The Pandai App Story: Part I

What is Pandai?


Pandai is “clever” in the Malay language. Someone who is pandai is implied to have intelligence, and a bit of cunning (as opposed to being intelligent only, which is normally labeled as pintar instead of pandai).

To be called a budak pandai (clever kid) is perhaps the highest possible praise a child can get, alongside being called a budak baik (good kid).

Pandai is the name of the educational app which has been developed by Aidan Group in 2019, and have since then spun off as its own company.

The Pandai app will be in the market in January 2020.


The History of Pandai: The Aidan Years

In 2007, I and four other friends, who have known each other since our school years, founded Aidan Group. At the time, we were 25 years old. I was a junior analyst in Khazanah Nasional, the investment arm of the Malaysian government. I worked at Khazanah in the mornings and laid down the groundwork for what would be Aidan in the evenings. In April 2007, when Aidan was ready for business, I resigned from Khazanah and promptly started work in Aidan the very next day.


The other co-founders are Akmal, Alif, Iznan, and Khairul. They are still with Aidan, except for Alif, who left 2015 to pursue other vocations.

Since 2007, the Aidan Group and the companies under it (AidanTech and ArdentEdu) have been growing steadily but slowly. From no staff at all — just the 5 founders in one small room — we have grown to be a company with 80 people on the payroll as of the end of 2019.

WhatsApp Image 2019-04-25 at 21.05.51
The founders of Aidan and our staff earlier this year. Front row, 4th from left: Akmal, myself, and Khairul (Iznan was not in the picture).


About Aidan

There are two major operating companies under the Aidan Group: AidanTech and ArdentEdu.


AidanTech is a major player in the government IT industry. They provide IT services to a large number of ministries, agencies, institutions, commissions, and all types of organizations in the Malaysian government bureaucracy. AidanTech also serves a sizable number of clients in the private sector, but they operate mainly in the public sector. Some of the technologies developed by AidanTech have spun off as separate SaaS (software as a service) companies, which continue to grow on their own.

Among the flagship programs of AidanTech is the ConFIG annual conference, which brings together a huge number of IT officers from government organizations, for several days of networking and technology updates. Akmal and Khairul run AidanTech, until recently.


ArdentEdu is an educational program provider. When I tell people I run an educational company, people assumed that I run tuition centers, or go around to schools giving motivational talks. For many years, those are the only two types of educational business prominent in the market. We did neither. ArdentEdu focuses on STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — with a strong emphasis on the M, to reflect my background in mathematics.

ArdentEdu started off by developing modules on science and mathematics, and conducting STEM programs at schools. Over the years, the offerings of ArdentEdu have diversified, and we now rake in revenues of several million RM a year. I am proud to say that Iznan and I, with support from our team members which have been changing throughout the years, have built ArdentEdu from scratch, from “jual air liur”, to the respectable education company it now is.

Although ArdentEdu might not be well-known as a brand (a decision which is intentional), some of our programs have become quite popular. For example, our Kangaroo Math Competition, started in 2013, now has an enrollment of more than 40,000 students, which covers 15% of schools in Malaysia. The Kangaroo has become somewhat of a beloved brand with devoted enthusiasts among Malaysian students and teachers.

The “STEM boom” that started at around 2012 was quite beneficial to ArdentEdu; since then many companies have set up shop to sell STEM materials (toys, robots, mini-computers, coding classes, etc.) and the public is now familiar with these types of STEM-oriented education business and so we don’t have to explain ourselves at length anymore when people ask us what is our business; people do not automatically assume we do motivational talks or tuition classes anymore.

In short, in the first 10 years, the Aidan founders have grown a company organically from scratch, through the startup bootstrap model and no external funding, and we have since placed Aidan as a respectable, mid-sized player in the govtech (AidanTech) and education (ArdentEdu) industries in Malaysia.

However, like any entrepreneur, things are never enough.


The Pain of Growth

We wanted to grow more.

For more than two years, we (the four of us Aidan founders) debated where to bring our companies next. Should we spend capital and start a new company outside the industries we are in? Just because? There were talks on starting a trading firm, a manufacturing company, even buying factories with dwindling outputs, just to turn them around. We entertained ideas on entering the food business, the travel business, even trading commodities. Though most ideas we floated were silly, it was a good exercise in perspective, to examine our strengths and limitations.

We talked to numerous people in various industries, just to get an idea on which industry is ripe for entry, and where we should venture into next. We had several day-long retreats to discuss these issues, and had countless discussions over lunch, coffee, or anytime we happen to meet. Since 2017, we were restless, wanting to make a move, but not knowing what to do.

Things came to head during Ramadan (about May, if I remember correctly) of 2019, when we have had enough discussions and debates and proposals and ideas. We had to decide how to move. We forced ourselves to decide.

And the solution couldn’t have been more simple. In fact, it had been right in front of us since the beginning.


Pandai as Aidan 2.0

We decided to scale our original businesses. (Yawn.)

By scaling, we do not mean making it bigger or with more reach. We meant scaling in a  slightly different way. Let me explain.

AidanTech has worked long enough in the govtech industry with a track record that established their credibility in this sector. This was achieved by sheer grit and hard work; no hanky-panky, no coffee with puan pengarah, and no cable-fication needed. And we had a large team behind us. From serving a large number of government clients, we had developed our own technological asset and knowledge base aligned to the latest developments in govtech.

This is factor X.

ArdentEdu, on the other hand, has been at the forefront of education trends since its founding in 2007. Before STEM became the media buzzword, we had organized more than 60 math and science camps annually, and have introduced problem-solving modules way before HOTS is introduced in the national education standards. When the ministry wanted to introduce Computational Thinking in schools, ArdentEdu was appointed to study the best practices in 7 countries (US, UK, Australia, Singapore, Denmark, Estonia, and Finland) to report to the government. This we did with much alacrity and in 2015 we visited all countries and later in the year Iznan presented our findings to the DG of Education. The findings became a basis for the Asas Sains Komputer and Sains Komputer subjects that were introduced in 2017. After countless committees and panel meetings later, ArdentEdu has become more than a program organizer or a STEM toyseller; we are now involved directly in educational policy.

This is factor Y.

The two factors add up well: X + Y, our competence in building a technological system (mainly for the government) through AidanTech, paired with our experience and deep knowledge in the education sector through ArdentEdu, suggests that the way forward is in education technology.


Into Edutech

Edutech (some called it edtech) is the way Aidan will move forward.

So we settled on the industry. Still, edutech can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. Kahoot is edutech. Byju’s in India is an edutech company valued at 5.5 billion USD. EdX and Coursera are edutech. The highly hyped but ultimately meh AR and VR technologies are edutech. Heck, our own dead Frog VLE was edutech.

So what is the way to go?

The only right answer is — whatever the market wants.

Not what the smart kids want. Not what the rich parents want. Not what tech speakers want. Not what VCs and investors talk about. It should be what the majority of educational users and customers in Malaysia wants. The market, as we define it, is the majority.

In Malaysia, the majority of educational users are teachers and students. However, the actual customers are the parents, since they are the ones forking the money.

The majority are students who go to government schools. There are 5 million of them. Although the elites and the middle class make the most noise in the educational discourse in Malaysia, the fact remains that most Malaysian kids still attend government schools. (This, despite whatever complaints they have about the education system. In a sense, this is not our problem. Our problem is to provide the users and customers with what they need. Fixing the education system is the job for the higher authorities.)


First Things First

So, our first step is market research.

Learn what the market wants, converge to an idea, develop several permutations of that idea, bounce off the idea (and all its possible permutations) with potential customers, and validate them with real data.

We found that there is no shortage of people who are willing to give their opinion on education. Everybody and their grandaunts want to talk about education and the shortcomings of the education system. We learned to filter out those who are simply ranting about the education system, and focus on listening to teachers and students (the younger the better — young kids are clear in their preferences), about what they want, and what they need and what they are willing to pay.

And once we have identified the idea we set forth to validate them.


To be continued…

Next: Our Idea for Pandai and How to Validate it.

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