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Career Launcher & the education biz

Prerna Raturi | November 03, 2004

Satya Narayanan, the youthful chairman of Career Launcher, discusses his experiences in building a new niche in the education business.

Career Launcher started in 1995 from a room in Satya Narayanan's house in New Delhi with an initial investment of Rs 360 on four chairs. That year he coached 78 B-school aspirants for group discussions and interviews in a classroom in Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. Thirty-eight of them made it to one IIM or the other.

And though one of his colleagues from Ranbaxy, who had tried his hand at entrepreneurship and failed, tried to dissuade him, Narayanan persisted. He had identified an opportunity and combined it with his passion for teaching. What followed was a foray into preparatory classes for the CAT (common admission test) for B-school admissions, apart from personality development programmes; acquisitions of other businesses related to education; coaching classes with technology tools such as VoIP (Voice over Internet protocol), VSAT (Very small aperture terminal) and so on.

Today, Career Launcher is a Rs 30-crore (Rs 300 million) company, has Intel Capital as a strategic investor, employs 254 people, has a presence in 35 cities across India and west Asia, and offers career-oriented training and preparatory education to over 30,000 students. Although he is still a minnow compared to, say, the big IT training institutes, his story and strategic vision hold many lessons for rising entrepreneurs.

Narayanan talks about his vision and approach to entrepreneurship.

"Ten years ago, the feeling of being recruited by Ranbaxy through campus recruitment at IIM, Bangalore, was highly satisfying. With time, things grew more glamorous. You became a manager in a highly reputed company, stayed in five-star hotels, flew in and out of cities, held power meetings and so on.

"But when it dawned on me that I am just going to do more of the same, stay in better hotels, fly longer distances, I didn't want to do it anymore. After a while, I had to push myself to do what was expected of me as a brand manager. And now, when Career Launcher is 10 years old and a Rs 30-crore company, I feel we have just begun. That's the power of chasing an idea.

"Even when Career Launcher was a Rs 52-lakh (Rs 5.2 million) company in 1996, we recruited 13 students from premier management schools. One core strategy at CL is to get the right people. Even today, one of my biggest work areas is to hire the right kind of people and people who share the same dream. Having the same goal means little policing has to be done. I strongly believe in not telling others what to do, and look for a feeling of ownership in the prospective employee. If that is lacking, I don't need that person, no matter how bright she is.

"Another thing that has worked for us is risk-taking and openness. As long as you are effective in delivering what the organisation believes in, you are allowed to take your chances and play the fool.

"But no compromises on the promise to deliver. The result: I have supremely confident people with one goal -- improving the quality of education that is being given to students. And I think that's why we don't get breathless doing so many things at the same time -- because we are in love with what we do.

"When the members of my core team joined me, they came at a substantial drop in salaries and opted out of something that would appear to people as a better deal. For instance, Shiv Kumar, director, academics, was drawing Rs 170,000 way back in 1994 and joined CL at a take-home salary of Rs 72,000. Sujit Bhattacharya, director, technology and strategic alliances, who was in the US working for Dharma Solutions and drawing Rs 45 lakh (Rs 4.5 million), agreed to work with us for Rs 600,000.

"What brought them to CL was the fact that they are all thought leaders and realised that they could justify their potential here. And not all of them had a stake in the company then.

"No matter how much employee profiles are in tune with the organisation's philosophy, you have to constantly train them. That is why we have designed Inner Circle, CL's training programme headed by Shiv Kumar and Chandra, centre head, Pune. They train our teachers in both content and class effectiveness. These are dedicated training sessions of 21 days in a resort where teachers have to take tests every day, teach their colleagues as if they were students, make small projects on a topic and so on.

"Apart from that, there is functional training; team-building capacity for someone who has been promoted as the supervisor, finance training for a non-finance employee who may have to deal with numbers now.

"Another interesting exercise we have come up as a part of HR initiatives is Namaste anna, for which I spend half hour with an employee every week. Interacting for a couple of minutes in the corridor is something else, sitting down together and talking is quite another. And we have made several changes in the organisation based on feedback from our employees.

"For instance, at the core group level we felt that we were talking too much, always planning too much. But one of my employees, during the Namaste anna session told me that we don't talk enough! He complained that he didn't know the vision of the company, the road we were taking and so on. Based on that, we worked on a monthly newsletter within the company and now I write for my employees on the Web every month.

"Another thing that CL lives for and lives by is technology. In fact, it's the technology edge that is the fundamental difference between us and any other education corporate in India, or abroad, for that matter. We have scaled up the business with less agony only because of technology. This part kicked off when Sujit joined us in 2000.

Technology at CL focuses on two points -- to improve academics and help business run efficiently.

"The first challenge was to align the business to technology. We had to drive home the point that technology has to be adhered to, which required some change management within the organisation.

"Consider this: we have 85 centres all over India and about 30,000 students. The traffic load is increasing. And there are activities from training and HR to finance happening on a daily basis. In 2001, our centres maintained a day book that had the financial transactions for a given day. Each centre head had to fax a daily report to the head office on admissions, the fees collected -- in cash, by cheques and so on. All in all, it was a cumbersome process.

"To track and control all this more efficiently, we have developed our own ERP system, which cost us 50 per cent less of what it would have if we had bought the software. Now it is the strongest bond between the head office and the centres all over the country. New admissions in Guwahati, the financial position in Dehradun, material requisition from Pune, it's all a click away.

"But smooth implementation of the system took almost a year. We had to constantly work with the centre head, counsellors, marketing people and get them used to the software.

"For employees, we have developed CLZone, a portal that tells them everything from their salary break-up, HR policies, their leave status and so on -- all confidential and online.

"On the academic front, we aim to assist the teacher teach better and work on how he can reach more people. We have two distinct platforms for this: the public Internet and the proprietary VSAT. If you look at the growth of the broadband market, it is no exaggeration to say that in a few years from now, students will be able to study at home as efficiently as they do in a classroom.

"We have also developed SIS (student information system), which is the mechanism of communicating with our students. The software assists us in informing our students all over India on anything -- from a change in class timing and new counselling sessions to results. In 2002, we delivered the mock-CAT results in just 36 hours on an all-India basis. It was a major achievement to have the system standing even after as many as 10,000 students were logged in at the same time.

"Apart from the cost cutting, yet another advantage of developing such software in-house is that those who will be using the technology were involved with it from the start.

"Sometimes, it pays to concentrate on products that are not very high-end. CL developed a career counselling service called Futuremap after we felt the need to reach out to more and more students for career counselling. But then, a psychologist can handle only so many students, remember only so many details and may even miss out on a few things.

"That is where Futuremap comes in. A student fills a form with all his details on what he likes, what he wants to do, what inspired him and so on. Similarly, parents fill up a form on their views about the child's career. This is important, because more often than not, there is a difference of opinion between parents and children when it comes to careers.

"This is followed by an aptitude and personality test. All the data is then fed into the software we have designed and the computer comes up with probable career options for the child. We charge anything from Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 for the service and have managed to work with India's top 20 schools on this. This year we plan to work with the entire chain of army schools.

"Although we don't generate much revenue from this, consider the relationship we have built with students. And once they have their career option in front of them, they can be routed to get coaching in their particular career through CL.

"Overall, I think an entrepreneur must keep asking himself two questions at all times. One, who am I and, two, why am I here in an environment that is forever changing, whether it is competition, government policies, market equations, inflation and so on.

"An entrepreneur should always remember that the environment may change but his answers to who he is and what he is doing are the deciding factors for the course he will take. That is the nucleus, the unchanging part of the entrepreneur. It's the goal that is to be remembered at all times."

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