Social-learning startup OpenLearning has raised $8.5 million in Series A funding, led by Malaysian investors, in a bid to strengthen its hold on its key market in South East Asia.
Launched in 2013, muru-D accelerator graduate OpenLearning now has more than 1.3 million users, 50% of whom are in Malaysia, and 40 staff in the country on top of its 30 in Australia.
This funding round follows $1.7 million in seed funding in February 2015, although co-founder Adam Brimo tells StartupSmart existing investors have been supporting the platform since then. To date, the startup has now raised a total of $13.7 million.
Brimo says online learning typically involves a series of quizzes, but “that’s not how you learn a new skill”.
To this end, OpenLearning was designed to allow for social learning, through “reflecting, sharing and discussing ideas”, with a broad goal of improving access to high-quality online learning for higher education.
Previously, despite OpenLearning’s customer base in Malaysia, all of its investors had been Australia-based. The startup has had “great support from them”, Brimo says, but the timing was right to “bring on board some strategic investors in one of our key markets”.
This latest funding is led by Prestariang Berhad, a technology training provider, and Paramount Corporation Berhad, an investment company focused on education and property development. Brimo says both have interests aligned with OpenLearning, and were already known to the business.
While the fundraising process took a little longer than planned, Brima accepts: “These things always do”.
“Overall, I’m quite pleased with how everything went,” he adds.
Brimo says Malaysia is such a prominent market for OpenLearning partly because it’s “one of the fastest-growing higher education hubs in the world, and an early adopter of education technology”.
Equally, Brimo says, Malaysia was the first country in the world to launch a national massive open online courses (MOOC) program, using the OpenLearning platform, and has national targets for blended and online learning.
“The company and the platform is at the stage where it’s growing quite quickly,” Brimo says.
“We wanted to make sure we had some representation in South East Asia as a whole.
“We can see the idea and company is really resonating with a lot of people, so the timing was right,” he adds.
On top of all the trends
Brimo says OpenLearning’s latest funding will be put towards development of the platform, and research into new products and technologies.
“Higher education requires sustained investment to maintain innovation,” he says.
“We can’t stop developing … we have to be proactive and we have to keep investing in our platform.”
Although he says they’re not disclosing any of the specific products they’re working on yet, Brimo’ hints that OpenLearning is “on top of all the new trends,” and is researching “things like artificial intelligence and how that can have an impact on education”.
“The focus is on how these technologies can actually enhance the product, and help improve the learning,” he says.
Initially, however, the plan is to “really solidify our position in our two key markets”.
Brimo says this will involve expanding the platform and growing the sales and relationships teams to allow OpenLearning to work with even more universities and colleges.
In the future, Brimo has ambitions to expand to other South East Asian countries, but for now, the focus remains on Australia and Malaysia.
Brimo says OpenLearning has been growing 100% year-over-year, over the past few years. And he expects that to continue.
“My job as the founder is to keep it growing,” he says.
“I’d always hoped it would keep growing. The numbers over the years do get larger and that’s quite exciting … but I don’t place too much of an emphasis on it.
“I don’t think in terms of how big the numbers get. More about how [users] are experiencing the platform. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
The growth has been a “learning process” for OpenLearning, he says, forcing the team to focus on getting people from different countries working together, and to think about the way the company is structured and organised.
“It didn’t happen automatically,” Brimo says. “We had to put a lot of work into it.”
For other startup founders embarking on a growth journey, Brimo stresses “you have to believe that what you’re doing is making a difference to people”.
Persistence and dedication is key, he says. But he warns success is “not going to happen overnight”.
“People only hear about companies when they’re successful,” he adds.
“They don’t realise the years they had to go through when they weren’t.”