By Sandhya Ramachandran
Even as a little kid, Gaurav Oswal would run to the ground opposite his house to play sports. He was passionate about cricket, football and hockey and anybody who observed him concluded that here was a sportsman in the making. And making their predictions come true, Gaurav soon began playing on the national level in college. Today, Gaurav is an entrepreneur.
So, how does one go from playing national level hockey one day to working on a startup idea the next?
Gaurav also had an injury in 2012–2013 which reduced his involvement with playing hockey. But that was not the only reason. “I wouldn’t say it was a direct switch,” Gaurav clarifies, “I needed to do something of value to the society. It is this feeling which actually drives me even today and the major reason why I got into entrepreneurship.”
Around this time, one of Gaurav’s fellow co-founders observed the way kids in Singapore were being trained to play a variety of sports. In comparison, India did not have enough facilities to train kids at sports at a young age. Seeing this, Gaurav and his partners decided to find solutions at the grassroots level. And FunDay Sports was born.
The FunDay Way
Today FunDay Sports is the largest provider of sports training for children over two and under the age of eight years in India. FunDay has both in school and after-school programs to get kids excited about sport and physical activity. They use fun and excitement in a safe, creative and non-competitive environment, or what they term “The FunDay Way” to train kids in six different sports — artistic gymnastics, athletics, basketball, cricket, football and floor gymnastics.
Focusing on an atypical target group of 3–8 year olds, FunDay’s training is based on long term athlete development which emerges from the ‘play for life’ philosophy. Generally sports, even in schools, is aimed at the kids over five. So, how did FunDay decide to cater to the age group rate of between three and eight other? Gaurav elaborates, “In India, we believe a three-year-old child can learn four languages. But we don’t believe they can learn a sport. This is actually the age when they pick up skills and learn things. This niche is completely left unattended by all coaching institutes and sports clubs in India. Kids are not getting exposed to sports at a very young age. So, Funday is catering to them. Just like you are given the option of science, math, history and geography, we expose them to a variety of sports options at school. You might not like something and you might like something. But, you realize what you are good at. So, if you start early as a country, you are going to have better players. More importantly you will have more number of people playing for a longer duration longer of time. That is the major goal — that everyone should play for life. Getting champions is a byproduct which will eventually happen.”
BUILDING A SPORTS STARTUP IN A TECH WORLD
An innovative product for the market, FunDay Sports is an outlier in an environment saturated with tech startups. How did they manage to break into the market? “We brought to India a model which didn’t exist before. This is neither a traditional business nor a new e-commerce app. But, my co-founders and I understood that kids were getting addicted to mobiles, tablets, etc., at a very young age. Outdoor play had decreased and schools didn’t offer structured play at this age. It took us time to create a different way of teaching sports to young kids. And during this period, not many understood what we were doing.
“I had completed my Engineering from National Institute of Technology Karnataka (NITK), Surathkal. My friends and I secured high-paying jobs in the IT sector. But I chose to leave all that and work on Funday sports. My family and friends didn’t understand what motivated me to do this. People offering seed capital preferred technology startups. So initially, it took us a long time to convince people to understand that multi-sports at the preschool level is important and a need. We had to educate principals and parents first,” Gaurav shares.
The journey began in 2013 when FunDay employed experts on children, national-level sports coaches and sports experts to work on the curriculum, in consultation with the Australian Sports Commission. But it was a road uphill. In 2015, with the launch of their after-school center for the kids, they realized that the body structure, eating patterns, etc., was different for kids in India. The first year of their launch was focused on mellowing the curriculum, creating age-appropriate activities, and trying a lot of iterations. And how did this evolve? “Some schools approached us asking if we can start testing this program with them. That’s how the school business started,” Gaurav reveals, “And, in the last 4 years, we have begun catering to 200+ preschools without really marketing the product a lot. Now, there is an acceptance, a lot of demand. We see that parents are looking for these activities. And the most important part is the amount of love that kids have shown towards play.”
On hiring Indian sportswomen as FunDay coaches
FunDay Sports also creates opportunities for women in the workforce by hiring national-level female athletes as coaches. “It was a very conscious decision to hire women as coaches. Preschools usually have a lot of restrictions and 3-year-olds tend to connect better and faster with women. Also, the whole sports fraternity, especially women who play sports lack employment opportunities in the country. Initially, we hired only national level sports players. One of our head coaches who’s been with us for 4 years now used to be a hockey central forward for the Maharashtra state team. Despite playing in 22 national camps, she had no employment opportunities. We hired her and it has been a very successful journey. She’s the best coach we have who has trained a lot of people.”
Building slow and with intent
Gaurav believes in going slow. “Everything is moving around so fast in the world of apps. But being in the service industry, we believe in going slow but acting aggressively when needed. This is a on-ground service business. It takes time to set up things. So the first thing one needs to ensure is that you have right people to maintain the quality. For instance, in our first year at Bangalore, we worked with six schools. In the second year, this increased it by a small factor to 15 schools because we still needed time to set up the schools and get the right kind of people to support us, build a network etc. This year — the fourth in our journey — we are working with 60 schools. We have aggressively expanded only once we have had the strength to grow and the manpower to maintain the pace and quality. We have had options to get funded, but we made a conscious decision to grow at our pace. And that is how we have become what we are today.” Refreshing perspective from a 26-year old.
Advice for millennials
Gaurav feels positive that the borders and restrictions for millennials to enter the startup ecosystem are breaking down. “We’re seeing a lot more people getting into entrepreneurship. So many tech entrepreneurs are traveling around the world or settling in South East Asian countries. This is creating a lot more opportunities for a lot more people. The Internet has been the major reason why this is happening and that’s great.” And his advice to other millennials? He says, “College students are still crazy about multi-national companies. It surprises me! They are looking forward to jobs when they can create things. So we need to create awareness of the startup culture. When you get to know more of these success stories you will try something on your own which is very important in today’s world. And, there has to be more encouragement from institutions in the form of seed funding, incubation centers, etc. to help students start something. Once they get the flavor of this and get support, I think people, especially millennials, will start creating.”