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BIGGER AND BETTER

How India’s Byju’s acquired its way to the top of the global ed-tech game

A student makes notes as he attends an online class at his home after Gujarat government ordered the closure of schools and colleges across the state amid coronavirus disease (COVID-19) fears, in Ahmedabad
Reuters/Amit Dave
A wider online education net.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published

An Indian ed-tech unicorn has become the world’s largest company in the sector during the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting an aggressive acquisition strategy.

Byju’s, one of India’s largest tech unicorns with a valuation of $16.5 billion, has in the last year made a slew of buyouts that have helped it strengthen its core offerings as well as enter allied segments.

These acquisitions range from Bengaluru-based augmented reality startup Whodat to Singapore-headquartered upskilling platform Great Learning to US-based digital reading platform Epic.

Since its inception in 2011, Byju’s has spent over $2.6 billion on acquisitions, data from Tracxn show. The majority of these deals—especially the big-ticket ones—happened after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave a massive push to online education.

Byju’s now has over 100 million students learning from the app, 6.5 million annual paid subscribers, and a renewal rate of 86% per year.

“Byju’s seems to be pursuing an inorganic growth strategy keeping an eye on attractive M&A targets, which it see as a strategic fit for its business expansion plans,” Aurojyoti Bose, lead analyst at GlobalData, told Quartz. “Its acquisition strategy seems to be around remaining competitive, foraying into complementary segments, create better learning products and business expansion. Byju’s has been looking for expansion in India as well as international markets.”

Byju’s ed-tech universe

Acquisitions like the $300-million WhiteHat Jr deal in August 2020 and the $150 million Toppr deal in July 2021 are right up Byju’s alley, serving the exact market the company was already targetting. But Byju’s hasn’t stopped at its core business. This year, it’s cast its net wider when it acquired a three-decade-old brick-and-mortar tuition centre chain Aakash Educational Services Limited (AESL) in January 2021. The two companies together plan to work on pandemic.

In July 2021, Byju’s forayed into professional and higher education segments with its $600 million acquisition of Singapore-headquartered Great Learning, moving beyond school kids and test prep.

In addition to diversifying segments, the acquisitions have also been stepping stones to furthering tech innovation.

Its 2019 acquisition of Palo Alto-based educational games maker Osmo—its first in the US—bolstered Byju’s computer vision technology capabilities, which has helped the company create a more hands-on learning experience on its platform.

Another reason to buy companies abroad is to grow the footprint in foreign markets.

The $500-million acquisition of California-based digital reading platform for kids Epicin in July will bolster Byju’s teacher and user base. Epic gives the behemoth access to more than two million teachers and 50 million kids globally.

The company did not respond to Quartz’s request for comment but speaking of this year’s back-to-back deals, Anita Kishore, Byju’s chief strategy officer, has said, “None of these companies were actually looking at selling. Most of the founders wanted to continue to build. We see these acquisitions more as partnerships or integration.”

In keeping with this vision, Byju’s has frequently allowed the founders of the acquired firms to continue running the businesses independently.

Great Learning retained its founders Mohan Lakhamraju, Hari Nair, and Arjun Nair, while Epic CEO Suren Markosian and co-founder Kevin Donahue are also continuing in their roles. WhiteHat Jr was also helmed by founder-CEO Karan Bajaj after the acquisition until he quit in early August. Trupti Mukker, who previously oversaw the customer experience at WhiteHat Jr, has stepped in to fill Bajaj’s post.

The idea is to let the experts do what they’re best at. “We were very clear in our minds that we can’t build everything. And we shouldn’t,” Kishore told Forbes India.

The payoff from these buyouts is yet to bear fruit, of course. It’s too soon to tell how this inorganic growth strategy will pan out for Byju’s. But more acquisitions are definitely on the cards. Kishore has said Byju’s is still “barely scratching the surface.” And experts agree.

More big acquisitions in Byju’s future

Byju’s M&A strategy was more towards making multiple smaller acquisitions earlier but there appears to be a shift in its focus in 2021 as it has already made some big bets this year, according to data analytics and consulting company GlobalData’s research.

“It becomes imperative for Byju’s to pursue inorganic growth strategy to remain competitive as its peers such as Unacademy and Vedantu are also pursuing M&A vying for a bigger slice of the market,” said GlobalData’s Bose. Vedantu acquired personalised learning platform Pedagogy and doubt-solving app InstaSolv this year. Unacademy has bought out nine companies, mostly in the ed-tech space, to date.

What works in Byju’s favour is that it has a solid safety net to continue making big bets. The firm is backed by several marquee global investors like Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital India, Silver Lake, BlackRock, Tiger Global, Tencent, Qatar Investment Authority, and more.

“With access to funding from several houses, including sovereign funds, Byju’s is positioning itself as the dominant company in the education space,” said Anand S, vice president of the TechVision category at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “They are aggressive in their strategy of not allowing any competition to stifle their growth.”

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