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This 37-year-old former school teacher is India’s newest billionaire

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India’s newest billionaire is a former classroom teacher who developed an education app that’s grown to a valuation of almost $6 billion in about seven years.

Byju Raveendran joined the rarefied club after his Think & Learn Pvt scored $150 million in funding earlier this month. That deal conferred a value of $5.7 billion on the company in which the founder owns more than 21%, people familiar with the matter said. Its closing coincided with the announcement that the company’s Byju’s app — named after the founder — will team up with Walt Disney Co. and taking its service to American shores by early 2020.

The 37-year-old entrepreneur — who has said he wants to do for Indian education what the Mouse House did for entertainment — is taking his biggest step yet geographically and creatively. In his new app, Disney staples from The Lion King’s Simba to Frozen’s Anna teach math and English to students from grades one through three. The same characters star in animated videos, games, stories and interactive quizzes.

“Kids everywhere relate to Disney’s Simba or Moana, who grip kids’ attention before we take them through the loop of learning,” said Raveendran, also chief executive officer.

India is going through a dramatic period of wealth creation — and destruction. A new breed of self-made entrepreneurs is joining the ranks of the well-heeled, helping the country’s ultra-rich population grow at the world’s fastest pace. Raveendran, at least on paper, assumes his place among those parvenus thanks to his effort in internet education.

Online learning is booming, perhaps nowhere more so than on Byju’s home turf, where internet usage is exploding because of the ubiquity of cheap smartphones and cut-price wireless plans. India’s online learning market is expected to more than double to $5.7 billion by 2020, according to the government-backed India Brand Equity Foundation.

Education technology for kindergarten through 12th grade is one of the fastest-growing segments of the country’s internet market, said Anil Kumar, chief executive officer of Redseer Management Consulting Pvt. “Indian education startups are well set to seize the global opportunity given that they already cater to a large English-speaking base and have created unique education content,” he said.

Byju’s own fortunes have climbed alongside the market. Its revenues are expected to more than double to 30 billion rupees ($435 million) in the year ending March 2020, Raveendran said. That pace of growth has already caught the eye of some of the industry’s biggest investors from Naspers Ventures and Tencent Holdings Ltd. to Sequoia Capital and Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan.

Those big-name backers buy Raveendran’s vision. The Byju’s founder grew up in a village on India’s southern coast where his parents were school-teachers. He was a reluctant pupil, playing hooky to frequent the football field, then learning on his own at home. He became an engineer and then began helping friends crack entry exams to top Indian engineering and management schools. The classes swelled till he finally began teaching thousands in sports stadiums, becoming a celebrity tutor who commuted between multiple cities during weekends.

He set up Think & Learn in 2011, offering online lessons before launching his main app in 2015. The business has signed up more than 35 million of whom about 2.4 million pay an annual fee of 10,000 to 12,000 rupees, helping it became profitable in the year ending March 2019. That’s when Raveendran began courting long-term investors such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds — his latest backer is the Qatar Investment Authority. In Byju’s latest funding round, the entrepreneur bought shares to maintain his equity level. Along with his wife and brother, the Raveendran clan now holds a total stake of about 35%, said the people familiar, asking not to be quoted as the matter is private.

Byju’s approach is simple — captivate kids by transforming the content to fit short attention spans. Raveendran has always harbored ambitions to crack English-speaking countries, and has flown in YouTube stars to feature in his videos.

In Disney, he may have found a ready-made audience. All the lessons on the new service with Disney are set in the context of the entertainment giant’s classics and stay true to the narrative. To explain temperature, the app sets up a scene where Frozen’s Elsa falls ill because she constantly plays with snow. Anna gets out the thermometer to gauge her fever and a little story is then built around heat and cold. Or, to learn shapes, young learners dive into the story of Cars where they have to sort items like tires, traffic cones and billboards into buckets to learn about round, triangular and rectangular shapes.

“We are customizing Disney Byju’s to the American and British school curriculum,” Raveendran said. “The characters have universal appeal.”

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Rupee slips 7 paise to 71.26 against USD as China virus fears spooked investors

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The rupee depreciated by 7 paise to close at 71.26 against the US dollar on Thursday as the spread of a deadly new virus from China spooked investors.

However, softening crude prices and strong domestic equity market restricted the rupee’s fall, forex dealer said. At the interbank foreign exchange market, the local currency opened on a weak note at 71.21. During the day, it swung between a high of 71.16 and a low of 71.35.

The Indian currency finally settled at 71.26, registering a 7 paise decline over its previous close.

“USD/INR Pair traded in range of 71.20–71.30, as markets looks out for new triggers rupee keeps trading in range but with weak bias due to corona virus being spread in China, which can dampen investment infusion. Rupee can be range of 71.20-71.35 in coming sessions,” Jateen Trivedi, Senior Research Analyst (Commodity & Currency) at LKP Securities said.

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Reliance outpaces industry in petrol, diesel sales from its outlets

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Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has outpaced industry in clocking double digit sales growth in petrol and diesel from its nearly 1,400-odd petrol pumps in the third quarter ended December 31, 2019.

In an investor presentation post announcing earnings for October-December 2019, Reliance, operator of the world’s largest oil refining complex, said it registered an 11 per cent growth in diesel sales and 15 per cent growth rate in petrol sales from its 1,394 fuel retail outlets.

This is compared to industry growth rate of 0.2 per cent for diesel and 7.1 per cent for petrol.

Its per outlet throughput at 342 kilolitres per month was also nearly double that of petrol pumps operated by public sector firms such as Indian Oil Corp (IOC) and Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd (BPCL).

“Superior product mix and high asset utilisation underpinned strong earnings,” it said in the presentation adding India’s oil demand grew 3.2 per cent in October-December with petrol demand rising 7.1 per cent and LPG surging by 15 per cent.

“Preference for petrol cars, improving road infrastructure and rural connectivity is driving petrol demand,” it said. A pick up in tourist movement post festive season provided support to ATF demand.

Reliance said there was a strong traction in retail and bulk fuel sales through its network.

“Growth driven by focus on large fleet customers (25 per cent year-on-year growth), fleet aggregators (114 per cent),” it said.

Its ATF sales were driving up via new customer acquisition and higher share from existing customers. “Improved ATF network competitiveness through logistical and supply source optimization,” the presentation said.

LPG sales was up 37 per cent with new customers and increasing penetration in new markets.

Reliance said its petrol retail sales revenues were up 5 per cent at Rs 3,725 crore in the third quarter. As much as 538 million litres of fuel was sold in the three month period.

Of the 1,394 petrol pumps that Reliance operates, 518 are company owned and the remaining dealer operated.

In April last year, Reliance agreed to sell 49 per cent in its petro retail business to UK’s BP plc for Rs 7,000 crore. Reliance-BP joint venture agreed to expand the network to 5,500 in the next five years.

The country currently has 66,817 petrol pumps, with public sector retailers owning 59,716. PSU retailers have plans to double this network and have already starting appointing dealers. Russia’s Rosneft-backed Nayara Energy, formerly Essar Oil, has 5,525 petrol pumps and has plans to scale them up to more than 7,000 in two-three years. Royal Dutch Shell has 169 outlets and is slated to add 150-200 more petrol pumps.

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Amazon’s $1-bn investment not a favour for India: Piyush Goyal

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Commerce minister Piyush Goyal on Thursday said global online retail giant Amazon.com Inc indulged in predatory pricing even as Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vijay Chauthaiwale took a dig at its founder Jeff Bezos for publishing “unduly” critical reports on the Modi government in The Washington Post, which he owns.

A day after Bezos, currently on a visit to India, announced fresh investments of $1 billion in India, Goyal said Amazon was not doing any favours to the country with its investment asked whether the huge losses made by the company were linked to “predatory pricing or some unfair trade practices”.

Goyal acknowledged Amazon’s investments in warehousing but asked whether the money was being brought in “largely to finance losses in an e-commerce market place model.” He added that this raised questions of “where the loss came from”.

There has been considerable pressure on the government from the affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological parent, and also trader groups to reconsider the policy on FDI in online retail. Traders claim Amazon is taking away their business. Amazon’s position is that it serves as a platform in India and that many of the traders who complain are themselves on the platform.

Ashwani Mahajan of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the RSS, said Goyal’s comments indicate that the Centre may have become “more sensitized to the problems of opening up FDI (in online retail)”.

“There is a fear in every trader’s mind that these global chains will kill their business.”

Meanwhile, reacting to a statement by Bezos where he said the 21st century will be India’s; Chauthaiwale tweeted: “@JeffBezos, please tell this to your employees in Washington DC. Otherwise your charm offensive is likely to be waste of time and money.”

“I am a regular customer of Amazon and not against them. But I am definitely against what Washington Post is writing,” Chautaiwale said.

An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately comment on the matter.

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