Shreyas Kulkarni

"We never pitch to parents to pay for courses; it's about making quality education available": Karan Shroff, Unacademy

From being a marketer at Xiaomi to democratising education via technology - here's Unacademy CMO Karan Shroff's journey.

Karan Shroff was one of the few fortunate ones who watched the Dream11 Indian Premier League (IPL) final between Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals from the confines of the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. It was a rare treat because the tournament was played behind closed doors as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Shroff attended the match as he was the chief marketing officer of Unacademy, the Bengaluru-based edtech platform that was the official partner for this year’s IPL. He was elevated to the post of CMO, Unacademy, in September from his earlier position as the company’s VP, marketing.

An avid cricket fan, he remarked that the match was pretty one-sided. He wasn’t complaining, though, because Mumbai Indians, the team he supports, won the match and the tournament. Mumbai Indians had won the IPL last year and, with a total of five trophies, it is now the most successful team in the tournament’s history. Shroff also praised the organisers.

His early professional years were spent at event companies such as Bertelsmann and Wizcraft International. “For me, to witness it (IPL), and see how it was put together, reminded me of the good old days. I know it’s no small feat to pull off an event of that magnitude – the world’s largest cricketing league.”

We (afaqs!) found it interesting that Shroff was able to watch the IPL from multiple perspectives – an avid cricket fan, an event planner and, more recently, as a marketer.

His tryst with marketing began with Herbalife International India, a global nutrition, weight management and direct selling company, where he was the manager, marketing and events. But, we feel it was his next four-year gig (2015-19) at Xiaomi India, a leading electronics company, which formed the base for his marketing prowess. He was its head of brand marketing before joining Unacademy.

When asked about it, Shroff was quick to answer that learning is everywhere. "It’s up to us as to how much you want to pick up and grasp." For him, Xiaomi was “a huge learning school”, where he had a lot of faith from the leaders…

Shroff’s point about leaders caught our ear because he immediately added that Unacademy was also a great learning school. "One of the reasons I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do here is the liberty and the faith I’ve received from the leaders, like Gaurav Munjal (co-founder and CEO, Unacademy) and others. It has empowered me to try different things.”

From a global nutrition giant to a tech major to an edtech platform, Shroff has come a long way as a marketer. But he says that he is yet to figure out what kind of marketer he is. (We asked him if he followed the pathways of Steve Jobs’ pursuit of perfection or Tim Cook’s habit of reading emails at 4 a.m.)

He talked about his go-getter mindset. “… one thing that keeps me going every day when I wake up and hit work is what are the new things I am trying, what is it I’ve never done before… is that going to scare me? Am I going to be a little wary of trying it and will it perform? The intent to experiment, try new things from a marketing front keeps me going.”

Shroff also spoke about failure, how there are many things we sometimes try and they don’t see the daylight. It is not something people know about… That is something that makes him come back stronger the next day and say that now we can try it again in a different way and see if it can work. He also told us that it helps to “work with likeminded people, be it team members or the agency partners I work with...”

“For me, it’s all about trying different things, doing different things, pushing the boundaries, and that’s my poison in many ways.”

When it comes to trying something new, to convince parents (the decision-makers) to pay for an Unacademy course must have been hard because learning, even now in India, is considered only possible in classrooms… Shroff quips that the company never goes out with the pitch or intent that parents spend money. It’s always been about making quality education available.

He then goes on to draw a parallel between his campaign (Let’s Crack It!) and our question. He recalls an ad they shot in Ladakh, where the temperature was minus eight degrees.

In it, a girl gets into a car and watches an Unacademy session on her phone. “At the point (one or one-and-a-half years ago), education was never portrayed like this in India. You would expect a girl to step out, head to the classroom and study, which is the norm. But you don’t expect her to get into a car, connect to the smartphone, zone out from the world and focus on her education,” remarks Shroff.

He goes on to say that technology allows the kind of accessibility and flexibility edtech brings. That’s what Unacademy is about, with its courses in 35-plus categories and interactive live classes… “If they have the hunger to learn, we are here to teach.”

Continuing with the Let’s Crack It! campaign, we asked about the extensions such as ‘Unacademy Let’s Crack it Sixes’ and ‘Unacademy Ask The Experts’… “We knew that there was no audience at the stadium so we wanted to keep them connected, but with a learning curve,” said Shroff.

In ‘Ask The Experts’, students are allowed to have fun… Many great questions came in, like 'Should Dhoni bat earlier?', 'Should this bowler be bowling in the death overs?', 'Should RCB bat first?', and the experts enjoyed answering them.

Shroff heads marketing for an edtech platform that, because of its various test prep courses (Civil services, NEET, IIT…), attracts school students and young working professionals. “What we definitely want to do is be the brand when it comes to learning and democratise education… I think we have a lot of ground to cover. We have a great product, the students are loving it and spending a lot of time on the platform. We are making great progress…”

But for an edtech firm to make great progress, the course teachers need to be quite good. “… Educator network is closely knit and some experiences and discussions happen around where they’re teaching, what they are doing… Unacademy is popular,” explains Shroff, adding that the business team knows which educators are the rights ones for which courses and then contacts them…

“We reach out to the best… we have an educator who has written the guide for a specific category and he’s on the platform. We have an educator who is a Supreme Court lawyer. We reach out to such educators of immense value…”

While excellent faculty is necessary, we move on to ‘Legends on Unacademy’, which are one-off sessions from famous people such as Saurav Ganguly, Sudha Murthy, Harsha Bhogle and even International Monetary Fund chief economist Gita Gopinath… When asked how it helps, Shroff explained that during COVID-induced lockdown, many students would ask questions, such as “Sir, kab khatam hoga”, “Ma’am kab khatam hoga”…

“The kids wanted life to go back to normal... We wanted students to know everyone is in the same state... These students were getting inspired by the journeys of these legends and their experiences.”

And speaking about experiences, Shroff told us that one good bit that came out of the lockdown experience was that he got to spend more time with his mother and his dog during evening tea…

And while the IPL featured some fit players, Shroff said that, thanks to ‘maa ke hath ka khana’, he was eating more and now sports a paunch, “but it’s all okay.”