[The Turning Point] Focusing on student perspective led this IIM alumnus to start Gradeup

Turning Point is a series of short articles that focuses on the moment when an entrepreneur hit upon a winning idea. Today, we look at Noida-based online exam preparation destination Gradeup.

Shobhit Bhatnagar, an IIM-Calcutta graduate, was always interested in education. Over time, he became fixated on improving the quality of and access to education.

Multiple interactions with people during his time at college and in three years of corporate life helped him understand the real difference between people who are able to crack competitive exams and those who are not.

“Often, those who got the opportunity to study better in their formative years got into a better college and did better in life,” says Shobhit, Co-founder and CEO of exam preparation site Gradeup.

He decided to do something that would help bridge this gap and level the playing field. This is when he met Sanjeev Kumar and Vibhu Bhushan during an accelerator programme where all three were pitching ideas.

CEO and Co-Founder of Gradeup Shobhit Bhatnagar

“I realised that we had similar ideas for the edtech space. Hence, we decided to give it a shot together,” the former EY consultant explains.

In 2013, the trio launched edtech startup GradeStack Learning to create mobile-friendly exam with interactive content for students preparing for competitive examinations. It focused on publishing offline books and content in a digital format.

The second Eureka moment

GradeStack Learning managed to raise funding and got over half a million downloads in one year. However, it could not grow.

“Everyone in the edtech space was focused on just delivering content and not building engagement or understanding student behaviour. I think the big Eureka moment for us was when we decided to go forward not just from a delivery perspective, but from a user perspective,” Shobhit explains.

Two years later, in October 2015, the trio launched Gradeup, under parent company GradeStack.

Gradeup prepares students for competitive examinations like IBPS PO, SBI PO, SBI Clerk, etc. A 15-member content team builds seed content, and the platform also serves aspirants of JEE, NEET, GATE, SSC, banking, railways, teaching, UPSC, defence, and state-level exams.

The same year, Gradeup launched its app and also raised $7.5 million in a Series A round of funding from the investment arm of Times Internet.

“What we really learned was that rather than just taking content online, it was important to build interactions around that content,” the CEO says.

In 2016, the team introduced a community feature where a student could clear their doubts with the help of others using the same content.

Shobhit says, “The content consumption was less, but the ask-a-answer feature had almost 10x the consumption of the text and content that we had provided. It actually started to pick up a lot.”

Standing out in the edtech space

The initial challenge for the team, Shobhit says, was to gain the trust of the students and deliver high quality content.

Every student has her own learning journey, and her own way of learning. But trying to capture that through data and through the community, group interviews, and discussions became our focus. We started building a platform focused on getting outcomes for students, to help them get closer to their dream.”

The three Gradeup Founders: Sanjeev Kumar (left), Vibhu Bhushan, and Shobhit Bhatnagar.

Shobhit adds that working closely with students, and understanding their usages and the challenges they face, differentiates Gradeup from other startups in the edtech space.

The platform has got a total registration of 20 million and has got 13 million downloads on its app.

“The second best thing that happened was towards the end of 2018 when we were experimenting with the delivery of live classes. We started seeing a really big uptake in live classes. After experimenting, we were finally able to get certain things right, including daily study plan, and elements around quizzes, mock tests, revisions etc,” Shobhit says.

Today the 350+ team offers a comprehensive exam preparation experience, which engages students through live classes, interactive quizzes, mock tests, 24x7 mentorship, among others. All this is designed and delivered by expert faculty through a structured methodology in a day-wise study plan.

“The journey had been about designing products and helping students get to their goal. What has worked for us is the focus on student engagement; that's something that will always be our first objective,” Shobhit says.

In the next couple of years, Gradeup aims to increase courses and reach out to more students. It also plans to shift focus from job-oriented courses to high school students to train them for exams.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)


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