In this edition of FreeFlowing, we shine the spotlight on Stoa, an online alternative MBA school.
Does an MBA need to take two years? Not if you ask the folks at Stoa School. The online business school offers an alternative to a conventional MBA, a six-month online course that includes sessions by some of the top entrepreneurs and investors in the country. And in a short period of 18 months, they have managed to build a community around Stoa made up of young, ambitious, and very vocal learners, all happy to give shoutouts to Stoa. The vibrancy of this community rivals that of alumni groups from conventional MBA schools.
These are impressive first steps in a short period of time.
So how did Stoa build its business and brand? We dove into the details with Raj and Aditya, the co-founders of Stoa.
Finding ideological fit before an idea fit
A co-founder partnership while building a startup is much like a marriage. A meeting of minds needs to happen first. While co-founders should have independent thoughts (which may not always align), the philosophical underpinnings of their worldview need to be similar.
Founders need to have alignment at the ideological level before they seek alignment at the idea level.
Aditya and Raj came up through the ranks of the Indian education system along similar paths, though at separate times. Both alumni of BITS, they were interested in alternative learning spaces from an early stage. Aditya used to teach students, whereas Raj had started an astronomy club during his school days.
Eventually, they both turned to startups, driven by the urge to build something on their own. Meeting at startup incubator Transcend, they spent about 6 months getting to know each other and jamming on small experiments together. In this process, they figured out that they liked working with each other and shared a common passion for building “learning communities.”
Ideological fit is important because the right partnership of founders should be able to weather the inevitable storms together. A lot of the experiments Raj and Aditya ran as a team during the first 6 months failed, but those failures gave them a taste of working as a unit under a variety of circumstances.
Walking the tight rope between pragmatism and idealism
Founders need to have faith and conviction in their idea. This is what gives them the courage to stick by their ideas through thick and thin.
And yet, founders also need to have a hard pragmatic mind that allows them to look at their product market fit critically and decide if they need to pivot or stop. This is necessary to prevent throwing good money or effort after bad. Walking this tight rope between hard-nosed pragmatism and dreamy eyed idealism is tough to accomplish.
This is what Raj and Aditya had to do when they realised that the ideas they were working on individually were not panning out. They were not scaling up as fast as they would have liked to.
The onset of the pandemic induced shutdown and the spectre of dwindling cash in the bank forced them to go back to the drawing board and choose an option that made the most business sense.
Identifying the right problem and the right target segment
The founders realised that business education is becoming a more horizontal skill these days. Almost everyone in today’s corporate world, from designers to developers, needs to have an understanding of how the overall business runs. This tribe of professionals want an ‘MBA-like’ education but find conventional MBA too restrictive. Traditional MBAs require too much commitment- an investment running into lakhs, and two years of their lives.
Raj and Aditya realised that this was an industry that was ripe for disruption.
Stoa’s approach is to solve this issue by offering an alternative to a traditional MBA, that in their own words “helps a modern professional master all things business in just 6 months.”
Stoa’s offering is geared towards young professionals, typically aged between 25 and 35, who have seen how the real corporate world works. They want to learn how businesses operate so that they can upgrade their career. Rather than degree certificates, they are motivated by the shared experience of learning with like-minded people, and the chance to appreciate practical challenges in real world businesses.
Aditya recounted an incident where the CTO of a funded startup told him that he suffered from imposter syndrome in meetings with his teammates where they discussed business, simply because he could not understand business jargons. Several conversations like this one gave Raj and Aditya a sense of Stoa’s mission. “We want to become the bridge that lets these outsiders become insiders in the world of business,” explains Aditya.
Stoa, and Stoicism
Raj and Aditya toyed with multiple name options before they fixed on the name Stoa.
The word is inspired by the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Stoa is a Greek architectural element, literally meaning “a passageway that connects two halls, and is lined with columns on both sides”. In such a passageway, the Greek philosopher Zeno had given the founding lectures of the Stoic school of philosophy.
Stoa was also one of the last remaining Greek names that, in Raj’s words, “was not yet abused in the SEO world.”
Short and catchy, the word Stoa signalled learning and was a good SEO catch. A good name to give a digital native education brand.
In retrospect, both the founders realised that stoicism is also a way of life for entrepreneurs who regularly have to face the roller coaster ride of ups and downs that running a startup entail.
“As an entrepreneur, I don’t think you can survive those gruelling moments when nothing seems to work out, and still wake up to face another day, unless you are stoic,” Raj quips.
Lessons from Stoa’s brand building playbook
For an online course that requires a significant commitment of both time and money, from a commitment-shy generation without the category generic pitch of certifications & placements, Stoa’s early traction throws up some interesting lessons for brand builders.
Leading with collaboration and not competition
“Learning to me is a really beautiful ritual to build friendships. At Stoa, people come together for learning but leave with friendships that go beyond just learning,” Aditya explains. To Raj and Aditya, Stoa is a brand that goes beyond just content delivery and builds a community of people who want to create lasting business value.
The admission and operational processes at Stoa are geared to bring this vision of a value generating community to life.
The young professionals who join Stoa do so to learn from industry experts they aspire to be in the future and Stoa fulfils this need by bringing in real life operators from the business world who can impart practical knowledge.
Stoa has replaced the competitive nature of colleges with the collaborative spirit of a community. Student teams are not graded for their case study presentations and cohort members are not even given individual feedback. The intent instead is to channel the learning through shared experiences and peer interactions. Aditya mentions that once a case is given, something magical happens in the 24 hours where the teams come together to solve it. When a team collectively applies their minds to solve a problem, the process itself becomes more important than the outcome.
And this approach seems to be working.
Stoa has managed to build a vibrant and vocal community. Stoa alumni often take the initiative to organize physical catchups or start impromptu tweet threads. They even bring a collegiate atmosphere to the lectures, sharing funny comments in the chat section of live classes, and ribbing each other. Most of them proudly wear their ‘Stoa Fellow’ tag in their public profiles and give regular shoutouts to the brand.
This “alumni-feel” is rarely seen in regular online EdTech courses where participant narrative is quite often transactional in nature.
All this has translated to a massive advantage for Stoa. Ed-tech is built on new user acquisition rather than retention. Therefore it’s critical for players in this field to keep their cost of acquisition (CAC) as low as possible. And very few levers impact acquisition as positively as good WOM and recommendation from those who have attended the course.
Teaching is the new pitching
Committing to a high-ticket investment like education typically involves a long incubation period where prospective students evaluate multiple options, weigh out pros and cons, and hunt for further validation before making a choice. During this consideration phase, building consumer trust in the authenticity of the brand can definitely help to ease decision making.
In EdTech, a great way to cue genuine authenticity is to create top quality content that the brand can use to educate and interact with prospective leads.
Stoa approached this by curating relevant and value adding pieces of content for free, and investing time to conduct meaningful interactions with their target audience.
Aditya puts out byte sized lessons on LinkedIn almost every day under the title ‘100 days of MBA’ and Raj regularly engages with his large Twitter audience on a wide variety of topics. Stoa also conducts regular online sessions on a wide variety of topics- ranging from roasting startup ideas to simplifying business concepts.
This approach has helped Stoa create a base of brand evangelists who support the brand and regularly consume its content. This amplifies Stoa’s word of mouth and is a source of a healthy top-of-funnel.
Creating demand through exclusivity
In Raj’s words, “while we’re still figuring out what to do, we are quite clear on things that we shouldn’t be doing.”
Hence unlike other EdTech companies that launch multiple products in close succession to cover a wide range of price points, Stoa focused on their flagship course, the Stoa MBA and kept iterating it- on all aspects of the mix- batch size, curriculum, program duration and fee, to get it right.
Similarly, while giving an all-access pass to everyone consuming their content was an easy temptation to quickly build a ‘large community’, Stoa chose instead to focus on its “insiders”- the alumni. These alumni, in turn, create enough buzz about the program on social media, building intrigue around the brand and positioning Stoa as an exclusive club that many aspire to be a part of.
Prioritizing education and experience over placement claims
Stoa does offer placements – on their website they mention “150 hiring partners which include India’s top startups, and a 72% average salary increase.”
However, the brand doesn’t lead with the narrative of placements. Its content and communication are based on pillars of community-based learning experience, an ability to learn the practical aspects of business through practitioners, and inculcating a startup mindset – all this while being a part of a powerful learning community.
Thus, the brand has been able to steer clear of the pitfalls of EdTech category, which often leads with aggressive and undifferentiated marketing messages focused on placements, average salaries, and certifications.
This approach seems to be setting the right expectations among the target audience, because as per Aditya “only about 30% of those who join Stoa opt for Stoa career services.”
Building the right team matters
Every startup has to chart its own path when it comes to building its team. This path is often rocky, especially for brands so reliant on WOM for growth as Stoa, where experience at every touchpoint could make or break the brand’s fortunes.
Raj and Aditya believe that after some initial hits and misses, they have identified the right ingredients to look for. They look for people who show craftsmanship in their field (an indicator of attention to detail), good writing skills (an indicator of clear thinking) and with whom they can have interesting conversations beyond work (an indicator of ideological match).
Stressing the point, Aditya proudly tells the story of an applicant who despite being rejected, reached out to Stoa with a compliment, “Regardless of the outcome, I really enjoyed my conversations with your counsellor. He recommended three books for me to read, and I’ve already started on the first.”
Stakeholder conversations like these help to play up the human side of the brand Stoa.
Challenges – how to scale the magic?
Globally, there is an increasing demand for CBCs (Cohort Based Courses), and Stoa is well positioned to take advantage of that. But it’s easier said than done.
For starters, a 6-month time commitment is not for everyone. For sustained growth, Stoa needs to figure out alternative form factors of their product that can cater to those who may not have 6-months to invest.
But it opens up another set of challenges.
How can Stoa figure out shorter courses without losing out on the high-quality education and engaged community that are its lifeblood? This is going to be an important question to ponder for its founding team.
Speaking of communities, scaling up can be a double-edged sword. With its current size, Stoa is able to effectively nurture the community and maintain the prized feel of belonging to an “inner circle”. However, managing the same level of engagement as batch sizes increase will come with its own challenges, especially with an online-first model like Stoa.
Also, with the space of CBCs (Cohort Based Courses) heating up, we can expect many new players to enter the fray. Expectedly, some of them will take a leaf out of Stoa’s playbook and even resort to aggressive pricing and exaggerated marketing. It will be interesting to see how Stoa responds to such a challenge.
Finally, as the world opens up post-pandemic, young working professionals, the core audience for Stoa, would have multiple other avenues to engage, bond and socialize vying for their attention. While the pandemic has given tailwinds to Stoa, it will need to sustain its momentum in the post-pandemic world where it would compete for share of time of busy youngsters. In this sense, the indirect competition to Stoa is only going to expand.
Stoa school has identified a clear need gap in the EdTech space and created its own playbook to fill it. However, in order to grow further, they will need to identify more such spaces and will need to do so without getting distracted by FOMO or stretching themselves too thin by launching undifferentiated courses. Thankfully, the founders are cognizant of this, and during our conversation emphasized that they need to find a really good wedge from which they cannot be displaced.
As Raj succinctly put it, “The challenge is how does one scale the magic?”
We can’t wait to see the magic unfold!
If you want to listen to our podcast with Raj and Aditya, head on over to Spotify: FreeFlowing podcast with Stoa.