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The Winding Path to Reach 50M Students: An Interview with Fellow Sam Bhattacharyya

“Entrepreneurship is like running a marathon through a labyrinth.” So says Sam Bhattacharyya, a 2014-15 Legatum Fellow and cofounder of the video compression startup Vectorly. When it first launched in 2016 (back when it was an edtech named dot Learn), Vectorly’s goal was to reach 50 million students through an app that allowed users to produce vector graphics-based educational videos. Because the file size of these videos was up to 10 times smaller than other educational content, they could be accessed in areas of the world where internet speed and cost had traditionally been a barrier.

Though the company’s launch in Ghana was successful, reaching 10,000 users, an attempted expansion to Nigeria proved problematic, signaling a broader scalability problem that would hinder the impact they’d hoped to have. In a year that Bhattacharyya called the hardest of his life, Vectorly decided to pivot to a B2B model, creating a Vimeo-type platform for edtechs in emerging markets to host their video content. At the heart of the platform would be a compression technology that could “vectorize” animated video files—that is, converting the videos to vector graphics in order to drastically reduce their file size. (You can read more about Vectorly’s 2018 pivot here).

More recently, Vectorly pivoted again, foregoing the platform to focus more squarely on developing the compression technology—a shift that will allow them to attract bigger fish in the form of mega-distributors like YouTube and Netflix. According to Bhattacharyya, despite all this gear-shifting, the original goal of reaching 50 million students has not been abandoned. Rather, it has been subsumed by a broader, more ambitious target: Reaching one billion people. We sat down with Bhattacharyya to discuss the reasons behind this new target and how Vectorly intends to reach it.

What is Vectorly’s current business model?

Right now, we’re focused on developing a video compression technology based on vector graphics, which can help deliver a faster, higher quality video using much less data than what’s currently available. Our goal is to get it out to a billion people, and we hope to accomplish that by getting big video platforms like YouTube, Disney, and Netflix to adopt our technology.

We still have the goal of making educational video content more accessible to students, but you could say that our path to getting there has become much wider. In short, we determined that the best way to reach scale was to get the “big kids” to adopt our technology, which means we’re not just reaching students anymore, but anyone who accesses video online.

Before we could play with the big kids, however, we had to focus on making our technology work the way we knew it could.

What exactly are vector graphics?

Vector graphics use mathematical equations to render the image—like points, lines, and curves located along coordinates on a plane—as opposed to the more common raster graphics which are composed of pixels, or individual picture elements. Basically, pixel-based graphics take up a lot more space than vector graphics do, and converting a pixelated video to a vector-based video, or “vectorizing” it, makes the file size much smaller. That means companies save money on storage, and users with slow or expensive internet connections can access more content.

Technically, any pixel-based video can be vectorized, but the process is particularly effective with certain types of video, like animations or screencasts. Not only is the resulting file a fraction of the size, the quality actually improves.

Can you describe Vectorly’s trajectory since your 2018 pivot?

In 2018 we decided to switch to a B2B model and work with edtechs in emerging markets who had expressed interest in us developing a vector-based compression technology. At the time, we could only produce vector-based educational videos. We couldn’t convert pixel-based to vector-based yet, but we thought we could get there, so we began to develop a SaaS platform for creating, hosting, and broadcasting videos, similar to Vimeo but for emerging markets, and vector-based compression would be a core component.

The platform had some initial success with small startups, but over time we realized that the video compression technology was taking too long to develop. We also couldn’t handle the volume of larger companies like Khan Academy, and if the startups we were working with grew too big, they would have to stop using us. And our angel investors, which included high-level people at Amazon and Hulu, were more interested in the compression technology than they were in the rest of the platform. Once again, we just weren’t building something that was that scalable.

At that point, I realized that to make this company grow, I needed to be open to having a shared vision—to direct a shared vision that gets good people on board. Basically, everyone agreed that we should still go after edtech, but not as the first thing we do. Instead, we decided to focus on getting our compression technology to work, not just in theory but in reality, so that we could start presenting at industry forums and conferences and get taken seriously by the big video platforms.

And does the compression technology work now?

Yes, it does. Now we can treat it as a true video compression technology. We can put it on the cloud. You can feed us a video and it will process just like any other video compression technology. Our video vectorization can reduce video bitrates by up to 50 times for “vector-friendly” content including animations, screencasts and screensharing applications, animated e-learning videos, gaming videos, and videos with computer-graphics overlays such as news tickers and sports scoreboards. We have a whitepaper that summarizes how it all works. It includes benchmarks, demos and comparisons to global industry standards.

What are your goals for the next six months and beyond?

For the next six months we’re focusing on lining up our first commercial pilots, talking with edtechs as well as other video distributors with animated content. The ideal pilot would be that we handle some subset of their content, maybe two or three courses or a single season of one show, enough to demonstrate that the technology doesn’t just work but is commercially viable, that we have customers who will pay for it and save money by doing so. If we do that, we can raise our next round of funding and scale. 

How does your current approach align with the original goal of making educational content more accessible?

Let’s take the massive open online course provider, edX, as an example. The company uses YouTube to host its content. So, our options are to either try to convince edX to stop using YouTube and use us instead, or we convince YouTube to use us. If YouTube did use us, then edX could get all the benefits without even talking to us or us talking to them. It’s automatic.

One of the hardest parts of business is changing user behavior. As a B2C business, especially, you need an exceptional product to get people to change their behavior. By focusing squarely on our unique vectorization compression and making it work, we can now reach scale with fewer conversations—that is, we don’t expend so much time and resources on pitching and changing those behaviors. Compared to the dot Learn days, when scaling depended on having so many individual conversations with students and teachers and other stakeholders, now if we can convince a handful of large video distributors to adopt our technology, everyone can benefit, and we spare intermediates the hassle of adopting new software.

We don’t talk about our work in these terms as much as we used to, but we’re closer to making educational content more accessible to millions of students than we ever were.

Interview & Article by Jim Cooney

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