Nebula Forms Stars
A new Georgian educational internet startup with its individually tailored programs, affordable rates and hooligan-like image, threatens to revolutionize the market for preparing students for admission to universities. Every year there are approximately 40,000 entrants to universities in Georgia. However, Nebula sells more than just knowledge…
I got the wrong door on the first try and found myself in an awkward situation: there were three boys and a girl standing by a whiteboard engaged in a heated discussion. Since no one seemed to be bothered by my intrusion, I decided to stand nearby and listen.
I wanted to ask where the Nebula office was, but I did not get a chance to throw in a word. After a little while, their interest turned to me. In the meantime, I got the hang of brainstorming:
There was a tic-tac-toe chart with 16 squares on the board. The young people were looking for a win-win algorithm for toe.
Nebula is a digital startup comprised of gifted people from various backgrounds. It was picked-up on the education industry’s radar in April of 2016. It was the deplorable state of public education that prompted the idea of creating Nebula. The founders of Nebula believe that modern approaches and big data could be the solution to the problems in public schools.
The movement is already in process: 12 young people and one artificial intelligence are preparing high school graduates for admission exams in a rather impressive way: the site analyzes a student’s weak spots and based on that, pieces together an individually tailored and very effective video learning course. Nebula is the first Georgian company that aims to engage in the global trend of digital education.
“When the weight of a school bag gets heavier and at the same time the level of education gets lower, we must realize that we are doing something wrong,” say the founders of Nebula.
At the present time, the scope of their operation is strictly limited to Georgia. But they fully realize the advantages and risks of such a decision: on the one hand, their product is adapted to the context – they create a product, which is customized for Georgia’s exam model. On the other hand, they face the threat of consumer behavior. It’s no secret that Georgians are still rather reluctant to spend their money on digital products. According to Geostat, only 19.7% of the population purchases goods and services via internet.
Ordering and buying goods and services via internet is three times more frequent in the city compared to villages. According to a recent study, 24.7% of the urban population purchased goods and services online, while only 8.1% of the rural population uses this option.
A familiar face greeted me from the midst of the brainstorming session. Giorgi Chilaia, a 22 year-old entrepreneur, andaccording to his Facebook profile, the founder and ‘Chief Cosmo Cowboy’ of Nebula. While he was trying to clear his desk of Rubik’s Cubes, cones, chess panels and other stationary paraphernalia, Sandro Dolidze, the CEO of the company entered the office.
“We are arms dealers,” Dolidze says. “Knowledge is a weapon isn’t it?” Chilaia adds.
These two engines of the company come from radically different backgrounds. Prior to the project, Chilaia was busy studying Arabic language and literature. He worked as a volunteer and taught prose and poetry at a number of schools before graduating from the faculty of Asia and Africa at Free University. Dolidze’s academic path also started at the Free University. However, it was cut short quickly. When it came to choosing between his beloved occupation and a university career, the classic dropout chose the first.
In its early stages Nebula resembled an underground organization. The landlord used to let the duo use his Soviet-style office at night. A venturesome plan and an entirely new vision of education were crafted in a room surrounded by walls adorned with Ferrari posters and portraits of the Russian military.
This was followed by victories in several competitions, as well as obtaininggrants and sponsors. In December 2015, the underground organization turned into a real company, and before long theirideas saw the light of day. In just three months, Nebula managed to register 14,000 out of 40,000 entrants to universities.After the test launch, their accumulated startup capital exceeded ₾100,000 without the alienation of shares. In view of the market’s eagerness for digital products, and more so for digital education, this kind of a beginning is quite impressive.
Currently, there are 11 people employed at the company and the process is becoming more stable. However, this has not affected much the working schedule of the partners. “Can you imagine a parent, who cares about their child only from 12 to 6 and only on weekdays?” Dolidze asked me in rhetorical fashion.
Every evening Nebula used to go live on its Facebook page to discuss the tactics of solving challenging exercises and tests. As a result of the close interaction with students, Nebula became sort of a ‘love mark’ in its own segment. For students, the Nebula team represented a bunch of people that were successful and happy simply because they genuinely loved to study. At the end of the season, studentwho had just taken general ability tests asked Nebula for the right answers instead of waiting for the official test results.
“After the admission exams were over, we called our students on the phone to find out their results. They were all excited to discuss the exams with us. However, there was one exceptional phone call. One of the students that we called told us that after watching Nebula, he had realized that it was quite possible to become a rock star by simply studying hard. That is exactly what Nebula is about – it is a smithy for stars and super heroes, whose super power is knowledge,” explains Dolidze.
Perhaps that’s when the company came up with a new slogan ‘Nebula is Forming Stars”? This slogan has two explanations. The first explanation is what you already thought it was, and the second explanation is the actual meaning of the phrase itself: Nebula is a cosmic body that really forms stars.
Many conservative marketing experts would criticize Nebula’s communication strategy, which is focused on students, while the buyer of their product is obviously the parent of the student. Their first response to my question as to why was as follows: “Because, otherwise it would be boring. We do our business as we want to and people like us for that.”
In fact, this approach is obvious if you take a look at their study course. They showed me their favorite lessons and I can assure you that never before have I seen someone talk with such enthusiasm about triangle area formulas. There is no doubt about their enthusiasm and sincerity and that is probably what makes Nebula different from other ‘teachers’. Nebula is placing its bet on love. That is if you love what you are studying, and are able to fully take in the topics that you were never interested in before.
Nebula makes an even louder statement on the market, where the most popular promise given is to make the process of studying painless and quick. Nebula manages to turn a seemingly boring issue, like the sum formula of arithmetic progression, into an exciting topic you can discuss with friends.
In an effort to justify and support their communication strategy, Dolidze and Chilaia put forward a fictional situation: they argue that it is unheard of for parents to refuse a child that is eager to learn.
The company is not for sale and that is a principled decision. The exit column of their business plan includes six words: “We’re a family business. Like Mafia.”
At times they call themselves a mafia and other times they are Cosmo pirates. This somewhat insolent communication can be viewed as a mistake. However, on the other hand, one can discern an interesting strategy in this. This is a very risky attitude for a casino, a bank or an insurance company. In most cases, even beer brewing companies avoid discussing inebriation, since this type of narrative is risky and even off-putting from a PR standpoint.
Fully realizing the noble cause they serve, the Nebula team tries to enrich its brand with space adventure elements. Their noble product is wrapped in a romantic Robin Hood like criminal image, which we so much love. Although the branding was invented to disguise shameful activities and to make them appear as noble.
While Nebula charges for its services, it regularly offers various grants and social projects. Nebula’s short-term goal is expansion. It is very important for the company to introduce itself to as many students as possible, without any monetization. The team believes that this is the only strategy that can turn digital learning into a consumer habit.
Money comes from another source as well – B2B. There is no shortage of those who want to be associated with them. It seems that scrupulous marketers have not missed the emergence of a promising player in this industry.
Nebula plans to become a talent magnet, which scouts and prepares young talented people. In this case, the company represents an object of strategic importance – a gold mine for university and intellectual business headhunters.
And this is only part of Nebula’s cosmic plans. The company plans to triple its courses and publish hard cover and digital books. In winter, the students will be able to stay at a rockstar camp called ‘Nebula Supernova’. Chilaia and Dolidze, along with other teachers, plan to hold a steroid training course. On evenings when there are no lectures on artificial intelligence and the supernatural delivered by the invited guests from various world corporations, the students will be able to listen to their favorite Georgian bands. The company also plans to launch an open space this year, which will be called Nebulab. Those, who wish to study, will enjoy 24/7 access to the Nebulab with its books, gadgets, telescopes and most importantly – people – who are more than happy to answer any questions you might have.
The guys at Nebula want to fill the niche of preparing students for admission to universities. Without a doubt, we are dealing with an enormous accumulated energy. We might as well expect a big bang in the education industry.