Eastern promise: Loiselle needed patience to crack the Indian e-learning market

The first time Brad Loiselle visited India, he didn’t think he would ever go back.

“It was just a different market,” the Ottawa businessman says of that initial trip a few years ago. “It was like the Wild West. It was such a shock for someone who’s never experienced that level of poverty. I grew up poor, but nothing compared to what I saw there.”

But the serial entrepreneur also saw something else in the world’s second-most populous nation: opportunity. 

Mr. Loiselle had been toying with the idea of getting into the online education space. When he returned to Canada, he started thinking about what it would be like to crack a market of more than 1.2 billion people, many of them poor and with limited access to higher learning.

“If you want to build a big company, you’ve got to do something no one else is doing,” he says.

Since then, the route to Delhi and Mumbai has become as familiar to Mr. Loiselle as the daily commute on the Queensway is to most Ottawans. Later this month, the 43-year-old founder of local e-learning firm SKILLSdox will cross the Pacific for the 17th time.

Mr. Loiselle, whose company offers a platform for Indians to access education and skills training from North American partners, has spent most of those visits earning the equivalent of a master’s degree in doing business in a country that doesn’t always welcome foreigners with open arms.

He remembers a Canadian trade commissioner once telling him he’d never land a single contract until he truly understood the culture. 

“Indian business is all about relationships,” he says. “So I told myself, ‘I’m going to take my time. I’m not going to push any deals and I’m going to try and build relationships.’”

That patience and persistence has paid off. Today, SKILLSdox has contracts with several organizations, including the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Association of International Wealth Management of India, and shares course revenues with more than a dozen education partners, such as Algonquin College and the University of Fredericton.

Deals with other major institutions, including Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, are in the works. The firm is now in the midst of a drive to raise $5 million in venture capital, with the target of going public on the TSX Venture Exchange this fall.

An OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient in 2003, Mr. Loiselle has plenty of experience building companies from scratch, including paper goods manufacturer Box-It Solutions. But he believes SKILLSdox will dwarf anything he’s done in the past, saying his goal is to turn it into a “billion-dollar company” with millions of clients.

“That’s our focus,” says Mr. Loiselle, who self-published a book detailing his previous startup triumphs and failures called Keep Moving 4Ward: What it Takes to Be an Entrepreneur.

“The registrations that we’re going to get on our portal are going to be massive. We’re not just targeting small sections of India – we’re targeting all of India.” 

But to do that, he first needed to get his foot in the door. Even multinational companies are often flummoxed by the Indian market, he says, because many standard business practices in the western world don’t apply there. 

For example, online commerce in North America and Europe relies on credit cards for payment, an option that simply isn’t available to the vast majority of Indians, he notes. As a result, Mr. Loiselle spent two years setting up an India-based company and many more months navigating through red tape to open an Indian bank account, all so the firm could accept money transfers from students in rupees.

After that, he still needed a vehicle to reach those millions of potential clients. It came courtesy of his relationship with spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom he had met in his role as a director of the Indo-Canada Ottawa Business Chamber. 

Mr. Loiselle had just made a marketing pitch to the Times of India, the country’s largest English newspaper, and decided to take Mr. Shankar up on his offer to visit him at an ashram a few hours from the southern city of Bangalore. He was discussing his long-term plans for SKILLSdox when the famed humanitarian pointed to a woman beside him.

She turned out to be Indu Jain, the chairperson of the Times of India’s parent company and the country’s largest media group, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.

“(Mr. Shankar) is like, ‘Well, isn’t that a concidence,’” Mr. Loiselle says with a laugh. It was, he says now, enough to make him believe in karma.

Impressed with Mr. Loiselle’s business concept and commitment to her country, Ms. Jain happily lent her support to his bid. Ultimately, that led to a breakfast with BCCL chief executive Raj Jain, who all but agreed to sign off on a major marketing agreement with SKILLSdox. 

But he still had one question, the same one Mr. Loiselle has heard over and over in the past couple of years: what was a white guy from Canada doing setting up an online education platform in India? 

“At the end of the day, whatever we do for India will trickle across the world,” Mr. Loiselle explains. “I said, ‘You guys have a skill base and a population that could solve a lot of problems from a lot of different countries. If we’re able to train you with North American content and qualify you guys to be employable (in North America), you guys will solve a lot of issues.’”

That answer sealed the deal. In April, SKILLSdox signed a contract that will see BCCL and its dozens of print, broadcast and online media properties invest $30 million to market Mr. Loiselle’s platform across the country over the next five years. 

The deal gives SKILLSdox “a value proposition that no other (e-learning) company has anywhere,” Mr. Loiselle says. “Not one.”

It’s been a three-year journey that has made the married father of three more familiar with Indian airports than he ever wanted to be. But if his vision comes to fruition, it will all be worth it.

“When we first started building it, no one believed what we were building was possible,” he says. “The life of an entrepreneur – it’s always like that.”

Brad Loiselle’s three rules for doing business in India

Focus on relationships: “You have to build genuine relationships. If you’re going (to India) to get a purchase order or a contract, forget about it. It’s not going to work. They have to become your friends. That’s what it comes down to.”

Patience isn’t a virtue – it’s a necessity: “Everything runs at such a different pace,” he says. “It’s so much slower. When I set up meetings and schedules, I’m early – 15, 20 (minutes), half an hour sometimes, to meetings. I’ll fly into a meeting the day before to make sure I’m there in the city before that meeting. In India, I don’t think there’s one meeting I’ve been on time to. Not because of me, because of the people I’m with. Things are fluid – you’ve got to flow with how it is there.”

To do business there, you have to be there: An Ottawa entrepreneur recently contacted the Times of India after he found out about the organization’s agreement with SKILLSdox. “The guy calls me and we had a conversation,” Mr. Loiselle says. “One of the first things I asked him was, ‘Have you ever been to India before?’ He’s like, ‘No.’ I said, ‘How do you expect to do business in a country you’ve never been to? You need to go to India. In order to understand what you’re getting into, you need to go there.’ It’s not like going to the U.S. from Canada. It’s a lot of effort.”