EdTech Startup CrackVerbal's CEO Speaks About the Right Kind of Guidance and Support Students Need in India

Test prep and career guidance companies help individuals acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to identify options and opportunities. 

With the growth and competition in online test prep industry and career guidance, one needs to work very closely with applicants to understand their unique need. Check out what Arun Jagannathan, CEO, CrackVerbal has to say about the industry and how he is bridging the gap in test prep.

1. What would be an elevator pitch for someone who does not know about your company?

CrackVerbal is a fast growing test prep company that helps graduates achieve their MBA or MS dreams through GMAT or GRE. We also provide application services support so after taking the test we mentor our students to aim for the best possible schools to meet their career objective.

2. What is your company's core value proposition? What problem are you solving and for whom?

Our Company’s slogan is “Mentoring achievers”. We feel there is a lacuna where students who really want to score high and get to Ivy League institutes don’t have the right kind of guidance and support in India. Most Indian test prep companies, in order to scale up, end up lowering the bar for the teachers / faculty. Most foreign services are in dollars or pounds, making it very expensive for Indian students.

3. What has been the market response till now? How do you plan to check on the user (for whom you are solving problem) satisfaction?

From a classroom student’s perspective, we already are the #1 GMAT prep company in Bangalore, and growing at a fast pace in Chennai. The new version of our online product has already seen 1000+ users sign up in just 2 months. All of this has been possible not through any major marketing activity, but purely through word-of-mouth. We believe it is our students who have to be our brand ambassadors; we have always focused on ensuring that our customers become raving fans.

4. What inspired the idea of Crackverbal? What is the driving passion for this company? 

Neither our experience (technology management for over a decade) nor our education (masters degree in computers) prepared us to start CrackVerbal. I was good at standardized tests and was a mentor to my classmates while I was in college so decided to teach as a hobby and was associated with various test prep companies as a part-time faculty. Soon I was able to create a brand for myself so students directly reached out to me to help them. CrackVerbal started at a coffee shop in Bangalore in 2006, when I decided to meet a few prospective students who had approached me through an online forum.

Initially I used to have a few workshops every year and was happy to keep it as a part-time avocation. It was not until 2009 that Shreekala (the other co-founder) and I started looking at this as a full-time business. In 2010, Shreekala, after having spent over a decade in IT (of which the last 7 years were with HP), decided to plunge in as the first full-time employee of CrackVerbal. I followed in 2011 by quitting my job as a Delivery Manager with an IT product company.

The driving passion is to create a new benchmark in the test prep industry through knowledge, excellence and effectiveness. There is no reason why a world-class company in test prep should not be born out of India, if we adhere to the highest standards of quality in content and delivery and constantly elevate student expectations with innovative methodologies.

5. What is the stage of the product? Where do you see Crackverbal in 6 or 12 or 18 months from now?

We have already launched our GMAT OnDemand program (http://gmatonline.crackverbal.com) and are currently on the verge of launching our GRE OnDemand program (expected release December 2015). We also have privately launched a separate website to help students practice GMAT questions (http://gmatonthego.com).

From a milestone perspective we hope to reach a target of 5000 students for GMAT and GRE in the next 12 months. We are currently at a team-size of 20 and would continue passive hiring for quality talent who can help us in this journey.

6. What is the biggest need for your company at this point of time?

The biggest need currently is publicity and building the “CrackVerbal” brand name. We believe that once students get to compare what we have to offer then the traction/growth will happen by itself. Apart from this, as with any growing enterprise, the ability to attract and retain top talent is another challenge.

7. How do you think higher education has changed in India in the last few years? 

Traditionally people have gone abroad because of the opportunities available. Over the last few years, India has been able to provide the opportunity to work for either world-class companies such as Amazon and Uber or homegrown unicorns such as Flipkart and Ola Cabs. This gives a student tremendous ROI to remain in India under familiar home conditions than study abroad under uncertain visa regulations.

8. How would you compare the two models of Online Courses versus Classroom Programs?  Why do you think young learners want to learn on their Mobile phones? 

Fundamentally it boils down to the kind of person you are.

On one hand, some of the students love to have the flexibility of studying as per their schedules. They want to see lecture videos when they are commuting to work. They love playing games on their mobile phones to help sharpen their test-taking skills. People mimic what they do in daily life. So growing up in the 80s-90s most student spent time reading books, which were the only source of learning/knowledge. Those who grew up in the 2000s might have spent time in front of the computer so a lot of courses came on CDs to be installed on your PC. In 2015, a student spends most of his time looking into the screen that he holds in his hands so it is obvious that learning migrates to that platform. Also, they expect only the highest quality of user interface. For example, the CrackVerbal Online course has mobile-optimized user experience with HD quality videos where we explain the concepts, the application, and the strategy required to crack the GMAT and the GRE. This also comes with 1000s of actual, and simulated GMAT and GRE questions so the student can be solve questions and quizzes “on the go”.

On the other hand, some of my students find it very difficult to sit in front of a computer for hours without getting defocussed (thanks to social media which has drastically shortened our attention span). The biggest source of distraction today is your laptop browser. The Facebook feed alert can be hard to ignore when you are trying to focus on listening to an online lecture – that is the reason why some people report that the dropout rate in MOOCs hovers around 92-95%. Also sometimes with a mobile phone in your hand, sitting on a bus, it is hard to solve a tough math question “on the go”. These students love to have the comforts of a traditional classroom as it helps them focus for 3-4 straight hours on a specific topic.

9. Tell us about your team, who do you have supporting you? How did this start?

CrackVerbal is a privately held company with 2 co-founders: Arun Jagannathan (CEO) and Shreekala Kurup (COO). Apart from this, we have a team of over 20, with people from diverse backgrounds spread across marketing, sales, academics, content, and operations.

Our initial delivery mechanism was through a 2-day workshop that was taken by me and a few other instructors who were hand-picked and trained. The first CrackVerbal office was set up in 2010 at St.Marks Road in Bangalore, with an initial investment of a few lakhs of rupees. CrackVerbal has been cash-positive since inception and is still bootstrapped.

The news about this small company in Bangalore spread very fast over the Internet, and soon students started to arrive from other cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad. Our customer base steadily rose the first few years, from 40 students in 2009 to 78 in 2010 and 243 students in 2011. 2012 saw us hire our first set of full-time employees; and the number jumped to 600. In 2013, with the launch of GRE and a Chennai center, we breached the 4-digit mark. In 2014, we added MBA and MS Application Services to our product line. In 2015, with the new GMAT Video Online course, we expect the numbers to exceed 2000.

10.   What/Who motivates you? Any thought leader or companies with innovation which you follow for success?

From day one, our biggest motivation has remained the same: how do we act as a bridge between exceptional faculty who love to mentor and extraordinary achievers who want to be mentored. Growing up in a smaller city in India, I understand how lack of proper counseling can adversely impact smart and talented students from reaching their goals.

The company we admire is Khan Academy as they grew from a small initiative by one person to a household name that has democratized education.

11.   What are the biggest challenges of your edtech startup?

The biggest challenge of EdTech is really to market the product in a space where there is already enough clutter with a lot of players with deep marketing pockets and established brand names. We try to be innovative by using social media where it is easy to recommend new products among friends.

Secondly we are a content company that uses technology to leverage our business so we depend on external companies for developing pieces of technology, leading to a potential risk.

12. Who would you call your competitors? And how are you different? How are you keeping a tap on the changing landscape of workforce?

Our competitors can be broadly distributed in 2 categories: (a) Test prep companies that offer online options such as Kaplan and ManhattanPrep (b) Online Forums such as GMATClub, and Beatthegmat.

Among other online prep companies, not only is our course priced lower as we have the advantage of the cost arbitrage, but we are the only company that offers unlimited on-phone support during India business hours. We see a lot of students who like the fact that we are small and hungry – and it shows in the way we are more than just a bunch of training videos.

I would also include large test prep forums as competitors because there is enough and more content available on such sites, so self-preparation becomes a viable option for the serious candidates who can focus on their own. Unfortunately most of them have not invested in IP – either on questions or on techniques/ strategies – so quality of the content is suspect. We have spent many years in developing high quality proprietary content through a team of in-house experts with many decades of experience in GMAT/GRE preparation.

As we also help students with their MBA / MS application process, many of these students come back to us after they have taken the test so we have a great feedback loop. Moreover, we have our own online forum that has had over a million visits and 1000s of registered CrackVerbal students. This allows us to get to know the top issues impacting students preparing for such tests.

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