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Gagan Biyani is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He was a co-founder and President of Udemy, an online education company, and also was co-founder and CEO of Sprig, a food delivery company that raised $60 million in venture capital.

He started the Growth Hackers Conference, was interim head of growth at Lyft and a writer at TechCrunch when each was less than 30 employees. In 10 years in Silicon Valley, he has had 7 co-founders, his companies have raised over $200 million in venture capital, employed over 1,500 employees.

He's also been named to Fast Company's Most Creative People and Forbes' 30 under 30 list. Sprig was eventually shut down, while Udemy is the category leader in online courses. He spent the last 2 years on sabbatical where he immersed himself in the cultures of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Currently, Gagan has started a Growth Acceleration Program for startups in the EU and ME with former VP Marketing at PayPal Matt Lerner - https://startupcorestrengths.com/gagan-biyani-matt-lerner-10x10-growth-program/. This is a side project to help startups while he figures out his next thing.

Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gaganbiyani

  • HK

    Harmit Kamboe

    5 days ago #

    How did you get the first 50 people to create and offer their courses on Udemy? How did you get to 500 courses from this point on?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      When we started Udemy, we had a classic chicken and egg problem. We couldn't send users to a website with no courses and nobody wanted to create courses without any users to take them! The first solution was by CEO/co-founder @erenbali who built a crawler that allowed us to import YouTube playlists and publish courses accordingly. So, when we finally launched on TechCrunch, Mashable, and other blogs (back then blogs were a good source of initial traffic), we had a bunch of YouTube playlists as courses on the platform. They weren't "real" instructors but they provided content that could help showcase the platform.

      2 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      After about 6 months with free courses, we made a big strategic decision to focus on paid. Our first few courses we actually created ourselves (by hosting educational events in Palo Alto and then hiring a videographer to film the course). This allowed us to build our first 3 courses. The founder of StartupDigest, Chris McCann, happened to be our roommate (we found him through Craigslist) and so we partnered with him to promote these courses on his mailing list. This gave us the idea to promote on mailing lists.

      From there, the next 50 courses followed the same formula: we partnered with dozens of mailing lists in the technology vertical, e-mailed potential instructors and convinced them to create courses. We'd give them a deadline timed with a newsletter launch so they would act fast and then they'd put their courses up!

      It was a bit of luck, creativity and a lot of hustle, but eventually we had 50+ courses that were built entirely for Udemy.

      1 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      To 500 - the race was similar but required more scaling. We built a team of sales reps ("business development") who would scour the internet and cold e-mail anyone who was teaching online. They would get on the phone with them and convince them to put up a course. Simultaneously, our marketing team was coming up with ways to promote those courses so they would have traction.

      We never stopped hustling to get courses up but it did get much easier over time - as we had proof that we could make instructors money and as we had better and better courses for users to take.

      1 Share
  • CF

    Cassia Fescina

    1 day ago #

    Thanks for doing this, Gagan.
    I see you have been through all the different stages of starting and "finishing" it.
    I wonder if you've learned anything you wish someone had told you before about Acquisitions and Exits strategies?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      Great question! Unfortunately, I know little about Acquisitions and Exits as I've only had one (Growth Hackers Conference). My main goal has been to build businesses that stand the test of time. I wish I knew more for you but don't like to oversell my experience :)

  • PC

    Pedro Clivati

    1 day ago #

    Awesome to have you hosting an AMA Gagan.

    1. From what I could count in the brief bio, you've created companies in the Ed-tech space, Delivery space, Entertainment space and more. May I ask what's the process here?
    2. Still on the same line: do you start to think about growth after finding PMF or since the idea conception?
    3. From all the different growth teams you've been part of (direct or indirect), is there a specific metric all teams should be looking at?

    Thanks again, looking forward to learning from your experience! :)

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      I try to build businesses that are at the intersection of my personal passion, a market opportunity and the size of that opportunity. It just so happens that my passions are extremely diverse (education, art, food, philosophy, writing, mobile technology) and that allows me to have a large set of opportunities that get me excited. From there, I honestly just poke my head out (as you see I'm doing in this AMA) and talk to as many people as possible, expose myself to as many ideas as possible. That usually results in a very large list of ideas. I mull them over, not so systematically, and eventually I arrive at an idea I really really like. For smaller businesses, that tends to take about 3 months. For bigger opportunities (startups), that can take between 6-12 months or even longer!

      1 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      I don't think much about growth until after I've got PMF. I think focus on PMF is so so critical (10x more important than growth for example) that I spend all my time worrying about whether I have the right product. After that, I start to think about marketing. It helps that I naturally am a marketer and so of course it is in my subconscious when I think about "market size." If I feel a product wouldn't sell, I probably wouldn't get excited enough about it anyways.

      1 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      If I've learned 1 thing about business, its that everything is the same and everything is different. There is no one metric teams should be looking at, because every business requires a different approach. However, it is almost always the case that each business should create ONE metric (north star metric) since it is difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time.

      1 Share
  • SP

    Siddharth Prabhakar

    1 day ago #

    I am the founder of Masterschool, where celebrity artists from India teach online lessons. How do we acquire paying users without traditional marketing?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      Cool business! I wouldn't presume to have a specific marketing tactic for you, since my first 5 ideas will likely not work. Instead, I recommend you install a growth process at your company. You and your team know your users best (or you need to start by getting to know them). Then, have weekly meetings where you brainstorm as many ideas as possible and pick the best one (based on impact). Then, test and iterate until you find ones that work!

      2 Share
  • GN

    Gustavo Nunes

    1 day ago #

    Hi, Gagan. Thanks for hosting this session with us.

    1) When is the best time for a company to have a growth team?
    2) What role do you think growth hacking will play in enterprises over the next five years? And why is it so important these days?
    3) Udemy is a company know by everybody and we expect that you run big experiments, or am I wrong? Could you share an idea that seemed little when you've created, but brought big results?
    4) Where do you see opportunities for online education companies to grow?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      Companies should generally build growth teams AFTER achieving product/market fit. There are a few ideas that require traction to be valuable at all (marketplaces, social networks) and in those cases you may want to build one earlier.

      2 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      I really wish the "growth hacking" name wasn't considered taboo, which I think has reduced its appeal in enterprise. That said, more and more companies are adopting growth marketing - the practice of running experiments at a high velocity, leveraging data and product to improve results and then doubling down on successful experiments. This is only going to accelerate as more companies come online and realize they need to leverage modern business practices to continue to achieve their goals.

      2 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      So many of Udemy's first experiments were surprises, because we never assumed anything would work until we tried them. We didn't know that our "Raising Capital for Startups" course was going to be successful - and that e-mail lists would be such a big part of our acquisition strategy. Then, we didn't realize how big discounting would be in our growth strategy. So almost everything we did was just a matter of process: generate, test, evaluate, iterate.

      2 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      We are still in the 2nd inning of online education. While lifelong learning is increasingly done online, the high-end market for lifelong is still largely in person via seminars or in-person courses. College is almost completely non-digital to-date and ripe for disruption due to increasing costs and public awareness of the decreasing ROI. K-12 seems like it is still far away from truly changing, since we need major political changes before we can see true improvements in K-12. Nonetheless, all sectors will continue to see dramatic changes due to the rise of technology and I'm sure each subsequent decade from now we'll continue to see more and more opportunities in online education.

      2 Share
  • GB

    Gagan Biyani

    about 7 hours ago #

    Alright! This was awesome and thanks for such great questions. I'm going to sign off for a bit but will be back to answer any other remaining questions in a few hours. So feel free to ask some more!

  • DN

    Digital Marketing Nation

    1 day ago #

    What strategy should we use to promote and new platforms for professional entrepreneurs in minimum budget. How much budget required for promoting a big portal. How to get funding for your business?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      For strategies to promote, see above re: Siddharth's question. Impossible to recommend a specific strategy, but the process is key. Follow the process: learn about your users, run a weekly growth meeting where you come up with and prioritize ideas, run tests that are short and only take 1 week, then repeat until you find a successful growth strategy.

      You don't need a budget for the initial marketing of a business; you should have enough product/market fit that you people really want your product.

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      Growth and funding come to businesses that are deserving of it. Most (95%) of businesses should not and do not receive funding. Sadly, the same is true with growth. This means your best way of getting funding or growing your business is to dramatically improve your product/market fit. So many people seem to ignore this and then end up spending 1, 2, 5 years with a product that never had a chance in the first place.

  • OO

    Oluwamayowa OSHIDERO

    about 21 hours ago #

    Hi Gagan,

    Really pleased to have you here,

    1. Founding companies across various industry category, would you say it's crucially important that a founder have a background knowledge he/she is founding the company in.
    2. Did you at any point had to manage more than one of these startups together? Basically, did you manage any of them together or you had to build one after the other?
    3. What do you do when it seems like you are 'bored' of running the startup even though it's actually growing.

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      After my challenges with Sprig, I realize that founder/market fit is critically important. That doesn't mean you have to have a background in the space (we had limited background in education when we started Udemy). It does mean that you should be starting a business that fits naturally with your strengths. Often, it isn't clear what will define a "winner" in a market until much later - but you should at least have some idea that the things the "winner" has to get right are likely things you are also good at.

      1 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      I mostly built these companies one after another, since I am ruthless about my time. So I usually just cut everything I'm doing and focus on the most interesting one. That's in part why I sold the Growth Hackers Conference - Sprig was much more exciting at the time and was growing super fast, so I just didn't have time to dedicate to GHC!

      In terms of getting bored, I think its hard to imagine having a super fast growing startup and getting bored - but in that case, it is obvious to me you must come up with a transition plan! It will be hard, but find someone who is more interested than you in the job and replace yourself.

  • HS

    Hale Schneider

    about 10 hours ago #

    Hi Gagan, excited to have you here for an AMA

    I'm interested to know about the early traction at Udemy.
    What growth hacks (if any) did you use to get new users and teachers?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      I answered this above but do let me know if you have follow-up questions and I'm happy to answer them!

  • VK

    Vivek Kumar

    about 9 hours ago #

    Hi Gagan,

    In a marketplace model such as Udemy, how do you control the quality of content when everyone can be a 'course creator' and there's no barrier to start. Even though, it leads to so many choices for the customers, Customers might get pissed off with too many choices with 'zero' or 'no' differentiation to choose from. I am planning to create a 'Marketplace' for 'car services' Anything apart from the pricing, ratings/reviews which can create positive impact on customers and save them from 'too much information bombardment' hence leading to a 'real-quick' solution and decision making for them.
    What are the important considerations which I should make in order to keep it 'hassle free' experience for customers and lesser dependent upon 'customer support' teams before buying?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 8 hours ago #

      Every marketplace requires a different approach to this, since each has a different customer use case. In Udemy's case, it was extremely valuable to have a wide breadth of courses (since there are so many different subjects that people were interested in learning and no content production company could compete with us on breadth). But, we also needed to put at least a minimum quality threshold in place - so we eventually started screening courses a bit to make sure that they were of sufficient quality that someone could conceivably want to pay for them.

      In terms of your marketplace, it feels like it is in-between Udemy (where breadth is extremely valuable) and Lyft (where breadth is basically meaningless). You want a car services person you can trust, but may prefer a few options due to personal taste. Or maybe you just want one and you build a brand on always having the right option. I don't know - but its clear to me you wouldn't just want an eBay or Udemy approach since nobody wants to sort through hundreds of options when picking a car service professional.
      The answer to your last question involves trial and error and talking to your prospective users. That's the hardest question to answer - and you will be paid handsomely if you figure it out!

  • JR

    JORDANA RAUBER

    about 8 hours ago #

    Hi Gagan!
    It’s a pleasure to have you here to answer our questions. Thanks for taking the time to do that! Here are my questions for you:
    1. We know that it’s impossible to get everything right all the time. Any fail stories you are able to share that you feel you have learned from?
    2. What were the coolest growth hacking strategies you’ve seen being used to accelerate growth at Udemy and Lyft?
    3. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Growth Acceleration Program and what are the main challenges faced by EU and ME startups?

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 7 hours ago #

      Well, Sprig was a big fail story. Sprig was an online restaurant where we made 3 meals a day and delivered them to you in 15 minutes for $15. We thought we had the right idea - a more "Amazon" approach to food delivery than the "eBay" approach of Doordash and Postmates. We built an entire team and business, raised $60 million and then eventually when UberEATS launched, we had to shut it all down. It was brutal, and I learned a few things:
      1) The power of false positives. We had all the right signs, but eventually we were wrong. Be paranoid about this, but also be humble because if you are successful you probably could've just as easily been us!
      2) Founder/market fit. In retrospect, I'm not the perfect person to be starting a highly food operations-intensive business. I think the skills required (intense attention to detail, managing large labor forces, and the "art" of restauranteurism) are not quite in my skillset. I learned them well enough, but they didn't come naturally.

      1 Share
    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 7 hours ago #

      There's a lot about Udemy's growth hacking above. For Lyft:

      At Lyft, I was in charge of the Lyft LA launch which was interesting because LA is a vastly different city from San Francisco. When Lyft launched in LA, many people were unsure - LA is a driving culture, LA is so spread out, LA people barely use taxis. The pontificating of the public was ridiculous, as is often the case, because few of them really knew much about LA nor had they talked to the users. This is when I learned the true value of customer interviews--I flew to LA and interviewed customers and realized that not only were they completely desperate for a solution like ridesharing, but that their actual needs were slightly different from those of SF customers. Whereas in SF, you go outside and raise your hand for a cab, in LA you call! So the thought of opening your phone and having a reliable taxi alternative was even more appealing than in SF. Furthermore, the reliability was more important than the price - since so many LA cab drivers would never even show up after a phone call (or worse yet, they'd show up and then leave within 30 seconds while you are running out of the house to try and catch them).

      1 Share
  • JS

    Jae Shin

    about 8 hours ago #

    Hi Gagan

    Thanks for your time here!

    1. Could you describe if there was a team dedicated for contents creation and how they were set up and operated in conjunction with the growth team (any metrics targeted for contents marketing - view count/time on site in order to measure possible contribution to growth/retention)

    2. Was there a community team/manager for welcoming/engaging course creators and if so, what was their typical engagement process and what tools were used to run/communicate/collaborate online with the course creators and how was the experience?

    3. How were you able to scale up HR? (from 5~10 to 100+) In order to scale HR in an efficient and reliable way, could you give any advice on method/approach discovered along the way or any recommendations for great service providers? (recruiter, agency, consultant, etc)

    Thanks in advance!

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 7 hours ago #

      Great question re: content and growth teams. We did separate out the growth (user acquisition) and biz dev (content creation) teams, but they also all sat underneath me (co-founder and President). As such, they were closely aligned - and we could easily coordinate their efforts - but the type of people we hired for each were quite different.

      Surprisingly, our metrics were very simple: we measured user growth by revenue/month and we measured instructor growth by new courses posted/month. So many VC's passed on us because we weren't focused on engagement (online courses have notoriously bad completion rates) but our naivete paid off! While everyone else was building product features to try and get users to be more sticky (which was an impossible battle), we were growing like a weed! People were happy to buy courses they didn't use, because they were affordable. It is no different from buying non-fiction books. Of course, when you sell 10,000 of a single course, and only 1,000 complete - that's still way better than selling 1,000 of a single course (or worse, 100!) and having 500 or 50 complete.

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 7 hours ago #

      In terms of community team/management, we didn't do much while I was at Udemy. I made the first hires here but was not there long enough to know what tools they used.

    • GB

      Gagan Biyani

      about 7 hours ago #

      In terms of HR, Sprig is the best example. We had only 2 HR staff (bless them) for about 1,000+ part-time and nearly 300 full-time employees! How did we do it?

      Well, a number of things:
      1) We tried our very best to move non-core HR matters to our "server management" team and customer support team which was much bigger and easier to hire for than HR.
      2) We created many scalable solutions through technology and through human processes to reduce the number of times anyone actually had questions or needed HR help. You can look at Uber or Lyft as modern examples of this.
      3) We used consultants as appropriate to beef up our expertise and help us deal with the challenge. Furthermore, we had a very senior contract recruiter with us from day 1 that was absolutely incredible. She hired nearly everyone on our team and also kept management abreast of team morale / etc.

  • AR

    Abdul Rehman

    about 8 hours ago #

    Is there a simple way to attract customers without costing a penny?

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