Why we Invested in Unlu
Unlu: Celebrity driven full stack learning and engagement platform.
Unlu is the leading celebrity-driven learning platform in India for the creator economy. By combining celebrity-created classes, community engagement, live events, and career opportunities, Unlu is delivering a full-stack solution to aspiring creators. The celebrity leverage has enabled amazing traction with very low CAC. They have a backlog of celebrities to onboard and we participated in the very limited Seed+ extension to accelerate traction.
The Story + Product Thesis
I have been poking around online learning startups for over a decade, way before it was fashionable as part of the “remote everything” trend. Early efforts were not much more than videos of classroom lectures. While some knowledge was transferred, there was very little LEARNING going on. Even today, video-based platforms like MasterClass and even Teachable (slightly more engaging) suffer from embarrassingly low completion rates. When it comes to Skills, learning from someone who has demonstrable credibility with the skill in a community of learners becomes extra important. I recently participated in a Writing Fellowship through BeOnDeck where they use a combination of proven industry experts, fundamental skills training, cohort-based communities, and ongoing community engagement. The experience was transformational and not only did I complete the full course, I learned more than in any course and have relationships that will likely continue (just like college). While I passed on BeOnDeck’s recent Series A for valuation and stage reasons, I kept looking for an earlier stage company that is taking a similar transformative approach to online learning that actually leads to learning.
I have been involved with the ExpertDojo accelerator in LA for over a year and funded both YuvaPay and Suavei with them. On a recent surf trip to Los Angeles I asked Brian (the CEO) “If you had to pick one company in your portfolio (currently over 100 companies) to break out 10X in the next six months, which would it be?” “Unlu, since you already invested in Suavei and Yuva.” Brian said. I called the CEO that afternoon.
CEO Vipul Agarwal went to the best business school in Europe, INSEAD after receiving math and statistics degrees. After two successful start-ups in India, he started thinking about what India could be like if everyone had the opportunity to learn from the best of the best in the world with a community around them like he did at INSEAD. Having taken classes on MasterClass and Teachable he had experienced firsthand the low completion rates. He also noticed a striking lack of skills training for the emerging creator economy. Unlu was born.
His first courses came from his personal relationships with leading actors, singers, and writers. He realized very early that to raise completion rates, the platform had to have multiple engagement points. That led Unlu to have a class platform, a vibrant community platform, live events, as well as placement opportunities for students to monetize their newly learned skills. This full-stack approach has led to an enviable 80% class completion rate (vs < 40% on MasterClass) and students buying multiple classes as well as adding on live events and other services. Unlu has also innovated class production (three-camera shoots) and cost ($20K) which allows them to pay back their investment in a new class in under 2 months. Customer acquisition is growing like crazy in part due to the celebrity leverage the instructors bring. Unlu has also found paid advertising channels that return 2.2 dollars for every dollar spent so they can scale efficiently with paid acquisition when they need to.
In February the company raised a Seed round and has seen a crush in demand in Feb and March leading them to need to expand the team more aggressively than originally planned. They have a backlog of celebrities and courses to create. This led to the opportunity to invest in a very limited Seed+ round with select investors led by Expert Dojo and Nexus.
Why I am Investing
I have personally experienced the value of learning from the best in the world as part of a community that stays connected over time. I want that for all learners. Stanford doesn’t scale. Unlu has identified the creator niche and has solved the major scaling problems to deliver learning for the creator economy. Their efficient class production costs paired with the celebrity reach and an engaged community has solved the completion problem systemic in most prior platforms. While laser-focused on creators in India today, I do believe there are global expansion and category expansion opportunities to solve the completion problem at scale across geographies and verticals.
Why this deal is Incisive
Unlu ranks very highly in key areas of our Meta Themes.
Disruptive innovation creates new opportunity. The high failure rate with existing learning platforms is an opportunity for innovation. Solving the completion problem with an engaged community, celebrities, live events and work opportunities in one platform will unlock pent up demand in the market from learners who have failed to make progress. I believe Unlu will continue to innovate on the cost and engagement side to scale their solution into new geographies and content verticals over time.
Platforms Win. Platforms increase in value over time and with scale of members. Unlu has already grown this way. People learn in different ways, through different experiences. MasterClass is recorded celebrity classes without a community, no live events nor any work opportunities. By combining the various ways people like to learn into a single platform, Unlu has largely solved the completion problem and is moving toward true value creation for their learners. When people get more value out than they spend, the buy again. Customers are rebuying now at a 1.8x rate and management is focused on getting this up over time. As learners stay engaged with the platform over time, there will be new monetization opportunities. Learn to sing, then learn to podcast, then learn something else. In learning, I see platforms winning.
Great founders figure it out. Management is mission-driven to deliver a very valuable product at scale. They started focusing on the celebrity monetization side of things then realized their customers were really the learner. They pivoted their focus to delivering value to the learner and solved the completion problem while maintaining the value to the celebrities. Management has been involved in operations and investment in multiple startups and they have shown they understand how to deliver customer value at scale.
Software Eats Everything. Software eats an industry when you can reduce costs and increase access by an order of magnitude both ways. Unlu is delivering that for the creator economy in India. A kid in a rural village can take a whole singing course from the top pop star, participate in a learning community and get work opportunities for less than the cost of one live event ticket for that pop star.
Invest with other smart people. When investing far afield it is important to have partners on the ground who have deep experience with the market and the management. ExpertDojo has spent months with Unlu management during their accelerator program. Nexus is a leading investor in India and has multiple successful companies in related industries. These partners know the landscape well. I am excited to partner with them.
Trends I am betting on
Lifelong learning. Back in the “normal times” many of us felt too busy with work or life to learn anything new. With all the “pandemic time” we had on our hands, many started checking of the “learn that someday” list. Many also realized that their old jobs may not be there and were faced with learning new skills in short order when schools were closed. Thankfully on-line learning platforms were there for many of us. Consumer demand for life long learning was pulled forward 5-10 years during the pandemic. I am betting this is a trend that holds over the long term. Especially as online learning platforms become more robust and cheaper. Unlu is on the frontier of this trend.
Learn from the smartest people. It is always best to learn from the best anything you want to learn. Traditionally general availability to experts has been gated by access (time, scheduling, reach) and cost barriers. There has been a wide gap between the value of (and access to) an expert’s time and the cost someone is willing to pay for that as well as a lack of structured learning versus “broadcast” of a subset of ideas. The best online learning platforms will shrink this gap and enable anyone to learn from the best at a reasonable deal for both of them. As more experts embrace the lower (consumer) cost platforms and access increases, the flywheel will spin faster. I am betting the demand to learn from the best only accelerates as the best make themselves more accessible.