Connecting teachers and students, A-One Learning aims to be Malaysia’s leading online learning marketplace.
Human Asia caught up with A-One Learning’s founder Darren Gouk.
We believe AOne is a very interesting concept as it takes offline learning online so to speak. How big is the market and is it receptive?
In Malaysia, parents fork out anywhere between MYR 200 to MYR 2000 per month in lessons for each child. About 88% of children from primary school upwards receive some form of tutoring. Parents are willing to invest heavily in children’s skills set to enhance their future prospects, and the most popular non-academic lessons are sports, music and art lessons.
Also recently, health awareness in society has aroused the demand for personal training, yoga and martial arts courses. So in general, I believe the learning and education industry will be keep growing exponentially in the near future. You can also see the same trend happening in the neighboring countries.
Do you brand yourself as an educational or a tech company?
We consider ourselves as an educational tech company or EdTech, as we are tech-based and focusing in all offline learning activities, from academic to leisure learning for all ages.
As a marketplace, do you focus on the demand or supply side?
At the early stages, you must focus on the supply side of the marketplace. With no supply in the marketplace, there is no chance for you to get demand on-board. We have to get the initial supply by providing some incentives, or at least free listing for lesson providers.
After getting the initial supply onto the marketplace, we proceed to on-board the demand side or students. Now we build both supply and demand sides in tandem, and focusing on education, sports, and music categories.
Do you vet all the instructors that you on-board?
In the backend, we do verification on the contact details to make sure the instructors are real people and contactable. Suspicious accounts will be removed. Instructors don’t need to show any certification on the subject of teaching, except for swimming instructors as this could lead to life and death situations for learners.
Our tagline says “Anyone can teach, everyone can learn”. In other words, we believe anyone can have the opportunity to share their knowledge and generate income for themselves, which is the part of the knowledge-sharing economy. For security reasons, we capture all personal information of each lesson provider, and to maintain or monitor their quality, we rely on our customer review system. We have been working hard to collect the reviews from previous learners and place their comments under their AOne profile, so that future learners are able to make better decisions before hiring a particular instructor. The rankings for the lesson providers are based on the rating and reviews from their learners.
It’s a little bit challenging for us to identify suitable instructors on behalf of parents or learners. It is best if the parents have the chance to have in-person interview, tele-interview, or have some trial classes provided by the lesson providers prior to hiring. Therefore, we position ourselves as a channel to connect them directly. Lesson providers are able to pitch their own teaching skills and qualification, and learners will be able to select by themselves.
Tell us about your revenue model
We are generating transactional revenue for each successful student enrolment, and we do have a credit-based lead generation model. In near future, we will include SaaS feature for our partner lesson providers to further optimise their daily operation and administration work. This will be another stream of revenue for us.
Do you have any plans on expanding A-One outside of Malaysia, and if so, which countries?
Yes definitely! Our vision is to be the online marketplace for local classes & instructors in Southeast Asia. Our services are currently available in Malaysia and Singapore. Replicating the business model in other countries is definitely not easy, especially across Southeast Asian markets which are very fragmented and vastly different in culture, language, and government rules.
Also, the differences in credit card penetration across cities pose some challenges in receiving payments from customers. Therefore, to be more precise, replicating the business model with MASS LOCALISATION is a must!
Are you currently looking for investors?
Yes, we are open and available for strategic investors, who believe in our vision, which is to be the centralized marketplace for classes and instructors in Southeast Asia. Whether it be local classes, online learning, or direct teaching, we want people to think of AOne.
Tell us about your childhood and memories growing up.
I was born in 1987 in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. That’s the little city next to Singapore. We were living moderately, until we fell into poverty after my father passed away due to cancer when I was in primary school. Since then, my mother shouldered all the day-to-day responsibilities for raising me and my younger brother, and also the sole breadwinner for the family.
Life was hard, and I started working in jobs since the age of 14. I once worked as a waiter for a daily wage of US$5 in a Chinese restaurant. Despite all that, I believe I was very fortunate in my studies. I enrolled in one of the top universities in Malaysia where I obtained first class honors, and subsequently began my PhD studies in Chemistry.
My ambition when I was a kid is still quite similar to the end goal of what I am trying to achieve right now, and that’s to create something that will give an impact and benefit to society, regardless of which profession I am in. Of course, I wish to give the best that i could for my mother who’s done so much for myself and my brother.
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What made you choose Chemistry as your Phd. degree?
Chemistry is everywhere in our daily life, from color, smell, chemical reaction, to photosynthesis. It is cool to have a deep understanding of the chemistry around us. Also I love to teach. This motivated me into pursuing the PhD degree, so that I could teach.
When and why did you pivot into entrepreneurship?
I was doing my PhD research at the University of Malaya prior to starting up My AOne. During that time, I received many awards, namely, Honored Student Award, Health and Nutrition Student Excellence Award from the U.S, and the Young Scientist Award in Malaysia. After graduation, I was offered a post-doctoral position in Imperial College London, but eventually I turned down all the offers and kick-started AOne in Malaysia.
That was a life decision that was difficult to be understood by my friends and family, especially my mother. I have always had a passion in creating a brand or product that people could use, and which benefits the community. By chance, I attended a free internet seminar through the recommendation of friends, and the next day, I created my very first website – My AOne Tutor – to help students find tutors. That was the very first version of the current platform.
Throughout my experience, I found that the tutor hiring system is very fragmented and can be further improved by developing a one-stop platform for any offline lessons. Across most markets in Southeast Asia, heavy emphasis is also placed on extracurricular activities, be it on foreign language courses or tuition classes. This is a reflection of the increasingly competitive education systems, rising aspirations of families in the region, and also the recognition that children need a well-rounded education, which includes music, art and sports in order to excel. All this prompted me to make the pivot to entrepreneurship.
How did your chemistry studies help you in your current endeavor?
Interestingly, since I started my entrepreneurial journey, I discovered that doing business is almost the same as doing scientific research – from the idea stage to product validation, and to launching and commercialization. I believe we should all approach our business like a scientist, posing questions and testing out our hypotheses. It is pretty surprising, especially since many people think that research and business are vastly different.
Is it necessary to have a tech background in order to start a tech company?
Not necessary, but it is always best if you know some basics, even you are the COO or CEO. You can always look for a technical co-founder to cover the technical development side.
How important is having a good co-founder during the initial stages?
A good team and co-founder is much more valuable than having lots of funds in the early stage of a company. Lots of funds can’t really buy a team of good people, but a team of good people is crucial in growing your company.
Also, you will be more creative and innovative in marketing and growth hacking when you have limited funds. If you have lots of funds in the early stage, you might think that the only way to acquire users is by paying money. Having said that, funds is very useful when your startup has reached the product-to-market-fit, and you start looking to scale.
What’s a typical day like for Darren Gouk?
I love to wake up early, like 5.30am before sunrise. I feel that I am ahead of other people which will keep me motivated throughout the day. I will also have ample, undisturbed personal time and a super clear mind to do some strategic planning and decision making for the business. I will then have my breakfast and coffee until 9am.
Real work starts from 9am to 6pm. My last hour of the day will be working out in the gym as staying fit and healthy is extremely crucial. Every Friday morning, I start my day slightly different by joining a networking meeting as early as 7am. This is part of the Business Network International (BNI) group that gathers all like-minded business people. I believe that your network is your true net worth.
Tell us more about your personality, and the work culture at AOne.
I am a visionary and an idealist, rather than an executor. I have lots of far-fetched ideas for AOne, which I ask people to execute. I am a relatively calm person especially in dealing with disputes. We have imposed a healthy management culture at AOne, for example : everyone has the chance to voice out their opinion like a mini-CEO, no matter who you are. Each employee has full freedom, high flexibility but yet KPI-oriented.
Your role model?
My role model in business is Elon Musk. His entrepreneurial journey is truly inspiring. His passion, hustle, future-oriented, never-give-up spirit, never-look-back character, truly inspire me!
Final advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Most important thing in creating a start-up is to build something that people will really need and use, listen to your customers’ feedback, instead of your mentor or investors. Most importantly, track the financials of your startup closely, because that is the lifeblood of your company.
Focus on doing one thing really well, one at a time. Do one thing perfectly, not ten things poorly. Be amazing, and people will find you. Manage energy, not time. Your energy limits what you can do with your time, so manage it wisely. Finally, always hustle and stay hungry. Hustle, hustle, hustle !
Visit A-One Learning at https://www.myaone.my/