This week I spoke to Ish Baid. The CEO and Founder of Virtually. Virtually is a platform that allows anyone to build an online school. It provides student management, live classes, payments, and landing pages in one product.
Ish founded the company in 2019. He was inspired by his immigrant experience and seeing his parents struggle to find well-paying jobs in Canada even though they had higher education credentials from universities in India. While a software engineer at Facebook, he realized that if he could remove geography as a barrier to learning, then education could become much more affordable and accessible.
The early days of Virtually were tough and he struggled to gain traction. He decided to be customer number one and built a popular online course for creators, which not only validated his model for Virtually, but also turned out to be a pretty good source of revenue. During this time, COVID-19 and the global pandemic accelerated the consumer shift to virtual interactions. Virtually was well-positioned to benefit from this change in consumer behavior.
A little more than a year ago Ish was accepted into YCombinator’s (YC) accelerator program. It was the fifth time he had applied to the program. During YC, Ish continued to iterate and improve the product based on feedback from the YC mentors. As he put it, “I think a lot of founders are under the misconception that building a great product is really just about looking for that silver bullet that unlocks success, but it's really just hundreds of little things applied over a long period of time.”
Shortly after YC, in September 2020, they announced a $1.75M Seed round led by Tiger Global to build out a product team and accelerate their growth.
I sat down with Ish a year after Virtually graduated from YC to reflect back on how their product has evolved and what he’s learned along the way.
In our conversation, Ish talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview of how Virtually started?
Ish Baid: Yes, there are two stories. The first story is the one that I share the most with investors, which is my immigrant experience that really shaped me growing up. I was born in India and my family immigrated to North America when I was just five. And despite my parents having fantastic credentials and post-graduate degrees in India, we went through the full immigrant experience where they worked low-level jobs. I think at one point they each had three jobs and only one car. We were living in this family's basement in the suburbs of Toronto and they had to switch back and forth to use the car to get to work.
It was only through their sheer perseverance and will did they work their way up to what they're doing today and now they're both crushing it. But that experience really shaped me as a kid. Despite the higher education credentials they had it didn't actually guarantee them jobs in the careers that they wanted.
The second part of the founding story is when I was at Facebook. So I worked as a software engineer at Facebook for two years. In 2019, I was on a work trip in Seattle and a particularly bad winter storm shut everything down trapping me there. While I waited it out I was playing around with some conferencing software and it dawned on me that the way that my parents and I learned had very little to do with traditional education. Instead it was very much online through YouTube videos, tutorials, and being self-taught. That's how I learned to code. So that’s when I realized that if you could remove geography as a barrier to learning, you can make education way more accessible and way more affordable. Instead of just being limited to learning from the people in the same zip code, you could have access to the experts of the world, no matter where you lived. I thought that was a huge, huge vision, and I decided that was powerful enough for me to decide to quit my job the next week and start working on it.
Thanks for sharing that personal story. So you started in 2019, pre-pandemic, can you tell me about how 2020 and the global shift to video calls and online learning impacted Virtually?
IB: Right, when I started I didn't know we were a year away from a global pandemic. I was working on software to help people teach online and build a kind of Zoom school. But nobody really wanted it. It was weird to be teaching on Zoom, especially if you weren't a venture backed startup or a university. So that first year was quite a grind.
Obviously when COVID happened, it changed everything. I think the technological piece was already there. Conferencing had gotten good enough that you could actually pull off virtual education in real time, but there was still the stigma. That's one of the biggest barriers that COVID helped us get over was this idea of people being uncomfortable meeting strangers online. That’s where Virtually is today. We give educators the tools they need to teach online and we don't believe that these are traditional educators. We believe that you don't need to work at a college institution or public school if you want to teach. All you need is a set of domain expertise and a passion for teaching and we’ll help you build your business.
I saw that you had started something called the Creator School in 2019. Was that the initial version of Virtually or was that something else?
IB: The Virtually platform has existed since July 2019, but one of the things that was really difficult, like I said in that first year, was getting other people to use my software. So I decided I would use it for them and prove out the model. To do this I became friends with tons of influencers on YouTube, Instagram and a bunch of bloggers, and I started hosting these multi-week live masterclasses over Zoom. Today, they're called cohort based courses, but there wasn't really a name for them back in the day. Anyways, I used my own software to build these programs and I launched a few of them. By far the most successful one was Creator School. That class filled up quickly and it became kind of a profitable business in and of itself. That really proved the model and it was also right at the start of the pandemic so you could tell there was a shift happening.
In April 2020 the Virtually platform became my main focus. In May, it really started to pick up some steam and traction. We got into YCombinator (YC), went through the accelerator last summer, and raised our seed round in August 2019. We have grown the team since then. We serve a bunch of different types of programs, anything from large cohort based courses like Building a Second Brain, which runs 1.5k students per cohort to coding schools all across the world, including in the Philippines, India, Africa, and Spain.
I like that you started by being the first customer to make sure everything works as expected and that you really understand what it takes to run an online school. Let’s talk about YC, what were your expectations going in and what were you hoping to get out of it?
IB: Honestly, I really saw YC as being the educational institution that I never had, but that I wanted. I felt that at Michigan, I had learned a lot of things that were just irrelevant and that couldn't really be applied the next day. I think of YC as the modern educational institution, the modern MBA. If you want to learn to build a business, then you learn by building a business, not through theoretical textbook learning. That's exactly what YC does. In exchange for 7% of your company, they give you $150k of funding and the vast majority of that time is spent building your company. It’s not attending lectures or reading.
That's exactly what happened. I just knew that YC, as reputable as they were, would be surrounded by some of the top minds, not just the partners, but also the peer network and the alumni network. I knew that was something that I would have for life. Also, I've always thrived in competitive environments and I knew if I went to an accelerator like YC, not only would I learn a ton, but it would also push me to be the best founder I could be.
During YC did you get feedback from your mentors or peers that changed how you marketed or positioned your product?
IB: 100%. Talking to my partners and going through office hours is where I got a lot of coaching. Specifically, how to think about go-to-market, SEO, sales, and design. I was also seeing what my peers were doing and trying to borrow ideas from them. I can't point to one specific thing that was a game changer for our business. It was actually a hundred little things, which was the turning point. Yesterday, I was reflecting on the past year because I was writing the investor update. A year ago we had a really buggy product, next to no revenue, and it was just me and one other full time engineer. Today we've grown to a full product team of six, we're experiencing steady growth, and we have revenue and customers from all over the world. So it’s been a dramatic change. But again, I think a lot of founders are under the misconception that building a great product is really just about looking for that silver bullet that unlocks success, but it's really just hundreds of little things applied over a long period of time.
That’s a great point, it’s never just one thing. Earlier, you mentioned that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online learning. Now as the pandemic is slackening slightly and the world is opening back up, is that changing how you position your product?
IB: Surprisingly, no. We were very intentional about this. From the beginning we wanted to focus on the market that online education was actually 10x better for. We realized that for K-12 and for even college, online education actually doesn't really make a lot of sense. A lot of the topics you're learning are incredibly general and you have the people you need to teach it at a local level. And honestly, that in-person interactivity really deepens those relationships in the communities that you can build.
Where we saw that online education was 10x better was postgraduate and specifically providing education for hyper specialized careers. Imagine maybe machine learning for self-driving trucks. This is the example I always give. There's maybe five experts in the entire world that know this topic and here's the problem: you can never build this as a course at a local university because you don't have the experts and you don't have enough demand in the entire local region to create a sustainable business. But now think about building that on the internet. You're targeting .001% of people, but on the internet that represents tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. My podcast co-host, Will Mannon, told me this line that I really like: “When you're thinking about the internet, you can't think about percentages. You have to think about absolute numbers because the absolute numbers are enormous.” So that's really the huge potential of teaching online. You can teach or learn these very niche topics, you can have access to the instructors, the experts of the world of any any number of these niche topics and it's very accessible and it's very affordable.
Totally. The internet and all of these creator focused companies have opened up huge opportunities. What’s your pitch to the self-driving trucks expert? Why should they build a course on Virtually rather than, say, Coursera?
IB: If you're getting started off and you don't know how to generate demand, you absolutely can use marketplaces to get started. That being said, you don't build a relationship with the end user. I think that is where the value comes in using our platform. You build that direct relationship. Nobody else gets to distribute your content, you have total control, you own the end relationship, and you set your own price. This is one of the reasons that so many people have walked away from Udemy right around the time that Teachable came out in 2015. They saw this opportunity that, “Hey, I can build my own brand.” There's a lot more work to be done to generate demand, but the earning potential is 10 to 100 times more.
What have you found to be the most successful way to reach people who want to use your platform to teach a course?
IB: In the last year or so, it's really been SEO. Once this terminology, “cohort based courses” became popularized, we knew this is exactly what we're building and we could create a plethora of content to target those keywords. But the high level strategy here is education based content marketing because we know that there are not a ton of people building cohort based courses right now. It's very, very miniscule. When it comes to online education in this new era of education entrepreneurs were in the first inning and it's the first pitch. We realized that if Virtually is going to be successful and really have the impact we want to have on education as a whole, we need to expand the market. So we put out a ton of educational content to empower people who want to teach online courses. We do this via our podcast Reshaping Education, our YouTube channel, our blog, Twitter, a Substack newsletter, it’s the whole shebang.
And are you seeing people who take a course decide to teach their own course or refer it to a friend to lead a course?
IB: Absolutely! We're working with some of the biggest cohort based courses out there. A lot of people will see that we're powering those programs and then they come to us after the course. There’s definitely this viral loop that has begun to form as well.
This is a two part question. When you think back on the past year since you finished the YC program, is there anything that you spent time on that didn't produce results and was maybe wasted time? Or on the flip side was there anything that you did that you now wish you had started much earlier on in your business?
IB: It’s definitely the content marketing and SEO. It’s surprising how long that really takes to kick into gear. When I started the podcast, I didn’t really have the intention that anybody would listen to it. For me, it was just a way to get my foot in the door with top education entrepreneurs and bootcamp founders. Nobody wanted to grab coffee with me, but almost anybody was willing to share their story with me for a podcast. I mean, who doesn't want to share their story? I'm here sharing my story with you. So the podcast was a great way for me to build relationships with the top minds in education, learn a ton about the industry, and also build our brand. That started over a year ago and it’s really skyrocketed in terms of visibility and the traffic that it drives to us. Education content marketing does take a while to pay off, but it’s worth it.
Something that maybe we shouldn’t have done? We've spent a lot of time building the wrong things. I've had to learn a lot about how to build a really productive product team. One of the best ways to keep the team productive is to actually kill off features as quickly as you can. I think one of the worst things we did was that we would just build features and not evaluate if they were successful. We would have an assumption, we’d build it, and then launch it. That's all we would do.
The problem with leaving a bunch of features in the product is that they all add up to be distractions. It really makes it harder to get to that product market fit because you have all this code bloat now, you have to support all these different products and some are only used by maybe 1% of your customers. It turns out when you actually start to kill off these products that your core product starts to get massively higher adoption. Recently, we've really started to be a lot more data driven in terms of releasing products, really measuring them, and knowing when to kill them. We don't always get it right the first time and iteration is absolutely critical.
A lot of entrepreneurs struggle in that first year as they try to find product market fit and the buzz from the launch has worn off. How did you manage to stay motivated and focused after the excitement of the initial launch?
IB: 100% and I will say, as a solo founder, that first year was quite a grind, especially when it was pre-pandemic and there was no traction whatsoever. Nobody was searching for what we were building. What motivated me during that time was two things.
One, it was this vision for how we could impact education and how we could give access to people who didn't have it before. Whether you were a single mom or a high school dropout, you would have access to education even if it was somebody halfway across the world. And you wouldn't have to put your life on pause. That was quite inspiring.
The other part of it was my immigrant experience. I realized that my parents had sacrificed so much to move halfway across the world and that I'd be squandering the opportunity if I didn't be bold, be risky. And I knew I had the safety net. I knew that if I left Facebook, it wasn't the end of the world if the business didn’t go well. I could always, you know, worst-case, move back in with my parents. I think a lot of entrepreneurs have this false mindset in that they feel that they can't take the leap because it's a huge risk if they fail. But for most people that I know we're very privileged and we do have that safety net. As an entrepreneur, as long as you're learning and you're picking up new skills, I don't think that will ever be a failure. And if there's a time to do it, you might as well do it as early as you possibly can. When you have the least to lose.
My last question for you, reflecting back on the past year, is there anything else that I didn’t ask you about, something that you learned, or advice that you want to share with other founders and entrepreneurs?
IB: I don't know if I can add value that isn't already out there. One piece of advice is the idea that if you want to start a business, then get started as early as possible. You learn more by doing. I hear a lot of people who want to be an entrepreneur say that they want to first stay in a big company to learn. But you're playing a different sport and you'd be surprised how much more you're going to learn on your own. And all those learnings compound over time.
The other thing I think is important is that we got very lucky. The pandemic really created demand for our business. I think we would have eventually gotten there, but the trend would have been slower, maybe five or 10 years. As an entrepreneur it’s important to keep your business alive long enough to get lucky because eventually you will, but you have to make sure you're still alive when that happens.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Where can people go to learn more about you and your business?
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Ish and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler