In late April, Indian officials in plainclothes raided the Bengaluru offices of Byju’s, seizing laptops and publicly linking the world’s most valuable education-technology startup with possible foreign exchange violations, according to a Bloomberg report.
An ocean away, Byju Raveendran, the firm’s eponymous founder and chief executive, paced his condo in Dubai, downing cups of black coffee and fielding calls from top investors.With a planned $1 billion equity fundraise from Middle Eastern investors still in limbo, Raveendran broke down in tears defending his company, according to people who attended the calls.
Raveendran had been in crisis mode for months.Apart from the raid by India’s financial crime-fighting agency, his once high-flying tutoring startup failed to file its financial accounts on time.Several US-based investors accused Byju’s of hiding half a billion dollars, prompting lawsuits, stated the Bloomberg report.
On Tuesday, Prosus NV, one of the company’s earliest investors, said it had given up its board seat because of poor governance and disregard for directors’ advice.
Byju’s and Raveendran have denied wrongdoing.But their tale – pieced together from interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the firm’s operations – is a window into challenges facing India’s startups.With limited domestic venture capital, firms like Byju’s have looked outward for support.That changed last year, when startup funding took a hit, falling to a four-year low by the first half of 2023.
Without easy access to global capital, companies are now facing greater scrutiny over corporate governance, jeopardizing India’s quest to pull even with the US and China as a tech capital of the world.
“If the situation is not contained quickly and guardrails are not put in place at Byju’s, it will affect India’s image as an investment destination among overseas funds,” said Jacob Mathew, a chairman of investment banking at Incred Capital Ltd, as per the Bloomberg report.
Raveendran’s rise from a private tutor to the leader of a $22 billion company captivated global investors, including Sequoia Capital, Blackstone Inc.and Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation.During the pandemic, Raveendran cornered a majority of the ed-tech market in India.
But after classrooms reopened, concerns about Byju’s finances pricked at the firm’s reputation.
Investors questioned why Raveendran delayed hiring a chief financial officer for years and acquired more than a dozen companies across the world at break-neck speedScores of employees have either left or been fired.Board members have resigned.And many teaching centers are nearly empty, added the Bloomberg report.
Raveendran’s supporters attribute missteps to the enthusiasm and naivete of an inexperienced founder who grew too quickly.Critics say he acted recklessly by withholding information about finances and failing to rigorously audit accounts.In India’s startup world, many see Byju’s as the highest-profile example of what happens when a business scales one of the fastest-growing economies during a boom – but fails to plan for a bust, Bloomberg reported.
Raveendran and a spokesperson for Byju’s declined to comment.