On November 23, coding platform for kids WhiteHat Jr and its founder Karan Bajaj won an ad-interim injunction in a defamation case against Pradeep Poonia, an engineer who has publicly criticised the ed-tech startup’s marketing tactics -- even calling it a Ponzi scheme.
The order restrains Poonia, a former Cisco employee, from performing certain actions, including making unsubstantiated claims against WhiteHat Jr and commenting on the quality of their teachers. The next hearing for the case is scheduled for January 6, 2021.
Here’s a timeline tracking two-year old WhiteHat Jr meteoric rise and its eventual legal battle against its critics:
Karan Bajaj, an Indian entrepreneur who teaches meditation and led Discovery Networks in South Asia, founded WhiteHat Jr in 2018 -- a platform aimed at teaching coding skills to young children, aged 6-14 years.
The platform, operating under Mumbai-based WhiteHat Education Technology, offers live one-on-one sessions through experienced early childhood coding educators and a structured curriculum for different age groups. It has five levels of courses and helps kids build games, animations, websites, and apps using their learnings. The courses start at Rs. 6,000 for 8 sessions and go up to Rs. 1 lakh for 144 sessions.
WhiteHat Jr grew its user and teacher base and secured its first major round of funding, valued at $10 million. The investment came from Omidyar Network, Owl Ventures, and Nexus Ventures, and took the total amount raised by the company to $11 million.
Ed-tech unicorn Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Jr for $300 million. The all-cash deal came shortly after the coding firm launched operations in the US, growing 100% month-on-month there, and achieved an annual revenue run rate of $150 million. It also announced plans to expand to the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
With the acquisition, Bajaj, who owned a little over 40% of WhiteHat Jr, also shot to fame for becoming a multi-millionaire ($120.9 million) overnight.
The case of misleading advertising started surfacing on social media, with people criticising the company for bombarding them with ads on TV and digital platforms. Estimates from media planners, cited by The Economic Times, indicate that the company was spending between Rs. 10-15 crore.
I have a half a mind to find a kid who has learnt coding from Whitehat Jr and ask him/her to code a plugin that can block Whitehat Jr ads. https://t.co/2HVMRpj3eO— Aditya (@adityakamath_) September 14, 2020
As this happened, many flagged the aggressive, deceptive claims WhiteHat Jr made through its ads, including one that showcased a 7-year-old kid as a TEDx speaker and the youngest app developer. A total of 15 complaints were filed with the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) over seven such ads. A few videos showing WhiteHat Jr teachers as inexperienced professionals also surfaced.
During the same month, Pradeep Poonia emerged as a vocal critic of the company through social media platforms Twitter and YouTube. His one video took on WhiteHat Jr’s claim that a certain student of the startup, Wolf Gupta, got a job at Google.
Poonia also called out the startup for posting fake 5-star reviews of its app and silencing the voices of people speaking out against these dubious marketing tactics by getting their posts taken down across social media channels. Others also expressed similar concerns online.
ASCI found five of the seven ads in violation of its code and asked the edtech platform to pull them down. The company agreed to comply. Poonia, meanwhile, continued the criticism of the company; his videos and accounts (on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Quora, and LinkedIn) were also taken down, although some of them have now been restored.
The same month, Tekie, another startup teaching coding to kids, accused WhiteHat Jr of posing as a kid and taking their classes to understand their business model and technology.
November 13, 2020
On November 13, Poonia took a major step and highlighted the alleged questionable practices at WhiteHat Jr by sharing screenshots and videos of the communication in the company’s Slack channels.
THREAD— Pradeep Poonia (@whiteHatSnr) November 13, 2020
1. Since Indian media is sold out to #Byjus and #WhiteHatJr let's expose this scam ourselves and also find out who the real #WolfGupta is.
Q: If your employee tweets at 2am that she is depressed and feeling suicidal, what should a company do?#WhiteHatJrScam #ByjusBubble pic.twitter.com/yMnJ3CuWgr
Using the communication as a basis, Poonia claimed to show how employees at WhiteHat Jr used personal and fake accounts to get negative reviews, including videos showing inexperience of teachers, removed as well as harassed their prominent critics.
Among other things, he also flagged how employees passed inappropriate comments on new candidates appearing for interviews at the company. The commentary from Poonia also mentioned Anirudh Malpani, an angel investor and another staunch critic of WhiteHat Jr.
November 20, 2020
A week later, WhiteHat Jr filed a $2.6 million case against Poonia, accusing him of defaming the coding startup, hacking into its servers to access internal communications as well as violating its trademark and copyrights.
November 23, 2020
During a hearing on the matter, the Delhi High Court granted WhiteHat Jr an ad interim injunction, which requires Poonia to remove his unsubstantiated tweets against the startup, including those calling it a ‘Ponzi scheme’, as well as videos that display the company’s proprietary content or internal communications.
The order also restricts him from downloading/distributing WhiteHat Jr’s study material, hacking/accessing their internal communications, commenting on the quality of their teachers, and using the name WhiteHat Sr online.
As this hearing went on, WhiteHat Jr also sent a $1.9 mn defamation notice to Malpani - who was also banned from LinkedIn for criticizing Byju’s - over defamation, infringement of trademarks, unfair competition, damages and more.
The company argued that Malpani’s false and defamatory tweets are causing severe damage to its reputation and business and noted that he is an investor in Bibox Labs which has been teaching entrepreneurship, innovation, and web development to kids aged 8-14.
November 24, 2020
Like Poonia, Malpani was also restrained from making defamatory commentary against WhiteHat Jr and its employees by the Delhi High Court. The next hearing for his case has been scheduled for January 14, 2021.