Published: 14th June 2018
Why the First Bench in Chennai is the new cool in school
Salai Arjun, the young and dynamic founder of this next-gen coaching prep enterprise, talks shop about the entrance exam market
About eight years ago, when Salai Arjun quit Google and started a coaching centre for twelfth graders and people who wanted to take a crack at entrance exams, people might have wondered what was wrong with him. Who on earth goes from the swank and sleeping rooms of Google's Hyderabad complex to a mottai maadi (terrace) with a thatched roof, a blackboard, a few old benches and a handful of students?
Salai Arjun, for one. Stepping into his now uber cool office space at the Karumuttu Centre, with pads and funky merchandise all over the walls, it's easy to surmise that he doesn't lose much sleep over quitting Google all those years ago. We took him back in time and got chatting about what makes First Bench (they started off as IIT BUDS, but have had an image makeover since) stand out in a competitive exam space that's as cutthroat as it is cluttered.
Some of his answers really surprised me. These are the best of that lot. Check them out:
When you talk about your initial setup, it sounds like it's straight out of that scene in Arya's movie Boss (a) Basakaran. Is that a fair comparison?
(Laughs) It was almost exactly like that. We printed some flyers and distributed them outside PSBB. After I finished my BTech in Computer Science I worked at Google for a couple of years. I quit because I wanted to be with my family. At that point, I was given the opportunity to submit a paper on learning Tirukkural through Paramapatham. The project never took off. So I was frustrated and was wondering what to do when I decided to start a tuition centre for Maths, just like my dad.
When students give us negative feedback we take it very seriously. Because at the end of the day they are our clients
Salai Arjun, Founder, First Bench
How did that work out for you?
We had some ten students that first year. That gave me the confidence that I can make a living in Chennai. I would take classes from 5 to 7.30 am, take rest the entire day and then classes again in the evening.
When did things really take off for you? You went from 1 to some 25 schools in no time, right?
Some students from a school called Vani Vidyalaya were coming for my classes and the management noticed that they were doing far better than the rest in their exams. So the CEO called and offered me the chance to start an in-curriculum course. I never thought that I would build it into a business or a company. Until that opportunity came along. Within a year we had signed up nearly four other schools.
So that was your big break?
No. There was another one. I went to Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram on a Sunday. On the table were three proposals from three big institutes. They were about to take a call on whom to go with the next day. I made my pitch and he didn't ask a single question. In the evening he told the person who took me there that he was going with us because I had spoken about how our focus would be on the average student (nearly 50 per cent of any class) and not just the top 20 per cent who get the top ranks. I had promised to bring the B category's performance up instead of promising this All India rank or that JEE top rank.
Not pushing a promise of ranks is a little unheard of for a coaching enterprise. How did that turn out?
I have never done any marketing based on ranks. My style of teaching is about making students understand a concept rather than making them tick the right answer instantly. I make them visualise and enjoy a problem and not push them to do it faster. After the Bhavan's deal, we started getting massive tie-ups with some big schools. We grew to a network of 23 schools, mostly because of the references they gave us.
Number game: Currently, First Bench operates out of 25 centres across Tamil Nadu
I heard that you closed your centre down and don't work with part-time teachers. Isn't the tuition space dominated by teachers with legendary reputations from big schools?
This year, we closed our centres and moved to a franchise model because we wanted to concentrate on our core - teaching and excellence. Now we have 120 faculty with us, they're all full-timers and we don't believe in part-timers. Our faculty does a lot of personalised work with all grades of students, which is something part-timers rarely do.
You're a tech guy. Tell me, what's keeping our entrance exams from going completely online?
Getting students used to the idea of an online exam is key. Today, the infrastructure is the issue. Very often, schools themselves lack the expertise to conduct exams like this. If private schools are like this how can we expect government schools to match up?
In the age of the MCQ (or the choose the right answer) question paper, why then are we pushing students to write detailed answers through school and college?
When it comes to learning, the best way to test him is through detailed answers. Objective type questions don't help there. We always make our students do one subjective type question paper to see if he has understood the concepts. International Olympiads are held this way for that very reason. Our educational system also needs to stay balanced in this regard.
Most major league universities abroad swear by an interview over mere test scores. Is that something you see as a threat to centres such as yours?
You should not judge a student based on his competitive exam score. Places like CMI weed out students who get by with rote learning. It's almost like an interview by itself. It tests whether you can think. This is something that IIT JEE is unable to do. We can also evolve to a stage where we train students to handle interviews and have aptitude. I firmly believe that this needs to happen sooner than later. Any professor who sits down with a student will find out who really knows the concepts.
How the Maths bug got to Arjun:
Though he doesn't really believe in hereditary features and that degree of inheritance, Arjun admits that he got a good deal of his math acumen growing up around his father, at home in Tiruchy.
He says, "My father was a Maths teacher, who used to take tuitions for nearly 800 students. Very old fashioned, and traditional, back in Tiruchy, for 35 years."
In fact, when his dad moved to Chennai he took over the maths duties at Arjun's centre so he had to improvise and shifted focus to Physics for about six months. "By then, I have as unable to give it the focus it needed because of calls and marketing requests and running around. So that's when we got our first full time teacher," he beams.