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Byju's-owned Indian startup WhiteHat Jr sues critics

Manish Singh
·5-min read
NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 7: Karan Bajaj, Senior VP& GM, Discovery Communications India with Swami Baba Ramdev during a press conference to announce the mega show, 'Swami Ramdev: Ek Sangharsh' on Discovery JEET at constitution club of India on February 7, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 7: Karan Bajaj, Senior VP& GM, Discovery Communications India with Swami Baba Ramdev during a press conference to announce the mega show, 'Swami Ramdev: Ek Sangharsh' on Discovery JEET at constitution club of India on February 7, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Karan Bajaj, an Indian entrepreneur who teaches meditation and in his recent book invites others to live a life away from the noise, is going after the most vocal critics of his startup.

Bajaj, founder of coding platform WhiteHat Jr, has filed a defamation case against Pradeep Poonia, an engineer who has publicly criticized the firm for its marketing tactics, the quality of the courses on the platform, and aggressive takedowns of such feedback. On Monday, WhiteHat Jr, filed a similar case against Aniruddha Malpani, an investor who has shared unflattering feedback about the startup.

Most of the customers of WhiteHat Jr, which is aimed at kids, live in America, and demand for its one-to-one classes has surged nearly 90% this year, according to the startup.

In the lawsuit against Poonia -- in which Bajaj (pictured left above) is seeking $2.7 million in damages -- Poonia has been accused of infringing trademarks and copyright of properties owned by WhiteHat Jr, defaming and spreading misleading information about the startup and its founder, and accessing the company's private communications app.

The lawsuit also accuses Poonia of publicly sharing phone numbers of WhiteHat Jr employees and making strong accusations such as likening the startup's marketing tactics to "child sexual abuse."

The lawyers further claim that Poonia recorded sessions of some classes conducted by WhiteHat Jr, asked questions that were not relevant to the course with the "humiliate and harass" the teachers and then posted them online.

"As some of the one-on-one communications between the Plaintiffs’ teachers and the Defendant have demonstrated, the former have felt extremely threatened and harassed by the Defendant which is even more pertinent given that the Plaintiffs’ entire workforce of 11,000 teachers is female," the suit says.

"The Defendant’s activities have critically affected the Plaintiffs’ business and resulted in loss of its goodwill and reputation, and the confidence of its customers in its business. It is submitted that as a consequence of the Defendant’s tweets, Plaintiffs have suffered a steep dip in the conversion rate from trial classes to actual registrations which has severely affected revenue its revenue."

But the lawsuit, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, appears to be also indicative of just how little criticism WhiteHat Jr, owned by India's second most valuable startup Byju's, is willing to accept.

According to internal posts of a Slack channel of WhiteHat Jr shared by Poonia, the startup has aggressively used copyright protection to take down numerous unflattering feedback about the startup in recent months.

The suit also raises concern with Poonia accusing WhiteHat Jr of "murdering" an imaginary kid that featured in one of its earlier ads.

A 12-year-old child named "Wolf Gupta" appeared in earlier ads of WhiteHat Jr, which claimed that the kid had landed a lucrative job at Google. The kid does not exist, the lawyers of Bajaj say in the suit. Ironically that was also the argument Poonia, who spent a long time trying to unearth more information about this supposed poster child of WhiteHat Jr, was making in his tweets.

In its second lawsuit, the startup alleges that Malpani has been critical of WhiteHat Jr because he is an investor in rival platforms Bibox Labs, Multibhashi and ConceptOwl. (They don't appear to be rivals.) The startup is seeking damages of about $1.9 million from Malpani.

"We didn’t want to go to court. Startups require intense, singular focus with no distraction. But false, unethical attacks, including attempts to breach into company servers & defame women teachers, severely impacted employees & teachers daily. News cycles turned against us because negative stories are far more sensational than the truth," Bajaj wrote in a LinkedIn post Monday.

"The truth is that WhiteHat Jr grew rapidly worldwide because the curriculum was not only effective but also wildly creative for kids and the teachers from India gave their heart & souls to teaching them. We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed. Legitimate, honest fact-based criticism is truly welcome. Blitzscaling is hard.Fires burn all over. Keep giving us feedback to improve. But lies and illegal breaches damage real lives & take no one forward."

Scores of education startups in India have reported skyrocketing growth in recent months as schools remain shut across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. Byju's is the most valuable edtech startup in the world with a roster of marquee backers including Mary Meeker's Bond.

Even as most Indians tend not to pay for online services — just ask Facebook, which has amassed over 400 million users in India and makes little in the country — the education category is an outlier. Indian families continue to spend heavily on their children’s education in hopes of paving the way for a better future.

Further reading:

Rage against the machine: behind Byju’s swift silencing of dissent (The Ken)

India's WhiteHat Jr is startup hell (The Morning Context)

WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissent (Forbes India)

Advertising body asks WhiteHat Jr to pull down ads (Forbes India)

The story was updated at 2.30pm IST on Monday to add details about the second lawsuit.