In early 2009, Booth School student Ashish Rangnekar and his friend Ujjwal Gupta, a Ph.D. student at Penn State, got tired of carrying around heavy standardized test preparation books. Wishing they could access all the information they needed through a handheld gadget, they began working on an iPhone App. The result, called Watermelon Express, was a hit, propelling the duo to the heights of the app business world. After receiving funding from Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, the company now has iPhone, iPad, and Desktop study apps for the SAT, the MCAT, the GMAT, the LSAT and the GRE exams, with plans to launch Android, Blackberry tablet, and Web versions in the next month. The Maroon sat down with Rangnekar to talk about the weight differential between LSAT books and an iPhone, studying at Starbucks, and The Social Network.
Chicago Maroon: Where did the Watermelon Express idea originate?
Ashish Rangnekar: In early 2009 I had just gotten off of taking my GMAT exam… and I realized that everyone just had this perspective on education, that they wanted to get done with it so they could move onto the next thing. And it was a little bit of a sad realization for me….
Education traditionally was very inconvenient, it was boring, it was not fun, and people just wanted to get done with it. That rang a bell to us and we said, “Let’s start to solve this,” but there was no big vision. We literally wanted to do one thing, we wanted to build a GMAT prep tool so that we could study on the go.
CM: At what point did you realize the idea was bigger than an app?
AR: We released the app in January , and within a month, we noticed that there were a lot of people using and downloading the app, and that was the moment, that was kind of the “aha!” moment… So we took a step back and started to think about it as a business rather than just an application.
CM: Why the study-group planning section?
AR: Right now in Chicago, there are a lot of students sitting in libraries, or in Starbucks, or at home, studying for the LSAT, and there’s a lot of power in just bringing them together. No instructions, no tutors—just bringing those students together creates a lot of value. Through our applications we have tools to bring students together and create study groups and study events. If I go to Starbucks every Saturday to study for the GRE, I would announce it to the whole community, and if anyone else is around that Starbucks, through the location-based device, they can just show up and study the same content. Social networking for us is not about making friends, it’s about just understanding what others are doing and enhancing your own performance and being able to work with others.
CM: How does the social networking aspect work outside of study groups?
AR: If a student is reading though something within the application and doesn’t understand what the publisher has written, what our system would allow them to do is to quickly see what other students or other tutors or professors have commented on that particular subject area, and suddenly it’s not just them with the content, but them trying to understand how other students have understood this particular topic.
CM: How do you collect and use data?
AR: We take data for every student, every click, every minute, every answer and with all this data, we make sure we understand how students are progressing. After 1,000 students have taken a test, for the next student who takes that test, depending on his score, we know exactly how that student should be proceeding. We have an adaptive engine, which allows us to make actual recommendations to the student.
CM: How will Watermelon Express affect the study textbook business model?
AR: Publishers are really in the business of content: they think of the book as their product. I don’t think the book is their product. The actual content is their product, the book is the medium which they use to deliver that. Some publishers have started to realize that, and some of them have not. I think that content is not going away, the book is going away…Crudely, we are the old world printing press, but in the new world we are not publishing books, we are publishing applications.
CM: What was your opinion of The Social Network’s depiction of a tech start-up?
AR: I loved the movie. It was very, very, very motivating. It was a little exaggerated, but the basic emotion remains the same. It so happens that typically in a well-managed tech start-up there are people who are really high achievers—all they care about is getting this really amazing product out. So in a way, staying away from all the parties that they were having, the emotion that they carried is very true to what actually happens.