Thailand ranks eighth out of 10 in Southeast Asia for education. That’s a low bar, considering most of the field are developing nations. This prompted Thai startup Taamkru to embark on a mission to improve, in its own words, the country’s ‘disgracefully bad’ education system.
Now, the internet company has received a huge boost, in the form of a US$620,000 seed funding round led by Silicon Valley fund and accelerator 500 Startups. M&S Partners, IMJ Investment Partners, Ookbee, and Red Dot Ventures also invested this time.
Taamkru, which translates to ‘ask the teacher’ in Thai, hopes to change education through its web and mobile apps, giving pre-schoolers a fun, gamified way to prepare for examinations in a manner that black-and-white paper workbooks can’t. Its platform also lets parents track their child’s performance and benchmark it against other kids in the nation.
To market itself, the company has been organizing nationwide contests where children take a test that “provides parents with an accurate measure of the true analytical and reasoning ability of their child benchmarked against indicator data.” The competition has so far attracted 20,000 preschool applicants from Thailand and China.
Taamkru CEO and co-founder Wicharn Manawanitjarern tells Tech in Asia that the startup now sees 100,000 monthly active users across its web, iOS, and Android apps. 5,000 of them come from Singapore. It began monetizing mainly through advertising on its website, but recently started offering in-app purchases in the form of extra assessment content. It plans to move into B2B sales (selling to schools) and revenue sharing arrangements with content creators through an online publishing marketplace for preschool workbooks.
“What’s more interesting is that monthly active users grew as exercises get released more frequently. It shows that our users are hooked on what we offer, which aligns with our intention of driving usage through ever-expanding exercise inventory,” says the founder.
Can tech fix Thailand?
Much ink has been spilled about the state of education in the country. A British-American teacher in Thailand calls it a “terrible failure” on CNN iReport. She writes:
Plagued by inadequate funding, huge class sizes (more than 50 students to a class), terrible teacher training, lazy students and a system that forces teachers to pass students even though they’ve actually failed – there doesn’t seem to be much hope education in Thailand will improve any time soon.
That’s not all. She complains about changes to rules and guidelines every semester and how educators routinely ignore plagiarism.
A series of reports by Asian Correspondent blames it on the shoddy quality of the standardized tests. The National Institute of Educational Testing Service (NIETS) came under fire for exam questions with disputable answers. The author writes:
Common complaints are that the O-NET questions are too difficult, ridiculous or too vague. Many say the questions bear little relation to what they have learned in class or even in cram schools. And talking of cram schools, many have also said that their teachers don’t teach everything in class but save the best bits for ‘tutoring’ class after school, for which they have to pay, which of course, poor kids can’t afford.
With this in mind, Taamkru made an interesting choice to tackle the problem at preschool. In a blog post, the startup admits that solving the problem would take a long time. Nonetheless, the fix needs to start the moment the child is born.
While lacking heft to change things at the national policy level, the team has plenty of expertise in educating preschoolers. So it was a matter of playing to their strengths. By inculcating fun into its curriculum, Taamkru hopes children will have a better grasp of fundamentals that would serve them well as they advance.
This investment is significant because it is the first time 500 Startups has led a round in Southeast Asia. Khailee Ng, venture partner at the firm, says 500 gets into the best deals by adding the most value without giving the biggest check.
“It helps us get invited into rounds, and when we spot a good deal it makes space to get other awesome investors in to dramatically improve the chances of success for startups especially at the early stage,” he adds.
Taamkru is no different for 500 in the sense that the investment firm wants to get the most suitable investors. “However, in a rare case we’ll need to lead the round to get this done, especially when we want to help founders get the deal closed fast, which helps the founders get back to business faster.”
So the startup must be exceptionally good for 500 to make that commitment. Taamkru fits the bill because the team has deep expertise in preschool education. Ng says that the founders are top textbook authors and kindergarten owners, and their app has performed well in the app stores. Its engagement in terms of time spent on the app is double the next best player.
“Launching an education app is too easy, building a education content company that kids and parents both love is hard and an immensely valuable thing to do.”
For Charn, getting to this stage wasn’t easy. He pointed out the challenges of getting Khailee’s attention.
“I was actually pitching to Khailee with a different startup when I first met him last year during Geeks On A Plane Bangkok. Being a hot venture capitalist, it already is difficult to get some face time with him let alone trying to give him my elevator pitch,” he says.
But Charn persisted, heading to after parties Khailee went to and failing half the time because people would swarm him or he would leave before Charn got a chance to pitch.
“I didn’t get a chance to really talk to him until about end of last year when he started to notice that he has seen me before and I finally got a chance to pitch Taamkru to him. After 15 minutes, he became interested and gave me his number.”
Charn and Khailee remained in contact after that. Charn fed him business updates every few months until he was seriously interested and finally invested.
Update (4 August): Added Khailee Ng’s comments about 500 Startup’s strategy and why it picked Taamkru.Editing by Steven Millward, photos by Saiyai Sakawee