Portrait: Ruangguru.com, Indonesia's leading edtech startup

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

Three years ago, we interviewed Muhamad Iman Usman, Co-founder of Ruangguru.com, then a budding startup in the edtech sector. Now one of the most successful startups in Indonesia, Ruangguru.com has revolutionised how private tutors, parents and students interact in the ASEAN economic giant. In our monthly #BoldBeginnings series, we revisit Ruangguru story from its beginnings.

The young CEO

Muhamad Iman Usman is an inspirational figure for many young people in Indonesia. With countless achievements that belie his young age, Iman is widely known as a youth activist who kickstarted influential movements in the country, such as Indonesian Future Leaders and Parlemen Muda Indonesia (Indonesian Youth Parliament).

Back in 2011, while he was still a sophomore at the University of Indonesia, Iman delivered a speech as the Indonesian representative at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Youth convened by the UN General Assembly in New York City — a testament to his tireless efforts in bringing youth issues to the forefront of international public consciousness.

After completing a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City, Iman returned to his home country in 2014 and co-founded an online #education startup called Ruangguru.com - ruang guru means teacher’s room in Indonesian. As its 23-year-old CEO now, he envisions this enterprise as a game-changing platform where private teachers can be connected with prospective students from all across Indonesia, with many more innovative product lines to come.

Ruangguru.com started with this notion that everyone can become a teacher. What makes a good teacher in your opinion?

I believe that a good teacher is someone who is a good role model. It is not only about making your students understand the lesson you deliver, but also about being someone that they can look up to.

Teachers should also be able to enlighten their students and maximise the potential of every single one of them without necessarily intervening on their future. While a professor might teach a large group of students in a classroom, he or she should develop a personal touch, a personalised learning experience where no student feels left out.

If the students realise what they are good at and what they can do in the future, then we have a good teacher.

You co-founded Ruangguru.com with Adamas Belva Syah Devara in 2013. Tell us about your beginnings.

I had a chat over coffee with Belva in 2013. We spoke about education issues in Indonesia and what could be done to solve some of the problems we encounter as a nation. At the time, we were about to join graduate schools in the United States. My co-founder Belva is currently pursuing his dual master’s degree at Stanford and Harvard. He had just completed his GMAT, while I was preparing my GRE test. I was trying to find a GRE tutor online in Jakarta, but I had no idea whether these tutors were any good or had adequate skills to teach the GRE. I also could not find any information about their fees.

At the time in Jakarta, a number of online marketplaces already existed in the food, fashion, hospitality and entertainment industries — we wondered whether such a model could be applicable to education and teaching. We conducted some research and found many examples of successful education platforms in other countries. After a little more work to fine tune our model, we decided to launch Ruangguru.com as a marketplace connecting private tutors and prospective students.

A year on, we have learned many things which have convinced us that we are on the right path. Our competitors take an average of 40-70% of commission from the fee students pay the tutors they connect and work with. We believe that number to be unfair and that teachers should be paid more. Tutors’ fees are usually flat on other platforms. As a teacher, you get paid the same amount of money regardless of how many students you teach. That is is not a good deal.

So when we started Ruangguru.com, we wanted to ensure that our tutors had the freedom to define and set their own rate, so customers would appreciate them more.

With your current activities, how do you envisage the development of education in Indonesia, especially with the current technological evolution?

I definitely see that the combination of education and technology is the way forward. It will not only support students’ learning process; but it will also help educators, administrators and policymakers understand the status of education in Indonesia. Right now, there is a lack of data on education. Even the government has two different sets of figures on the total number of teachers in the country. The difference is currently of 200,000 individuals, which may seem small, but which impacts the country’s education budget. It also can translate into a difference of billions of rupiahs in annual salaries for school staff.

I believe that by combining technology and education, and specifically by using big data to make informed decisions, we will support students, teachers but also the policymaking process. There is a lot of work ahead and I do not doubt that we will face many challenges. But we must start now.

This interview was recorded in June 2015, at the Ruangguru.com offices in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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