. You have to have that kind of line sight on whether the product/service will get adopted or not and the best way to do that is not to spend too much time figuring it out. The best thing is to put together prototypes or basic versions and get feedback regularly. User feedback and validation is critical. Having the right team is super critical for what you want to achieve.”

If you want to become a CueMath teacher then click here.

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