Getting Magoosh

A Khan Academy-style test prep company with an adaptive learning platform.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

Bhavin ParikhBhavin Parikh founded Magoosh while at Haas Business School, along with a few classmates and friends. They were frustrated with the existing prep options when studying for the GMAT, the business school entrance exam. “Classes and tutors are inconvenient and expensive, often running thousands of dollars,” says Bhavin (pictured). In his experience, the quality of teachers also varies quite a bit, resulting in inconsistent and sometimes poor experiences for students, he explains. How about books? While good for practice, says Bhavin, books “are ineffective at actually teaching — the material is static and lacking,” he says. “We wanted to create a solution that bridged the effectiveness of the best tutors with the convenience of a book. Everyone should have access to fun, convenient, and effective ways to learn.” Here’s Bhavin discussing the origins and benefits of his company, user experience, and how to keep the spirit of play alive and well amongst a team of foosball fanatics.

Victor: What does the name mean?
Magoosh logo lgBhavin: The name stems from the Persian word magush, one who is wise, generous, and learned. Why a Persian word? Well, one of the co-founders, Pejman Pour-Moezzi, was Persian (how’s that for alliteration.) The other co-founders were Hansoo Lee and Vikram Shenoy.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Bhavin: Imagine the best tutor money can buy. Now imagine you have access to that tutor whenever you want. And lastly, imagine that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for that access. That’s the essence of Magoosh.

We provide hundreds of short, Khan Academy-style, lesson videos, and practice questions tailored to students based on their performance on our adaptive platform. It’s all online, accessible anytime, anywhere – we even have mobile apps for those who like to study on the go. We use feedback and data from students to continuously refine our questions, explanations, and lessons. Similar to how a teacher gets better with experience, Magoosh gets better as more students use it. We currently have products for the GMAT, GRE, SAT, and English for non-native speakers.

Many people have been involved in the creation of Magoosh, from the four original founders to our first content providers to our current team. You can read more about the people behind Magoosh on our about us page.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Bhavin: Magoosh helps students prep for standardized tests. And the benefit is fairly simple and straightforward: we help students improve their test scores. A GRE student recently increased her score from the 40th and 60th percentile in math and verbal respectively to 90+ percentile in each after using Magoosh! In fact, we offer a money-back score improvement guarantee to all of our students that have taken the exam before. The best part of my day is when I see survey responses from students who just finished the test and achieved their target scores.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?  

Bhavin: While there a number of other online prep options, most of our students (especially the GRE ones) compare us to books and classes. In many cases, they opt to use Magoosh in addition to their book or class.

To differentiate, we focus on three things:

1. Content.  We want all of our students to find that AHA moment when they finally grasp a concept that’s been eluding them. We have full-time expert tutors on our team that continuously improve our content (lessons, question, and explanations) based on student’s feedback so that we can help each student reach that AHA moment. When using books, I personally found it very frustrating to miss a question and not understand the explanation, and we don’t want any of our students to encounter the same frustration.  We have also built internal tools that help us identify good questions and poor questions based on psychometrics, testing theory, so we know that we have high quality questions that reflect what students may see on test day.

We’ve seen very few other companies focus on content as much as we do.  Many online prep companies just license content from other companies and assume it’s good enough, and unfortunately for the student, usually it isn’t. We do have a lot of respect for Manhattan Prep. They focus primarily on the traditional methods of teaching, books and classes, and have better teachers and content than most. We generally rate their books very highly, though their classes are a bit pricey.

2. User experience. We strive keep our product simple and intuitive. Students can sign up for an account and immediately start answering practice questions or watch lesson videos.  We constantly monitor students’ interactions with the product and look for the features we can remove or refine. We want to keep technology in the background. Our students are trying to improve their test scores not trying to learn a complicated software application. To that end, we’ve kept our mobile apps very simple, focusing on the feature that students care most about while on the go, lesson videos. You can’t answer practice questions or take notes on our mobile apps. This strategy has worked well so far with both our iPhone and Android GRE apps rated around 4.5 stars. And by focusing less on mobile development, we have more time and resources to improve the core web product.

3. Service. Lastly, and most importantly, we want students to know we are here to support them. We want to remove the frustration and pain of studying for standardized tests, so we try to build relationships with our customers just as a personal tutor would. We encourage our students to reach out when they are stumped or just for moral support. We respond to every question. We use those questions to identify and improve weaknesses in the product or content.

We use Zendesk to track our service metrics. Our average time to respond is about 7 hours, though the specific time may vary, especially on nights and weekends! And we currently have satisfaction rating of 97 percent.  Our service is often cited as the reason students refer us to others.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Bhavin: We built the first version in the summer of 2009. The development was done by an external team, and the product was a single page with a GMAT question, video explanation, and a form to capture email addresses. From there, we incrementally added questions and features, continuing to get feedback from customers. Once we had a base of several hundred questions and video explanations, we started charging. I was ecstatic the day we received our first payment, September 4th, 2009.  About one year later, we had accrued so much technical debt within our product, that we threw out our entire platform and had our then intern and now lead developer rebuild it from scratch.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Bhavin: We’ve kept the offering simple; students can choose Math, Verbal, or both. The service only costs a few hundred dollars, and we often have a sale which we regularly get asked to extend. For context, we provide over 100 hours of study material for the same price that a student would pay for an hour or two of personal tutoring.

We also know that that video-based learning isn’t for everyone, so we offer a 7-day money back guarantee (in addition to our score improvement guarantee), so that students can try out the product risk-free. We’ve never denied any customer a refund within the 7 day period.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Bhavin: We initially focused on students that were already familiar with the basics. However, over time we’ve been able to create a product that adapts to a diverse group ranging from college students to those thirty years removed from school.  In fact, we have over ten study plans into which students can self select depending on their stage and timeframe.

Our product is not for students that have limited internet access, because we can’t yet serve our streaming videos over slow connections.  The product is also not a silver bullet; students need to put in hard work to do well.  Our score improvement guarantee only applies to students that have gone through all of our material. Lastly, we’ve found that students that lack motivation to study are often better served with a personal tutor who can hold them accountable.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Bhavin: I’m excited about the innovation occurring in online education. However, I’d like to see more of a focus on content and community instead of technology. Ultimately, students need to learn – it doesn’t matter what devices they use or what platforms the products are built on.  Education startups should have a better balance in their hiring practices, with more expert instructors and fewer software engineers. I appreciate the team diversity of DuoLingo, a language-learning company, with a balance of engineers and language experts. Technology makes education accessible, but content makes education valuable.

Victor: Got a quirky story or anecdote? Anything interesting around the office or on the road you’d like to share?

Bhavin: In the early days of Magoosh we played a fun game to keep us on our toes.  Anytime someone said the word “test”, they’d have to do ten pushups on the spot.  This led to quite a few interesting moments and sore triceps. We’ve long since stopped playing that game, having now moved onto foosball, boggle, and bananagrams to name a few. We’ve logged over 1600 games on our foosball tracker.  It’s free, complete with power rankings, and available to any other companies that are as addicted to leaderboards as we are!

Victor Rivero is editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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