A smart, cross-platform test prep company changes how students excel.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
When he was just 22, Ashish Rangekar (pictured, left) was an an adjunct lecturer in Mathematics at City University New York. He later ripened his analytical skills as a strategy consultant with Capital One. These days, as co-founder of BenchPrep, a cross-platform test prep course creator, Ashish directs business development, public relations and operations. He holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, an M.S. in Applied Mathematics at City University New York, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Co-founder Ujjwal Gupta (pictured, right) is
The future of education is digital, and I think we should be more and more open to technology, and how it can enhance the learning experience.
CTO and day-to-day he leads a variety of product and project management initiatives. Prior to founding BenchPrep, Ujjwal started several companies across a number of industries – including nanotechnology, rural tech, and events management. He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University and a BS/MS from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Together, their genius cross-platform solution has passed the test of workability, having served more than 400,000 students. Here, Ashish and Ujj talk about challenges, apps, collective vision and what the future holds.
Victor: What prompted you to develop the BenchPrep? What issues, challenges, problem were you trying to solve?
Ujjwal: The core idea came in 2008 when my co-founder Ashish Rangnekar was studying for the GMAT. He realized that the options available to him were heavy, static books or antiquated and expensive online classes. He decided to use the book, and although the experience was terrible, the actual content was really good. At the same time, Apple opened up their iPhone platform for development, and I saw people really engaging with the device and spending a disproportionate amount of time on their phones playing with the apps.
We realized that combining the book content and the engagement that an iPhone can provide would be a great tool for Ashish and a million other students. And that’s how it all started. Within two months, we designed the product, hired people, built the first test prep engine for the iPhone, and released a GMAT prep app. The app quickly became one of the best-selling education apps in the App Store.
Victor: What’s something interesting about it’s development history?
Ashish: After the success of the GMAT iPhone app we built several other stand-alone mobile apps and actually started building a desktop app. It wasn’t until after our first round of funding that we ditched the individual apps and desktop app for the cross platform product we have today. We built our learning platform to be accessible from multiple devices and sync across all devices, where you can start on an iPad and continue on your computer or Android phone. Everything is synchronized across devices.
This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, there is a huge advantage for the user. Also, having a cross-platform, API-based approach means that we can license educational content from the best-in-class publishers to create interactive courses. However, the major disadvantage is that you have to develop all of this content for three screen sizes, and this increases development time.
All and all, though, we feel that cross-platform cloud-based technology is the way of the future, so we’re happy to spend the extra time to build our product like this from the start.
Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
Ujjwal: After earning my degree in my native India, I went on to start a nanomaterials manufacturing firm with my advisor. Later, I came to the US to complete a PhD in Chemistry at Penn State. Though I loved my work and my field, I soon realized that it takes years of research and scaling to make something which can be commercialized. At that time my college friend Ashish and I started our first app, and the rest is history.
While it sounds like a dramatic change, every day I am learning how my Ph.D. work is helping me with my role at BenchPrep. A typical Ph.D. consists of identifying a problem in a field you are passionate about and then finding a solution. It is a long process and requires patience. During this process, new problems consistently come up that need to be solved, which is typical of a startup as well.
Ashish: Ujjwal and I knew each other from college in India. When I moved to the States, I was teaching math as an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. After my classes in pre-calculus and calculus, students would ask if I knew of any supplementary resources beside the textbook that they could use to hone their math skills. I used to recommend they read some blogs or watch some YouTube videos. Everyone in the math department thought I was crazy.
Even though the students could have studied their textbook, they didn’t connect with the books and wanted to learn in a different way. From this experience, I realized that there was a market for an interactive, digital product like BenchPrep.
Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?
Ashish: BenchPrep is a learning platform and marketplace that helps students study for tests like the GMAT across any device. We work with 30+ educational publishers, from McGraw Hill to Princeton Review, to create interactive, personalized courses for standardized test prep, math, science, language, professional certifications and more. BenchPrep is accessible on the web, Android, iPhone, iPad and Kindle Fire. Course material syncs across all of them creating a seamless study experience.
On top of this, BenchPrep gives students personalized study plans, a game center, social features and real-time analytics (to name a few) creating a comprehensive and robust study interface. The analytics and personalized study plans allow students to see which questions they answer wrong and which lessons they should concentrate on. This way, they study in the most efficient way possible. More than 500,000 students across 20 countries have used BenchPrep courses to achieve their educational goals.
BenchPrep’s pricing model also undercuts a lot of other study sources and classes by hundreds of dollars.
Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?
Ujjwal: Education is a $1 trillion market, and there are tens of thousands of players in the field. The test prep sector alone is a $13 billion market. So the “competition” comprises a pretty wide umbrella of institutions, companies, and individuals. What’s most important to us at BenchPrep is that we design our product to be as agile as possible to adjust to the changing educational paradigms.
That being said, we have established partnerships with some established educational content providers like McGraw Hill, Princeton Review, and Pearson. I think these companies recognize the changing landscape of the delivery of educational content, and there are immense opportunities out there for innovation in the field.
Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it /starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it?
Ashish: The first piece of interesting feedback was that when we were starting out we really did not expect the GMAT app to sell as well as it did, but it sold really well!
We had such early success with the GMAT iPhone app, we thought: “If we’re having this amount of success with a relatively small market size of the GMAT prep, then if we make an ACT or SAT app, we should have much more user growth.” The reality, however, is that the GMAT and ACT/SAT are radically different markets. The actual users of the GMAT app purchase the app. With the ACT/SAT, on the other hand, parents usually purchase prep materials for their children.
The test prep market is surprisingly varied, and learning how to market to each customer segment has been a challenge.
Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of BenchPrep?
Ujjwal: Our collective vision is to create an educational tool that can help millions of students around the world. We are a bunch of students creating an educational platform for students. We are not constrained by the legacy mindset in education business or by the lack of technology innovation in the U.S. today. Our job is to build the best learning tools and figure out the impossible along the way.
Our current product, its cutting edge features, our talented team, and our partnerships all contribute towards this vision that drives us. We are the only company that is delivering interactive courses across multiple devices from the top education publishers with a consistent UI.
Victor: Anything else in the works? additional products, features or series/angles?
Ashish: We’re building an adaptive, API-based learning engine for interactive courses that sits on top of our large reservoir of content. Our goal is to define the value of content based on student engagement and whether or not it resonates with their personal learning style.
Based on what we’ve seen, students now think about content ownership in a very different (and probably more nuanced) way than they did five years ago — or even when I was growing up. Students now look at educational content more as a service than as a product. And so into the future we’ll continue to work to improve our educational infrastructure to make the overall student experience more enjoyable and personalized.
Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?
Ujjwal: At BenchPrep, we believe that traditional education is still important. You go to a class and your teacher is there to provide guidance. However, we believe it’s going to evolve into something where you watch videos or read beforehand, and class becomes the time for you to figure out the problems you are having. Classrooms will become problem solving and collaboration sessions instead of reading, watching and listening. The reading, watching and listening portions of learning are still important, but the medium of information consumption must evolve to be device-agnostic, adaptive, and mobile. It has to be convenient so that students don’t have to think about devices while learning. Technology is so powerful and has the ability to really help students learn. We must take full advantage of that.
Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days?
Ashish: The future of education is digital, and I think we should be more and more open to technology, and how it can enhance the learning experience. There is immense opportunity for innovation in the classroom, and I think brave educators should try to experiment and take risks to figure out what does and doesn’t work.
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]