Startup Chronicles: Younify-Enhancing Student Connections and Improving Lives

The universal aspiration for good-quality education

Providing children with the best possible education is a desire shared by most Indian families. Irrespective of economic status, family background and region, families across the length and breadth of the country invest in learning opportunities for their children in the hope that they will get farther, faster.

However, the quality of what is offered at educational institutions differs widely. And often, this variance depends on the connections that every school or college has established with the world at large. If, for example, we were to contrast two engineering colleges 10 kilometres apart, nearly anywhere in India, it would be typical to find students with distinctly different abilities. Why? Simply because while one of them would have had good and relevant exposure to information of value in belonging to an elite, well-connected college, the other may not have been so fortunate.

The “connectivity” gap among students is what led 37-year-old Asoka Kanna to think about setting up an organisation dedicated to bridging it. What sparked the idea was Asoka’s own experience as an engineering student enrolled in a college in a semi-urban setting near Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. In the two gap years he spent after completing his undergraduate degree, and later during his years as an IT professional in Australia with global companies, Asoka says he was struck by how differently exposed some of his peers were to information about future opportunities.

“I ran into several accomplished people in my early years at work who seemed to have known what they wanted to do after graduation,” he says. “Others like me arrived at career decisions more by chance than by focused intention. I wanted to change that,” Asoka explains. Thus was born the idea of Younify.

An interactive platform to forge students’ connection, identity and opportunity

In its early days, the building blocks of what went on to become Younify were laid down by a group of about 40 people. While Asoka was at the time in Melbourne, Australia, Asoka’s brother, Sidharth who has been closely associated with the startup from its conception was in India. The two along with a group of 40 people — a few from Melbourne and the rest from India — worked day jobs. But in their time off, they would all get on to Zoom calls to discuss the nuts and bolts of building a platform that would help connect students anywhere to their peers. “We created about 700–800 screens of the platform’s initial prototype,” Asoka says. “The attempt was to generate features that would be distinctive.”

After multiple iterations that were carried out for more than a year, Younify was formally launched in mid-2017. Its central objective is to provide students everywhere with a tool that enhances connectivity, forges identity and improves opportunity. “We built Younify as an interactive, seven-layered platform. The tool offers opportunities to users, starting with the individual student, to connect to a series of layers that progressively opens up the world,” Asoka says. “The idea is that every user is in charge of charting his or her own journey. The aim is to establish closer connections to peers in their own class and extend it gradually to any student from any discipline on any campus anywhere in the world.”

The overarching purpose Asoka says is to help the multitude of students enrolled in colleges across India that don’t belong to the elite few to have an equal chance at relevant exposure to information, connections and outlook that will give them a head start in life. “Although our undergrad or postgrad colleges deliver volumes of information, very little of it is of value in terms of relevance or influence. With Younify, what we hope to deliver is a network of connections that provides students with a worldview that is in keeping with the times and skills to navigate a tech-driven, connected world,” Asoka says.

Rolling out the student-focused platform on college campuses

Younify was rolled out early this year with trials in a few colleges in Hyderabad and Vijayawada and was greeted on the whole with appreciation. However, the initial excitement petered out. Asoka says this was because they were not able to divert student attention from the time they spent on Facebook and Instagram. “That’s when we realised that we needed a hook. To identify what would work well, we proceeded to spend the next five months on a college campus in Vijayawada and three-four other campuses in and around Hyderabad to understand what students might need.” They hit upon the idea of campus radios.

Asoka says that the idea of setting up campus radios struck a chord with college students because it promised intimacy of connection within circles of people who had a location in common. So although Facebook and Instagram continued to grab their attention in terms of the “wild connectivity” that both platforms offer, offering access to highly customised campus-based radios as a part of the student platform proved to be a big hit.

Till date, Younify has entered agreements with 14 colleges to set up campus radios. While the platform remains free of charge for students, the Younify team charges a fee from interested colleges to set up, run and oversee the campus radio initiative. “We offer an end-to-end product where all we ask for is four walls to set up,” Asoka says. “My team steps in to select 30–50 students from the college campus who are trained to run a radio show as a campus start-up. We also help them identify and select professional artists who they can collaborate with and also create a leadership board to take ownership of the program where member students are assigned specific managerial roles.”

Funding a dream; scaling to the future

Younify has received an INR 3.65 crores fund from Australia-based angel investors as a part of its angel and seed funding. It is currently in talks to raise USD 1.2–1.5 m in the next three-six-month period as a bridge or intermediary fund before it goes for its series A round of financing. Asoka says that with a service model where campuses pay for radio stations, he hopes to see Younify become self-sustaining in a few months.

“In the next six months, we plan to seek content licensing with major players like T-series and Saregama,” Asoka says. The plan is to use the popularity of the campus radios to drive traffic to the platform. Additionally, the startup team also intends to deploy the earnings from the campus radio service model to further refine the Younify platform.

“When I look back on our journey what strikes me is the alchemic impact T-Hub has had on us,” Asoka says. “By providing us with the right exposure, the right connections and the right partnerships at the right time, T-Hub has opened a world of opportunities for us that we hope to do for students everywhere.”