First published in The Business Times on 1 October 2021.
How do you help children from different cultures get hooked on maths — and ease parents’ concerns about learning the subject? Homegrown e-learning provider KooBits seems to have the solution.
Since 2014, the company has been offering an online maths program, KooBits Math, to primary schools in Singapore and the region.
The program combines animations, daily challenges and other game-like features to encourage children to learn maths concepts and solve related problems.
What makes the program unique? It enables children to learn maths at their own pace in a fun way that promotes independent learning and thinking.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, the company seized on the opportunities offered by the pivot to home-based learning to grow its online maths program.
KooBits founder and chief executive Stanley Han, 40, launched a new version of the program in April last year — one that parents could subscribe to directly.
The new version had more and simpler explanations of concepts in case the children had not learned them in class, among other changes.
The product became available just as parents worldwide were searching for ways to keep their children occupied at home.
“It turned out to be a pretty good solution,” Mr Han says with a laugh.
By December, KooBits’ subscription income from the consumer program outstripped that of its school-based one.
The company now has close to 200,000 users from 56 countries. It doubled its revenue last year from 2019, and is on track to break that record this year.
Today, nearly 400 schools in 13 countries mostly in South-east Asia — including Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia — use KooBits Math, which is tailored to suit each country’s maths curriculum. In Singapore, almost half of all primary schools use the program.
But the company’s success has not come easy. When Mr Han co-founded the company in 2007 while completing his degree in electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, it started off developing interactive English e-books to help children improve their writing skills.
It later developed other educational technology products, including KooBits Math, but these were slow to take off.
“We came very close to folding. At one point, we were left with just $7,000, and debated whether to sell the office furniture to sustain us for another week, or to shutter the company,” he recalls.
“Luckily, the very next day, we received five orders from schools for KooBits Math, and that was the turning point for us.”
To grow and thrive, the company invested in software innovations to make KooBits Math accessible to more people. Enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG) contributed to this effort.
“Language barriers are one of the biggest obstacles to the propagation of quality education, and we wanted to find a technological solution to that problem,” says Mr Han.
The company started a research project with ESG in 2019 to create a program that can quickly and automatically translate its content for different markets.
The program also had to recognise and localise a variety of terms about maths, culture, money and other references. Developing the groundbreaking program took 15 months.
“Now, we can translate our entire content bank, from videos and questions to stories, into another language and localise it within three months,” says Mr Han.
KooBits launched Bahasa Indonesia versions of its school-based and consumer programs in Indonesia in August, and traditional Chinese versions in Hong Kong last month.
The company is working on localised traditional Chinese versions for Taiwan, and has other markets lined up.
“Our project with ESG is a gamechanger for our scalability. We can make our content relevant to children everywhere, no matter what language they speak.”
Diversifying for growth
Mr Han has other plans to help KooBits grow, including the introduction of a science product in the near future. Inspired by his five-year-old daughter, he is also considering expanding the maths programs to include pre-school maths.
“I started my daughter on KooBits Math a few months ago because my wife found it challenging to teach her maths. I tried to jump in, but I have an unpredictable schedule,” he says.
“I saw this amazing transformation in my daughter’s interest in maths, but I think Primary 1 content is not really suitable (for her age). So now we are thinking about what we can do to help pre-school kids.”
Meanwhile, KooBits is continuing to upgrade its flagship school-based and consumer maths programs. This includes boosting their ability to personalise learning.
Tapping expertise to expand overseas
Seeking help from experts is crucial to growth, especially abroad. When KooBits wanted to enter the Philippines market in 2017, it contacted ESG for advice.
“Through ESG, we met and talked to several people in the Philippines to understand the local market and general operating environment. With their input, we were able to customise our product and start earning revenue within six months,” says Mr Han.
From 2017 to last year, the firm took a similar approach in exploring markets such as Indonesia, Dubai, Australia, the UK, the US and China.
“When you’re a small company, doing due diligence on potential overseas partners may be difficult. But if a trusted entity like ESG recommends certain partners, regardless of whether the partnership works out or not, at least you know you’ll be working with people who are above board. That is very important in going to a new market.”.