Pakistan edtech startup Maqsad gets $2.1M pre-seed to make education more accessible

Taha Ahmed and Rooshan Aziz left their jobs in strategy consulting and investment banking in London earlier this year in order to found a mobile-only education platform startup, Maqsad, in Pakistan, with a goal “to make education more accessible to 100 million Pakistani students.”

Having grown up in Karachi, childhood friends Ahmed and Aziz are aware of the challenges about the Pakistani education system, which is notably worse for those not living in large urban areas (the nation’s student-teacher ratio is 44:1). Pakistani children are less likely to go to school for each kilometer of distance between school and their home — with girls being four times affected, Maqsad co-founder Aziz said.

Maqsad announced today its $2.1 million pre-seed round to enhance its content platform growth and invest in R&D.

The pre-seed round, which was completed in just three weeks via virtual meetings, was led by Indus Valley Capital, with participation from Alter Global, Fatima Gobi Ventures and several angel investors from Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe.

Maqsad will use the proceeds for developing in-house content, such as production studio, academics and animators, as well as bolstering R&D and engineering, Aziz told TechCrunch. The company will focus on the K-12 education in Pakistan, including 11th and 12th grade math, with plans to expand into other STEM subjects for the next one-two years, Aziz said.

Maqsad’s platform, which provides a one-stop shop for after-school academic content in a mix of English and Urdu, will be supplemented by quizzes and other gamified features that will come together to offer a personalized education to individuals. Its platform features include adaptive testing that alter a question’s level of difficulty depending on users’ responses, Aziz explained.

The word “maqsad” means purpose in Urdu.

“We believe everyone has a purpose. Maqsad’s mission is to enable Pakistani students to realize this purpose; whether you are a student from an urban centre, such as Lahore, or from a remote village in Sindh: Maqsad believes in equal opportunity for all,” Aziz said.

“We are building a mobile-first platform, given that 95% of broadband users in Pakistan are via mobile. Most other platforms are not mobile optimized,” Aziz added.

“It’s about more than just getting students to pass their exams. We want to start a revolution in the way Pakistani students learn, moving beyond rote memorization to a place of real comprehension,” said co-founder Taha Ahmed, who was a former strategy consultant at LEK.

The company ran small pilots in April and May and started full-scale operations on 26 July, Aziz said, adding that Maqsad will launch its mobile app, currently under development, in the coming months in Q4 2021 and has a waitlist for early access.

“Struggles of students during the early days of the pandemic motivated us to run a pilot. With promising initial traction and user feedback, the size of the opportunity to digitize the education sector became very clear,” Aziz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the education industry, heating up the global edtech startups that made online education more accessible for a wider population, for example in countries like India and Indonesia, Aziz mentioned.

The education market size in Pakistan is estimated at $12 billion and is projected to increase to $30 billion by 2030, according to Aziz.

It plans to build the company as a hybrid center offering online and offline courses like Byju’s and Aakash, and expand classes for adults such as MasterClass, the U.S.-based online classes for adults, as its long-term plans, Aziz said.

“Maqsad founders’ deep understanding of the problem, unique approach to solving it and passion for impact persuaded us quickly,” the founder and managing partner of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan, said.

“Pakistan’s edtech opportunity is one of the largest in the world and we are excited to back Maqsad in delivering tech-powered education that levels access, quality and across Pakistan’s youth and creates lasting social change,” Ali Mukhtar, general partner of Fatima Gobi Ventures said.

What we can learn from edtech startups’ expansion efforts in Europe

It’s a story common to all sectors today: investors only want to see ‘uppy-righty’ charts in a pitch. However, edtech growth in the past 18 months has ramped up to such an extent that companies need to be presenting 3x+ growth in annual recurring revenue to even get noticed by their favored funds.

Some companies are able to blast this out of the park — like GoStudent, Ornikar and YouSchool — but others, arguably less suited to the conditions presented by the pandemic, have found it more difficult to present this kind of growth.

One of the most common themes Brighteye sees in young companies is an emphasis on international expansion for growth. To get some additional insight into this trend, we surveyed edtech firms on their expansion plans, priorities and pitfalls. We received 57 responses and supplemented it with interviews of leading companies and investors. Europe is home 49 of the surveyed companies, six are based in the U.S., and three in Asia.

Going international later in the journey or when more funding is available, possibly due to a VC round, seems to make facets of expansion more feasible. Higher budgets also enable entry to several markets nearly simultaneously.

The survey revealed a roughly even split of target customers across companies, institutions and consumers, as well as a good spread of home markets. The largest contingents were from the U.K. and France, with 13 and nine respondents respectively, followed by the U.S. with seven, Norway with five, and Spain, Finland, and Switzerland with four each. About 40% of these firms were yet to foray beyond their home country and the rest had gone international.

International expansion is an interesting and nuanced part of the growth path of an edtech firm. Unlike their neighbors in fintech, it’s assumed that edtech companies need to expand to a number of big markets in order to reach a scale that makes them attractive to VCs. This is less true than it was in early 2020, as digital education and work is now so commonplace that it’s possible to build a billion-dollar edtech in a single, larger European market.

But naturally, nearly every ambitious edtech founder realizes they need to expand overseas to grow at a pace that is attractive to investors. They have good reason to believe that, too: The complexities of selling to schools and universities, for example, are widely documented, so it might seem logical to take your chances and build market share internationally. It follows that some view expansion as a way of diversifying risk — e.g. we are growing nicely in market X, but what if the opportunity in Y is larger and our business begins to decline for some reason in market X?

International expansion sounds good, but what does it mean? We asked a number of organizations this question as part of the survey analysis. The responses were quite broad, and their breadth to an extent reflected their target customer groups and how those customers are reached. If the product is web-based and accessible anywhere, then it’s relatively easy for a company with a good product to reach customers in a large number of markets (50+). The firm can then build teams and wider infrastructure around that traction.

Byju’s acquires coding platform Tynker for $200 million in US expansion push

Byju’s said on Thursday it has acquired California-headquartered Tynker, a leading coding platform for K-12 students, the latest in a series of major purchases as the Indian edtech giant attempts to aggressively expand to international markets.

The companies didn’t disclose the terms of the deal, but a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that the Indian firm is spending about $200 million on the acquisition.

Tynker operates an eponymous coding platform. It has established itself as a leader in the space, having amassed over 60 million kids on its platform, Tynker founders told TechCrunch in an interview.

The eight-year-old startup, which gamifies the learning experience to make it more exciting for kids to participate, also maintains partnerships — and has presence in — over 100,000 schools across 150 nations, said Srinivas Mandyam.

Mandyam, as well as Tynker’s other co-founders — Krishna Vedati and Kelvin Chong — will continue with the firm after the acquisition, they said. Vedati said in an interview that the startups began exploring ways to collaborate earlier this year.

Byju Raveendran, founder and chief executive of Byju’s, told TechCrunch in an interview that Tynker’s asynchronous offering fits perfectly in Byju’s current portfolio. India’s most valuable startup acquired WhiteHat Jr, a coding platform that offers synchronous classes, last year in a $300 million deal. “Tynker’s offering is complimentary to WhiteHat Jr’s,” he said.

Tynker is the latest firm to be acquired by Byju’s, which has amassed over 100 million registered users — about 6.5 million of whom are paid customers — across the globe. The Bangalore-headquartered startup has this year along acquired Scholr, Aakash Institute, Hashlearn, Epic, and Great Learning for over $2 billion in cash and equity deals. Just last week it revealed that it had also purchased Times Internet-backed Gradeup for an undisclosed amount.

Raveendran said that Byju’s is continuing to explore more merger and acquisition opportunities. These acquisitions are helping Byju’s aggressively broaden its offerings and tap international markets in more meaningful ways, he said.

On the other side of the business, the Indian edtech giant is also beginning to explore an initial public offering. The startup has began conversations with bankers, some of whom have given the firm a proposed valuation of up to $50 billion, TechCrunch reported first last month.

Raveendran confirmed that “IPO is on the cards,” but said it’s too early to comment on a precise timeline.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Vietnam-based CoderSchool gets $2.6M pre-Series A to scale online course platform

CoderSchool, a Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam-based online coding school startup, announced today $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding to scale up its online coding school platform.

This round was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from returning seed investors Iterative, XA Network and iSeed Ventures. CoderSchool raised a seed round led by TRIVE Ventures in 2018.

CoderSchool will use the funding to accelerate its online teaching platform growth and technology infrastructure expansion for the company’s technical education programs that guarantee employment upon graduation.

The company, founded in 2015 by Charles Lee and Harley Trung, who previously worked as software engineers, pivoted from offline to online in early 2020 to bring high-quality technical training to everyone, everywhere. After switching to a fully online learning program, the company recorded 100% quarter-over-quarter (QoQ) growth in fully online enrollment, it said in a statement.

“Coding is the future. At CoderSchool, we believe everyone in Southeast Asia deserves a chance to be part of that future,” the company co-founder and CEO Lee said.

In Vietnam, the demand for IT talent is dramatically increasing by 47% a year, while supply is only increasing by 8% year-on-year.

“The need for strong engineers and developers in Southeast Asia has never been as pertinent as it is today with the growth of tech companies and digital businesses,” said Michele Daoud, partner of Monk’s Hill Ventures. “We have been impressed by the team’s focus on setting the standard for coding education in the region. We are excited to partner with CoderSchool to provide both opportunity and access to the millions of aspiring students in Vietnam.”

Given the strong engineer demand in Vietnam, the domestic market size is estimated between $100 million – $200 million, and still increasing every year, according to Lee. CoderSchool has been focusing on Vietnam for the last six years, but plans to enter the global market following the next round, Lee said, without providing exact timetable.

CoderSchool, which offers full-stack web development, machine learning and data sciences courses at a lower cost, has trained more than 2,000 alumni up to date, and recorded over 80% job placement rate for full-time graduates, getting jobs at companies such as BOSCHE, Microsoft, Lazada, Shopee, FE Credit, FPT Software, Sendo, Tiki and Momo.

“After having taught over 2,000 students, we’ve been able to refine our [coding education] content. We rewrote our full-stack web development course — from Ruby, Phyton to JavaScript — in two years, and added new machine learning and data science courses to our program,” Lee told TechCrunch.

CorderSchool’s online program enables students to interact with instructors and classmates before, during and after scheduled class sessions with its human-driven learning strategy. CoderSchool currently has 15 instructional staff, and plans to hire 35 additional instructors by Q4 2022.

CoderSchool’s data analytics has improved individual student performance while also allowing CoderSchool to increase its classroom size at scale, reaching a peak of 107 enrollments in a data science class.

Inside Reach Capital’s edtech-powered returns

Reach Capital, a San Francisco-based venture firm co-founded by Jennifer Carolan and Shauntel Garvey, focused exclusively on edtech for years before the sector ballooned with unicorns. The rare, female-led partnership closed its third fund in February, a $165 million vehicle and its largest to date. That said, returns from its previous funds show that the early bet on a now-revitalized sector is paying off.

Reach Capital’s second fund, an $82 million vehicle closed in 2017, posted a net internal return rate of 72.1% as of Q2 2021, according to data intended for LPs and obtained by TechCrunch. The fund, which put investments into Paper, Winnie and now-unicorns Handshake and Outschool, ranks multiple percentage points above the top quartile of funds of that vintage. According to Cambridge Associates data, the top quartile of funds of that vintage had a net IRR of 47.64% the same quarter.

By comparison, Reach Capital’s first fund was multiple percentage points below the top quartile of fund performers of its vintage year, 2015.

It’s worth noting that Reach Capital’s returns for its second fund are mostly paper gains, meaning that the net IRR is based on an uptick in valuations. Given the fact that the firm is heavily concentrated in follow-on rounds, the IRR is thus a snapshot of a single moment of its performance in time. Reach recently had its first cash exit, seeing portfolio company Ellevation merge with Curriculum Associates, but that is not represented in the data.

A number of blooming startups may explain what’s driving the improved performance between Reach I and Reach II. Per an impact report, Reach II invested $32 million into 14 core investments, including Newsela, Handshake and Outschool, all companies that have now gone to pass the billion-dollar valuation mark, making them unicorns. It also put money into Paper, which recently landed a nine-figure round led by IVP. By getting into those companies early, and then watching them get marked up as edtech booms as a category, Reach’s positions get validated.

The diversity of Reach II’s portfolio beats industry averages, but the founders are still concentrated as white and male. About 74% of investments are founded by men, while 26% are founded by women, the report states. About 62% of founders identify as white, 20% identify as Asian, 14% identify as LatinX and 4% identify as Middle Eastern. There are no Black founders in Reach Capital II’s portfolio.

Reach’s impressive returns come at a time when venture more broadly is booming. A number of investors and founders spoke on background to offer context about whether the returns are impressive for a seed-stage fund of that vintage. One investment strategist said that, while it’s not unheard of in this environment, the return percentage is “crazy good.”

“Easily upper quartile and probably upper decile,” they said. “Unless we are talking crypto, in which case it’s pretty ordinary.” A separate seed-stage investor pointed to Fred Wilson’s recent blogpost “Cash on Cash vs IRR,” alluding to the idea that holding periods can skew fund performance data.

Still, Reach’s returns offer an impressive window into how one of the most diverse partnerships in venture capital is performing within one of the most revitalized sectors in startupland. The momentum isn’t going unnoticed. Filings show that Reach is raising money for a $50 million opportunity fund. The company has been on a hiring spree as of late, too, bringing on Jomayra Herrera from Cowboy Ventures as a partner and Tony Wan from EdSurge as head of investor content.

Extra Crunch roundup: China’s new data privacy law, fractional farming, debt vs. equity

China’s first data privacy laws go into effect on November 1, 2021. Will your company be in compliance?

Modeled after the EU’s GDPR, the new regulations “[introduce] perhaps the most stringent set of requirements and protections for data privacy in the world,” writes Scott W. Pink, special counsel in O’Melveny’s Data Security & Privacy practice.

In a comprehensive overview, he explains its key requirements and compliance steps for U.S.-based firms that service Chinese consumers.

“American firms doing business in China or with companies inside China will need to immediately start assessing how this new law will impact their activities,” he advises.


Now that the world has embraced remote work, are visas as critical for startup founders who want to succeed in the United States?

On Tuesday, September 14, at 2 p.m PT/5 p.m. ET, Managing Editor Danny Crichton and immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn will discuss the matter on Twitter Spaces.

They’ll take questions from the audience, so mark your calendar and follow @techcrunch on Twitter to get a reminder before the chat.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch; I hope you have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Fintech is transforming the world’s oldest asset class: Farmland

Minnesota soybean field during early morning sunrise

Image Credits: hauged (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Whether or not he actually said it, “buy land, they ain’t making any more of it,” is one of Mark Twain’s best quotes on capitalism.

Past recessions and the ongoing pandemic have created real uncertainty about the future of commercial and residential real estate, but farmland is “historically stable,” says Artem Milinchuk, founder and CEO of FarmTogether.

Anatomy of a SPAC: Inside Better.com’s ambitious plans

Speech bubble with home

Image Credits: mikroman6 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Online mortgage company Better.com isn’t waiting to complete its SPAC merger before making big moves: Ryan Lawler reported that it purchased Property Partners, a U.K.-based startup that offers fractional property ownership.

It’s the second company Better bought in recent months: In July, it snapped up digital mortgage brokerage Trussle.

“We aren’t so easily categorized,” said Better CEO Vishal Garg, who told Ryan that the company plans to soon expand into traditional financial services like auto loans and insurance.

Said CFO Kevin Ryan, “a lot of people have their niches in the way they’re attacking this, but we feel like we’re on a path to being full stack where everything’s embedded in the same flow.”

5 factors that can make or break a startup’s growth journey

Rusty old keys isolated on a white background.

Image Credits: JoKMedia (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

If you don’t have a good story to share, it doesn’t matter how big your marketing budget is.

“Paid marketing can be a useful tool in your toolkit to accelerate an already humming flywheel. Just don’t let it be the only one,” suggests Brian Rothenberg, a two-time founder who’s now a partner at Defy.

Drawing from his time as VP of growth for Eventbrite, he shares five critical factors for kick-starting, maintaining and measuring growth over the long term.

Debt versus equity: When do non-traditional funding strategies make sense?

A close up of a woman's hands, one holding an apple the other hand holding a doughnut

Image Credits: Peter Dazeley (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Many potential founders are well-versed in startup economics — and many are completely green.

When it comes to raising funds, understanding the relative benefits (and limitations) of debt and equity financing is required knowledge, however.

Founders who are less willing to dilute their control may be willing to use debt financing to fund their capital expenditures, “but it doesn’t make sense for everyone,” says six-time entrepreneur David Friend.

Investors are doubling down on Southeast Asia’s digital economy

Image Credits: Getty Images

Last year, startups based in Southeast Asia raised more than $8.2 billion, a 4x increase from 2015.

In the first half of 2021, regional M&A has increased 83% to a record $124.8 billion.

It’s not just venture capitalists and Big Tech who are beefing up their presence in the region.

“Over 229 family offices have been registered in Singapore since 2020, with total assets under management of an estimated $20 billion,” writes Amit Anand, a founding partner of Jungle Ventures.

Edtech leans into the creator economy with cohort-based classes

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Natasha Mascarenhas examined the parallels between edtech and the creator economy, both of which boomed amid the pandemic — and blurred amid the rise of cohort-based classes.

“Edtech and the creator economy certainly differ in the problems they try to solve: Finding a VR solution to make online STEM classes more realistic is a different nut to crack than streamlining all of a creator’s different monetization strategies into one platform. Still, the two sectors have found common ground in the past year.”

Meet retail’s new sustainability strategy: Personalization

photo of a fitting room with a three-way mirror and a rack of dresses

Image Credits: Liyao Xie (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Were the shoes, jacket and makeup that looked so good on Instagram (and in your shopping cart) disappointing when you put them on for the first time?

Due to buyer’s remorse, it’s not uncommon for apparel or beauty products to languish in the back of a drawer or end up as gifts, but there are also serious consequences.

“The beauty industry produces over 120 billion units of packaging every year, little of which is recycled. Globally, an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste ends up in landfills,” Sindhya Valloppillil, founder and CEO of Skin Dossier, notes in a guest column.

The answer to bringing sustainability to the industry, she says, is using tech to personalize the retail experience:

  • AR virtual try-on with shade matching
  • Advanced virtual fitting rooms with VR/AR for fashion
  • Smart packaging with IoT and distributed ledger technology

Plentywaka founder Onyeka Akumah on African startups and global expansion

Illustration of Onyeka Akumah of Plentywaka

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Twenty million people live in Lagos, Nigeria, and each day, 14 million of them use the city’s transit system.

Travelers rely on overcrowded public buses that navigate congested routes: What should be a 30-minute trip is often a three-hour journey, but Treepz CEO and co-founder Onyeka Akumah “has big plans to ameliorate the public transport infrastructure in Africa and beyond,” writes Rebecca Bellan.

“We wanted to give people a better way to commute with predictability, where they can know when the bus will get here, the certainty that they will have a seat in a vehicle, that it’s a decent vehicle and a safe one where you can bring your laptop,” said Akumah.

“Those are the things we said we wanted to change.”

Dear Sophie: When can I apply for my US work permit?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

My husband just accepted a job in Silicon Valley. His new employer will be sponsoring him for an E-3 visa.

I would like to continue working after we move to the United States. I understand I can get a work permit with the E-3 visa for spouses.

How soon can I apply for my U.S. work permit?

— Adaptive Aussie

Quizlet plans for IPO over a year after hitting unicorn status

Quizlet, a flashcard tool turned artificial intelligence-powered tutoring platform, is planning an initial public offering nearly a year after it was valued at $1 billion. According to people familiar with the matter, Quizlet is considerably far along in the process to go public. A recent job filing shows that it is hiring for senior roles to “help build the financial systems and processes as we move towards an IPO.”

In an email to TechCrunch, the San Francisco-based edtech startup declined to comment. Quizlet hasn’t said much about its revenue specifics or if it’s profitable. Last year, the still-private startup claimed it was growing revenue 100% annually. On its website, Quizlet says that it has 60 million monthly learners, up 10 million learners compared to its 2018 totals.

Quizlet has built a large-scale business around simple to share and simple to use products. Its free flashcard maker helps students spin up study guides on topics to prepare for exams. Those insights fuel Quizlet Plus, the startup’s subscription product that charges $47.88 a year for access to more features, including tutoring services.

Quizlet’s tutoring arm, also known as Quizlet Learn, is the company’s most popular offering, per CEO Matthew Glotzbach. As a student goes through the system, Quizlet Learn consistently assesses students to see where they are making mistakes — and where they are making progress.

“It obviously doesn’t yet replace and can’t come anywhere close to replacing a human, but it can provide that guidance and point you in the right direction and help you spend your time in the right places,” he said. “Just even helping you set goals is such a critical step in learning.”

Most recently, Quizlet announced the launch of explanations, a feature that offers a step-by-step solution guide for problem sets from popular textbooks. The feature is “written and verified by experts” and is aimed to help “students better understand the reasoning and thought process behind study questions so they can practice and apply their learnings on their own,” it said in a statement. It also reclaimed the Q from its less fortunate predecessor, amid an entire rebrand.

Quizlet’s quiet march toward the public markets has been slow yet steady. The startup was founded in 2005 by a 15-year-old, Andrew Sutherland. It was fully bootstrapped until 2015. Glotzbach, who was previously an executive at YouTube, then joined in 2016. The startup still doesn’t appear to have a CFO, which is rare for companies that are going public.

Quizlet has raised a majority of its $62 million in venture capital under Glotzbach. Now, investors in the company include General Atlantic, Owl Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Altos Ventures.

Quizlet’s pursuit of the public markets comes as other edtech companies are proving the market’s reception to the sector. Duolingo, for example, is another consumer-focused education company, albeit one that focuses on one vertical versus Quizlet’s choice to stay broad. Duolingo went public in July, and is currently trading above its open price at $169.75 per share.

 

Microsoft acquires TakeLessons, an online and in-person tutoring platform, to ramp up its edtech play

Microsoft said in January this year that Teams, its online collaboration platform, was being used by over 100 million students — boosted in no small part by the Covid-19 pandemic and many schools going partly or fully remote. Now, it’s made another acquisition to continue expanding its position in the education market.

The company has acquired TakeLessons, a platform for students to connect with individual tutors in areas like music lessons, language learning, academic subjects and professional training or hobbies, and for tutors to book and organize the lessons they give, both online and in person.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed but we are trying to find out. San Diego-based TakeLessons had raised at least $20 million from a range of VCs and individuals that included LightBank, Uncork Capital, Crosslink Capital and others. TakeLessons posted a short note in the form of a Q&A confirming the deal on its site. The note said that it will continue operating business as usual for the time being, with the intention of taking its platform to a wider global audience.

It’s not clear how many active students and tutors TakeLessons had on its platform at the time of acquisition, but for some context, another big player in the area of online one-to-one tutoring, GoStudent out of Europe, raised $244 million in funding earlier this year that valued it at $1.7 billion. Others in online tutoring like Brainly are also seeing valuations in the hundreds of millions.

Given the relatively modest amount raised by TakeLessons, it’s likely this was a much lower valuation. Yet the acquisition is still one that gives Microsoft the infrastructure and beginnings of setting up a much more aggressive play in mass-market online education, potentially to go head-to-head with these and other big platforms.

TakeLessons today offers instruction in a wide variety of areas, including music lessons (which was where it had gotten its start) through to languages, academic subjects and test prep, computer skills, crafts and more. It has been around since 2006 and got its start first as a platform for people to connect with tutors local to them for in-person lessons, before progressing into online lessons to complement that business.

The pandemic has precipitated a shift to a much bigger wave of the latter, with online tutoring apparently the majority of what is offered on TakeLessons platform today. These lessons continue to be offered on a one-on-one basis, but additionally students can take part in group lessons online via the startup’s Live platform.

The shift to online education that we’ve seen take hold around the world is likely why Microsoft sees a big opportunity here.

On the heels of many schools around the world scrambling for better online learning platforms to manage remote learning during lockdowns and quarantines, educators, families and students have been using (and paying for) a variety of different tools. Within that, Microsoft has been pushing hard to make Teams a leader in that area.

That was built on years of traction already in the market (and a number of other investments and acquisitions that Microsoft has made over the years).

But it also comes amid a new insurgence of competition arising from the current state of affairs. That includes adoption of Google Classroom, as well as a wide variety of more targeted point solutions for specific purposes like video lessons (Zoom figures big here); apps for lesson planning and homework planning; online on-demand tutorials in specific areas like math or languages or science to bolster in-class learning experiences; and more.

The Microsoft way is to bring as many features into a platform as possible to make it more sticky and less likely that users will turn to other apps, providing more value for money around the Microsoft offer. In other words, I’d expect to see Microsoft do more deals and launch more features to cover all of the services that it doesn’t already provide through its educational tools.

(Case in point: my children’s school uses Teams for online lessons, in part because it already uses Outlook for its email system. Now, the school has announced that it will no longer be using a different third-party app for homework planning; instead, teachers will be assigning homework and managing it via Teams. For a cash-strapped state school like ours, it makes sense that it would opt out of paying for two apps when it can get the same features in just one of them. The kids are not happy about this! This is what Microsoft leverages with its platform play.)

NextLessons is somewhat adjacent to that school-focused education strategy. Yes, there will be a big audience of students and their families who might represent a good cross-selling opportunity for tutoring, but NextLessons represents also a more mass-market offering, open to anyone who might want to learn something, not just those already using Microsoft Education products.

So the interest here is likely not just students who want to supplement their online learning — there is a big audience for online tutoring — but any lifelong learner, as well as the many consumers or professionals out there who have gotten interested in learning something new, especially in the last 1.5 years of spending more time alone and/or at home.

And with that, there are other potential opportunities for NextLessons in the Microsoft universe.

Just yesterday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, held an online presentation about what work will look like in the future. Education — specifically professional development — figured strongly in that discussion, with the conversation coinciding with LinkedIn launching a new Learning Hub.

LinkedIn has not only been working for years on building out its education business, but it has also long been looking for a more sticky inroad into doing more with video on its platform.

Something like NextLessons could, interestingly, kill those two birds with one stone. While LinkedIn’s education content up to now has not been something specifically tied to “live” online lessons, you could imagine a bridge between Microsoft’s latest acquisition and what LinkedIn might consider next, too.

LinkedIn doubles down on development with new learning hub, free courses and new search fields for hybrid working

The wider world of employment has seen a huge shift in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking for a job, finding someone to fill a role, or simply developing professionally are just not the same as they used to be for many of us. So it’s no surprise to see companies that have built business models catering to these areas changing, too: today, LinkedIn, Microsoft’s social networking platform for the working world, announced a wave of news aimed at moving ahead with the times.

It’s launching a new Learning Hub aimed at organizations to provide professional development and other training to employees. And it’s making 40 courses free of charge to LinkedIn members specifically to address some of the changes afoot, such as how to adapt to hybrid working, how to be a better manager in the new normal, and how to return to the office, and run facilities when they are spread beyond a building to also include people’s private homes. Lastly, it’s also starting to tweak details that people can use to list and search for job openings to account for these kinds of working conditions, and more.

The Learning Hub was first previewed back in April of this year and has been running in a limited beta. Today, as part of a bigger event hosted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky where they are discussing new trends in the world of work, the Hub is being rolled out more widely.

For some context, LinkedIn has been long on education for years, with acquisitions like the remote learning platform Lynda back in 2015 bolstering its own education strategy and position as a go-to platform for professional development; partnerships to bring in significant amounts of third-party content (for example, when it added some 13,000 courses via third parties in 2018); and efforts to tie together the concept of skills development with professional profiles, running research and building interactive tools for its users.

The free courses that are being launched today (and will remain free until October 9) are a timely set of videos to help companies as some of them start to make (or think about) the transitions from remote to in-office environments, but the bigger product launch, The Learning Hub, is not exactly an altruistic endeavor in that longer journey. It is being sold as a premium service for businesses — existing LinkedIn Learning Pro users will be able to use it for free until July 2022, potentially longer, it said. In addition to being a salient business, it is also connected to the company’s bigger efforts to bring in more businesses-focused services, and more engagement from HR departments, to bolster one of its other main revenue drivers, recruitment.

As a learning experience platform (often described as LXPs), LinkedIn’s relaunch of its own learning hub will bring it into closer competition with the likes of 360Learning, Coursera for Business, Workday, Cornerstone, and the many other platforms used by organizations to manage their own in-house and third-party professional training content. In addition to this, LinkedIn says it will be using its own data on employment trends, plus AI, to personalize content for organizations and users. The fact, however, that it’s also a platform whee those HR teams can also list jobs and source candidates makes it a significantly stickier experience, and one that might feel more cohesive at a time when so much else might be more fragmented.

The new fields that LinkedIn is bringing into its recruitment service are also notable in that regard. It will now let recruiters indicate whether a job is remote, hybrid or onsite; and soon those looking for jobs will also be able to indicate which of these it’s looking for in a new role. Companies will also be able to start indicating more details on their own company status as it relates to things like vaccination requirements, and to let the world (employees, partners, customers, interested others) know whether your physical offices are open for business or not.

These new fields may sound a little trivial, or at least very specifically related to concerns and circumstances that we live with today, but I think they are more notable than this. They speak to what LinkedIn sees (and what many of us feel) are strong priorities in how we view jobs today. That opens the door to how and if LinkedIn might consider other kinds of details in company and personal profiles, as well as details that could be used in recruitment. This is something the company has also been working on for a little while already: in June it started to give users the option of adding pronouns to their profiles. All of this is pretty important, considering that there are a lot of smaller companies and calls for someone to knock LinkedIn off its pedestal. As LinkedIn dabbles with new formats and sunsets others, it’s all signals that it’s attempting to be more adaptable to counteract that.

Leap Finance raises $55 million to help Indian students study abroad, plans international expansion

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults get on flights each year from India to a foreign land to pursue higher education. Upon landing, they face myriad challenges. One big one: They don’t have a local credit history, so they can’t avail a range of financial services, including a loan or a credit card — at least not without paying a premium for it.

For banks and other financial institutions, there is an increased risk when they engage with foreigners, so they charge more. An Indian student studying in the U.S., for instance, borrows money at an interest rate of over 13%, nearly twice of what their local peers are charged.

Leap Finance, a two-and-a-half-year old startup with headquarters in San Francisco and Bangalore, is attempting to solve this problem — and many others. The startup, which sits at the intersection of fintech and edtech, grants loans to students at a fair interest rate by evaluating the data they generated — alternative and derived — in India itself.

But in recent years, Leap Finance has aggressively expanded its offerings to provide what it calls a broader infrastructure to enable students to pursue international higher education.

The startup is helping students with guidance on admission, visas, and test preparation. Leap has developed a community of over 1 million students where they advise each other and explore options. Leap Finance said it has helped over 60,000 students in their study abroad journey over the last 18 months — and just had its strongest fall season.

And as is common in the startup ecosystem, such growth is usually followed by strong interest from investors. Which brings us to the development the startup shared on Wednesday.

Leap Finance has announced it has raised $55 million in a new financing round led by Owl Ventures. The Series C round also saw participation from Harvard Management Company, more popularly known for being a high-profile LP to venture funds. Existing investors Sequoia Capital India and Jungle Ventures also participated in the round, which follows a Series B funding in March this year, and brings Leap Finance’s all-time raise to over $75 million.

Vaibhav Singh (left) and Arnav Kumar founded Leap Finance in 2019 (Leap Finance)

Since we last spoke about Leap Finance, the startup has demonstrated strong growth on various fronts, said Arnav Kumar, co-founder of Leap Finance, in an interview with TechCrunch. Its community has grown, the test preparation app is increasingly becoming popular, and its core financial services has also surged, he said.

On top of this, the startup has expanded its offerings to help students with preparing for — and landing — internships when they do join a college abroad, solving another aspect in which they struggle.

Now with the new funding, the startup is planning to expand to serve international markets including Middle East and Southeast Asia and help the students pursue higher education in 20 nations, said Kumar, who previously worked as an associate vice president at venture fund Elevation Capital.

“Leap is on the trajectory to become the preeminent study abroad platform for students. The overseas education market is fragmented where there is no single one-stop solution,” said Amit Patel, Managing Director of Owl Ventures, in a statement.

“It can be very confusing for students to know where to begin preparation, what colleges they should target, and how they are going to afford to pay for their education. Leap is creating a comprehensive platform that addresses all of these preparation and financing needs for students. Owl Ventures is excited to deepen our partnership with Vaibhav, Arnav, and the Leap team to make studying abroad a reality for as many students as possible.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…