Lessons for Startups Tackling the Education Market, from BenchPrep

February 10, 2012

9:31 am

For a new generation of students, “test prep” will no longer conjure up the image of sleepy, 3-hour Kaplan classes or 10-pound Barron’s SAT books. One startup ushering in the digital age of studying is Chicago-based BenchPrep, backed by Lightbank.

Founded in 2009, BenchPrep has recruited more than 150,000 students to their online learning platform to study for high school and college classes, AP tests, graduate exams like the LSAT and GRE, and even the bar exam. You just buy a course online and start partaking of their texts and practice quizzes on the web. Busy students can study on mobile with BenchPrep’s Android and iOS apps.

Compared to Kaplan’s $300+ SAT courses, BenchPrep is affordable, but the price tags may seem high for online materials: $99.99 for the SAT, and $149.99 for the GMAT or bar exam.

During the past 3 years, BenchPrep has been learning along with their students. Here are some lessons for education startups, gleaned from founder Ashish Rangnekar’s story.

Don’t just jump on the bandwagon. “Social” may be a buzzword lately, but entrepreneurs have to understand if and how it’s relevant to their industry.

“Social is not just about sharing comments or making friends. It’s about tapping into the data and knowledge in the (social) network to influence one’s learning,” explains Rangnekar.

BenchPrep adds value with social features like chatting with other students to ask questions and adding notes or YouTube links to texts. You can see how well you understand concepts compared to other learners and how others are dividing their study time. Even if you prefer a quiet library corner to a boisterous study group, BenchPrep helps you individually track your progress and study on the go.

Bypass the ivory-tower obstacles. One of the monumental challenges for education startups is worming their way into a rigid, bureaucratic, slow-moving education system. BenchPrep decided to sell directly to students, who are hungry for study alternatives that are faster and more engaging.

Keep it simple. This certainly applies to all startups, including education ones.

“Especially when you are working towards an exciting vision, it is very easy to get emotional about the product and/or the idea,” says Rangnekar. For him that meant wanting to add dozens of features and pursue countless avenues to see his dream come to life. Over time, though, he learned to focus.

But that doesn’t mean your ambitions have to be modest. BenchPrep is aiming to be the Amazon of learning, where students can study any subject from any publisher, from high school to SATs to college to graduate exams and beyond. And Rangnekar hopes to be part of a new wave of education technology.

“We are in the earliest phases of the disruption in the education space. Mobile devices, internet, social graph, gaming elements and data oriented approach[es] are just beginning to penetrate education. This decade would be a turning point for education in [the] US.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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