Julián Melo, co-founder of edtech UBITS. Photo: Courtesy/UBITS
Business

Edtech UBITS seems to have learned the right formula to hook Latin American workers

During the pandemic, the startup offered free courses to employees of more than 500 companies to help them prepare for the "new normal." It now serves corporate clients from 11 different countries. Co-founder Julián Melo spoke with LABS about the UBITS' plans

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Technical training, soft skills, updates. The range of education startups that deal directly with the world of corporate training seems to be growing, but always with a similar formula, right? Not exactly. UBITS, edtech in the field founded by Julián Melo and Marta Helena Forero in 2018 in Colombia, took full advantage of the demand boom caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to discover that, at least in Latin America, there is a right way to attract the attention of workers and encourage them to take a course to the end.

Called “bits,” most of the more than 600 courses offered by UBITS have 30-minutes classes – it’s this range of offerings also makes the company present itself as the largest corporate training platform in Latin America.

“We focus more on the student than on the paying customer, which is the company. That’s how we discover that people don’t want a ten-hour course, but 30-classes at most; that people don’t want in-person courses, but online classes that they can take at their own time and availability, especially during their commuting time. And now this is our standard,” says Melo in an exclusive interview with LABS.

UBITS also learned that localization matters, even within Latin America. “This means having local content, with a local accent; creating content from scratch, with our own methodology and local experts, and local examples.”

The way of selling products also changes from country to country. “While in Mexico the relationship is built while the sale is negotiated, in Colombia, you don’t need to build a relationship before selling. If the product is what the Colombian company wants, it will acquire it. There are price-sensitive countries; others look at the products’ intrinsic value itself.”

The result of this appears in the completion metrics. Earlier this year, UBITs announced an alliance with Coursera, making five of its courses available on the U.S.-based platform. While the completion rate at UBITS is over 88%, with students having completed over 1 million courses, on Coursera, where classes are by default longer, the rate is around 10%.

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Melo is an engineer who also worked as a professor at Universidad de los Andes. “As the youngest professor of the Engineering Faculty for a couple of years, and being able to teach more than 800 students, I always deliberated how I could impact more and more people that couldn’t afford to pay a top school. That’s one of the things we do in UBITS, escalating high-quality training to the masses.”

During this time, Melo met Forero, the general director of an online university in Mexico about to be launched in Colombia. “We had the same vision about education, about how education is the solution to the main problems we have in Latin America: inequality, poverty, unemployment. We wanted to give this opportunity [to people], to close this gap”, says Melo. “We also saw companies that were struggling to train their employees in what they needed and help them grow efficiently. Looking at the available courses, we saw that most were offline, in English. So we thought: why don’t we create a corporate training Netflix, in Spanish?”

Melo recalls that there was no such availability of venture capital as there is today. “So we started looking for investors in the United States. We signed up for the Y Combinator program. Shortly after that, we ended up closing our seed round and launching UBITS in January 2019 in three markets: Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. Today maybe I wouldn’t have taken a step like this, but today I see it worked.”

In June this year, UBITS raised $5 million in a Series A round led by Owl Ventures, one of the world’s largest education investment funds. The investment also had the participation of Roble Ventures, a fund owned by businessman Sergio Monsalve, a member of Udemy‘s board, and other educational companies. In 2020, UBITS also received an investment from Stanford University – the first made by the institution in Latin America.

Last September, UBITS was among the 100 most promising edtechs in Latin America, according to HolonIQ.

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How UBITS works

UBITS has an area in charge of designing the courses with more than 400 experts in different topics, from finance and marketing to stress management. These experts come from all over the region. UBITS trains these experts — its “rockstars” — in its methodology. At the same time, UBITS’ team creates the exact curricular meshes for each client, taking into account their business objectives and the needs of their collaborators.

UBITS also uses machine learning to create development paths based on skills that companies want employees to develop. UBITS also uses algorithms to recommend content to its students, similar to what Netflix does for its subscribers.

Each student has their own path to follow over six months or a year. UBITS also has a dashboard where the HR managers of each company can follow the main training metrics.

More than 250 companies across multiple industries in 11 Spanish-speaking countries use UBITS, from banks, insurance companies, automakers, and universities to Latin American retailers like Falabella and Cencosud and technology companies like Mercado Libre. “And that’s interesting because it’s exactly what we’d like to build: a solution that could help at least 70% of the training needs of Latin American companies,” says Melo.

UBITS’ most significant markets are Colombia, where the startup was born, and Mexico, where the company is opening an office in Monterrey. In 2021, UBITS also opened offices in Peru and Chile, took a small team to Ecuador.

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UBITS’ plans

“We are going to end the year serving at least 350 companies, and next year we want to reach more than 1,000 customers,” says Melo to LABS. The plan is bold, but the edtech has really grown fast, in workforce as well. Last year, the startup had 50 employees. “By the end of the year, we will probably reach 250. And I imagine something around 500, 600 employees in 2022.”

UBITS is negotiating a Series B round, which is expected to be announced before year-end. So far, the startup has been reinvesting its resources to expand its portfolio and reach. “But in three years, we expect to obtain $100 million in revenue.”

The new funding will be decisive for the geographic expansion plans of UBITS, which intends to reach Spain and Argentina in 2022. The startup will also launch, in the coming weeks, a new type of course, already being tested by some of its current customers.