Getting Unstuck

The CEO of one of the world’s largest social learning networks has problems.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Michal Borkowski of BrainlySo many companies have their obstacles and challenges. For Michal Borowski, CEO of Brainly, a homework help service, problems are what sustain him. Lots of them. Through his platform, more than 40 million students around the globe ask each other more than 8,000 questions per hour, working through all kinds of problems — from math and English to business, biology, history and physics, among other subjects. For edtech companies doing their homework, the problems are: funding, where to find it, how much is available, and (when they get some), how to use it smartly. Funding for edtech companies hit $2 billion last year, so it’s no surprise that 2015 is already shaping up to be a big year for the market. Brainly’s market is worldwide; they are directly available in 35 countries, covering 12 languages, allowing students from around the world to benefit from social learning. Headquartered in Krakow, Poland, they have a second office in New York City. Here, Michal (his company received $9 million in funding last year), talks about why the industry is exploding right now and why social learning in particular — Brainly’s bread and butter — is changing the way students solve the problem of homework.

The idea is to allow students to access knowledge that they need and want to explore, for free, in a positive environment, and without any restrictions.

Victor: What prompted you to develop Brainly? What problem were you trying to solve?

brainly logoMichal: During my school years, I experienced unequal access to education and knowledge. I noticed that circumstances like which school you attend, your teacher, or your personal background, may really influence students love or hate of a subject. I enjoyed Physics for instance, but never really had the opportunity to extend my learning. This is the real power behind Brainly. Every student is good at something, and Brainly lets them use that knowledge to help others or to expand their own learning, while also getting help in subjects they struggle with. The idea is to allow students to access knowledge that they need and want to explore, for free, in a positive environment, and without any restrictions. Today, we focus a lot on the connections between students and building communities of students that learn together and help each other.

Victor: What’s something interesting about it’s development history?

Michal: The Brainly community around the world grew impressively fast. It all started in Poland in 2009, and in just a few years, Brainly reached over 40 million monthly users in over 35 countries. What we’ve found out over the years is that even though there are many differences between students in different countries, no matter where you go, kids are eager to help each other and enjoy collaboration. We have over 700 moderators who volunteer their time to maintain the quality of the content, and this is the substance of Brainly.

Victor: How was it working in the classroom, talking with the students, collaborating with specialists? Any lessons learned? Was it a shock going from development theory to classroom (or study group) practicality? Did you make some key adjustments at that time due to student (or teacher) feedback? 

Michal: In going from theory to practice, we made sure to always work with student focus groups and teachers to ensure that our products worked for their needs, which helped lessen any shocks we might have had along the way.

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Michal: There’s always something that people look back on in school and wish they had pursued. As I mentioned earlier, in my case that was physics. But it wasn’t just that I didn’t pursue it. It’s that I didn’t have the opportunity to. I believe in our product because it opens doors so that other students have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, its benefits? 

Michal: We’re smarter together. That’s the true message behind Brainly. No matter where you are in the world or whether you come to Brainly looking to get help, learn, or teach, you will find peers who are there to do the same. Our web and mobile experiences work because they’re how students want to learn, and because we capture students at the exact moment they want or need to learn, we see incredibly powerful interactions.

Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it, starting out; any interesting feedback or reaction to it?

Michal: People’s reactions to Brainly are sometimes different from country to country, but usually very positive. An interesting example comes from Indonesia, where, with limited access to education, or even technology and Internet, Brainly acts as an important and handy asset for students who want to pursue their educational ambitions. Even though it may be hard to access electronic devices, or access online resources, they manage to get together and use Brainly for online collaboration.

Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of Brainly?

Michal: It’s definitely a chance for all those with limited access to help with school problems. Many students are not able to benefit from private tutoring, or even the help of teachers, siblings or parents for many different reasons. Thanks to Brainly, they can be sure to find answers and the help they need to advance in the fields that they’re passionate about.

Victor: On a broader level, what are your thoughts on technology in education these days? 

Michal: Most of the tools focus on the classroom and teachers, and many of them are great and change education for the better. But we found that there was a gap that really needed to be filled: the students. We decided to take care of them in the moment when they have no one around to help or even push them in the right direction to find the solutions they’re looking for. Our motto, “students first,” makes it clear that we want to focus on their needs and problems.

Victor: Any guidance or advice to students these days?

Michal: Find what you love, and go after it. All too often, students fall out of pursuing their dreams because they don’t have the ability to chase them. And then they burn out in careers they don’t enjoy. With tools like Brainly, that’s a thing of the past.

Victor: Where are you headed in the next 18 months?

Michal: Right now, we’re focused on perfecting the product, and spreading the word to ensure that every kid has access to school work help through Brainly.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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