The learning landscape has been vastly improved through the application of technology. BenchPrep’s software is used by education and training companies to help students, employees and clients learn faster and more efficiently. CEO and co-founder Ashish Rangnekar said the company helped nearly 1.5 million people learn better last year.
We caught up with Rangnekar to learn how he builds teams, overcomes challenges and more.
What's a major challenge you've faced as a leader, and what did you learn from it?
Three years ago, we pivoted our business model from a direct to consumer model to an enterprise SaaS model. From a consumer test prep company, we became a learning platform company. Recognizing that we needed this pivot and then going through the transition was the most difficult thing I have done as the CEO. As part of this transition, we had to reorganize our team; reposition our product and restart our journey.
This period taught me how important it is to find a true and sustainable product/market fit. I learnt that although we were a learner-first product driven company, we needed to be aware (and respectful) of the unit economics of our business model. And a lot of times, the answer is quite simple. In our case, we didn’t need to re-engineer our product but simply sell it to a different customer.
Our current enterprise SaaS learning platform approach allows us to be learner-first with a highly scalable and profitable business model. This transition saved our company and propelled us into a high growth mode.
How do you build and sustain great teams?
Building a great team has been a three step process for us: first, we articulated company’s mission, business model, and goals. Everything works backwards from that. This helps us identify who we need to hire. Then, we invest a lot of time and energy in hiring the right people. Besides functional skills, we want to make sure that every team member takes pride in their work, is suitable to work in a startup and is fully aligned with BenchPrep’s mission. Last but not the least, we empower them to do their best work. Empowerment starts with setting up the right tools: medical benefits, catered lunches, regular social events, learning/training credits and a fun work environment. But more importantly, we enable our employees to directly drive impact and help millions of learners. One of our newest and youngest hires (Client Success Manager) is in charge of managing customers with more than 1 million learners per year. Our CTO started at BenchPrep as a Senior Engineer and now is part of the executive team.
What advice would you give your past self just starting off in the tech industry?
It takes time to build something impactful and worthwhile.
A fundamental tenet of success is perseverance. And that’s even more applicable for startup success. Once you realize that, you will start making decisions that help you succeed in the long term. I would advise my past self to start off with a 10-year plan, not a two-year plan. I would tell him to not try to save money on “talent” and hire the smartest people right away. And of course, ensure you have a sustainable product/market fit before you even utter the word scale!
What are your big plans and expectations for 2017?
We expect 2017 to be the biggest year at BenchPrep. Our goal is to launch products and help learners in new verticals — technology credentials, healthcare certifications and workforce licensing. We are also launching products in international markets including the EU and China.
Equally as important: we are looking to double our team size. We are looking for smart and passionate individuals to help us achieve our goals.
On the product front, we are launching several new features that will further leverage game mechanics to enhance learning engagement. I am very excited about our new trigger-based notification system that will help learners engage with the right content at the right time on the right device.
What's your favorite part of the Chicago tech community?
I find Chicago tech community to be very grounded and open. Institutions like 1871 and TechStars have provided a solid foundation. Jason Fried of BaseCamp and other veterans have helped young entrepreneurs focus on things that matter. Established players like Orbitz have provided encouraging end game scenarios.
At every stage of our journey, the tech community helped us stay on track. Our board members, employees, advisors, mentors and friends are all from the Chicago tech community.
Photos via BenchPrep. Some answers have been edited for length and or clarity.