In this episode, we have fast-growing Vietnamese edtech Edmicro CEO and co-founder Linh Dang Bao, and we talk about the K-12 education market in Vietnam, the challenges in this space, and how Edmicro is trying to innovate and address these issues.
What’s really been interesting with Edmicro is that they’ve been able to really maximize the opportunity presented by the pandemic over the past year and really grow their platform and moving into 2021, they’ve achieved 4x growth in their users, with more than 400,000 organic new installations of their platform without any marketing or ads. Edmicro has also built a really solid ecosystem of support from schools and government driving digital transformation for education, becoming the official assessment platform by the Department of Education in multiple provinces in Vietnam for students preparing for the national exams.
Learn straight from their CEO Linh Dang how they’ve been able to do that, how it started, how they are continuing to double down on the growth in 2021 and what’s their outlook in the coming years.
Highlights and Timestamps
- 00:29 Paulo introduces Edmicro and its CEO and co-founder Linh Dang Bao;
- 02:22 Linh shares how he and his co-founders founded Edmicro; “[Byju and Ruangguru] had the same concept: to apply technology in automating content production, standardizing curriculums, and standardizing the content distribution to the students so that this can be scalable…basically we have all the ingredients. We have the technologies, we have the content, and we have the people that can do the same thing.”
- 04:54 The three long-standing challenges for Vietnam’s edtech market; “For us, the teachers are the key to make students learn and to motivate students to learn.”
- 07:37 How COVID-19 changed the game for Vietnam edtech and Edmicro; “…when COVID 19 happened…teachers and students had to interact online, all the teaching activities, all the assessment activities would have to be online and our platform happened to be the right solution for them.”
- 09:59 The key to retaining users coming out of lockdown and the edtech boom; “Basically what I think is that, even after the pandemic, the product that is offering the most comprehensive solution in terms of features and content will be able to retain users and that’s the key…”
- 11:58 Edmicro’s platform Onluyen.vn and its personalized self-study environment and competency mapping for students; “And each day, a student just has to study 10 to 15 minutes on Onluyen.vn and then we can build a complete competency map for that student that is indicating what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of the student in each and every subject.”
- 13:51 The key advantage for teachers using Onluyen.vn; “Teachers can leverage the Onluyen platform and content to standardize and to save time in their work routine every day…So once the teachers are active, then normally the students are active as well.”
- 14:56 How Edmicro held one of the first mass online exams for Hanoi through Onluyen in 2020; “Now a lot of products are offering online exams because of the COVID-19 situation but we were among the first.”
- 17:48 Edmicro’s partnership approach to customer acquisition and retention; “More importantly, we invested into the product and made sure that the product has a good quality to retain users…”
- 19:06 Schools as distribution to students and Edmicro’s value proposition for schools; “Basically the school for us is the [distribution] channel…and the key message is that Onluyen is a service. So we offer not only the product to the school, but we also offer services…not only offering a solution, but also offering content for schools.”
- 20:44 Linh’s thoughts on the future of Vietnam’s edtech landscape and internet economy; “In the next three to five years, we will see a kind of tipping point for online activities, not only for education, but also for e-commerce or other online solutions….”
- 22:47 Edmicro in the next three years; “Our target is to be the number one in K-12 in the next three years…we will not only offer Onluyen but also we will be offering more vertical products…so that we can offer multiple products for different students’ needs and requirements.”
- 23:38 Rapid Fire Round;
About our guest
Linh Dang Bao is the CEO and co-founder of Edmicro. He is a seasoned operator in Vietnam’s education sector, having worked several years driving adoption of Intel Vietnam’s edtech solutions across the country through partnerships with government agencies and schools, prior to starting Edmicro. He took up his PhD in the Netherlands before he returned to Vietnam.
Paulo: You can tell our listeners about your background and how you ended up working on Edmicro.
Linh Dang: So my name is Linh Dang. I did my PhD in the Netherlands all the way back in 2008. And after I got back to Vietnam, I worked for Intel Vietnam for seven to eight years as a business development manager specializing in education. So basically, we were trying to sell Intel solutions to the education sector in Vietnam. So during the eight years or so, I worked closely with the government agencies, namely the Ministry of Education, Ministry of ICT, and all the Departments of Educations in the provinces. Vietnam has 63 provinces and each province has a Department of Education that takes care of all the education matters in the province. So, my role within Intel Vietnam was to develop the [distribution] channels for Intel products by working closely with the government, as well as working closely with channel partners. So after seven years with Intel Vietnam, [I] decided to work on something of [my] own. Together with some friends we opened up Edmicro in 2018 to focus on developing our own solutions for the education sector in Vietnam.
We started Edmicro with four founders, myself and another three guys, namely Que, Tien and another Linh. All of us had backgrounds in education and technology, and we had been friends. So in 2017, we sat down and we took a look at a few successful stories throughout the world in edtech. At that time, I clearly remember we opened up the…app on our phone…at that time was quite successful. We also took a look at Byju and also took a look at Ruangguru in Indonesia as well. All of them had the same concept: to apply technology in automating content production and then try to standardize curriculums and standardize the content distribution to the students so that this can be scalable. We thought amongst ourselves that basically we have all the ingredients. We have the technologies, we have the content, and we have the people that can do the same thing. So we formed Edmicro in 2018 to create technology products that really apply deep tech like AI or machine learning technology into education in Vietnam.
“[Byju and Ruangguru] had the same concept: to apply technology in automating content production, standardizing curriculums, and standardizing the content distribution to the students so that this can be scalable…basically we have all the ingredients. We have the technologies, we have the content, and we have the people that can do the same thing.”
Paulo: So I think that’s really interesting that you guys have that background from Intel and education, and you’ve already seen the space for several years already, even before you started Edmicro. So maybe you can tell our listeners how the market in Vietnam has developed in terms of education and education technology in particular. And specifically when you started Edmicro, what were the challenges for K-12 edtech at that time?
Linh Dang: Previously, around that time, the most popular model for edtech in Vietnam was the marketplace. There are a lot of companies offering marketplaces that are distributing pre-recorded courses with well-known teachers. Basically, coming back to the questions that you asked, the challenges have always been the same.
The first thing is that with the marketplace model, we are too dependent on well-known teachers, which makes the cost of the courses very high and less scalable if you want to cover millions of students across Vietnam. The first challenge is that we don’t want to be too dependent on well-known teachers, and we want to apply technology to education so that our solutions can be scalable and yet affordable to millions of students across Vietnam.
The second challenge, I think, has always been the very high cost of acquisitions. As you know, after about 20% of the students, that’s truly the demand for studying. If you go beyond that, the cost of marketing and the cost of customer acquisition will be very high because the market has become saturated. If you go directly to the consumer, then the cost of the CAC, so to speak, will be very high. You see examples of a few [companies] in China where they have to spend a lot of dollars on marketing and other activities that the margins cannot be profitable anymore. So the second challenge is that we want to make sure that we can lower the CAC and at the same time extend the LTV, which is the lifetime value of customers.
The third challenge is we have to be able to motivate students to learn with our solutions. For us, the teachers are the key to make students learn and motivating students to learn. So in our solutions, the teachers are at the center of really driving all the activities, including self-study or if the student has to do homework or the student has to study a lesson because the teachers are the key in our model that really drives engagement and drives the student to learn.
So those are the three challenges that we think are very important to be addressed and have always been the same for many years in Vietnam.
“For us, the teachers are the key to make students learn and to motivate students to learn.”
Paulo: Right, [these are] really long-standing issues. What I found really interesting in what you’ve shared so far is that because you were not really the first player in this space, I mean, even regionally or globally, you have had the benefit of learning from all these different models, what you’ve talked about and mentioned, and going beyond them.
You’ve definitely had that benefit of really developing a deeper understanding of the market, and also working with your co-founders who are also education veterans in Vietnam, but I would say that once COVID-19 and a pandemic hit, everybody was thrown a curveball. Nobody knew exactly what to expect. And so maybe you can tell us, I mean, you’ve shared the story on our blog last year, but we’d love for you to share that story again to our listeners. How did COVID-19 change the Vietnam education landscape and the growth trajectory for Edmicro specifically?
Linh Dang: We introduced our product early 2018 and in 2019 we introduced the module for schools in our platform. With that module, schools and teachers can standardize the curriculum and standardize the content for assessments. By doing that, actually, teachers save a lot of time and effort for themselves and [are able to] give fast assignments to the students and then the students can do it at home or self-study at home.
All of that we already introduced in 2019, before the pandemic happened, so in 2020, when COVID-19 happened, actually, it was quite fortunate for us because we had the right product at the right time. And when COVID 19 happened a lot of schools were closed and teachers and students had to interact online, all the teaching activities, all assessment activities would have to be online and our platform happened to be the right solution for them. So from 2020 to the first half of this year, a lot of schools started adopting our platform, especially for the standardized assessment activities.
Then a lot of schools also use our platform for online exams, as you said at the beginning. And For that, suddenly, we had a boom in user adoption and not only students, but also teachers using our platform, which is a big advantage because later on we can basically leverage the community for other products as well, like online classes, interactive classes, or pre-recorded courses made by the teachers. That’s the key advantage of our model and due to COVID-19, it was fortunate for us to have the right product at the right time. So that’s what happened.
“…when COVID 19 happened…teachers and students had to interact online, all the teaching activities, all the assessment activities would have to be online and our platform happened to be the right solution for them.”
Paulo: The word people would use probably would be serendipity — the fact that you guys were already at that right position at the right time to take advantage of the online edtech boom and now moving into 2021, I talked about earlier in the intro how you guys have grown even more since then.
So one of the questions for a lot of people is that given the edtech boom last year, how is it continuing this year? Is it sustainable? Are companies and startups in this space actually prepared to live without this forced adoption, especially since [some] markets are coming out of lockdown? So how has this edtech boom in Vietnam evolved from 2022 this year? Are there any new challenges in terms of driving adoption, given that schools and teachers are already familiar with these digital solutions like Edmicro?
Linh Dang: The biggest advantage of COVID-19 is that the awareness of the users in terms of which solutions or which product to choose from is shortened by four or five years. So basically we saved a lot of time in terms of adoption or raising the awareness of the users to promote our products. So that’s the very good thing about the pandemic. It’s giving users multiple choice and multiple options so that the users can leverage and differentiate.
Of course, the bad thing is that there’s a lot of competition, especially in the school space, because a lot of schools are under lockdown. And so a lot of companies started to introduce solutions for schools. So in Vietnam we saw tremendous growth in solutions for schools in the last six months or so. But basically what I think is that even after the pandemic the product that is offering the most comprehensive solution in terms of features and content will be able to retain users and that’s the key, because, at the end, the users have to look for a quality product that not only offers them technology features but also a wide breadth of content to make sure that they use the product again for multiple purposes, especially in the K-12 space.
“Basically what I think is that, even after the pandemic the product that is offering the most comprehensive solution in terms of features and content will be able to retain users and that’s the key…”
Paulo: Yeah, the landscape is only going to get more exciting with a bit more players. And definitely the consumers are also becoming more savvy or knowledgeable about what they want and how they want it. So I want to get a little bit more into the product itself, Edmicro’s platform Onluyen.vn, and for you to share with our listeners what it is like using Edmicro from the point of view of the student.
Linh Dang: So at the beginning we created Onluyen.vn as a personalization platform for students. So we apply AI and machine learning into the platform, basically trying to assess the student’s competencies and student’s behavior. And after that, we try to detect where are the gaps in the student’s knowledge and the student’s learning and trying to recommend courses for the gaps. That’s the first target for Onluyen, to build an affordable environment for self-study.
Secondly, Onluyen is a standardized environment for assessment for schools. From the student perspective, it’s the perfect environment for self-study on subjects that the student has to cover in school, ranging from mathematics, physics, chemistry to programming or civic education.
In the end students can find their own subjects broken down into very small levels of content. We call it bite-sized content so that the student can do self-study anytime, anywhere. And each day, a student just has to study 10 to 15 minutes on Onluyen.vn and then we can build a complete competency map for that student that is indicating what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of the student in each and every subject. That is feedback for the student’s learning and also feedback to the teachers, so that the whole ecosystem will be able to basically operate around what we call the personalized learning roadmap for that student.
“And each day, a student just has to study 10 to 15 minutes on Onluyen.vn and then we can build a complete competency map for that student that is indicating what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of the student in each and every subject.”
Paulo: Since you mentioned earlier, for Edmicro, teachers are the focus of this product, perhaps you could also share what are the things that you’ve learned from how teachers have engaged with Onluyen.vn so far? And what is the experience like from their perspective?
Linh Dang: We offer a wide depth and breadth of content to the teachers. We cover all the subjects for all grades in Vietnam all the way from Grade 1 to Grade 12 for all subjects. So teachers can leverage the Onluyen platform and content to standardize and to save time in their work routine every day. So with Onluyen.vn, the teachers can use it every day to create assignments, to create homework or tests and, what we call it, self-study tasks, and assign those to the students. So that’s a key advantage that we bring to the teachers.
So once the teachers are active, then normally the students are active as well. So basically that’s how the motivation works in terms of trying to not only engage the student, but also engage the teachers as well, so that we become an environment for students and teachers to be interactive and stay engaged within the platform.
“Teachers can leverage the Onluyen platform and content to standardize and to save time in their work routine every day…So once the teachers are active, then normally the students are active as well.”
Paulo: So speaking of that, maybe you can share with us a case study from the many schools or students and teachers that you’ve worked with about how Edmicro’s platform has impacted their lives or changed the way that they do things.
Linh Dang: For us, [Onluyen] is not a product. It’s not a platform, but it’s a service. Basically we are providing a service to schools, to teachers, and to students. I clearly remember an experience with a school last year. So last year we were hit with COVID-19 so all schools in Hanoi were closed.
One school decided that they would not wait and they would hold exams [as scheduled]. So they asked us to create an online exam feature. Only in a month or so we introduced the online exam features and organized an online exam with that school. During the exams, a lot of things happened. A lot of students could not log in or a lot of students could not submit the answers.
We had to work very closely with the teachers to solve each case because that’s the first time we tried to apply technology into mass online exams for more than 1000 students at once. But after that, we solved every case and we gained trust from the teachers as well as the parents. We received a lot of recognition from the parents as well, because we cared and we tried to solve problems for each and every student of that school.
So that’s a very memorable experience, because after that, the online exam platform that we have evolved and become a very trusted, very scalable platform, now being used by multiple departments of education. In July we hosted more than 100,000 student exams on the platform, and sometimes more than 50,000 students at once concurrently, thanks to the experience with that school last year. So we gained a lot of experience. We understood how students behave [during exams] and that was one of the first online exams organized in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Paulo: That’s a really great story, even if you guys did go through some difficulties there. But I think that’s part of Edmicro’s approach to working with schools. You really try to work closely with them and iterate and improve whatever you can along the way. And I bet the school still uses [Onluyen].
Linh Dang: Yeah, it does. The school works closely with us. They also have us to improve our product with a lot of feedback. What I’m trying to say is that Onluyen is a service. So basically we listen to the customer, we try to improve ourselves and then incorporate it into product development.
Paulo: It was also a record-breaking moment, or a milestone for education in Vietnam, the fact that it was one of the first online exams in the country.
Linh Dang: And now a lot of products are offering online exams because of the COVID-19 situation but we were among the first.
“Now a lot of products are offering online exams because of the COVID-19 situation but we were among the first.”
Paulo: Definitely one of the aspects which I think has been remarkable about Edmicro’s approach is that you guys have spent next to no marketing or ads in terms of acquiring and retaining users. You’ve hinted at how you’ve been able to do that through the story a while ago, so maybe you can share a little bit more about your approach.
Linh Dang: For us, at the beginning, we approached schools and departments of education and it was quite hard because we had no credits, we didn’t have the brand trusted by users. So in 2019, we reached a lot of departments of education and a lot of schools, but the process was quite slow. But then, gradually we gained trust from the schools and departments of education. At this moment, since we’ve been able to establish the brand and establish the trust from the users, we can work with multiple departments of education and we can work with multiple schools.
And once we are adopted by the schools then normally all the users, meaning all the teachers and all the students from that school will be onboarded onto Onluyen.vn, and we don’t have to spend marketing dollars because of that. So it was quite organic, the process that we used to onboard users. More importantly, we invested into the product and made sure that the product has a good quality to retain users and activate them.
“More importantly, we invested into the product and made sure that the product has a good quality to retain users…”
Paulo: Que Nguyen, the CTO of Edmicro and your co-founder as well, last year in our blog shared how Edmicro sustains its relationships with schools. What is the value proposition that you communicate to them in terms of them adopting Edmicro and Onluyen?
Linh Dang: Basically schools don’t pay for Onluyen, but basically, we reach students through schools and the students are the ones who pay for all the products and services. So in the sense the school is a channel for us to reach students. And the teachers are the ones who motivate the students to learn. And if the student thinks that the product is good enough, or the service is good enough, then they buy the product and the service. So in a sense, we still offer the product directly to the students, and we are not too much dependent on the schools so it’s different from other business models in the US where they are selling to the school or to the school district, basically, the school for us is the [distribution] channel.
And the key message is that Onluyen is a service. So we offer not only the product to the school, but we also offer services in terms of, for example, account management in terms of support. Secondly, Onluyen is a comprehensive platform, not only offering a solution, but also offering content for schools. Our content has been standardized and our content has been certified by the government so that our content actually reflects exactly the curriculum, and exactly the textbooks that are used inside schools. They can trust us as long term partners for their online [education] services. So, Onluyen is the SaaS platform for schools.
“Basically the school for us is the [distribution] channel…and the key message is that Onluyen is a service. So we offer not only the product to the school, but we also offer services…not only offering a solution, but also offering content for schools.”
Paulo: That’s a great takeaway from this whole conversation and consistent with what we’ve been talking about. You’re still building something that’s personalized for students, but then the whole distribution channel is around getting the buy-in of the schools and the teachers that the students interact with. So I think that our approach has really proven to work for you guys, being a service for these schools. You’ve talked about the students, teachers, the schools, and brought them together in this whole ecosystem.
So I’d like to zoom out again, and talk about Vietnam’s education landscape, because when you talk about edtech in Southeast Asia, everybody’s talking about how it’s moving right now and how sustainable this boom is. Maybe you could share with our listeners how Vietnam’s education landscape compares to other countries in Southeast Asia, and what advantages do local founders have in this space?
Linh Dang: Compared to some other markets like Indonesia or India, for sure, Vietnam is behind. I think it’s similar to how the economy of Vietnam is still booming, and we are in the development phase. GDP per capita for Vietnam in the next three years or so will be about 5,000. And I think that in the next three to five years, we will see a kind of tipping point for online activities, not only for education, but also for e-commerce or other online solutions.
So Vietnam is a little behind compared to Indonesia, and very much behind compared to India, but we have all the usage models, we have all these businesses trying to simulate what has been successful in Indonesia or in India, but, of course, we need some time to reach the tipping point that we see in the developed market at this moment.
So I think in the next three to five years we’ll see a bit of consolidation in terms of who will be the market leaders and who will be the leaders in each segment. And that’s happening now in Indonesia. We see some clear winners, but in Vietnam, it’s still in the early phase and [there’s still] a lot of competition. This is the right time to invest in products, in teams to make sure that we have a sustainable development roadmap for the next two years so that we can capture the market in the next two years.
“In the next three to five years, we will see a kind of tipping point for online activities, not only for education, but also for e-commerce or other online solutions….”
Paulo: And how do you see Edmicro then, in the next three to five years?
Linh Dang: Our target is to be number one in K-12 in the next three years. So at this moment, we have 1.3 to 1.4 million users on the platform. In total [in Vietnam], we have 18 million students. So our target in the next three years would be to have about 6 to 7 million students onboarded and we will not only offer Onluyen but also we will be offering more vertical products like English training, test prep, certificate courses, so that we can offer multiple products for different students’ needs and requirements.
“Our target is to be the number one in K-12 in the next three years…we will not only offer Onluyen but also we will be offering more vertical products…so that we can offer multiple products for different students’ needs and requirements.”
Rapid Fire Round
Q: Top Three Skills of a CEO in Vietnam?
- Being experienced and down-to-earth
- Seeing the bigger picture and having a bold vision
Q: Biggest misconception about K12 education in Vietnam?
Linh Dang: The K12 market in Vietnam is very much local. I mean, because we have a local curriculum, we have local textbooks, and people in 63 provinces who are [essentially] 63 smaller countries. And the people of Vietnam are quite choosy. They are quite hard to please. They want a product that’s not too expensive, but they want the product to be strong in both features and contents.
So we have to understand the customer. We have to be able to offer the right product for the right student or teacher in the different provinces. So that somehow makes Vietnam, quite a difficult market for K-12 companies because you have to really invest in the product, in the teams, and in the services that you’re offering to the customers.
Q: Advice for founders on how to raise their first round?
Linh Dang: I think it is important to really believe in your dream and be realistic at the same time. For the early stage, investors make decisions based on their impression on the founders more than the business itself.
Q: What do you do to de-stress?
Linh Dang: Sports — football and tennis.