Interviews, Startups, Technology

Stop buying books; for $300 a year, 1,000 courses

BenchPrep to revolutionize how students prepare for tests, choose careers.


By Niharika Mookerjee

NEW YORK: BenchPrep, a progressive technology and custom teaching company, marks a paradigm shift in the way test preparations are accessed for major competitive exams. Gone are the days of the voluminous SAT or GMAT books; in its stead are sleek and snazzy apps that can be downloaded on smart devices by a slight tap of the finger to fit the fast-track, multi-tasking generation.

Founded by IIT Mumbai alumni, Ashish Rangnekar and Ujjwal Gupta, the digital educational services offered by the company is revamping the chameleon landscape in instruction throughout the United States with its exceptional conception of delivering aggregate test prep courses to mobile devices.

Ujjwal Gupta, co-founder, BenchPrep
Ujjwal Gupta, co-founder, BenchPrep

In partnership with leading publishing industries like McGraw Hill, Cengage Learning and Wiley, the company has attracted $8 million in venture capital funding and a 300,000 user base. With a vision of building the first global interactive library that serves students navigating their way through a range of course selections or the competitive exams, BenchPrep stands as a prototype in the race for competition in a trillion dollar education industry, crowded with a myriad of technologies.

In an interview with The American Bazaar, BenchPrep co-founder Ujjwal Gupta, revealed that he, along with Ashish Rangnekar, struck upon this innovative idea while preparing for the GMAT. The company, initially launched in 2010 as Watermelon Express, soared into success, renamed as BenchPrep, with a broadened educational platform, revolving around cutting-edge technology. While the company offers about 200 courses today, it has ambitions of offering 1,000 by the end of the year. Heaped with praise from its users and the Forbes magazine, Gupta and Rangnekar do not rule out the idea of going public in the near future.

Excerpts from the interview with Gupta:

What was the inspiration behind the concept of BenchPrep? How is it revolutionizing education in modern day classrooms?

The inspiration came in 2008, as my co-founder Ashish was studying for the GMAT. At that time the only way to crack a standardized test like the GMAT was to pay out the nose for a class or to lug around a huge book. We began to think, “how could this process work better?”

The first problem we solved was ditching the heavy book. We developed an iOS app and teamed up with some publishers to deliver test prep content over the web and on the iPhone. Our first big feature was syncing across devices, and the real inspiration hit when we realized the kind of potential the product could have not just for busy people preparing for standardized tests, but for students in a classroom.

Collectively, we have put thousands of hours into a learning platform that is big enough to support a school district, yet small enough to fit in your pocket. Technology helps connect things; it’s our job to bring the different stages of the teaching and learning process onto a single, seamless platform.

How is the content used by BenchPrep different from MIT Open courseware or the Khan Academy? And what would be the singular benefits of using BenchPrep?

BenchPrep Chicago team
BenchPrep Chicago team

Whether it’s a free lecture from MIT or a paid practice test from Princeton Review, BenchPrep provides a place for the content to come alive for the user. A student looking for Algebra help, who comes to us, will have a range of courses to choose from a variety of publishers, all in one place.

BenchPrep lifts the burden of keeping organized, of tracking progress, and of making flashcards. It all happens automatically. BenchPrep will tell you how much time you spent taking a chapter test, which problems you got wrong, and which reading sections you need to brush upon. It collects all of your usage data and personalizes your study schedule based on your strengths and weaknesses. eBooks can’t do that.

How are you different from Kumon, The Huntington Learning Center or Kaplan that offer both online & classroom programs?

Huntington and Kaplan offer programs that are expensive and vertically integrated, meaning they focus on only certain subjects. If a student wants to study using more than just Huntington or just Kaplan, they need to move back and forth between them, and learn the different interfaces for each one.

Studying on BenchPrep is akin to shopping on Amazon; instead of running around a mall from store to store, you can find everything in one place. This provides additional advantages to the student.

Our e-learning platform soon will be able to identify patterns across different subjects for a particular student and help them figure out what courses to pick, what career paths are more logical more efficiently.

Can students get through competitive exams without using traditional textbooks and teaching material?

Yes. Content is no longer shackled to traditional methods of delivery; there is a plethora of amazing content out there. The true bottleneck is the capacity to deliver it in the best way possible.

Objective test preparers have been looking for innovative ways to frame their questions.  How is BenchPrep keeping up with this?

When test preparers alter the exam, the publishers must release new editions of textbooks and update their courses. We work closely with the content providers and publishers, and they alert us when new information is available. Because we are an online tool, we can easily and immediately update the specific content on our site, without disrupting a student’s course of study.

A lot of publishers also take advantage of physical books by releasing new editions without having worthy improvements of a new edition so that used books become unusable. An online content delivery system bypasses it.

Do you have any data that shows higher levels of achievement among students using BenchPrep?

We have seen an average increase of 18 percent in students’ scores when they complete more than 80 percent of a BenchPrep course in less than three months. If you add the cost to it and compare it with our competitors, we are providing almost 10 times the value for every dollar spent.

What is meant by data driven personalization and analysis? How do you best explain this term to a layman?

BenchPrep is designed to track a student’s progress. It follows the student’s performance on certain questions and exams, and customizes the experience based on that analysis. So the student’s course of study is then tailored to his or her strengths and weaknesses and to what he or she has identified as their end goal.

The data we do collect regarding students’ progress is encrypted and can be seen only by a very few members of the BenchPrep team.

What is the average profile of your students? Do you have overseas students?

80 percent of our users are in the US, and most are enrolled in college courses.

What is the budget a student or parent need to set aside for BenchPrep courses?

Less than $300 annually for the entire library of over 200 courses which will be close to a 1,000 courses by the end of 2013.

What are your plans for the future? After the venture capital funding you received, is there a road map for going public?

We want to be the first global interactive library with a value proposition that it is a no brainer for anyone to subscribe to. Education sector is one of the very few sectors which need a lot of help for technological advancement, and investors can see that. Currently, our goal is to be the most engaging educational platform at a fraction of the cost. We are close, very close!

What challenges are you confronted with today?

We are the first and only education company to offer the compatibility for students to access test prep content from multiple publishers on multiple devices. That said, a lot of students will still opt to take a course or buy a book from a brand they recognize. So our biggest challenge now is to build brand awareness and to become a brand that students recognize as one they can depend on and trust. Brand and trust is not something that can be built in a day.

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