Reading “Nadiem Makarim”

Last Friday, Khairul (the CEO of lent me a copy of “Nadiem Makarim”.


It is the authorized biography of the founder and former CEO of Gojek, the Indonesian startup unicorn, and currently the Mendikbud (Menteri Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan) of Indonesia.

Khairul told me it is not easy to read because it is written in BI. What’s the big deal, I said, I can read English quite well. It turned out that he meant Bahasa Indonesia. OK, I can still read Bahasa Indo, but I admit that some words I don’t understand so I have to guess what they mean. Safe to assume I understood 99.9% of the content.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. Privilege is the surest path to success, and early privilege is the best advantage that can be bestowed to a person. The world is unfair, and whether we like it or not, privilege matters. Nadiem had a privileged background (a grandfather who was part of the Indonesian independence movement, a father who was a distinguished lawyer, basically a wealthy and socially influential family). He went to the Dalton School in New York for secondary education and the United World College in Singapore for pre-university education. That leads, later, to an Ivy League university, then McKinsey, then Harvard MBA, the whole shebang. He was set up early for success. This was spelled out unapologetically in the first few chapters. Of course, a privileged upbringing is not sufficient for success in life, as the many people with similar pedigrees but much more modest achievements can attest. However, and this is my point I’d like to emphasize, more than intelligence and work ethics, the most discerning factor that determines success is the early advantage that comes from a privileged upbringing. Take note, parents.
  2. He is deeply patriotic. He spent most of his youth outside Indonesia but have never lost the deep desire to serve his homeland. He would’ve had a high flying career with any foreign company he cared to join, but he staked his early professional life on a fledgling startup whose objectives are to serve fellow Indonesians and make Indonesia a better place.
  3. Gojek started slow but grew fast. The company was on concierge mode for the first few years of its existence: Gojek employees would take calls at its call center from people who want to order ojek (motorcycle) to go somewhere. Gojek grew organically for the first 3 years, yet a huge part of Gojek success later can be attributed to their early days, where it is more a consumer-facing company than a technology company. Once they move on to the ridesharing app model, the exponential growth started, and within a few months, the number of drivers increased more than a hundredfold.
  4. Nadiem has extraordinary people skills. He is as comfortable dealing with Gojek drivers as he is with his Harvard classmates or the tech types or the Indonesian elites. Great choice as Minister whose mandate is to serve the public.
  5. He works hard for Gojek and would stop at nothing to ensure its success. In a later chapter, there is a story of how the Indonesian government once tried to shut down Gojek. Nadiem and his team did whatever they could and pulled all the string the could pull to keep Gojek from going down. Finally, he managed to secure a meeting with Presiden Jokowi, and made an impassionate plea to him, which resulted in the Ministry of Transport rescinding their earlier decision to ban Gojek.
  6. Sometimes, you need to watch from the sidelines. When Gojek operated in its early years, Nadiem was often away working at other companies (first at Rocket Internet, and then later at Kartuku). He was the CEO of Rocket Internet Indonesia, and while working there, he can only manage to work on Gojek part-time. Yet, the experience and perspectives he obtained outside the company helped him to steer Gojek to greater heights when he returned to work full-time at Gojek.
  7. Get creative types aboard. Gojek is the brainchild of Nadiem and two co-founders that he met at Harvard Business School (where he was also classmates with the two future founders of Grab). The three Harvard founders of Gojek have technical and business backgrounds. So, one of their earliest decisions was to bring in a fourth co-founder who has a design background. He came up with many of the Gojek brand identities which are still used until today. A good lesson for startups.

Verdict: A good read worth spending a couple of afternoons on. Candidly educational for startup founders like me. Though at times the writing feels too hagiographical.

The Pandai App Story: Part II

In Part I, I told the story of how the four of us (the founders of Aidan, our first startup which we founded in 2007), came to venture into the edutech space.


Business Ideas in Edutech

Edutech is a large area. There are various business ideas that one can pursue in edutech, such as:

  • Innovation in education administration — e.g., solution for school management using a centralized database, which integrates several school functions such as taking attendance, recording grades, accepting payments (cashless system), loaning books in the school library, etc. Some products cater to a specific type of educational institution, such as tuition centers, universities, and kindergartens.
  • Innovation in education delivery — e.g., online classroom, online tutoring (1 to 1, or 1 to many), multimedia (videos, interactive applets, games), and various types of assessment tools;
  • Content — products that deliver educational content such as exam prep, learning app, questions bank, or niche education content like e.g., calligraphy or music lessons, that takes place via various platforms (web or mobile);
  • General technologies that are adapted for used in education — artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, adaptive systems, etc.;
  • Hardware solutions — smartboards, tablets, interactive classroom systems and other devices.

So how do we decide what to do with Pandai?

The founders had a vigorous debate about this, but the decision boiled down to these two factors: our advantages, and the market demand.


Looking at our advantages

What are our advantages? Among others,

  • ArdentEdu had 12 years of experience, organizing more than 500 programs covering every state and territories in Malaysia, so it can be said that we know the education market (at primary and secondary level) in Malaysia quite well;
  • We have a solid tech background, with experience developing large scale systems for government agencies as well as some mobile development cred;
  • We have a good working relationship with the Ministry of Education through various projects we have undertaken in the last decade. The public education sector in Malaysia is highly regulated and centralized, so if we want to penetrate this market, being on a first-name basis with the gatekeeper (so to speak) is a plus;
  • We already had 70,000 annual paying customers for our existing educational offerings under ArdentEdu.

As for the market demands, we found out through our market research that:

  • The majority of the students in Malaysia are students at public schools (5+ million of them, with a steady growth each year reflecting the general population growth).
  • Although there is an increasing trend towards middle-class parents sending children to private schools, the number is negligible compared to the huge majority in the public school system. For one, private schools are very expensive and way beyond the ability of the median income household in Malaysia;
  • Assuming a Gaussian / bell-curve distribution of academic performance, most students belong to the slightly below average, average and slightly above average group (whatever the average and standard deviation might be). So a product catered to the masses cannot take into account only the top students. We have to bear in mind the average ones;
  • Ditto for household income. We should avoid building a product only rich kids can afford. The size of the market is too small. To reach the mass market, pricing has to be right (or better, undercut all competitors severely, which is the classic start-up game);
  • Parents, teachers, students are easily spooked by new things introduced in the education system. Whether it be educational initiatives such as 21st century skills, higher order thinking skills, future-ready education, computational thinking, and school-based assessment, no exams for Year 1 to 3, or a new subject / content / format in the curriculum standard, the introduction of any new thing to schools almost always ends up in confusion, misunderstanding, and distrust towards the educational higher-ups who introduced what they deem as highfalutin ideas with little regard to the reality on the ground;
  • Teachers would like to be left alone to do their teaching jobs, and to complete the never-ending tasks given to them due to previously-introduced educational initiatives (see above). Teachers simply want to teach, and would like less time doing work outside of teaching;
  • Teachers design their teaching to follow the curriculum standards very closely. In the Malaysian education system, the standards are spelled out in the Dokumen Standard Kurikulum dan Pentaksiran (DSKP). Teachers tend to not veer their classroom engagement too far from the content of the standards. They place high importance on following the schedule closely, so they can complete each chapter on time;
  • Students are getting more and more confused with the changes taking place in the education system, with the recent revision of the curriculum, with new topics (e.g., financial mathematics in Form 3), with new subjects (e.g., Asas Sains Komputer for Form 1-3), and with various new educational initiatives and buzzwords being thrown around liberally. Every introduction of a new thing seems to make them even more confused. While change by itself can be good and sometimes necessary, a competent change management process seems to be lacking most of the time;
  • Students are still expected to score well in exams, and yet at the same time be a mini-adult capable to do high-level thinking and have all of these: grit, creativity, flexibility, responsibility, problem-solving skills, 21st century skills, computational thinking, design thinking, IT-savviness, leadership skills, collaborative skills, communication skills, and so on. What happened to let kids be kids? Students feel the pressure to be future-ready graduates in the future in order to work in the future digital economy that is so futuristic that the only way to make themselves future-proof is to subject themselves to impossible standards in school set by those who already left school 25 years ago, back when schools were fun places to learn, play, and generally monkey around with peers.
  • Such are the expectations toward students nowadays, and given the impossible task ahead, teachers and students normally respond by throwing their hands in the air, saying screw all this, and reverting to what they think as the usual way of how a school should be. This means that teachers teaching the students in the traditional way — chalk and talk (with which there is nothing wrong, in my opinion) — and students just wanting to get their exams over with.

That is our finding. The methodology is confidential, but the research involved many teachers. I only share the qualitative part, but we have numbers too. Others might disagree with these findings but that is the situation on the ground that our data tell us.

Bottom line, teachers just want to be left alone to teach whatever is asked of them to teach, and students just want to do well in exams, which is what is expected of them anyway.

Teachers generally think of educational initiatives, including the introduction of technology in the classroom, as unnecessary extra burdens, despite the best intentions of their purveyors (e.g., the Frog VLE system had less than 8% utilization rate by teachers and it was a nationwide project rolled out by the Ministry themselves).

Most teachers revert to the traditional way of education delivery — chalk and talk, one-way communication, homework, buku latihan, worksheets, mid-semester/final exams, and awarding of letter grades — despite the call for more varied assessment and teaching methods.

(Of course, there are exceptional teachers who are really innovative and revolutionary in their approach, but these are not the majority, and it is not practical to expect most teachers to follow in their footsteps.)

And as for the students, generally, they want what students have been wanting since forever, which are good grades. No amount of techno-futuristic talk in school can convince the average student to change their priority. Students live in the here and now. They do not have the lengthy life experience behind them that they can project ahead to see where they will be in the future. They care about surviving school. At the end of the day, what matters are their academic performance in school, of which the most important indicators are their final grades. These are what their parents and other adults will judge them on. With tertiary placement decisions made through SPM results (can a C-average student apply for an overseas scholarship?), like it or not their future paths ARE determined by letter grades.

It was from these findings and assumptions that we decided on the direction of Pandai.