Allwin Agnel: The PaGalGuy who wants to transform education
The test preparation website, founded with Rs20,000 in 2002, plans to raise $20 million to expand its business
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In 2002, when India was just about recovering from the dot-com burst that ended many Internet start-ups, Allwin Agnel was crazy and passionate enough to launch an online education website that he christened Pagalguy.com, which means crazy guy in Hindi.
Agnel founded PaGaLGuY with just Rs.20,000 and had promised himself that the day his company becomes big, he would change the name. But he hasn’t done so because “the name has an associated charm and I just couldn’t let go”.
Pagalguy.com’s worked well for Agnel so far, even though he did not take any money from private equity and venture capital firms. On Monday, though, the portal that is owned and operated by Inzane Labs Pvt. Ltd announced plans to raise $20 million (around Rs.125 crore).
“We are looking to strengthen our mobile teaching solution. We will have to hire a lot of coaching experts across all verticals (business segments) for that,” said Agnel. His company employs about 40 people and runs two offices. It plans to expand to two-three new cities and wants to hire 300 people by April next year.
Agnel has no formal education in technology. He graduated in 2002 from Mumbai University with a degree in commerce, but was always thrilled about technology. “As soon as I got out of college and as my first job, I co-founded Neutral Web, a Web hosting solutions company,” he said. Unfortunately, he had to close this company.
As a commerce graduate, Agnel says there weren’t too many options to explore those days. With parental pressure mounting, he had to resort to doing an MBA.
“The trend during my time and today is not very different. Even at that time, many MBA applicants were engineering students. I began looking out for information on schools and content extensively,” he recalled. With no belief in brochures, which he likens to “mere advertising tools”, Agnel surfed the Net to get as much information as he could on the topic.
That’s when he decided to set up an online community where people like him—who were looking for information on MBA, entrance exams and other queries—could interact.
What started out as a problem solver became a business proposition four years after it was founded. “It was in 2006 that I actually began hiring people and even took the plunge of finally doing my MBA,” said Agnel. He went to Wharton business school in 2006 for an MBA in entrepreneurship and strategy.
When Agnel returned in 2008, he realized Indians had begun using Facebook. “It was Facebook (Pagalguy.com also has 10,200 Twitter users), its features, technology, ability to allow users to create groups is what was threatening,” cites Agnel. The team got back to business and worked on its features and technology.
Until early 2013, the website provided a technology solution by which people could sign up for free on the site and gather and provide information related to MBA exams. The firm has since added verticals for banking, Graduate Record Examinations, GMAT and Union Public Service Commission entrance exams. It also provides information on coaching classes, timelines and deadlines. Various educational institutes advertise on the site, its sole revenue stream.
Pagalguy.com recently launched test preparation content for students, too. “We have designed it a bit differently. Students can take up short courses, for a day or two, on any topic that they have trouble with,” said Agnel. The company does not charge users till it provides the entire course for any exam.
How does Agnel run a technology business without any formal education in technology? “One needs to be able to have the idea and visualize the execution. That’s about it. I don’t know how to code, don’t know the nitty gritties, but I definitely understand technology,” he said.
Of course, he also has Sandeep Kalidindi, a computer science graduate from the Masachusetts Institute of Technology, who heads technology at Pagalguy.com and has been with him since 2007.
The Indian online education market is anticipated to reach $1.28 billion by 2017-18, according to a report by Ken Research, a market research firm.
The market in India, which can be broadly be divided into test preparation, tutoring and online courses, is forecast to grow between 60-100% each year as the industry is in its initial phase of growth, according to Prashant Mehta, partner at Lightbox Ventures, a venture capital firm.
It’s not surprising that online education start-ups have been attracting the attention of investors. Rankjunction.com, Toppr.com and Embibe.com have raised, or are in the process of raising, funds from angel investors and venture capital firms. Embibe.com acquired 100Marks, a competitor, in February.
Agnel will have to deal with this competition when he’s thinking about growing his monthly user base of 700,000 people and business expansion.
Meanwhile, he enjoys riding his bike and listening to music. He also has a private pilot’s licence. “I’ve flown aircraft and have also jumped off them.”
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