Interview with Ilya Nikiforov, the founder of TeachMePlease and DISCIPLINA
“Education should grant experience. People have to come and seek employment not simply with knowledge, but with the experience they gained at university.”- an interview with Ilya Nikiforov, the founder of TeachMePlease and DISCIPLINA.
Tell us how you came up with the idea of creating TeachMePlease.
The idea of TeachMePlease came about in 2016, when we traveled around California and were in the San Francisco area, where there are many famous surfing spots, Pacifica State Beach being the most famous. I tried to find myself an instructor as I’ve been waiting a long time to try surfing. After spending a few hours on Google, I couldn’t find anything that would suit me, since there was barely any information on the websites. There were only descriptive sites of schools and instructors, and you have to call them in order to find out the price.
We have become accustomed to getting all the information in an instance: when we look for an apartment or a hotel, we instantly see the prices and therefore can plan. Then I thought, why not create a single service that gathers all types of courses, programs, and tutors in one place, where anyone will be able to find the kind of education they need at any given moment anywhere in the world.
What does the project currently represent?
We’ve been working in the Russian market for three years. We started with the model of a marketplace and we are gradually entering a stage of platform enhancement, adding various tools.
After building the marketplace, we immediately set up a payment service, so any educational institution can register with us, create courses and sell them through us, and we charge a small commission for promoting them. We added a video course service, that is, any organization can upload video courses and sell them through our platform. Only users who buy them can viewthe courses.
We have completed the integration of the webinar service, which will be launched in the coming weeks. We are developing a direction for children; we have created a subproject called TeachMePlease Kids, which is an interactive map with a chat system. A parent can open a map of the city and find out what children's activities are going on nearby, talk to the educational institution conducting the event, get answers to all their questions and sign up in real time.
Aside from that, we are developing the American direction, we have ideas on how to enter the US market, and we are going to do that shortly.
What will happen to the project in a year?
Like any other startup, we are quite unpredictable. What is the difference between a startup and a business that already has a certain working model? If we were creating another taxi service, then everything would be clear - there is an understandable calculation, a clear business model, a growth model, you can accurately assess the costs of each user. This path has been taken by a huge number of companies before you.
But we are dealing with opening new market niches, creating new ecosystems, new conditions for receiving services, therefore our global ideas are understandable and clear, and the path is constantly adapting and changing, we encounter problems, test hypotheses as some things work out while others don’t, and we are forced to adapt.
I hope that in a year, at least 50% of the functionality that I put into the idea of TeachMePlease will be implemented in the Russian market, and I want to enter the US and Europe markets. I promote a transboundary approach within the project.
How long do you think itwill take the TeachMePlease project to reach its goal?
We are working in a very difficult sphere - education, which is changing very actively, so the project will be able to achieve its goals and show maximum efficiency not right away, but perhaps within the period of 5-10 years.
Human interaction with information and the outside world has changed a lot, and the education system itself, as well as companies and businesses, must adapt to new realities. And unfortunately, the education system is lagging far behind, as a result, we get a strong imbalance between what knowledge and experience people get in educational institutions and what is actually required for their high-quality employment. Education is trying to catch up with market demands, which is completely inefficient. Many things should happen not only in Russia, this is also a global problem; everyone understands it and is moving in approximately the same direction. The question is how to combine these efforts and direct them within the overall framework in order to achieve results.
If we are talking about the Russian market, do you think the education system in Russia is ready for change?
During the past year, I have been deeply engaged in these processes, interacted with government departments, ministries, and universities, and I realize that there are a lot of problems, especially in Russia. Almost the entire education system is public, which follows the methodologies and rules that are established by public authorities – the Ministry of Education, the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science. Everyone there understands that we need to digitize, use technology and work with big data, artificial intelligence and a neural network. But there are a huge number of participants who are not ready to cooperate, they want only to take the advantages of state funds, and as a result, universities and schools suffer, because ideas do not reach them.
We have many interesting ideas set out in the “Digital Economy” National Project, there are many projects related to education, much worthwhile and sensible information, but the question is when and in what time frame they will be implemented. It is hard to say because our education is analogous; ministries and departments receive the results of the Unified State Exam for the past year and must take some measures based on this information in order to meet the needs of the educational environment in the future. Their backlog is constant, they solve problems of the past when other problems have become relevant, and in a year, new problems will be relevant, and they will be late again.
It is necessary to change the approach to educational processes and the methodology of response, to implement new tools, to reduce the number of departments and ministries to eliminate their internal war. There are a lot of good ideas, which are supported, and funds are allocated for them, but money is not spent as it is not clear who should receive it. Here’s areal-life example: there is a project with allocated funds, but the work is not done because they haven’t chosen an executive. There are many candidates and they are all good, they could combine their efforts, but we have certain specificity in the state, which, unfortunately, does not allow for this. Our society has a high level of possessiveness, no one wants responsibility, but at the same time everyone wants to do something and the responsibility is transferred to others. They want to get the money and make other people responsible for it. This represents the bureaucratic world at its worst.
Are you afraid of competition and how does TeachMePlease differ from such well-known information services and platforms as Ucheba.ru, UpStudy, Coursera?
Actually, there are many more information services and they all somehow overlap with TeachMePlease. We saw a niche between three ecosystems: recruiting, education, and working environment. When we create our service and platform, it will allow employers to have a direct real-time connection, they will be able to search for valuable personnel at the level of admission to university, find and help them, perhaps, they will get an additional scholarship. Now this also works but manually. The difference we’ll bring is that we have to create the conditions, ecosystem, and technical solutions to make this possible.
We need to unite educational services, HR services, quality and control services, and task execution services within enterprises in order to make the idea of a person’s reliable profilea reality. We are not a substitute for these services, we are not really competitors to them. The solution that underlies TeachMePlease - DISCIPLINA, is precisely the link between all the players in the market.
The platform model implies that you create the conditions for the participants to exchange some values within the system. The more tools we give, the more values we can exchange. This concept represents our idea.
A part of each of the projects that are already on the market will appear inside TeachMePlease, but this is not an idea of replacement, but rather, expanding capabilities, functionality and combining them into a single ecosystem.
What are the main challenges facing the TeachMePlease project?
Now we mostly work in the Russian market, tried to interact with a huge number of educational institutions and faced the following problems: technical (low digitization of education), bureaucratic and commercial.
The first challenge is technical as much information is still in the physical form even though everyone has computers. Let’s assume that university A has a conditional system that keeps records of students, and when we start to examine it, we see that there is a folder on the server where the files with the work are stored, there is a student register, some separate folders with diplomas, and other files. This is neither an ecosystem nor digitized information; it's just a data repository.
The second problem is bureaucratic. Even if a government agency appreciates our concept, it is very difficult for them to apply it. We have fine points where we begin to enter a sphere that is already regulated by a methodology, various rules, laws, and educational institutions are afraid to do something, they are afraid to initiate any changes. They say that they like everything and it would be interesting, but first let the ministry support you. They are afraid to try, as soon as it starts to deal with the field of regulation, they are afraid to lose their license, they are afraid of problems from the Ministry of Education, and that makes sense.
The third problem is financial; Russian universities have limited funding. In America, for example, education is supported by sponsors — students graduate from a university, alumni of the same university help them in finding a job, a university provides personnel, they grow up and send their children there, this is how the cycle works. Alumni support universities they have graduated from - this is the most powerful model in the world. But it doesn’t apply to Russia.
Then why did you decide to do the TeachMePlease project in Russia, and not in America?
We are located in Russia, and I would like to do something useful for the country. Education is a quite an interesting topic for me as I have an ambiguous attitude to the education that I received.
Over the past 15 years, I had a huge number of employees, I see how much young people have lost interest in education, they have no goals, and this affects the quality of employees and candidates. The labor market in Russia is a big problem, we have few specialists in all areas, this can be changed and has to be changed, and everyone understands this.
I completely understand that IT projects in the USA get feedback much more easily, because the purchasing power there is much higher. You can get more information on the US market, there are more accelerators, there is venture investment that helps projects develop but it doesn’t exist in Russia. In Russia, you must show the profit within the next three years, and if you have not shown income, then it will be difficult to survive as the investment climate is completely different.
Nevertheless, we have good developers whose cost on the Russian market is much lower than in the USA. I want to establish a base in Russia with a highly qualified team here and slowly develop other markets on its basis.
Could you say a few words about the DISCIPLINA project?
DISCIPLINA is the technological solution that underlies a person’s reliableprofile. I only separated it into a separate subproject to make it easier to communicate with competing projects. Services do not require the entire TeachMePlease functionality, and DISCIPLINA can link all projects. It is the foundation of TeachMePlease, and when we have finalized it, we will be able to unite all educational services.
How did you come to work with such partners as theFederal Service for Supervision in Education and Science, the St. Petersburg Committee for Labour and Employment, the St. Petersburg State University? Why do you and they get from this cooperation?
Let’s start with the last question, why we need this collaboration. Since we’re active in Russia, we cannot cooperate with universities without state support because of the way our country is organized. Therefore, this interaction was necessary. In addition, as I said earlier, we have created targeted programs that intersect strongly with this idea. When the news of our existence reached Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science, and the St. Petersburg State University, they themselves got in touch with us, invited me to come have a discussion, I told my ideas and we started to collaborate. In some cases, I act only as an advisor, and sometimes we try to do projects and move the idea further, try to develop something, put things in writing. There is no money there, we have not received and still do not receive anything. It’s a useful interaction, I come and say that we do not need money, we have something ready, and I suggest that we come together and develop an idea! The worst thing is that people are afraid of this. In Russia, if someone reaches out to you saying they don’t need any money, people are suspect.
The St. Petersburg Committee for Labour and Employment started paying attention to me after I addressed the “Labor Forum”. I talked a little about the concept of an honest diploma, about my vision of this problem, they liked my presentation, so we met and became friends.
Is the team the most important part of the project?
Yes, it is the key. Last year I traveled the world presenting our project and was absolutely convinced of one thing: investors never put money in an idea, they invest in a person and their team. You can have a lot of money and a great idea, but if there is no team, nothing will work, while with the right team, you can develop an idea without money.
What are your criteria for hiring people, if, as you say, there is no trust in a resume?
I always meet them in person, conduct an interview. There is no other tool now and this is also a very big problem, I have to spend a lot of time on interviewing a person, give a test task. We don’t even inquire about diplomas at all, since that information will give me nothing. I don’t know what department they were in, who their teacher was, what mood of the examiner was in. How could I? What does this assessment mean? What’s the use of this piece of paper? You can verify, call universities, which all requires a huge amount of time and effort, and so nobody does it.
You are planning to enter the US market with your projects. How will this happen and what are the specificities of the American market?
We haven’t entered the American market yet and we can only assume, but there is a fair understanding that the purchasing power there is higher and people’s attitude toward purchasing educational services, especially online, is completely different from Russia. In Russia, the consequence of the Soviet system of free education is that people by default do not understand the need to pay for education. School is free for most – based on academic merit - and when a person studies on a paid basis, they are considered less accomplished. People want to get a quality education, but they don’t want to pay for it.
We have reasons to believe that targeted advertising works much better in America, due to the fact that services and social networks are all American, and they have more information about users, and so targeting can be made more effective.
In what ways, in your opinion, should education change in the next 10 years? What part will your projects play in making that change happen?
It’s too early to talk about our role, only time will tell. I would like it to play a significant role, but it is hard to predict what’s going to happen.
We should move away from the benchmarking model of education evaluation. Previously, the entire system was based on testing people’s knowledge. It was believed that knowledge is power. If someone is well-read, has an excellent knowledge of different historical dates and events and knows all the capitals, it was thought that that person is smart. But now the world has changed, the Internet has given us new opportunities, like instant access to information. Therefore, the possession of knowledge is no longer as much of a strength as before. Anyone can use a smartphone, search their question in Google and get an answer. Access to information has been simplified, and therefore it was replaced by the ability to work with information, draw the correct conclusions and ask the right questions. All these skills have become the most important now, and a person is competitive if they know how to apply knowledge.
In this aspect, I like the Finnish approach. They are moving toward interdisciplinary learning: for example, the events of World War II can be approached through the lens of both history and geography. They are trying to shift away from subject learning and toward contextual education, when children are given information and are encouraged to work with it.
The Chinese approach is also very interesting - from the very first grades they teach children practical things - boys work with machinery, girls sew. As you sharpen a mechanicalpart with your tools, you acquire an understanding of mathematics and physics, you will find out at what temperature the material changes, what its thermal properties are.
Competition is increasing, there are fewer job opportunities, so there is no longer the possibility to develop skills on basic knowledge. Education should grant experience. People have to come and seek employment not simply with knowledge, but with the experience they gained at the university.A competitive environment appears among people who are engaged in self-education, they do not study at the university, but write codes or build something, they become more competitive through experience, they amassed a more considerable resume than people who graduate from universities.
What will the world look like when the DISCIPLINA project is complete?
The employer will have an interface system which allows them to upload requests based on the employee skills, and in real time, the system will offer candidates who are studying or work elsewhere and are open to offers of employment. Educational institutions will be able to see the needs of the market and adapt the educational process to real time demands so that students become more competitive then and there.
Recruiters aren’t going anywhere, their role will change, they will better and more accurately meet the employer's requests on the skills map. The search for employees will become more precise, companies will be pleased with the result, which leads to profit. This is a business model.
Every company has an interest in other companies also using this system, because the more information in this system, the more accurate it will be. It will perform better and each participant will benefit.
It turns out that grades, reviews and scores have a direct impact on the person’s future, how ethical will the product be if not all students receive good grades and reviews? How can a student correct a low score or a bad review?
Unfortunately, the world is tough. This is a modified version of the survivor problem. We are talking about the problem of those people who are somehow hiding their bad grades, buying diplomas or finding jobs through their connections, and we need qualified personnel and immense competition. We are creating a more honest system for hiring and searching for employees, for those who are willing to make an effort to achieve their goals.
Follow the link and watch the full version of the interview: https://youtu.be/FhhyCVcB5PI