First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Craig Fernandes: Everyone is well and healthy, thank god. Naturally, people were a little stressed during the lockdown, but we understood that that was a necessary step, and now that the lockdown has been lifted. Businesses are opening up here in the UAE; things are going back to normal.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Lock&Stock.
Craig Fernandes: I was actually born and raised in Dubai, as part of the first generation of expatriates to grow up in the UAE. While my passport lists my nationality as Indian, I always considered Dubai home and lived a normal, middle-class life, witnessing this city grow from a small, dusty trading hub into the metropolis it has now become. I performed well academically, topping my high school graduating class, and with the scholarships I received, I was able to enroll in a university in the United States.
While attending an Economics class during my senior year at the University of Iowa, I realized an interesting phenomenon – not a single student was actually looking at the professor. Instead, each and everybody in that class had their heads bent downwards towards a screen, be it mobile, laptop, or tablet. I remember wondering just how bad this issue was, so that day, I went back to my apartment and did some research. The numbers were startling – almost 3 in 5 students are addicted to their mobile phones, and roughly a quarter of classroom time is spent on a digital device for non-educational purposes. It was evident that this was a real societal problem, plaguing universities, schools, and colleges the world over, and it was that day that Lock&Stock was formed.
How does Lock&Stock innovate?
Craig Fernandes: Our innovation model is very simple – we look for a universal problem faced by our community, attempt to solve it, and then repeat the process regardless of success or failure.
To convince students to stay off their phones, we had to actually give them something that they needed. At the time, I was a particularly broke college student, as were most people I knew, and this was clearly a problem faced by the wider student community. Thus, upon launch, Lock&Stock allowed students to lock their phones and collect keys (our in-app currency), which could then be used to unlock offers and discounts from partner brands, helping fight the universal student problem of price sensitivity. At present, Lock&Stock is the largest student discount platform in the UAE.
Around eight months later, we wanted to widen the scope of our value proposition, so we began looking for another common student problem. Youth unemployment is very high in the UAE, and many students struggle to find internships, part-time work, or entry-level jobs upon graduation. The same can be said about students in most countries elsewhere around the world. We expanded the app to allow students to lock their phones and earn keys, which could then be used to apply for internships and entry-level jobs at partner companies.
A little less than a year after that, in mid-2019, we added our most recent section – the Scholarships section. The Scholarships section allows students to use their keys to unlock scholarships and fee waivers from partner universities, thus combatting the universal student problem of sky-high tuition fees. At present, Lock&Stock is the largest education marketplace in the UAE and the GCC region. It has processed over one and a half million dollars in scholarships for students in about a year.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Craig Fernandes: A lot of people naturally assumed that the COVID-19 pandemic would be the death of Lock&Stock. If students weren’t on campus and had to attend the class using a laptop, then why would they lock their phones, onlookers said? In reality, the opposite occurred. It actually turned out that your home has much more distractions than your classroom, as well as no site blockers or teacher oversight, and our activity went through the roof. Average lock time is up by over 500% since the start of the pandemic, and the number of students locking their phones is up by over 300%. Since we were now targeting students at home, we realized that Lock&Stock could actually be utilized for more than just learning – students could lock their phones while at the dinner table, or while exercising, or reading, or really any activity you can think of. That’s why in April, only a few weeks after the lockdowns were first introduced, we made the bold decision to change our beloved tagline from Earn While you learn to Earn While You Live.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Craig Fernandes: A lot, actually. Entrepreneurship in the 21st century is glorified to a large extent, and most observers assume it’s all rainbows and unicorns. I was 21 when we launched Lock&Stock, and I found myself working 80 hour weeks when my friends were out partying. In the 3 years that Lock&Stock has been in existence, I haven’t ever taken two consecutive days off while my friends were traveling the world. And because we have a growth at all costs mindset, I’ve refused to pay myself more than a basic stipend, which just barely covers living expenses, while my friends were buying cars.
That being said, I believe that those are the sacrifices that are required as an entrepreneur, and if I had an opportunity to do things over again, I’d make exactly the same choices as the first time. We’re in this for the difference that we make in schools and universities, for teachers and professors, and really for the students themselves. There’s a rolling ticker on our website which displays the total time spent offline by students through Lock&Stock. At the time of writing, this figure is 648 years and 4 weeks, and that figure makes everything worthwhile.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Craig Fernandes: I really like sports, and I’ve always found sports to be a natural release from work-related stress and tension. I used to play a lot as a kid, and I was on my high school football (soccer) and cricket teams, but as I grew older, I began to develop an obsessive following for professional sports. I work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, but I always try to make time to watch the best sporting game on a particular day or week, be it the Champions League, the EPL, or the IPL, really whatever. That allows me a regular dosage of relaxation time and helps keep me sane.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Craig Fernandes: In terms of a consolidated solution connecting students with discounts, internships, and scholarships, we technically have no direct competitors. That being said, each of our individual sub-platforms faces its own unique set of competitors. For example, our student discounts platform competes with other loyalty programs. Our internships platform competes with larger and more consolidated job platforms, or our scholarship platform competes with individual university websites. Whatever it may be, we realize that we are, in essence, a marketplace (or really, a collection of 3), and we realize that the bigger our marketplace gets, the better our value proposition to our users. So that’s our number one focus – signing more brands (for discounts), more companies (for internships), and more universities (for scholarships).
We also want to deliver a highly personalized and customized experience to our users. The largest team here at Lock&Stock is our data science team, and their sole focus is to use the wealth of user data available to us to customize the user experience so that each student spends the least amount of time finding the brand, company, or university they are looking for within our sub-platforms.
However, I think our biggest competitive advantage lies in the culture here at Lock&Stock. We are a company for students by students, and we really stress on that. Almost 50 people are working here at Lock&Stock, and the average age of the workgroup is roughly 23. Many of the people that work here are seniors in university, and most are actually fresh graduates. Many people question this approach to recruitment, but we stress that if we are to deliver a product that is considered sexy to our student users, then we have to be able to think like, relate to, and understand them.
Your final thoughts?
Craig Fernandes: When you’re a kid, they tell you to measure your success by the impact you have on people’s lives around you. I personally think that’s nonsense, as you could be the funniest or most helpful person in the world but still not consider yourself anything close to success. My version has a slight tweak – measure your success by the impact you’ve had on the lives of people who’ve never met you. The world we live in has a lot of problems, and I think that if most people were to refine their way of thinking along with the same lens, it would be a much better place to live in.
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