Devanshu: Hey, guys, my name is Devanshu; I am a co-founder at Onething Design. Onething Design is a UX, UI design studio based out of Delhi and Bangalore. We are a team of 50 plus designers, developers, and all we do is think and talk about design. We love to design great products. We love to read about design. That’s what drives us. Business and UX story is an initiative to bring leaders of tomorrow, disruptors of tomorrow, people building great products globally closer and make them more accessible to young entrepreneurs, product managers, designers, and students who want to understand the product ecosystem. Who wants to learn about products. Who wants to learn how to build great products or want to learn how to build great startups. And we thought, what better way to do this than through a podcast? And here we are with our first edition of the Business and UX Story podcast.
We’re doing this with the help of our first guest – Mr. Subbu Viswanathan, CEO, co-founder at Disprz. Subbu is an ex-McKinsey and alumnus of IT, Madras, and ISB.
There is so much more I can talk about Subbu, but rather than talking about him, I would like him to do this. I will talk about and share a story that we have with Subbu and his company.
Five years back, when we had started Onething, we were just a three-four-member team, and we were looking to work with startups and work with companies to build their products and all. We read about Subbu and Learntron. It was called Learntron back in the day.
They raised a seed round, and we read about them, and I personally messaged Subbu on LinkedIn. And I was surprised to see his message back. And we got in touch on the phone. We understood what we are doing in our own areas. We expressed an interest in working with Subbu, and he asked us, why don’t you share a proposal, and why don’t you tell me more about Onething?
We had a good discussion for a month, I guess. And then we started working with Subbu.
Subbu placed his trust in us back in the day. And, professionally, he was the first customer. And it gives me immense pride and joy to see where they are today. They have a presence globally; they’re present across 70+ countries. They serve around 250+ customers across the globe in the B2B segment.
And, without wasting any time, I would welcome Subbu to this conversation and let him talk more about the idea of Disprz. The need that he saw and the audience that he is catering to. So, Subbu over to you, my friend.
Subbu: Thank you very much for that wonderful introduction, Devanshu. I’m very, very happy to be here and look forward to chatting.
Devanshu: Great Subbu! So what do you think? How did this idea of Disprz happen to you? When did Disprz kind of seed in your mind, and then you started working on it? Where did you see the need for it, and how did you build it for your audience?
Subbu: Sure. Sure. So, this is my second startup in the field of education, learning, and broader skill-building. My real journey with the mission of helping people get better at whatever they do, which is essentially the problem that I am trying to solve, started about ten years back now; when I was at McKinsey, I was looking at entrepreneurial ideas.
I was always a startup guy, never an enterprise or a corporate guy. But having said that, I learned a lot at McKinsey, and when I had spent my three and a half years, I was looking for exciting product ideas from where I could take off and start my venture.
So, one of the ideas that struck me was can you use the tablet as a device and use that inside a classroom? The iPad one was just launched. Why can’t we bring a device for each user? This was back in 2011 when not even smartphones were popular. Why not bring a tablet to the classroom and create a next-generation collaborative experience inside the schools where everybody uses a digital device? The teacher has much richer analytics on who’s paying attention and who’s not. The note-taking experience, the whiteboard sharing experience, can be 10X of what it is today. That’s when we started working on the idea.
It was called Harness. We did that for about three or four years. Obviously we made our big mistakes, one of which was trying to sell to schools, which is incredibly hard if you want to build a B2B business, even if you have the best product. So we couldn’t scale as fast; investors loved our product, gave us awards, and recognized us as an up-and-coming startup. But they stopped short of writing that series A cheque.
So, we were angel-funded. We couldn’t scale beyond a point. Luckily, we were acquired by a UK-based private equity investor. This was in 2015, and then Kuljit, my co-founder, and I thought, what can we do next? And we thought, why not take the idea of digital learning and instead of doing it inside a classroom, inside the four walls of a classroom or university, why not take it to the workplace? Because the way people were learning in the workplace wasn’t stimulating.
They were learning inside physical classrooms without a digital aid. And again, smartphones were taking off, and enterprise apps were taking off. Why not build an enterprise SaaS company that helps learning and skill-building become more exciting and fun in the workplace? So that’s how we started Dispz in 2015. As you said, it was called Learntron back then. We decided to change it to Disprz because we didn’t want the word learning because the word ‘learning’ sometimes has negative connotations.
So we started as Learnton in 2015 and got seed funding. It became Disprz in 2017, and here we are now. It’s been a wonderful journey. We have over one million users on our platform today and are one of the largest companies in this space. This is a highly complex space to crack B2B in HR tech/learning tech. It’s tough to scale beyond a point. I think we’ve gone past that hump, and if things go well, we will scale further.
Devanshu: That’s great, Subbu. One million is a big number.
Subbu: Ya, one million users is a big number; we are quite proud of that.
Devanshu: That’s great.
Devanshu: So, you know, when you were transitioning from Learntron to the Disprz, and the offering was changing, and the customer set was changing, what were your biggest challenges when you were going out, and you know, kind of pitching it to corporates?
Did they have a product like that, were there friction in the HR teams and the skill learning teams to adapt to a new age product? What were the business challenges that you faced while selling the proposition?
Subbu: There were quite a few challenges. Firstly, you know, the workforce was getting increasingly distributed around the world and more so post COVID, that’s why we called our company Disprz because we stand for distributing or dispersing business impact to the geographically dispersed workforce, and there were quite a few challenges.
First, you know, the penetration of mobile learning back in 2015-16 wasn’t very high. The mobile apps even weren’t commonplace. I think consumer apps were taking off. They were five, six huge apps that had a lot of consumer engagement. But on the B2B side, the app ecosystem was just taking off.
Now it’s the complete opposite. You know, enterprise users are tired of apps, now they are saying, can we go back to the mobile web? But I think back in 2016-17, the enterprise app world was just taking off, number one. And secondly, there was much hesitance amongst HR heads and the learning heads on. Can mobile phones be used productively, especially when I can’t control them? The IT and the business functions are used for giving laptops out, and that’s highly controlled, especially in large enterprises and mobile phones in the mobile era. You really can’t do that.
And the third challenge we had was, is this a Learning Management System? We were not. We may have had a few Learning Management System features, but that does not make us a pure corporate Learning Management System. And that is the reason we went away from the word Learntron. Because now whenever you talk to a 45-year-old, the reason I say forty-four years old is that the LMS as a category has existed for 20 years.
If you talk to a 45-year-old corporate employee, the moment you say LMS and there, you can see a frown on their face because LMS stands for boring, compliance content that you need to take and is delivered in the worst possible format and the least engaging manner.
So, these were the three challenges. But with time, we overcame all of those. There were quite a few tailwinds that worked in our favor. We also worked hard on building a world-class product. We worked with guys like you to make our User Experience better, and our journey is never-ending.
Devanshu: That’samazing. I just hope it keeps getting better with every single passing day. I would love to see you get even more significant. I think probably by the next podcast we should do 10 million.
Subbu: I hope we can get there faster, yes.
Devanshu: Yes, so Subbu, when these companies were adapting, you knew your platform, were you defining certain metrics. Were you defining specific KPIs, or you know that you would want to target to see improvement in the platform’s adoption in platform’s usage? Would you like to throw some light on the metrics?
Subbu: Yes, sure, sure. So, the entire category of learning, corporate learning, is a low adoption category by default. That was a big challenge, and even now, it continues to be a challenge because it is very hard sometimes to prove to a customer the impact you brought to the table. Even from the investor standpoint right, you know expense management software and attendance tracking software you think is just a fairly administrative kind of software, they have a 95% adoption rate because you will have to file your attendance or file your expense.
Devanshu: That’s right.
Subbu: When it comes to learning and skilling, it is actually strategically more critical to a company. Everybody knows that. Everybody from the CEO to a fresher who has joined the company knows that they need to learn and upskill themselves and a well-skilled workforce that is ready for the future is a significant source of competitive advantage.
Everybody knows that, but despite that traction on average, I think the best-in-class learning platform companies have adopted 15 to 18% of the active user base. Now we’ve changed that. We have over a 50% adoption and our best-in-class companies. And we’ve actually launched quite a few innovations over the last 12 months. We are calling it learning-as-a-service, where we offer an ecosystem of skilled-based data, skilled-based training, skill analytics, you know, skill measurement. We’ve managed to get that up to as high as 80%, and we are doing it at scale.
We have massive companies like Mahindra Dealership, Bajaj Allianz Insurance. Some of the top insurance companies who have users above 5000 and 10000 users, who are now driving adoption at the scale of 80-85% active users monthly, and that’s something we are quite proud of, and that’s something we are trying to scale across every customer of ours globally.
Devanshu: That’s great. I mean, we are actually setting up industry benchmarks, I mean creating the metrics and taking them three times ahead of the usual metrics that we see in these platforms; that is tremendous. I mean, I am sure you are doing great stuff out there.
Subbu: Yes, we are. We are on the scope to do more, I believe. I do think that there is scope to do more, and once we track the adoption problem, the next will be to crack the time spent learning problem. That’s also going up, but we want that to be at least one hour a week. We want people on our platform. In general, people in the workplace are spending an hour investing in themselves and becoming a better version of themselves, which happens only through learning and upskilling.
Devanshu: That is great. I am sure that people can spend that kind of time learning and improving themselves and I think it is very important for companies to invest in such platforms that can make their people, their team achieve such self-learning feet for themselves.
Subbu: Yes, it is much better than spending an hour on Facebook at least
Devanshu: Exactly right, I mean, and everybody has that kind of time. I mean, if you see somebody’s screen time on the phone or their systems, it is easily one or two hours a day on social media networks.
Devanshu: So I think, definitely, you can penetrate, and you can actually use that time into upskilling yourselves. That’s great!
Subbu: That’s right.
Devanshu: Right. So, Subbu, I remember five years back when this segment was growing not many startups, not many products wanted to take a design-first approach, but I remember you were one of the few startups who wanted to explore the design-first approach, and everybody, especially enterprise businesses, they always wanted to kind of not invest in product designer a lot.
But I remember the conversation that I had with you back in the day when you mentioned that Devanshu, the way we want to approach this product is, think about design. So, what made you do that. You know what made you go away from ordinary thinking and invest in product design back in the day.
Subbu: Ya, I am a big believer in User Experience, and I am a big believer in User Experience adding value to a product-based company; and from our perspective, you can take up UX design in-house, or you can outsource. If you look at our company, a lot of us have an engineering-first mindset, including myself. I am very good at envisioning new product ideas and bringing them to a level of sound design at a wireframe level but translate that into a User Experience that users can go through. I think that requires expertise where UX designers and firms like you can come in, and so I have always thought it had strategic importance, and as an early-stage company, you might not have a UX designer in-house and back in the day. I guess only now you are starting to get a steady stream of UX designers on the market. Back in the day, firms like you were a very healthy and a very viable alternative. So it was actually not a very difficult decision.
Devanshu: Right, right, no, I am glad we crossed paths, and you know we are where we are today, and the industry is definitely growing, you know both in terms of product and that product started adapting the design approach. Design is the first approach to kind of build products. So that’s great.
So, Subbu, would you be able to share some outcomes, some case studies, or some instances where you thought design made a difference probably while you were pitching that product to a customer or, you know, showcasing it to the internal team. Do you have such instances that you could share?
Subbu: Ya absolutely, I can also relate it to the work we had done with Onething.
Subbu: So, when you show a product that is not made yet, I believe that the best entrepreneurs create a minimum viable product.
Subbu: Before they built the bigger version and somebody in the US actually in one of those startup sessions told me that the best minimum viable product is actually a PowerPoint presentation because that’s when you actually built nothing but built enough to make a sale.
Subbu: I think the next best thing to a PowerPoint presentation is a UX mockup.
Devanshu: I agree
Subbu: Because that’s when it really starts coming to life, I still remember the first time when we were making a big leap to a learning platform. It’s now a category called Learning Experience Platform where actually as an enterprise user in line with your skills, artificial intelligence, and data analytics powers what you should learn next, and it helps you discover from an array of courses on portals like Edx and Coursera but the discovery and the recommendations happen inside the learning platform. It is called an LXP. It is a new category now. It is over a billion dollars, and that’s one of the categories in which we compete.
When we built the first version of our LXP, it was a huge consumer internet major called Naspers. They still are our clients and our investors. They are now called Prosus, and they invest in all the top consumer internal brands of the world. They were early investors in Flipkart. In India, they are investors in Swiggy, Byjus, Makemytrip then if you look at the number one e-commerce company in South Africa. Number one e-commerce company in Western Europe. All the emerging market companies. Every e-commerce company or every classified’s company; they would have been an investor.
So when we pitched to them, the idea of an LXP hadn’t really taken off. We went beyond the PowerPoint presentation. We got the PowerPoint presentation to make the sale, but when we delivered the first MVP. The first MVP before the MVP was actually a UX design, and in fact, Onething helped us build that.
So, we built a click-through design of how the actual user flow will be. How will you discover skills, how will you rate yourself on skills, and how will you discover courses. And that had a huge impact. It’s tough to get that impact on a PowerPoint presentation. The best thing is to build the product, but the next best thing is to create a well-designed UX walk-through.
Devanshu: That’s great, I mean. That gives us confidence that you know whatever we did with you created that impact that you needed.
Subbu: Yes, absolutely.
Devanshu: Amazing Subbu! So, Subbu, in the last one year things have changed a lot. Pandemic has hit us, and things have completely shifted, the way we interact with products, the way we interact with the digital world. What was the impact that you saw on other platforms? Was it positive? Was it negative? If it was negative, how did you take care of it? What lies next for you? Considering that we will stay in a pandemic state for probably another year or so, I hope we don’t but looking at the numbers rising and all that you never know, how things shape up. So what do you think about this?
Subbu: So, we were very fortunate that we were in a space where the pandemic gave us tailwinds. Because we are a digital learning company, we are in a way part of the future of work vision right where everything happens remotely, and users in the workplace learn on their mobile phones.
It helped us as far as the vaccine was concerned, so between April and June of last year, we saw 2X to 3X usage on our platform during the peak of the pandemic. I am talking around the world. Like I said, we had at that time around 750K users.
So, we had more active users. People were spending double or triple of their time on the platform, and the good news is that it was not a temporary spike. It settled at a new normal, or should I say an evolving normal.
From July, at about 1.5X of what it was before the pandemic. So, clearly, there were behaviors that were sticky. The digital-first behaviors, and the behavior to learn, find content that can upscale you on your mobile phone. That stuck. So, we were very fortunate. It really benefited us. In general, broadly, the business world at large. The awareness for digital learning was no longer a vitamin. It was actually a pain killer. That shift is happening now as we speak.
Devanshu: Interesting. Interesting. No, I think digital platforms have definitely gained from this, and I would say more than gain I mean, people have understood the value of keeping digital-first and not as one of the business verticals. Digital has definitely pushed in as “the vertical” for a company to grow, and I think this will only get stronger from here for companies like you.
Subbu: Exactly, and that’s what Disprz stands for as a company.
Devanshu: Right, right.
Subbu: We help companies prepare themselves and build the skills for a digital-first world.
Devanshu: Correct. Correct, I agree. So you know when you say digital-first, where do you see your users coming from, do you see them more on mobile, or is it web, you know, considering you are a platform that makes through a B2B segment?
Subbu: So, at an overall level of about 70 – 75 percent of our usage comes from the app. Another 25 percent comes from the web. It also kind of mirrors the kind of users we have. So, we think about our users as belonging to two kinds: one is what we call a frontline worker, somebody like an Amazon delivery associate, who is always on the move who uses a mobile phone. Every delivery associate of Amazon uses Disprz for their daily learning and upskilling. We are incredibly proud of that. That is one use case.
Then the second use case is a knowledge worker, people like you and me who work on a laptop. We use the mobile phone, but our laptop is our primary device, and there you have a sort of a dual-use case. The usage on the web is about 80%, and usage on the app is the remaining 20%. But because the frontline workers outnumber the knowledge worker quite substantially, especially in emerging markets like India and South East Asia, we see our app usage being higher than the web usage.
Devanshu: Understood. Understood. No, I think the Amazon delivery guy is on Disprz. I believe you have penetrated almost every consumer segment on the B2B side of things. That is a great user to have on board. I mean, these are users in volume, they need upskilling, I think probably throughout their journey in their job profile, and they are the ones who are actually getting benefited from an app like this or a platform like this. That’s great, Subbu.
Subbu: Not only does it help Amazon deliver significant business impact in terms of improving quality of delivery, in terms of driving intelligence skill-building in line with whenever business metrics drop. There is a significantly softer and impact side to it. If we can help 100 delivery associates right achieve career progression. I think that’s incredibly impactful and incredibly purposeful for us as a company, so we are a skills and career acceleration suite for enterprises, and you know one of our investors is an impact investor. They look at financial returns and look at what social impact you are making, and we are lucky to be in a space that checks both boxes.
Devanshu: That’s amazing. If creating a social impact through a product, I think that’s a great vision to have. Great Subbu.
Subbu every entrepreneur goes through, you know obviously, we have spoken about the business side of things. Every entrepreneur goes through very emotional turmoil as well. Especially in stages when you are scaling, you are raising funds when you are completely absorbed by what you are creating. Why don’t you walk us through what you faced? How were you emotionally invested in this company?
Subbu: So it’s your baby, right? I think of my startup as my first baby, and I am lucky to have a life partner who also believes that way. So, there is no escape. If you are at McKinsey and you have a difficult client, if you have a problematic study, you’ll know this is going to end. The work-life at McKinsey can get demanding at times because you are with hyper achievers in a fast-paced environment.
But you do know there is an end date. Here it’s your baby, the question of giving up doesn’t exist, at least for me and Kuljit, my co-founder. It just cannot fail. You face setbacks daily. You just wake up the next day, dust yourself off, and start running. I called entrepreneurship a sprint marathon. It is a long-term thing, so it is probably a sprint ultra marathon. So, it will take a long time, and you also cannot run it at the speed of a marathon. You have to run it at the speed of a sprint because that is the kind of growth that investors expect. That’s the kind of growth that even your customers expect from your product.
Devanshu: True! I think you need to be vested in, and you have to keep various stakeholders when you are building it. Be it your team, be it your customers, be it your investors, and it is definitely an ultra-marathon, but you have to run it at a pace of a sprint, and that also continuously, and I am completely on the same page.
I think the words you are using resonate in my mind when I keep thinking, every day, I wake up, and I am like the challenges I need to work on today. And it is a great feeling actually when you tick that off ok this is achieved, it is a great feeling.
Subbu: Yes! You know I used to joke that if you have one crisis in a day, I think you had a normal day.
Devanshu: Yes, I agree. I completely buy that, and if you don’t have a crisis, you haven’t done something that day.
Subbu: That’s right.
Devanshu: So I am absolutely with you on this one, Subbu. So, Subbu, I want to tell our audience about the big win on the Atmanirbhar app innovation challenge. Tell us more about it, what was the challenge all about, what kinds of companies participated, and how did you feel winning this that made you a flag bearer of the Indian startup ecosystem around the world and I am sure it is an outstanding achievement and a great milestone to have as part of your batch.
Subbu: Ya sure! It was one of the highlights of my life at Disprz. Not just mine, but of my colleagues as well. So, the Aatmanirbhar app challenge was a challenge for innovation in apps and the digital world announced by the Ministry of Information Technology as part of the Government’s Aatmanirbhar initiative.
So, there were ten categories from learning to health care to gaming to social, and we were the winner of the category of learning. So, over 1000 apps that participated only in the learning category and learning are an extensive category. It includes B2B, B2C, different kinds of technology applied and we won it.
So, it came first over the thousands. So it was a fairly long process. Thousand of startups applied, and it was shortlisted to 10. Then we presented to a jury and considered what we had achieved and our platform represented in terms of skill-building.
The companies could do everything from using Big data and AI to find out what skills are required to be built for the future, assessing the staff on their skills, building those skills, and finally measuring the business impact. We had the entire skilling stack. The jury was blown away by what we had built, and as a company, I have to admit that we aren’t great in PR. Both Kuljit and I like to sit and deliver humbly. So, this was one huge digital PR exercise for us, and a lot of the jury didn’t even know we existed and had such substantial revenue. So, it ended very well. As soon as we presented, I had a feeling that this is going to end well, and definitely, it ended well. The type of PR mileage it gave and the type of euphoria our team had, remember it was a completely remote environment. We hadn’t seen each other in five or six months, and when we were watching the final announcement, I was on Webex, and it was telecast on YouTube, and because the official Government video conferencing solution was Webex, it was the live telecast on YouTube, and I had my other team on Zoom, and I could share my screen it resonates in my head today. It was a euphoric moment for us at Disprz. It will always stay with us till we breathe our last.
Devanshu: Oh! That is a big statement to make Subbu. I think I know the feeling and the kind of scale you have achieved and the recognition you’ve got to this. I saw the videos and all, and I think it is tremendous. Congratulations once again on the award to you and the team.
Subbu: Thank You, Devanshu. Thank you very much.
Devanshu: So, Subbu, what next for Disprz. How do you see the next 3-5 years shaping up for you.
Subbu: So we are launching the next generation of products around skills and data-led learning and skill-building. It’s already got fantastic traction in the market. So for us, it would mean going deep, going Global actually from day one Kuljit, and my vision was not to be an Indian company but was to make in India for the world.
The word “Aatmanirbhar” didn’t exist then, but our internal ambitions and goals were from day one. So right now, less than half of our revenue comes from India, the remaining comes from South East Asia, Middle East, a little bit in the US. We just entered the Australian market. So for us, the next big stage is to become the preeminent company in the digital learning space in South East Asia across emerging Asia. And make our baby steps in at least one or two developing markets like Australia or the US. So that’s what is up for us in the next three years.
Devanshu: That’s great. When an Indian company is going global, it is an excellent feeling to anybody sitting here in India, anybody who is part of the product ecosystem, anybody who is part of the startup ecosystem.
Good luck with that Subbu. I hope you can achieve this. You and Kuljit are great entrepreneurs. You have shown through these years what an Indian company can achieve if they have the vision. So, Subbu, I will jump on to the last section here.
What few words would you like to share with our listeners, with our audience in terms of whether they are building products or are part of the startup ecosystem. A few good words for them would really help, what do you think?
Subbu: Sure! There are a hundred things I can say, but since this is about UX and design thinking. I’d say, bring design thinking and UX-based thinking early into the product and get an expert to do it.
Let the person who has conceived the product not do it because you will only see it from your lens, from your little cocoon, but the actual user sees it quite differently, and UX designers can help you show that mirror. So, bring UX design early in the process. I don’t think it is a luxury for a large company with many products. Bring in UX thinking from your MVP would be my very practical advice regarding Design and UX.
Devanshu: That’s great, Subbu. I think being practical is how you defeat the everyday battle. Losing is fine, but ultimately you have to win right. I believe UX does help in winning. So, Subbu, I would really thank you for spending this time with us. For being part of this Podcast, we should make sure that we can take this thought of yours, this learning of yours, to your audience. As I always say to my team, the knowledge you gain from experience is the best knowledge you can ever attain. So, experience always matters, and we’ve always believed in it. That’s what the business and UX story is all about. And I would like to thank you once again for being part of it, and I will connect with you very soon whenever you know we can meet in person or travel to each other’s place or business. Thank You so much, Subbu.
Subbu: Absolutely, thank you very much, Devanshu. It’s been a pleasure, and wishing you all the success. You are solving a significant problem and a critical need. My best wishes to you and Onething to succeed.
Devanshu: Thank you so much, Subbu.
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