Snapask, an educational technology startup that has just raised a US$35 million funding round, started out with – and is mostly known for – its namesake feature, which lets students upload a photo of their homework and get help from tutors.
But since its founding in 2015, the Hong Kong-based company now offers more services, such as Sofasoda, a feature that helps university students learn soft skills, and Wizmo, a platform that provides teachers with student analytics. Snapask also operates Lab, its network of physical classrooms where students in a number of Asian cities can study after school.
With the fresh funding, the company plans to expand into professional-grade educational videos while also doubling down on Southeast Asia, a key growth market. According to Snapask founder and CEO Timothy Yu, the vision is to drive a “revolution” of self-directed learning across Asia.
“Overall in Asia, education is a top priority to get better opportunities in society. Students and families [are willing to] pay a lot to invest in education,” he says. While the region can be too exam-driven, Yu cites how the latest education trends emphasize a return to the basics, which encourages students to learn and grow independently.
Beyond Q and A
Snapask’s bread and butter includes its Q and A feature, which connects over 3 million students to 350,000 tutors, as well as its teaching videos and courses focused on university entrance exams.
The company’s newer services were introduced in recent years. Lab was launched in 2018 to provide after-school study spaces in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Seoul. Yu says that the Snapask team saw how difficult it was for students in these cities to find such a place. The typical venue option is a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, where students often hog multiple tables, stay for hours, and purchase a minimal amount of food or drinks. Unsurprisingly, this practice (which is also observed in Singapore) often draws the ire of other patrons and the establishment itself.
Wizmo, a business-to-business enterprise product, was rolled out after the Snapask team found out how a lot of teachers are burdened with administrative work. Instead of giving out homework assignments – which teachers often do to track their students’ progress – Wizmo collects data points and visualizes them in a “clean way,” Yu says.
“What questions are students asking? What do they need exactly with regards to content?” he points out. “This lets teachers focus on teaching instead of evaluation and administration.”
Launched during the latter half of 2019, Sofasoda’s unusual name has a backstory. The team pictured students lounging on a sofa with a can of soda and using the app to learn soft skills, like “how to debate, negotiate, do a good presentation, or game theory,” Yu recalls. “Not traditional teaching content, but something [that can] help a person grow and be competitive in the market.”
The idea for this feature came about when the company realized that many loyal Snapask users would stop using the app when they graduate high school. “If we don’t have offerings for students after that stage, it will be a big loss,” Yu notes. “How can we re-engage these users?”
That aside, Yu says that the Q and A interaction between students and tutors continues to be the driving force for Snapask. But it also prompted the team to explore how to develop engaging content.
“Imagine students coming home at night, needing homework help. A lot of students come to us with that expectation,” he says. “But then we do observe that learning and education. It’s also about how students can better ingest knowledge through educational content.”
With the latest funding, Snapask plans to develop educational videos with television- or movie-standard production values, not run-of-the-mill ones. Currently, what exists in the market are mostly videos of tutors writing on a piece of paper or blackboard that were recorded using a smartphone. But this is not engaging enough, Yu contends. Even with platforms like Coursera or Udemy, which target university students, the course completion rates are generally below 10%.
“We want to bring change in educational content, reinventing how we structure and build this content,” he says, adding that Snapask’s goal is to give “a reason for students to finish the whole thing.”
To this end, Yu is bringing a team of people from the TV and film industries to spearhead production.
Snapask also plans to double down in Southeast Asia. While Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have been its biggest markets in terms of maturity and profitability, around 20% to 60% of its clients are from Southeast Asia, according to Yu. Apart from Singapore, the startup has a presence in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Vietnam will be the next stop.
“One of the reasons [behind the expansion] is the overall market size and student population in this region, as well as increasing demand for online education,” Yu says. “Although Hong Kong and Taiwan are profitable markets, they’re limited in terms of market size, while Southeast Asia has unlimited upside.”
Snapask has over 500,000 active users in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand combined, compared with 120,000 in Hong Kong and 200,000 in Taiwan, he says. The company is also present in Japan and South Korea, but Yu didn’t disclose numbers.
The startup runs on a subscription model, with prices varying per country. In Hong Kong, the cheapest plan is a 10-session pack that costs HK$180 (US$23). The most expensive allows for unlimited sessions and costs HK$880 (US$113). In comparison, the most affordable option in Indonesia is a 10-session pack costing 99,000 rupiah (US$7), while the advanced plan gives users 60 sessions a month for 459,000 rupiah (US$33).
Southeast Asia’s edtech space is not without competition. In Singapore, for instance, Geniebook similarly places an emphasis on personalized learning.
Ruangguru claims to have 15 million users in Indonesia, its only market. That figure is more than five times Snapask’s total user base, but Yu says Southeast Asia is a big enough market that can take in more players.
“From one question posted on Snapask, there are 50 different ways that students can misunderstand a concept, and there are many ways tutors can explain that concept,” he observes. “What we should encourage is more and more of these companies to create personalized quality education at scale, and we can make a very big change in the industry.”
Room for growth
Yu think that there are many similarities between Southeast Asian countries and Hong Kong or Taiwan. Students and their families are willing to invest heavily in education because they see it as a path towards a better future.
“There is still room for Southeast Asian markets to grow,” he adds.
But huge opportunities often come with challenges. For example, it will be difficult for Snapask to scale its operations in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are much bigger compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
“High-quality teachers are concentrated in major cities, so you can imagine them being crammed in one place and what’s left for the rest are subpar teaching resources,” Yu says.
While most Snapask users in Indonesia hail from cities like Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bandung, those that come from smaller cities still make up over a third of the user base. Yu believes that the company’s role is to give these students access to top-notch tutors.
Demand for online education services have increased in recent weeks as many students stayed at home amid the unprecedented spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Snapask has signed up 1.2 million users in the past 12 months, with over 30% subscribing to the service within the past two months.
“If quality education is really about quality teachers who are helpful, available anytime to guide students, [as well as] quality content that is engaging enough, [then] this opens up new topics to reflect on,” Yu says.
Currency converted from HK dollar to US dollar: US$1 = HK$7.79 and from Indonesian rupiah to US dollar: US$1 = 14,306 rupiah