So, I recently took the GRE after trying to re-teach myself math I learned 15 years ago (yikes, that number stings my ego!) Needless to say, I bombed. No PhD programs for me this year. I wish I would have known about BenchPrep, the cross-device learning platform that allows students to practice tests, get real-time scores, compete, and chat with experts. It has won a multitude of awards for its awesomeness too.
We caught up with the founder of the test prep site, Ujjwal Gupta to find out what inspired BenchPrep, the four critical bootstrapping elements, and lunching with Elon Musk.
Tell us a little more about what inspired BenchPrep.
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.
I 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. In the next two years, we scaled the product, expanded it to all devices, and refined the business model, but the core philosophy has remained the same.
Today, we license educational content (books, study guides, question banks, flashcards, audio/video lectures) from the best-in-class publishers and create interactive courses that students can use on the web, iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and tablets. BenchPrep is the only cross-platform learning solution, and it has already become the biggest library of interactive courses for web and mobile platforms.
A Ph.D. in chemistry to a startup entrepreneur? How was that transition?
It does sound like a dramatic change, but 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.
However, the transition has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride — especially given the fact that I had no experience in product development or marketing. There was a steep learning curve, and I am still learning, which is one thing I absolutely love about startups — the opportunity to grow not only as a startup but also as an individual.
What’s a typical day look like?
My typical weekday starts off with responding to some emails and consuming news from Twitter. I then head to the office, look at the to-do list for the day and check the customer support log (emails/chat log). If I find anything out of the ordinary, I let the appropriate department know about it. I have Google Analytics always open up in a window to monitor spikes in traffic or any inconsistency. I go through a marketing analysis right before lunch.
We have company-sponsored lunches every day, and the entire team eats together. Every Monday we order food from Chicago Magazine’s list of the 50 best sandwiches in Chicago. Every Wednesday we order through FoodaSelect. Team members handpick the rest of the week’s menu on a rotational basis. After lunch, I put on my product hat and work with different product teams to check the progress, make recommendations, and do QA. In the evenings, I usually work out at the gym (in the office building), have dinner at the office, check with my offshore teams, check Twitter again, and make a to-do list for the next day. Then it is off to sleep.
Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?
Bootstrapping is an essential part of the startup lifecycle. In fact, we made some of our best decisions and hacked into some very creative solutions when we were bootstrapping. I learnt that four things are critical while bootstrapping:
- Be close to your customers. Online feedback, offline conversations, or even taking up a part-time job in the industry can be helpful.
- Define your product very diligently. Saying NO to product features is as important as coming up with new innovative features. In the bootstrapping phase, time and speed of development is money
- Test everything. Validate every decision with data. Run product and marketing tests on everything.
- Outsourcing platforms like Guru, eLance, and oDesk are blessings in disguise. Use them for anything that is not core to your business.
Who would you love to have lunch with and what would you talk about?
I would love to go out for lunch with Elon Musk. He has a passion for science and technology and an amazing entrepreneurial spirit. I am amazed by his desire to take on some of the most challenging problems and then dedicate his life to them. I would love to talk to him about his experience, his motivations, and how he keeps up with running a business and staying at the top of innovation.
Biggest startup challenge?
Building the team. Period.
Finding people who believe in your vision and are willing to take on the challenges of a startup is really difficult. One, it’s difficult to find talented people; two, their commitment to the cause, culture, and lifestyle are equally important. And then there is a whole other challenge to motivate them and lead them towards the common goal. And all this becomes that much more difficult when you (the founder) are a first-time entrepreneur.
Web app or site you couldn’t live without and why.
I absolutely love Twitter. It is my only source for news and updates about what is going on in the world.
What’s your music-streaming site of choice, and what’s currently playing?
I use Spotify for listening and Pandora for discovery. I am currently listening to Mumford & Sons.
What’s the greatest thing about BenchPrep?
Our collective vision to create an educational tool that can help millions of students around the world is the great thing about BenchPrep. 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.
Where can our readers reach out to you?