Rahul Varma + Narayanan S
Equipping students for real-world success where their university education falls short.
What drew you to this particular problem that Unschool is solving?
(Rahul) Both Rayn and I have direct experience with the problem Unschool is solving. We both studied intensely for years to take standardized exams only to get into college and excel in disciplines we weren’t passionate about. We found ourselves learning much more & feeling much more challenged outside of the classroom – through clubs and organizations we joined.
During college, we both joined AIESEC – a massive, international non-profit connecting students to internship and volunteer opportunities. We rose through the ranks and got to travel to many different countries, talking to students there about their educational experiences. We realized that India was far behind other countries and that we wanted to ignite serious change. The problem is also reaching new heights – by 2025, there will be 600M youth in India, of which less than 50% will be employable.
So, our experience in AIESEC, combined with our own firsthand educational experiences, was what drove us to start Unschool.
How do you feel you've grown as founders since starting this company?
(Rahul) We’ve become extremely community-centric – coming to measure our traction primarily in terms of the size and engagement of our community. This extends to attending to our internal community, too; we know that having an internal culture of mutual respect and support will help us deliver the best possible experience for our users, as well. I’ve intentionally remained very hands-on throughout our whole hiring and onboarding process. We have this culture where we don’t call each other “sir” or “ma’am” but instead “coach.”
(Narayanan) As we’ve transitioned out of the very early stage, we’ve also had to shift our thinking to more long term. Also, not just focusing on building frugally but also ensuring the foundation of what we’re building is strong and aligned with our values.
How do you complement each other well as co-founders?
(Rahul) I’m naturally more of an introvert but I’ve learned that that doesn’t work for marketing your company, for spreading the word. Rayn is naturally louder and more expressive so he’s been the perfect complement to me as I work to become more extroverted for the sake of our growth. Rayn also encourages me to see that, sometimes, enacting the simplest solution ASAP is the best call – rather than waiting to enact the ideal solution in a few months down the line.
(Narayanan) I’m someone who wants to execute as fast as possible and Rahul is much more patient, more deliberate and analytical. We also play different – but equally important – roles in motivating our team. I’m more high energy and louder and Rahul is a calmer, more composed leader. Rahul has also been on the operations team of a startup that grew quickly and did very well whereas I was on a startup team at a company doing poorly so he knows what to do and I know what not to do haha.
What’s the best piece of user feedback you’ve gotten so far?
(Narayanan) We’ve gotten great feedback on our junior coaches – the young instructors who actually engage with learners. It’s a really unique peer-to-peer bond that helps Unschool feel personal in the otherwise robotive ecosystem in online learning. To learn effectively, students need two things, knowledge and motivation; the junior coaches offer a really compelling source of motivation.
What’s been the most exciting milestone you’ve hit so far?
(Rahul) Getting our first 1000 in US dollars with only a 3 person team was a great feeling. Honestly, a 10/10 NPS score or a great piece of user feedback are always heartening to get as well – these reconfirm that we’re building something people really want.
(Narayanan) To add to that, we have a very people-centric approach and that definitely informs what we consider our most exciting milestones. When someone passes a full year on the team, for example, we consider that a huge milestone. We’ll actually hit 2 years since founding in a few months and there are ~25 people who’ve been with us since we were in a 3 bedroom apartment. It’s humbling to have people who believe in us and the Unschool mission enough to stick with us through the ups and downs of startup life.
Is there a specific source of inspiration that keeps you pushing through tougher moments?
(Rahul) I sometimes think back to one of our first public presentations of Unschool at a B plan competition in Nepal. There were 300 startups from Nepal and India and 30 minutes before it started, we were printing business cards. We didn’t even have a website – all we had was a presentation… and we won. It’s heartening for me to remember that day and be reminded that all that matters is a deep understanding of the problem and a unyielding drive to solve it. Great companies are built by strong determination and a large, loyal community above all else.
(Narayanan) We had a few mentors early on who were doubtful of the idea; they thought we were biting off more than we could chew, that the model wasn’t right. It’s not the desire to prove them wrong that is motivating but, rather, the desire to prove ourselves right.
What was YC like?
(Rahul) I first heard about YC when I was 17 or 18 as the “Harvard for entrepreneurs.” So when we got in it felt like a dream.
It was incredible to have founders from 41 countries, at all different stages in the program. It was also humbling to feel that I was a part of a powerful community of people set on changing the world – and to see all of the universality of the struggles that come with trying to do so.
We appreciated their style of mentorship – they weren’t yesmen. They’d gone out on a limb by choosing us, they had a stake in our success – they called bullshit and pushed us to better ourselves as founders. Their advice itself was fundamental, basic but it helped us create a strong foundation for our company – a step that most founders skip and end up paying the price for skipping.
What has been your biggest misstep and what did you learn from that moment?
(Rahul) As we tried to on-board many instructors quickly, we realized we were not being as attentive to course quality as we should have been. The expectations the instructors set weren’t up to Unschool’s standard. This is a typical pain point of scaling – especially in a marketplace product – but, luckily, we were able to correct it pretty quickly.
What’s a song or album that’s gotten you through 2020?
(Rahul) Hall of Fame by The Script ft. Will.i.am is our celebratory song. When we got into YC, when we were highlighted by LinkedIn as the 3rd top startup to watch in India – that’s what we played.
Favorite emoji or gif?
(Narayanan) We don’t really use emojis or GIFs haha. Personally, I’m a full stop texter in WhatsApp so it would feel a little strange to include emojis. But within the company we do say