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Do you too struggle with maths or hate it? This startup wants to fix that

School kids struggling with maths is a global problem. Some memorise without understanding, some never understand the concepts, and some are just not interested. Now online education startup Cuemath wants to fix this issue from the ground up. Will it work? Founder and CEO Manan Khurma speaks to Moneycontrol about the oppourtnity, growth and more.

Mumbai / June 07, 2021 / 07:10 AM IST
Manan Khurma started Cuemath in 2013.

Manan Khurma started Cuemath in 2013.

After-school maths and coding firm Cuemath was started in 2013 by Manan Khurma, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi graduate. His interest in mathematics led him to teach after college. Before Cuemath, Khurma founded Locus Education, a JEE test preparation venture in New Delhi which operated from January 2007 to December 2010.

In December 2020, Cuemath raised $40 million in funding led by LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alpha Wave Incubation, valued at $170 million. The number doesn’t strike as significant at a time when online education has seen multiple billion-dollar firms increasing their valuation in record time. But Cuemath is trying to address the critical issue, perhaps one of the biggest in education -- of dealing with and understanding maths. Khurma speaks to Moneycontrol about addressing this issue, the company’s growth, overseas expansion and more.

Why did you start Cuemath?

I started Cuemath in 2013, and before that, I used to teach maths to high schoolers who were preparing for competitive exams like JEE. I realised that by the time the kids reach their senior grades, it is too late to have any fundamental impact on their learning outcome. I realised that you need to start much earlier for something like maths, so that was the genesis for Cuemath. Let's build a maths program with kids right from kindergarten onward and build a solid foundation for the kid. Today our program teaches you right from kindergarten all the way to grade 12. So the genesis was born out of my own experience; teaching all these students and releasing that foundation building is more important than test prep at the later stage.

What you say is interesting because I'm not great at maths myself. 

I tell individuals that it isn't their fault. There are 2-3 points in a student's journey when they get averse to the subject or start hating it. For example, when you go from grade two to grade three, a lot of new concepts come in, or when you go from grade five to grade six, algebra comes in for the first time and grade eight to nine is another transition- maybe you started hating maths at one of those transition points.

How did you know that maths is something you wanted to build a career in, and what piqued your interest in numbers and coding?

My introduction to maths was different from how kids typically learn in school. My interest was partly driven by my parents, who were both university professors. They would bring these excellent books home, where I would read about very different ways to think about maths concepts. So that built my excitement, and I felt that it is very, very easy to master it if done the right way.

Most kids struggle with permutation and combination. But if taught the right way, they can master it. Maths is such a fundamental and vital skill to know today- and not about the most valuable jobs like data science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Machine Learning (ML) which have maths at its core. If you want to do well in daily life, you have to be confident in maths to know basic concepts. It is becoming so important that we think of maths as a life skill, not just a subject.

How much have you grown since the pandemic?

COVID accelerated our growth dramatically. While I cannot get into specific revenue numbers, we did grow 3x over our previous fiscal's revenue. We expect to grow the same 3x during this fiscal year, so we have seen this tremendous growth during COVID, not just because all the kids went online. Our product has found attraction in the international market- like the US has become an enormous market for us, more than 50 percent of our revenue comes from outside India. Our ambition now is evident we want to win the global maths market. It is a very deep market, and we have the right kind of platform we have the suitable teacher base to be able to do that, so today we are present in more than 20 countries around the world, and within this year, we plan to be present in 50 countries.

Other than the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Dubai, Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and Singapore, are there other countries you are targeting to expand into?

We already have a solid presence in North America and Canada, and we have an upcoming presence in some European countries like Germany and Holland. We also have a strong presence in Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. Even the Middle East is a large market. In the last few months, it has grown quite a lot for us, and we will be going more profound in the Middle East market. Every student in the world falls into our target market because maths is a universal need and maths is also common worldwide. Whatever kids in the US do, kids in India will do the same concepts. The school curriculum on maths is roughly the same worldwide, allowing us to take the same product, make minor tweaks and take it around the world.

Is it true that maths in India is more advanced or more complex than that in western countries? 

Instead of complex, I would say that the approach of the curriculum is different. For example, if you look at the Singapore school curriculum, they have another way of covering maths concepts. The Indian curriculum has been a lot more abstract and focused on covering many topics more abstractly. It's not really that concepts are different like linear equations are the same in India and Singapore. But the focus may be different- like, in Singapore, it may be more applied. It is a different kind of practice in India, with varying types of testing that you will have to do. The US is very different; their core focuses on many applications, less abstract drill-based practice. We have always focused on a blend of application and practice; our curriculum has worked well in all countries. We tweak our curriculum to suit each country, but there is a common core. We do maths very visually, and that works everywhere.

What sets your company apart from other companies in your market like WhiteHat Jr or Toppr, or Unacademy, among others?

One is our razor-sharp focus on maths. We want to build the world's largest defining maths brand and win the global market. We are very clear about that, and hence we are not just focused on the Indian market. For companies like Unacademy or Toppr, they have been more focused on the Indian market. WhiteHat has gone out of the country, but they are doing much other stuff like coding and English; they are trying to create an umbrella of sorts. Our focus is very clear we want to be the maths brand of the world; because we are not building ten different products, our product becomes 10x better than everything else out there because we have an expert team that is focused on perfecting this one product. Maths is a universal need; it's not going anywhere, it's one thing that every kid around the world has to do, so it's not a niche market. It is the most significant component in the after-school ecosystem. Being focused on math with a visual curriculum sets us apart from everyone out there.

Don't kids get confused between what they learn in school and what their teachers teach? 

There is a possibility that the kids will get confused because they are learning everything to be memorised. Let's say your teacher teaches you a sure way to add fractions in school and your tuition teacher teaches you another way to do the same, but you don't get the reason for the underlying approach, so that you will get confused with two different methods. If you understand the underlying logic, for example, half plus one by four, why is it three by four and not something else? If you understand that visually, you will see both approaches as two ways of doing the same thing, and then you won't get confused.

Our goal is to give the kid that firm grounding, understanding, and reasoning instead of having them memorise a factor or a formula. I'll give you an example; let's say one by two is half, or 0.5 or 50 percent, one is a fraction, one is a decimal, and one is a percentage. They are the same quantity, but most grade six kids will not connect because they will learn fractions, decimals, and percentages in different chapters. So for them, these are three other things to be done, but a Cuemath kid will say all these are the same; these are the equivalent representation of the same quantity; hence they will find all three topics very easy. So that is our difference; we focus on the underlying logic, so the kids learn everything visually, making it very easy and fun for the kids.

What's your next phase of growth? 

Coding is an extension of maths. We do coding because we don't want students to get some superficial exposure and then forget about it; we want them to build a deep mastery of computational thinking. Coding projects also have math embedded because we think of coding as an extension of mathematical thinking. Similarly, we want to do data science for kids, so we want to build a platform that teaches kids skills with math at their core. On the expansion front, we want to go from 20 to 50 countries and want to go deeper into the existing markets that we are already operating in; outside India, the US and the Middle East are becoming our biggest markets. We want to build a more substantial brand reach in these geographies.

What challenges does Cuemath face today, given the current online-only environment?  

The pandemic has disrupted the education industry, with ed-tech players witnessing the transition as well. We had planned to move from physical classes to online classes in 2018, so the process during the pandemic was seamless. However, we have not faced a challenge as our classes continue to be live, i.e., there is a 1:1 teacher-student interaction instead of a pre-recorded level. This way, we ensure that we understand the child's progress and, in the process, adapt the curriculum to their learning pace. The Cuemath platform AI has been designed this way, which benefits the child.

This teaching methodology has seen our product grow from strength to strength.

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Payaswini Ranganath
first published: Jun 7, 2021 07:10 am