Marathon Education was created after its founders realized after-school education in Vietnam hadn’t evolved much since they were kids. Some of the most popular tuition centers in big cities teach hundreds of students at once. “They’re packed like sardines and that really has not changed in the past one or two decades when I went to these sorts of classes in Vietnam,” said co-founder Pham Duc.
Pham launched Marathon six weeks ago with his brother-in-law Tran Viet Tung to make after-school learning more accessible in Vietnam. Today the startup is announcing it has raised $1.5 million in pre-seed funding led by Forge Ventures (a new fund launched by Alto Partners), with participation from investors including Venturra Discovery and iSeed SEA.
Marathon is currently focused on math and science courses for grades six to 12 of the National Curriculum developed by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), and will eventually cover all MOET subjects.
Before founding Marathon, Pham was an investor at TPG Global, while Tran is a serial entrepreneur whose previous startups include travel platforms Triip.me and Christina’s. Both grew up in Hanoi and spent much of their childhoods going to after-school learning centers.
About 50% to 70% of K-12 students attend after-school classes, but the industry is very fragmented, says Pham. Many learning centers are run by former public school teachers, and are clustered in major cities.
“If you speak to students, I think the biggest issue we’re seeing is accessibility,” said Pham. “If you’re a student in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get into classes run by top tutors.” Meanwhile, students in other areas often travel to Tier 1 cities before major tests, like university entrance exams, staying in a hostel for about a month while attending prep courses.
For teachers, running a center means handling administrative tasks like marketing, admissions and parent communications, which cuts into the time they spend designing their courses. When the current COVID-19 lockdowns started a few months ago, they had to switch quickly to online teaching platforms.
When teachers join Marathon, the company takes over administrative tasks. Its online model also means they can reach more students, including in other cities. Pham says teachers who switch from offline centers to Marathon can potentially increase their earnings two to three times.
Before joining Marathon, teachers go through a screening process, including how many of they previous students passed exams or improved their grades. Marathon pairs them with teaching assistants who work directly with groups of about 20 to 25 students during online lectures, answering questions through instant messenger, and then manage breakout rooms to go through the lessons in detail.
Marathon launched first in Ho Chi Minh City and its expansion strategy will take cultural differences between the north and south of Vietnam into account. For example, it will find tutors with regional accents, and adjust its marketing strategies.
“We are going to focus on the teachers and curriculum separately, because the two regions are quite different. Parents in the south are more experimental and more willing to try out new services. Parents in the north very much rely on their network and word-of-mouth, so they are more cautious about trying out what we’re doing,” Tran said. “So when we serve the north and south, we serve distinctive sets of customers.”
Marathon plans to continue its online-only model after lockdowns end and kids go back to in-person classes for regular school. “After one year in intermittent lockdowns, we’ve noticed there’s been a marked shift in parents’ behavior. They are much more receptive to online learning. Right now, even though there’s a lockdown, attendance rates are 99%,” said Pham. “In the future, I think online is the way to go and it’s much more scalable, so we want to focus our strategy around that.”