LEAD’s Sumeet Mehta has a lesson for founders: Ditch that Plan B

Sumeet Mehta, co-founder and CEO, LEAD, and a member of the Tech Entrepreneurs Association of Mumbai. (Mint)
Sumeet Mehta, co-founder and CEO, LEAD, and a member of the Tech Entrepreneurs Association of Mumbai. (Mint)


  • The first in the Founder Diaries series by Mint features Sumeet Mehta, the co-founder and CEO of schools-focused edtech unicorn LEAD.

Entrepreneurship isn’t easy; it’s 24/7 dedication. Only do it if you are genuinely passionate. Don’t do it unless you can’t sleep because you’re not doing it.

That’s Sumeet Mehta, the co-founder and chief executive of edtech platform LEAD Group, sounding like the protagonist in a Hollywood blockbuster going on about the hardnosed startup culture. Mehta earned his unicorn stripes when LEAD struck a valuation of $1.1 billion in a fundraising round led by marquee investors GSV Ventures and WestBridge Capital in early 2022.

Mehta had founded LEAD 10 years earlier, initially as a chain of schools. That was his first stint at entrepreneurship, following eight years at Procter and Gamble, most of those in Singapore, before he returned to Mumbai as CEO of Zee Learn. The transition from consumer brands to pedagogy only seems natural for a person born into a family of educators.

For this alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, a key trait essential to every entrepreneur is resilience. There can’t be a Plan B.

This is his journey.

You are the first entrepreneur from your family. How did that happen?

Entrepreneurship is a very distant thing for my family because most of the people in our family are teachers; my parents were teachers, my brother and bhabhi (sister-in-law) still are teachers.

I grew up in a small town. And I think my reason for doing what I’m doing today is because when I finished my first 16-18 years of education and went to my engineering college, I realised the big gap between small towns in India and and large cities.

Entrepreneurs who have a Plan B seldom succeed.

And I realised that children who grew up in small towns were at a disadvantage. They don’t have the awareness, they don’t have access, and they don’t have exposure. It seemed like the world was unfair.

I did my engineering and then an MBA and then went to P&G. But this thought was always at the back of my mind that at some point I have to go back and do something in education for kids in small towns. So I think that’s really the genesis.

How did you begin?

Me and Smita, my co-founder and my life partner, we were actually expecting our first kid in Singapore. So we said, okay, let’s pack all the changes in life and do it in one go. We decided to move back to India and I wanted to start up. Then I met Subhash Chandra (founder of Zee TV and chairperson of Essel Group), and in a twist of fate ended up running Zee Learn for five years.

But I realised that if I had to really make a difference I should first start by running schools in villages and small towns. My first school began with 14 students in a village in Gujarat, and then we opened four more schools in Maharashtra and small taluka areas.

Large cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru have enough good schools. But the moment you start going beyond the metros, the quality dips precipitously. I come from a small town and I’ve seen it firsthand.

What kind of capital went into these first five schools?

It wasn’t a lot. We didn’t have a lot of money. We acquired a building and land on a long-term lease. We had accumulated capital of about 1.5 crore. We set up the first floor of the first building and thankfully it worked out.

Was there a business plan at that point? No. There was an intention that we wanted to make a difference. And I had worked in education enough to know that if you run a good school, after the first 3-4 years, it works out because parents want good education and they are willing to pay for it. You just have to ensure you are providing quality education.

I have actually taught almost all grades from pre-primary all the way to grade eight.

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Give us a sense of how that changed to what LEAD would become.

We thought if we continued opening more schools in our lifetime, we would have 30 or 40 or maybe 50 schools. India has 1.5 million schools. So could we improve the quality of existing schools?

There was another school nearby that had reached out to us and said they had heard good things about our school and if they could use our system in their school.

The system of learning that we had built in LEAD–because we had higher exposure, we had built a lot of tech into that system–(we thought) maybe that system can actually go to other schools and make a difference.

So that was the idea. Back in 2017, we said, why don’t we take this to a few schools and see if it catches? In our first year, our intention was to reach 12-15 schools. But we got 30 schools interested.

Now we are present almost everywhere in India. In fact, somebody told me we have a partner school near the Line of Control in Kashmir. We also have a partner school very close to the Burma border. We were very clear that our focus will be on small towns. Today, about 80% of our partner schools are in tier-three or tier-four towns.

Why did you decide to raise venture capital?

Ultimately, it is a choice between your growth ambition and your comfort with (ownership) dilution. We could have chosen to grow slow and just invest the money that was getting generated back into the business. But we would have been at 400 schools today. We wanted to grow fast.

If you don’t have a positive unit-economics business, you are basically forced to raise capital just to survive.

If we wanted to grow from the first 30 to 150 to 600, we needed a certain amount of capital. We had to be comfortable diluting that much for the capital. The moment you craft the decision in this, it becomes easy, because then you have optionality on how fast you want to grow and how much you want to raise.

The caveat is that you need to have a positive unit-economics business. If you don’t have a positive unit-economics business, you are basically forced to raise capital just to survive.

Is it possible to scale up to the extent that you have without external capital?

Not at this pace. It’s always a function of how fast you want to grow. If you are not growing fast enough, then somebody else is doing it.

I don’t think there is an equation the right pace of growth.

It’s not just capital, It’s also partnership and advice. Elevar, GSV Ventures, WestBridge Capital… it is not just the capital they put into a company; (it’s also) the perspective they bring, because they have exposure to a lot more companies and they have worked in these communities for far longer than we have.

Talk to us about the key traits that founders should have.

There isn’t a cookie-cutter solution to become an entrepreneur. Everybody has a different path. But there are some common traits that I have seen.

One, independent thinking and listening to your heart are very important because most entrepreneurial journeys end up in failure. Very few are able to survive. And those who are able to survive are able to survive because they are able to overcome a lot of naysayers, a lot of obstacles, and a lot of doubts. I have never seen an entrepreneur who doesn’t have this (independent thinking) and is still able to succeed.

Beyond that, the additional thing is that whichever category segment you are in, whichever problem you are trying to solve, if you don’t care deeply about that problem, you are not going to be able to persist through all the challenges that come in your way.

Independent thinking and listening to your heart are very important because most entrepreneurial journeys end up in failure.

I see a lot of entrepreneurs say they are giving themself nine months, one year. If you want to start with a timelimit, don’t start. Because you don’t know. It will be much better to say I really care about this problem, I will do whatever it takes to overcome it. Now, whether that happens in six months or six years, I think destiny will tell you because a lot of things are outside of our circle of influence.

If you have a backdoor, you cannot be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs who have a Plan B in the beginning seldom succeed. Entrepreneurs who say I am all in do whatever it takes to make it work.

What advice would you give founders on identifying and dealing with investors?

It depends. Not everybody is in a position where they can choose. So the best service a founder can do for themself is get to a position where they can choose.

How do you get to a position where you can choose? Don’t raise if you don’t have positive unit economics so you know you are not racing for survival.

Also have an independent list of people you don’t want and people you want. You might not be able to hit your list. But at least you will know how much off the mark you are. If you don’t have a list you will just react to whatever is coming your way. That’s a really bad place to be in.

If you do these three things, you will do fine for yourself.

For middle-class families, letting go of a salaried job can be hard. You did that when your wife was expecting a child. Take us through that.

Have you seen the movie Tamasha? My journey is quite similar. When I decided to move back from Singapore to India, my father called and said, “Are you okay with this? This guy’s gone mad." But I have learned that if you listen to your heart, you don’t go wrong.

At that time, everyone—friends, family—said it was the worst decision. Why are you doing it? We had the stereotypical expat life in Singapore. But if you are not happy with your work or the meaning in your life, it’s not worth it.

Herd mentality forgets first principles, goes after the latest hot thing. Outsourcing your thinking is a disaster.

I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad in 2003 and got the idea of financial freedom. I knew if we hit that mark earning in (Singapore) dollars, converting to rupees it would be good. If we had that I should leave and do what I want without worrying about the monthly salary.

These things helped. I have never been someone who listens to others, and that helped too.

How long did it take you to build that financial comfort to take that leap?

The idea is like water level—the lower you keep it, the more freedom you have. Many get caught up in big houses, cars, fancy meals, raising their water level high. Maybe my middle-class upbringing kept my water level low—simple house, car, no fancy needs.

With that, you can easily earn money with simple consulting assignments. If you keep your needs low, your freedom is high. It depends on what you prioritise—some on lifestyle, forsaking freedom; some on freedom, making do with less. I was in the second category, prioritising freedom.

You took Zee Learn public. Is that the end goal for LEAD as well?

The end goal for LEAD has two parts. Firstly, LEAD was set up not as an investment vehicle but to improve educational outcomes. There’s no real end goal because we are barely reaching 5 million kids out of 70 million. We are aiming for 25 million in 5 years.

The other part is responsibility to shareholders. Going public would fulfill that so investors get their return, separate from our student responsibilities. We keep that clear to avoid confusion, as these are very different goals.

Maybe in your case, you found product-market-fit early. Many entrepreneurs haven’t explored that or focused on that.

Spending time with customers is crucial. Then you intimately know what they want. Product-market-fit is natural when you spend time with your customers.

Chasing trends leads to failure. You have to figure things out before they are hot to succeed. (American investor) Peter Lynch said: “What’s the one thing where the world disagrees with you?" If you don’t have that, you are late.

Everyone told me selling to schools wouldn’t work. If I had listened, I wouldn’t have started.

Everyone told me selling to schools wouldn’t work. If I had listened, I wouldn’t have started. Independent thinking is crucial. Spending time with customers, building conviction, persisting, independent thinking, and listening to your heart—these increase your odds of success.

A lot of venture capitalists do it the other way around. They back founders who have shown execution ability. Execution ability is key.

Backing successful founders makes sense, but the ‘for that’ philosophy is flawed. Just because it worked there doesn’t mean it will work here. That’s not customer-backward thinking.

What traits in the startup ecosystem do you dislike?

There’s a herd mentality. A lot of people catch the tail of a wave and get burned. Being comfortable standing alone increases your odds of success.

Currently, sanity prevails—positive unit economics, profitability. Two years ago, people thought the physical world was ending, everything would be virtual. I said schools won’t go anywhere.

Herd mentality forgets first principles, goes after the latest hot thing. Outsourcing your thinking is a disaster. Think for yourself. Those who do are successful; those who don’t may have short-term success but struggle later.

Did many investors reach out to you after 2021?

Selling to schools is a scalable business. People blacklist segments like edtech. Investors who think independently are interested. Those who haven’t done ground-up work feel old outcomes didn’t work, won’t work. You must convince open-minded people.

Talk about your personal journey–failures and successes. Did you ever think of giving up?

Winning the first school was a big moment. After two years, the landowner refused to enter a long lease required by CBSE. We were stuck. We had promised parents admissions, now we had no land. It wasn’t giving up. But realising you can’t take trust for granted was shocking.

Covid was a different challenge. Schools closed. We moved 600 schools online within days. We ran India’s largest online school. It was madness, working 24/7.

If your heart’s in the right place, you will find a solution. Human emotions can’t obstruct a larger goal.

How did you manage with 80% of your audience in cities with uneven internet access, learning on mobiles?

Human ingenuity shone during Covid. Parents, school partners jumped in. Our slogan was, “We won’t let learning stop". We shifted plans to a parent app, built live online learning. Parents shared devices, bought phones. We taught live from studios like this, trained teachers. It was relentless, but everyone was committed.

What advice would you give founders on facing difficult situations? What are the key things they can do?

Unless it’s fatal, have fun with it. As an entrepreneur, you sign up to solve problems every day. Every unsolvable problem escalates to the founder. If you don’t enjoy solving challenges, entrepreneurship might not be for you.

If it’s fatal and the company is at risk of shutdown, consider alternatives like pivots or partnerships. You can’t wish away problems; they are the lifeblood of an entrepreneur.

Capital has been a challenge in the startup ecosystem the last two years. How did you navigate the funding winter?

It wasn’t fatal, so we had fun with it. Positive unit-economics helped us rebalance our growth aspirations. Covid forced us to deeply scrutinise spending and identify inefficiencies. We focused on maximising growth with available resources.

Is an MBA important for a founder?

No. It helped in my case, but it’s not mandatory.

How do you assess challenges? Does an MBA give you a grounding that investors prefer?

An MBA helps with first-principles thinking and frameworks to approach problems. The network from a good MBA programme is invaluable for support.

What do you say to venture capitalists who favour founders with high-pedigree degrees such as an MBA?

VCs try to reduce risk and increase the odds of success. Pattern-matching may favour candidates with prestigious degrees, but it excludes potential talent. It’s about optimising risk-reward.

What areas would you invest in if you were an investor?

Education, health, and climate are critical global challenges. Solving these can lead to significant business opportunities.

How do you define success today?

Success is evidence of solving the problem you set out to address. Impact and commercial success go hand-in-hand; delivering on promises is crucial.

What’s your one piece of advice for founders?

Don’t do it unless you can’t sleep because you’re not doing it. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy; it’s 24/7 dedication. Only do it if you’re genuinely passionate.


Mint's Founder Diaries series is in partnership with the Tech Entrepreneurs Association of Mumbai (TEAM)

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