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Karan Bajaj: Cracking the code

Karan Bajaj, the founder and CEO of ed-tech platform WhiteHat Jr, talks to Mint about building and selling a startup, writing fiction, and trying a little bit of everything

Illustration by Priya Kuriyan
Illustration by Priya Kuriyan

In Winston Groom’s book Forrest Gump, the eponymous hero unintentionally flits from one area of expertise to the other, achieving great success at being a (American) football player, a decorated soldier, a table tennis champ and a successful shrimp businessman, among other eclectic achievements.

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When he read the book as a teenager, Karan Bajaj really liked the idea of a boundary-less life that included falling in and out of things. It became an enduring influence, this person who takes on something, masters it and moves to the next adventure. The founder and chief executive officer of WhiteHat Jr, a coding learning platform for children, has a career that has been similarly varied and colourful. But unlike Gump, Bajaj, 41, owns a lot of his career decisions.

Having followed a relatively conventional track of mechanical engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, he was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble for nearly six years before his career went off trajectory. Today, his resume includes stints as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), marketing director at Kraft Foods Group, Inc. and CEO of Discovery, Inc., interspersed with writing four successful novels and an year-long sabbatical as a yoga instructor, before landing at WhiteHat Jr.

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“I was bound to make my first leap,” says the avid reader about occasionally veering away from the corporate career. “I was always restless, wandering, by nature. It would have happened eventually, but happened after P&G.”

The startup WhiteHat Jr, founded less than two years ago, scaled up so quickly that last month, online learning platform Byju’s bought it for $300 million (around 2,200 crore). That does not mean Bajaj is ready to move on to his next quest; there is much work still to be done for the nascent entrepreneur in this field.

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The sale to Byju’s, the only ed-tech unicorn and one of India’s most valuable internet startups, was one of the “easiest, most logical decisions” Bajaj made. He is often asked why he sold it so quickly, but for startups to hit that balance where the acquirer, investor and founder are all happy is hard, he says.

That does not mean Bajaj is ready to move on to his next quest; there is much work still to be done for the nascent entrepreneur in this field.

WhiteHat Jr launched in the US this February when covid-19 was just beginning to spread. Despite that, he adds, the company became a $225 million business, with $100 million each from India and the US, and the rest from new markets UK and Australia. “Zero to $100 mill in four months is unheard of for any startup, not just Indian,” Bajaj says.

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WhiteHat Jr introduces children in the 6-14 age group to the fundamentals of coding—logic, structure, sequence and algorithmic thinking—to create animations and apps. Its success, Bajaj says, lies in the fact that there is no coding curriculum for schools anywhere in world, “nor is there a Sharmaji down the street teaching coding”. The 1-1 teaching (a teacher for every student) possibility came from a supply pool that was heavily under-leveraged—qualified women who had opted out of the workforce or were under-employed.

Ed-tech, along with e-sport and some other digital offerings, has been one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic-induced lockdown of the last few months. WhiteHat Jr does about 35,000 live classes a day, at times hiring over 200 teachers a day in an attempt to have 20,000 teachers by the end of the year. Its three-year goal is to reach one in three children in the world with a coding product and create 100,000 teaching jobs.

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The hype about ed-tech has been strong recently, with aggressive advertising that promises to turn your child into the next Bill Gates. Platforms like WhiteHat Jr have also been criticized for selling unrealistic aspirations to children and parents, and coming out with misleading advertisements. While getting free users has been easy for WhiteHat Jr—also because parents now have more spare time and want children to stay busy—the rate of conversion to paid customers has not changed post-covid. The upside of people being available is offset by economic uncertainty, Bajaj says. Nor is it easy to predict the future of ed-tech startups post- pandemic, when users may be tempted to return to offline learning.

Platforms like WhiteHat Jr have also been criticized for selling unrealistic aspirations to children and parents, and coming out with misleading advertisements.

Citing examples of their successes, Bajaj talks of a six-year-old who created a sign language for deaf children. A nine-year-old who had to wear spectacles from age 7 built an eye-testing app for detection of cornea deterioration while another nine-year-old came up with an anti-bullying warning app after incidents in her school. All creations have been specific to the children’s lives, endemic to their environment, he adds—just like his own.

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Since Bajaj’s father was in the army, he had a nomadic childhood, living in places such as Ladakh and Assam and studying at the Army Public boarding school in Dagshai. It shaped some of his comfort with movement, shunning the conventional symbols of permanence. He still does not own a house or cars, he says, and inculcates the same lack of detachment in his daughters, aged 4 and 6, who are excellent backpackers.

“Human life should be un-bonded,” he says in a Zoom call, dressed in a dark shirt that blends partly with the dark blue walls of his Mumbai residence. “(I am) not tethered to attachments because that adds too many layers—my house, my car, my children’s school, my alumni…. I like the Buddhist philosophy of not having layers of attachment.”

It’s easy to talk to the well-travelled yogi-writer because his words are measured, precise and philosophical. He ends many of his sentences with the rhetorical affirmation “right”. His 6ft, 4 inches frame finds a way to dwarf the computer screen, which one would not have thought possible, but the restlessness that he talks about is not literal because he barely shifts during this conversation.

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A wanderer by nature, his first job at P&G in India and the US was followed by a six-month sabbatical, in mid-2008, travelling through South America—Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia—and Eastern Europe—Romania, Hungary—because he felt drawn to these places. He started writing his first novel, Keep Off The Grass, but by the time he returned to the US in late 2008, Lehman Brothers had collapsed. At age 30, he found himself unmarried, with no savings, on a couch at his sister’s place. At a time when his peers were sending pictures of their first child or having become the youngest vice-president of some company, he felt like the poster child of failure.

But BCG came along, got his career back on track and, in some ways, liberated him. “I had this experience that I am okay, I can take a leap, face the destruction of it and then rebuild. That’s my life,” Bajaj says.

He wrote his first book, Keep Off the Grass, in 2008, and another book, Johnny Gone Down, in 2010—both are in the Paulo Coelho mold of semi-autobiographical, semi-spiritual coming-of-age stories. The film rights of both have been acquired by well-known Bollywood producers.

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Just before the second was published, his mother died prematurely of cancer. He took off to learn yoga and meditation, living in a dormitory with 60-70 others, sleeping on the floor, bathing in cold water, and travelled through Europe to India by road, without possessions. “I like the stoic idea of wilful poverty. If you can experience to live with less, you teach yourself you need less to survive.”

“Failure is always a constant companion—my third novel was rejected 61 times. (Failure) rolls off my back easily—life is constructed in people rejecting you in some form”

“Failure is always a constant companion—my third novel (The Seeker) was rejected 61 times. (Failure) rolls off my back easily—life is constructed in people rejecting you in some form,” he says. His first, written in three months, sold over 100,000 copies, while the third, written over five years, sold a tenth of that number, practically putting him off fiction writing forever.

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“I have realized that life is a slot machine where input does not have much to do with output. You show up with full energy, play the slots and, sometimes, the slot turns into a jackpot. Sometimes, it does not.”

His experiences have reinforced the temporary nature of life—by his own admission, he may be a visionary now but was a failure 18 months ago. “How do I judge myself on the monikers of the world? Some time down the line, they may say this was Byju’s worst mistake—these things happen, right?

“I can control my input every day—play the slots. I don’t know the results of the slots—as nobody does.”

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Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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