Doubts Doctrine: Users flock but questions linger over Doubtnut, Brainly

“If you have a math question, I’m 99% sure it exists in our database,” says Tanushree Nagori. We’re inside a giant boardroom, with off-white walls and rows of tables, which double up as writing surfaces. Nagori draws on the table between us, explaining where her fledgling online venture—Doubtnut—lies within India’s edtech landscape, which is projected to be worth $1.96 billion by 2021.

“I guess you’d put us in this quadrant,” she says, pointing to a white space between “local language” and “concepts + doubts”. 

Nagori’s visual explanation of India’s edtech landscape (Picture credit: Olina Banerji/The Ken)

Nagori founded Doubtnut with husband Aditya Shankar in late 2016. Offered as an app, a website and even a WhatsApp helpline as of 2019, Doubtnut is an online platform which primarily offers students 24×7 help with math doubts. It caters to students all the way from class 6 to aspiring engineers sitting for public exams, allowing them to upload pictures of questions from books and receive a video solution within minutes. Like a Google for math queries.

“No one was paying attention to the urgency of doubts. We wanted to resolve doubts in a way that would break the Byju’s price point,” says Nagori. Byju’s—which offers online videos and course material on tablets—charges upto Rs 2.5 lakh ($3500) a year, which makes it financially unviable for a large section of the Indian population. Doubtnut, while yet to arrive at an exact price point, is experimenting with granular pricing for modular products. Say, Rs 399 ($5.6)to unlock a month’s worth of doubt-solving videos.

Of all the use cases to build edtech products, doubts are perhaps the stickiest and most compelling. If not tackled on the spot, they fester into what Nagori labels ‘learning gaps’. While Byju’s prides itself on creating a multi-step, learning journey, Doubtnut’s approach is to provide the necessary pit-stops. But has spinning an engagement model of just solving doubts really taken off?

Like a rocketship, Nagori claims. 

Doubtnut says it receives 200,000 mathematics doubts every day. It has 7 million monthly active users, with over a quarter of these using the platform daily. Till date, Doubtnut has raised around $3.3 million from marquee investors such as WaterBridge, Sequoia and Omidyar Network*.

But Doubtnut isn’t alone. Its main competitor in India—Brainly—fields questions from over 15 million users every month. Unlike Doubtnut, which is programmed to send pre-recorded explainer videos to students, Brainly is an international peer-to-peer question-answer platform, a la Quora.

“We realised that students turn to their community of friends, parents and teachers if they’re stuck on a question,” says Michal Borkowski, Brainly’s Poland-born co-founder. This is the experience, he adds, that Brainly’s trying to replicate online. 

Market Potential

One in every four Indian students are enrolled in private, after-school tuitions. That’s 26% of the total student population, or 71 million students. Of these, 89% use tuitions to augment their basic education

The surge of students towards doubt solving platforms is indicative of what the next wave of learners—millions of whom are from tier-2 and -3 cities, many just discovering online learning—needs. The immediate gratification of solutions. According to a 2016 report by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Indian households spend up to 18% of their income on higher education—one of the highest in the world. But as the demographics change—from users who can spend Rs 15,000-30,000 ($210-420) a month on supplementary education, to those unable to spend more than Rs 200-300 ($2.8-4.2)—product parameters must evolve. Be mobile-friendly, more focused on regional languages and state education board content. They must also be priced significantly lower. 

Both Brainly and Doubtnut have understood this. “Doubts is a smart entry point. These apps are targeting the segment that primarily interacts online through Tiktok, Whatsapp and Youtube,” says Akshay Saxena, co-founder of Avanti, a chain of affordable coaching centres. Consequently, the two are winning over the elusive tier-2 and -3 audience that everyone—from e-commerce platforms to payment apps—is trying to monetise.

Neither company is worried about monetising for the moment. That can wait till they grab more market share from the established players. But is doubt solving a sustainable business? “Can you really build a Rs 1,000 crore ($140 million) company on the back of doubts?” asks a senior edtech investor. He wished not to be named because his firm chose not to invest in Doubtnut. More importantly, if and when these companies do monetise, there’s no telling whether students will stay the course or abandon ship.

Gurugram to Gaya

Doubtnut’s office in Gurugram could easily pass for a call centre. Flanked on both sides by open cubicles, Nagori leads us to a backroom that houses a floating team of 20-30 young engineering graduates who build Doubtnut’s content. The cubicles are partitioned and quiet because these “tutors” need to record audio explanations for the solutions they’re writing.

“It’s just like if a teacher was solving the question in person,” explains Nagori, in a hushed voice.

Since its launch in 2016, Doubtnut has hired interns every summer to belt out a huge number of the most common math solutions. They currently have 400,000 solutions in the database. And that’s just math. The team is also building content for both physics and chemistry, which recently launched on the platform. At last count, they were adding 4,000 solutions everyday. “We expect the number of incoming queries to double,” adds Nagori.

The USP of how these questions are solved—in a mix of Hindi and English, step-by-step—and how long they are—usually 4-5 minutes—resonates with a market untapped by full-stack edtechs such as Byju’s, Toppr or Unacademy. Doubtnut’s videos target users looking for solutions on YouTube or Google, who have little access to quality tutoring near their homes. Rakhi Kumari, an IIT aspirant from Gaya, Bihar, is a case in point. 

“Doubtnut gives me the solution on the spot. 80% of the time, I’m able to source the exact question I’ve been stuck on,” says Kumari. The eleven other students from 9 cities The Ken interviewed told a similar story. 80%, they agreed. When they can’t find something, they submit their doubts and wait for a response. 

New-age apps like Doubtnut represent the third wave in the edtech product line. They eschew the sophistication and design frameworks of their full-stack predecessors. Instead, Doubtnut’s interface is a mishmash of video tutorials, pop-up quizzes and test paper solutions. There’s even a poorly integrated chat function to boot, crammed with ‘good morning’ messages. There’s little typing involved, since questions can be sent via uploaded pictures—a boon for the test prep population and those not fluent in English.

“You can break down the concept all you want. But it’s application in a test setting that really counts,”

Aditya Shankar, co-founder, Doubtnut

On Brainly, on the other hand, users submit questions across a variety of subjects, with the community answering them. The top answers—the ones with the most upvotes—genuinely do a decent job of answering doubts, even if there is also a glut of non-serious answers.

Compared to a Byju’s, Doubtnut is thin on conceptual videos with fancy three-dimensional graphics and drawn-out explanations. Brainly, currently doesn’t have any videos, though it does allow students to upload pictures of their doubts. Both models are a definite structural departure from the more premium products in edtech.

The reason, says Shankar, is that Doubtnut doesn’t bother itself with conceptual clarity if a learner can’t really apply it in a test situation. Their videos are no-nonsense: a phantom hand solving a sum on a smartboard, while explaining the steps. “You can break down the concept all you want. But it’s application in a test setting that really counts,” he adds.

Despite their lean, sparse and patchy look, or rather because of it, the platforms have rapidly gained traction. Doubtnut has gone from 1,000 monthly active users in 2016 to over 7 million within three years. Brainly too, says Borkowski, has been getting traction from learners across India. It even allows for questions in vernacular languages such as Marathi, Telugu, Bengali and Tamil.

Different strokes

The numbers alone can hollow any arguments against their efficacy. Local tuition teachers who use Doubtnut, however, are less enthusiastic about its pedagogy. “It’s a great resource for us. We find different ways to explain sums to our students. But I’m not sure if students would understand this on their own,” says Neelam Sirshat, a tuition class owner from Vikhroli, Mumbai.

Shirshat’s misgivings are echoed by Adarsh Gautam, a school teacher from Kakori, Uttar Pradesh. Gautam uses Doubtnut to teach difficult sums to his class, most of whom belong to low-income backgrounds. However, he clarifies, Doubtnut may work because of the easy, vernacular explanations in the videos. Besides, he adds, you have to pay for other apps.

Videos help Doubtnut in distribution, claims Nagori. It’s because Google indexes videos over texts, she says. So while the top results for a math question on Google might still show older edtech sites like Meritnation, Nagori claims Doubtnut is rising rapidly. “We spend a nominal amount on YouTube marketing, but most of our traffic comes from organic search results,” she explains. One possible explanation is that Doubtnut builds for search terms like “p2 + q2 is equal to ?”, making their videos easier to find through web searches.

Sachet pricing

“We work on monthly mobile top-ups.
Most students won’t have the means to attend a coaching class,” says Gautam, the school teacher from Kakori, Uttar Pradesh. Access to mobiles is restricted to students in grades 11 and 12, he adds

Brainly is also growing. Since its India launch in 2016, the company claims, it has grown 200% year-on-year. Brainly raised a total of $68.5 million, with almost $30 million in its most recent Naspers-led round. Unlike Doubtnut, it’s currently text-based.

Unlike Doubtnut, whose users need prompt and exact answers to textbook questions, test prep is only a sliver of Brainly’s target market. It ropes in a more diverse set of students looking for help in a range of subjects.

“Our messaging to students between 13 and 19 is very clear. Brainly is the place to ask any homework or exam questions you’re stuck with,” says Borkowski, on a video call from New York, where Brainly is headquartered.

Complete with leaderboards and a daily points register, Brainly gamifies the asking and clearing of doubts. The platform also has tutors, but, as Borkowski explains, “Our tutor intervention has more to do with predicting which questions are going to be the most popular and most difficult to solve, within a particular subject.” Brainly currently employs 140 people worldwide, and content curators—or tutors—make up a chunk of that. 

Despite their differences though, Borkowski and Nagori have one thing in common—they’ve started at the other end of the tunnel from the likes of edtech giants like Byju’s, Toppr and Unacademy. Their whole focus—and model—is centered around doubt-resolution, unlike the more established edtech players, who offer it as one of many products. 

Online coaching platform Vedantu, for instance, includes doubt-solving as part of its larger, paid-for live tutoring package. Byju’s doesn’t even have a hotline for doubts, let alone a 24×7 doubt solving service.

Doubtnut and Brainly understand the urgency of a doubt. While doing homework. While taking a mock test. They’ve replicated offline behaviour like consulting peers and teachers for quick explanations. They also have a common goal: to shore up as many active learners as possible before they shift to paid models. But can this mix of ingredients cook up a profitable business model?

School of hard knocks

Learning is alchemic. It’s almost impossible to bottle into one composite paid-for product.

That’s why, says Vamsi Krishna, co-founder at Vedantu, even though doubts are atomic to learning, they differ in shape, size, urgency, and hence treatment. 

“If a doubt needs explanation, video is the best form. If it’s steps a student wants to learn, then even a PDF or image would do. But a follow up on a solution requires one-on-one interaction with the tutor,” says Krishna, slotting Vedantu into that final category.

There were a few among the first edtech movers who went out on a limb and tried to build a business model by isolating and charging for doubts.

Edtech platforms Toppr and Hashlearn, launched in 2013 and 2016, respectively, both tinkered with monetising a 24×7 doubts helpline. A direct, one-on-one doubts consultation with a tutor, via chat. According to its website, Toppr currently charges Rs 99 ($1.4) for 5 doubts in a month. Hashlearn has monthly packages costing between Rs 8,000-10,000 ($112-140) for an unlimited number of doubts across 3 to 4 subjects.

These models were forward-looking but not particularly lucrative, says the edtech investor mentioned above. “They couldn’t monetise doubts as a stand-alone product. They had to add layers,” he says. Toppr added free videos to charge for doubts and test paper practice. Hashlearn, as of two months ago, added live tuitions and digitised course material to its doubts-only product. “It allows for better ARPU (average revenue per user). We still have doubts at the center of all our products,” says Hashlearn founder and chief operating officer Jayadev Gopalakrishnan. Their new subscription product—Passport—is now an all-access pass, priced at Rs 14,999 ($210) for the year. Students can access live classes, study material and tutors 24×7, to clear doubts.

“We might do away with our standalone doubts model completely,” says Gopalakrishnan.

While both Toppr and Hashlearn have added valuable layers to their core doubt product, Nagori believes that 24×7, one-on-one access to tutors is the Achilles Heel in their operations. “How are you going to handle 200,000 queries a day if each question has to be connected to live tutors via chat? That’s approximately 6 million questions a month,” she says. 

While Doubtnut relies on artificial intelligence to match questions with answers, Hashlearn has a team of 6,000 tutors across India who spend close to 12 minutes per chat session. 

Gopalakrishnan—who prioritises a human touch over impersonal videos— offers a counter argument to Nagori. Doubtnut, he claims, is interested in pushing a solution out, whereas Hashlearn turns every doubt-solving chat into a real-time micro-tutoring session. “People don’t expect to get that kind of service for free. So we’ve always been a paid model,” he says.

But at a monthly average ticket size of Rs 15,000 ($210), both Hashlearn and Toppr are prohibitively expensive to an audience who aren’t yet paid subscribers to any edtech product, lean or full-stack. On the other hand, free doubt solving may build huge traction, but it hardly builds loyalty. 

Muscling up

Of the 11 Doubtnut users The Ken spoke with, only half said they would consider paying for the app. The other half said they would move on to the next best—and free—option.

Admittedly a small sample, these responses point to a challenge that’s brewing right under Doubtnut’s nose. Brainly is somewhat protected by its ad revenue, even though cost-per-clicks in India are far lower compared to other markets like the US. The company refused to divulge any India specific revenue numbers.

While they’ve created immense value and generated high user engagement, converting free users to paid ones is a question Nagori and Borkowski are yet to find solutions to.

For both companies, their lean DNA is bound to resist topping up with too many expensive and clunky value adds. But Borkowski’s willing to incorporate videos, if it proves to be more engaging for students. In fact, he’s already scouting the market for an edtech content partner. “We’re exploring all kinds of options, including joining forces with other edtech firms,” says Borkowski, without revealing the exact nature of such potential partnerships.

“Doubt-solving platforms are painkillers, not vitamins. Older [edtech] platforms are mostly content, without immediate solutions. Students will organically want the painkiller”

Edtech expert from Bengaluru

Doubtnut, for its part, has set up two studios in its office, which may be used to launch one-to-many live classes, says Nagori. The treatment will be markedly different from a Byju’s, and focus only on the pain points students have while answering questions. “We want to go granular with the content. We have data from over 5 million users to figure out what these topics should be,” she adds. In the year ending March 2018, Doubnut’s total loss stood at Rs 24 lakh ($33,600), while it earned revenues of Rs 4.6 lakh ($6,435), according to figures sourced from company research platform Tofler.

Live classes might be a first tentative step towards monetisation. But Doubtnut will now have to tread carefully on its own stomping grounds. “Getting the next 8-10 million students to pay will need sachet pricing, like monthly mobile top-ups. Rs 60-300 ($0.85-4.2) is the bracket,” says the edtech investor mentioned above. 

With the numbers it already has, and at dirt cheap prices, Doubtnut could unlock an extremely lucrative—and untapped—paying market. But in creating an AI-fueled, free engine with high user engagement, both Doubtnut and Brainly have unwittingly turned themselves into prime acquisition targets for larger companies. Paired with the right monetisation model, Doubtnut and Brainly are perfect additions to a full-stack model. What they have cracked with doubt-solving, at a low unit cost, is exactly the value that edtech giants want to add, says Saxena. It could be a win-win for all. 

Except Nagori isn’t particularly interested in building bridges. Unfazed, she’s trained her sights on conquering YouTube. After all, it’s how repeat users like Kumari found Doubnut. “We want to make sure that they’re spending their YouTube time on our videos. And all the time they’re not on YouTube, they spend on our app,” says Nagori.

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