China’s VIPKid raises US$200mil from Tencent, Sequoia China

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 23 Aug 2017

Seven year old Wei Yueran (L), who also has the English name Harney, attends a Chinese class at the Jinqao Center Primary School in Shanghai on September 1, 2014. After spending one year in the US, Yueran has joined the second class of the Jinqao Center Primary School in Shanghai's Pudong district. The Shanghai Education Commission recently announced the opening of 50 new public schools in the city, according to local news. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE

VIPKid, an online education company that matches Chinese students with North American teachers, raised US$200mil (RM856mil) as it expands into new markets and broadens its academic offerings. 

Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd and Sequoia Capital China are investing in the Beijing-based company. Its existing backers include Sinovation Ventures and Jack Ma’s Yunfeng Capital. The startup’s valuation is now more than US$1.5bil (RM6.42bil), according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private details. 

VIPKid has seen explosive growth as Chinese parents seek out high-quality education for their children, particularly in English. The four-year-old startup has expanded to more than 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students, and projects revenue to reach 5bil yuan (RM3.21bil) this year. As part of the fundraising, VIPKid said it will begin offering Mandarin classes and target students in the US and beyond. Founder Cindy Mi said she anticipates reaching 1 million students by 2019 through expansion into new subjects and geographies. 

“We’re not interested in building an after-school tutoring brand,” Mi, 34, said in an interview. “We’re really interested in rethinking what learning will look like in the next 10, 20, 30 years.” 

If the US won’t pay its teachers, China will 

Today, VIPKid connects Chinese students from the age of four to 12 with teachers primarily from the US to study English, math and other subjects. Classes take place online and are typically two or three times a week for 25 minutes. 

“When she had this crazy idea to go ahead and teach five-year-olds over the Internet, no one believed this was possible,” said Robert Hutter, managing partner of the US venture firm Learn Capital, which has backed Mi. “Obviously, she proved them wrong.” 

Like every fast-growing startup in China, VIPKid faces a flood of competition. iTutorGroup, which works in China under the VIPABC brand, hit a valuation of more than US$1bil (RM4.28bil) in late 2015 as it raised money from Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Singapore sovereign fund GIC. China Online Education Group, known as 51Talk, went public last year and is valued at about US$340mil (RM1.45bil). 

TAL Education Group, also based in Beijing, provides in-person after-school tutoring in cities around China. Its stock has more than doubled this year, climbing to a market value of US$15bil (RM64.19bil). 

Wu Wenhua, 38, was investigating several alternatives for her son Ryan, 11, when she got a cold call from VIPKid. 

“At first, I didn’t believe in its pitch,” she said. “So I thought let’s try a free lesson and I thought it was alright. I waited two weeks and I looked up some other organisations. But I didn’t feel they were well-tailored to teaching China’s children.” 

Ryan has now been taking classes at VIPKid for about 18 months and she’s satisfied with how the extra lessons help him at school. 

“He got 99 on a recent exam,” she said. “He dropped a point.” 

Mi said that her goal is to deliver the most efficient way to learn, rather than the cheapest per class. She said Chinese parents will pay for tutoring if they see their children actually learning, instead of wasting time with poor teachers or programmes. 

She brought in education experts to develop a standardised curriculum so the company would have control over what is being taught. Developers helped create software that lets students in China learn from English speakers half a world away with real-time audio and video. 

This year, she’s hired additional engineers and other staff to develop new capabilities. For example, parents now get recommendations for teachers that match their children’s interests, similar to the movie recommendations from Netflix Inc. Parents also can grade their teachers with star ratings, and teachers can see the feedback so they can learn from it. 

“Other people are still trying to figure out how to bring down their CAG or acquisition cost,” said Mi. “We’re well beyond that.” — Bloomberg

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