In Conversation with Diwakar Chittora, Founder and CEO, Intellipaat.com
Tell us about your professional journey so far? What was the original source of inspiration for you to start Intellipaat?
I started Intellipaat with Shilpi Jain, my partner, in 2011. It all began from a small room in the family house with Rs 50,000 of our own money. A month later, we were approached by Ericsson. They became our first client. Since then it’s been a whirlwind 4 years. We now are a 30 employee, 40+ clients, 70 courses e-Learning company in one of the most niche areas within the IT sector. We were the first to launch online Hadoop training in the country that created so much buzz that we are still reaping benefits. We train top Indian MNCs in Big Data and Analytics and our two lac individual learners come from US, UK, Asia, Africa and Australia.
It all began in July 2011. I was a technology manager at Wipro and Shilpi was working as an architect at IBM. We were looking to upgrade our skills on Big Data and Hadoop. We went shopping for the courses but came up with a blank. Most online courses were offered at unaffordable prices with little practical experience and zero post-course support. We tried looking for a working consultant to train us. That didn’t help either. Then it hit us, if we were struggling for quality training, there must be many like us looking for affordable quality training. Setting up an e-Learning company for these niche technologies became a no brainer at that point. And that’s exactly what we did. We quit our jobs, packed our bags and hunkered down to create courses targeted at IT professionals looking to expand their horizons and upgrade skills.
So I would say, the lacuna that existed in the market was our source of inspiration for Intellipaat. The fact that both Shilpi and I were already exploring ways to give back to society buttressed our decision to set up a learning company.
What kind of customers do you target? Are there any certain types of learners who are “unsuitable” for e-Learning?
There are two clear categories of customers we target. First,professionals working in the IT sector who want to upgrade and diversify skills. They are in a job, can’t afford to take a career break but want to remain up to speed with rapid technology development. Within this category are two groups. Individual learners who approach us independently, or corporates and companies who want to bridge skill gaps in their work force. I have personally trained almost 30 corporates and 500 professionals from Wipro, Cisco, Sapient, etc. This includes many industry owners, CEOs, and people in senior management positions. Our learners range from age group 20 to 40.
The second target category is a fresh graduate. With IT basics in place, they are eager to reach the job market with an edge over others. The hands on experience and industry exposure we provide help them enter the market with a very high employ-ability quotient. We have had students from several US universities.
Since our current focus is on technology courses like Big Data, Business intelligence, Cloud computing and programming, we seek students with a basic knowledge of IT. Other than this basic requisite, I don’t think there are any students ‘unsuitable’ for e-Learning as long as basic computer literacy is there. In fact, students ‘unsuitable’ for traditional educational learning flock to e-Learning as it offers flexibility of location, timing and pace. Whether one likes an organic learning style or prefers a structured timetable, e-Learning offers a solution. Only criterion being that the student has to be motivated to stick with it. A student who cannot stick to a course and meet targets is not suitable for any kind of learning, whether online or in a classroom.
How does Intellipaat differentiate itself in the e-Learning market? Is there an exclusive benefit your software gives to your customers?
We all know that the biggest criticism of e-Learning has been the high dropout rate of enrolled students because the promised feedback system doesn’t deliver. People wait weeks before their problems are addressed. Many times the help doesn’t come through at all. And as for post course-support, it is dismally low and mostly absent. When Shilpi and I started, we were crystal clear that this is not how we want to run our company. The whole idea was to expedite learning for course takers. Hence we decided to place a very high premium on student-expert engagement. That still is our highest priority. Our pool of more than hundred trainers respond to queries from students across the globe promptly.
Besides this, our learners have the exclusive benefit of lifetime access to learning material. Even after you have completed a course, you can come to us for help. Our relationship does not end with the end of the course duration. I think this is the reason students stick with us and keep taking more and more courses. Also, all our courses contain 70% hands on exercises with project work. Our 24*7 help plays a critical role too. Our affordable pricing is also a huge draw. I think it is the combination of pricing, quality, constant engagement and lifetime support – all available in one place which makes us unique in the e-Learning market and has been responsible for how well we have done in the last few years.
In the future, do you believe that traditional learning will be totally replaced by e-Learning? What are the future challenges in the area of e-Learning?
No, e-Learning will never ‘totally’ replace traditional learning. The biggest roadblock at this point in time is limited penetration of internet services and accessibility to tools required for a successful e-Learning program. Vast swathes of our county and the world remain unconnected. So I don’t see e-Learning taking over till we bridge this gap.
Secondly, there will always be some areas of learning that will be best delivered through traditional education system. Early learning for example. Kids benefit most with constant interaction. Certain areas that require physical participation with a group like sports will stick with traditional approaches. What I foresee is a future where traditional learning will work in tandem with e-Learning. Various permutations and combinations of both will offer learners an opportunity to exercise choice in their method of instruction.
Having said that, there has been a big shift in the way people take e-Learning courses now as compared to traditional class room training delivery methods. And being a very young system, e-Learning is going through a period of constant evolution. The biggest challenges will be to maintain a high quality of engagement with students to fix their problem as soon as they face them.
Was there anyone/anything who inspired you to manage Intellipaat the way you do, and to define the culture it has?
The gap that exists in technology education market has been my biggest inspiration. We live in a country with tremendous talent but limited financial means. Why should only people in the metros and big cities have access to quality education? What about the guy or girl belonging to a small town in UP or Rajasthan or Andhra? Making cutting edge technology accessible to someone sitting in the smallest town, in India or Africa, makes me want to get to work every morning.
Apart from that, pioneers like Steve Jobs, Narayan Murthy, Jeff Bezos – all entrepreneurs who came out of nowhere to take advantage of the technology revolution and changed the face of world economy are a constant source of inspiration to me.
As far as work culture is concerned, I have been very impressed with the way TATAs conduct their business and treats it workforce. Despite tremendous diversification, which in itself is an inspiration, the uniformity of work culture is great. I like how they encourage employees to take ownership of the projects. That is a culture we foster at Intellipaat. We are a small but highly motivated team working hard to achieve our shared goals. The culture is very open. We have open houses where employees share their ideas and concerns. Anyone with any problem, no matter how small, can speak directly to senior management.
What are some of the key milestones for the next 6-12 months that need to be achieved?
We see ourselves as the one-stop solution for all training needs for IT professionals and increase our student base four fold. We are expanding our course catalog to +150 courses in the next 6 months and soon our total strength will reach to +45 in the next 2 months. We are close to being physically present in the US and also planning to diversify beyond the IT segment.
What has been your single biggest challenge in sourcing and retaining talent? What are the key qualities you look out for in a potential hire?
I can dream, but to make others dream the same thing is not easy. Convincing industry experts that my idea is a winner in the long run has been the single biggest challenge. Because we target people with extensive experience, getting them on board takes time and skill. We are on a constant lookout for people with knowledge and a passion for passing it on. One can be an expert but a bad teacher. So that zest for sharing with others what you know is critical. We need hires that are willing to stick with us long-term and not be in a blinding hurry to make quick bucks because often rewards come in only after you have put in the hard work.
- How have your educational experiences contributed to your success in this field?
I did M.Tech from IIIT-Bangalore, which was a very dynamic environment. That experience helps me even today to handle the work pressure and technical glitches.
- What is most rewarding thing about running your own enterprise?
You are your own boss, free to implement what you like. It gives you an opportunity to actualize what you envision. But with this freedom comes bigger responsibilities because the buck stops at your table. You are responsible for everything.
- What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made during this startup journey?
The biggest was not hiring the right people in the early phase. This slowed down growth and delayed success. But in the journey of start-ups, it is the mistakes that become your biggest teachers.
- A piece of advice for someone starting their own company
Believe in yourself. Start-ups are a wild roller coaster ride and you have to be ready for the ups and downs, the successes and the failures. There will be hard times but one should never forget that hard work always pays off in the end.
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