This article was featured in Tech in Asia!

Machines are coming for human jobs. A McKinsey & Company report predicts that machines will take over up to 30% of jobs by 2030, with 50% of today’s work tasks already “automatable.”

This means people will have to upskill and reskill to avoid being displaced, says Korean-American entrepreneur So-Young Kang.

Seeing how jobs are quickly changing, Kang founded Gnowbe, a mobile-first learning startup that helps enterprises train their staff to be better at certain tasks or learn new ones. “Gnowbe means ‘grow knowledge into being.’ Our philosophy is all about helping people apply knowledge to develop skills for future work,” she tells Tech in Asia.

E-learning has taken the student and professional education sector by storm since the likes of Udemy and Coursera started offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) a decade ago. But the problem with MOOCs is that they’re mostly video-based content with long running times, requiring so much attention from users. That in turn results in low completion rates.

“You can also let the video sit. Whether you apply it or not, it doesn’t matter,” Kang points out.

Singapore-based Gnowbe addresses this by offering modules in bite-sized form that can be consumed in a few minutes – and on mobile. It’s part of a new trend for so-called “microlearning.”

In addition to the “learn” part, the app has “think,” “apply,” and “share” features, which help develop skills applied on the job and encourage learning by doing. Explaining how it works, Kang cites the example of an employee who needs to master a new sales technique. “You’ll be asked to watch a video on the technique and at the end of it, think about the challenges you may be facing when selling. It doesn’t end there.

You’ll also be asked to upload a video of yourself practicing your sales pitch for your manager or entire team to see. Then your manager or team will give you the necessary feedback.” Kang says the whole concept is based on andragogy – the science of how adults learn. When adults practice what they’ve learned, retention increases significantly. But can small chunks of content effectively explain complex topics? “The more complex the topic and the more bite-sized you make it, the more effective the learning is because people can digest it better,” Kang contends.

The company’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform enables those clients to create their own microlearning programs across topics such as onboarding, product training, and sales enablement – the last example being its biggest use case. So if a company has staff across multiple geographies, using Gnowbe eliminates the need for costly face-to-face training workshops.

Navitas, for instance, saw a 30% improvement in sales staff skills while reducing the cost of training
by 80% after using Gnowbe. The startup charges between US$1 and US$9 per user each month, and it now counts 70,000
employees from across its enterprise customers as users.

Apart from the SaaS platform, Gnowbe last year launched a digital content library of microcourses that anyone can subscribe to. The library has registered 15,000 individual users so far. “Our revenues have grown three times this year from last year, and we’ll probably grow five times next year,” claims Kang, without disclosing specifics. On why they decided to focus on the business-to-business space, Kang says, “there’s a much stronger monetization strategy here, and companies today are investing in upskilling and reskilling their employees.”

Outside Asia, she cites the case of Amazon, which earlier this year announced plans to spend US$700 million to retrain a third of its workforce in the US. The move is aimed at preparing employees to take on more advanced jobs at the online retail behemoth. “Companies nowadays really struggle to make their people more productive. Every CEO, every owner knows this. I had the same struggles, too. It’s not enough to just send my people to a face-to face training course when we know that research shows that within a day of that course, 70% of what they learn will be forgotten,” she explains.

Crowded market
Born and raised in New York, Kang previously worked as head of performance transformation services at McKinsey North America. She came up with the idea for Gnowbe after launching her first startup – transformation design company Awaken Group – 10 years ago. In broad terms, transformation design is a human-centered, interdisciplinary process that seeks to create desirable and sustainable changes in the behavior of individuals and organizations.


Awaken has been doing a lot of face-to-face corporate training, which Kang says is very difficult and expensive to scale. “You’d need to hire a lot more people.” So the company began looking for a platform to help it grow but couldn’t find a good one, she recalls. “A lot of platforms are not very experiential and participatory. They’re not going to let you practice anything.”

Kang decided to build her own instead. “I literally modelled Gnowbe after a powerful face-to-face workshop we had at Awaken. I digitized that workshop,” she shares.

While she says there’s value in attending a workshop in person – it’s effective for debate and relationship building – having a platform that goes beyond knowledge sharing and lets people engage and apply lessons is the next best thing. Gnowbe benefits from its synergy with Awaken, which is now essentially a client.

Leaving Silicon Valley
Kang originally founded Gnowbe in Silicon Valley, but moved it to Singapore about a year later to test its product-market fit in Asia, a mobile-first region. The global corporate learning digital space is worth over US$200 billion annually, notes Kang, and mobile learning accounts for a huge portion of that. “With the number of mobile users now greater
than that of PCs, we need to design with a learner in mind who is most likely not sitting behind a PC, but may be on the go.”

Gnowbe, though, is also web-enabled, which means it’s addressing the entire space. That also means that the company is up against so many rivals. On the content side, it competes against MOOC giants Udemy and Coursera. On the platform side, it faces off against players like SmartUp and Axonify.

But Gnowbe claims to have better completion and engagement rates. “The completion rate of MOOCs is between 5% and 15%. Ours is over 40%,” Kang says. In terms of active engagement, which refers to the percentage of actions that users complete on a platform, the company pegs it at over 70%. “Most of our competitors don’t track this type of applied engagement because they mostly do just videos,” she observes.

She feels Gnowbe’s biggest challenge today is getting people to understand what it does. “It takes time to raise awareness. It’s a totally different user experience. You have to try it to believe it.” The startup hasn’t done much marketing and sales yet and has relied mostly on events, word of mouth, and partnerships for growth. But it’s in the process of raising its Series A round to the tune of US$5 million to US$8 million, which it will use to invest in marketing and to further expand its client roster.

Most of Gnowbe’s customers are based in Singapore, but with its ongoing US launch, the mix is expected to change.

Reflecting on her challenges as an entrepreneur, Kang feels she constantly has to prove herself as a female tech founder. “Sometimes, people assume that I don’t know anything about technology. They don’t take me as seriously. Whereas my male counterparts are asked about their vision, I get asked more operational questions.”

“All that stuff about performance is important, but talk to me about how big this market is and why we’re going to be the next big thing because that for me is the exciting part,” she adds.

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