uLesson’s founder, Sim Shagaya, explains why the company launched physical centres in 2021 and its quick decision to shut them down.
Launched in 2019, uLesson focuses on the K-12 learning category and was initially available through an Android app and a USB dongle. Students could plug the dongles into devices and access educational content without any internet connection. It seemed like the perfect online and offline strategy in a low-income market where affordable and reliable broadband connectivity remains challenging. It then went a step further, setting up physical learning centres in July 2021; it closed those centres in December of the same year.
Two years after the short-lived experiment, Sim Shagaya, uLesson’s founder and CEO, told TechCabal that the physical centres were created to reduce the upfront cost of a parent acquiring or using its service. “So we would rent the space, provide the tablets, and then students can come and learn.” It rented spaces in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Asaba, using part of its Abuja office as another learning centre.
The learning centres were supposed to be an improvement on the dongles uLesson sold at launch. Complaints from the users suggested that the chips on these dongles were vulnerable to viruses transmitted from smartphones and laptop computers used by students, the source said. This technical challenge meant that a lot of support time was spent solving issues for customers. Eventually, the dongles were phased out. Enter physical centres.
Physical centres and running costs
Most Nigerians who are in the University are familiar with tutorial centres that help students pass admission exams like West African Examinations Council (WAEC) and Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). uLesson’s physical centres were partly based on these established models.
One crucial difference was that uLesson’s physical centres were less about interacting with subject teachers and more about interacting with the tabs. For a while, the centres were a smash hit. “During holiday periods, the centres would get filled up [as] people would come to drop their kids off,” Shagaya told TechCabal over a virtual call. “The numbers would make sense.”
As the experiment continued, the company realised that its “revenue couldn’t carry the cost,” Shagaya explained. “Holidays in an academic term are about two weeks, and in a year, we would get about five to six weeks. In a year, we would get about two to three months of full capacity. [But] the fixed cost of rent, the electricity, all just for one student. The revenue couldn’t carry the cost,” Shagaya explained.
Apart from life after the holidays, uLesson probably underestimated one cultural challenge: parents did not warm up to the idea of a learning space where young students are left with tabs and the internet. Usually, it could take businesses a long time to cut their losses on experiments like this but meeting customers in person helped the company make a quick decision.
The company’s offline strategy is now a learning bundle that ships a uLesson tab with a subscription that means students don’t have to worry about additional internet costs. It also introduced a buy now pay later option for students, allowing them to pay for the tab on monthly. According to Shagaya, uLesson Group is now cash flow positive, perhaps suggesting that its new strategy was a step in the right direction.
In the end, Shagaya’s conviction that a physical component is essential for a compelling academic experience hasn’t changed. Only the form of delivering the experience has.
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…. to be continued
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