[Editor's Note - 23/5, 3 pm: Multiple sources close to Testcracker have informed YourStory that they have reasons to believe that some details, screenshots, and documents shared as proof for this story may have been tampered with and hence may not be authentic. YouStory is investigating this independently and has also reached out to Ashank Dubey for comment. We will update this story shortly.]
The story of how a non-engineer, grammar anarchist overcame his personal demons, and helped over 2,500 students clear CAT and IIT-JEE.
At 3:45pm on January 9, 2017, Ashank Dubey updated his Facebook status to share a piece of good news with his friends. He had cracked Common Admission Test (CAT), the national-level management entrance examination conducted by the IIMs. Having scored 98.6, 99.99 and 99.96 percentile across the three main sections—verbal ability & reading comprehension, data interpretation & logical reasoning, and quantitative ability—Ashank (28) was one of the 20 candidates across India with a 100-percentile overall score.
But unlike most other candidates, Ashank attempted the CAT not to land a seat at one of India’s prestigious management institutes, but to vanquish one of his personal demons- English. In early 2011, Ashank a young Mathematics graduate was struggling. He had been rejected by companies because of his poor English communication skills. Talking to YourStory at his office in Koramangala, he told me,
I was rejected by 142 companies in less than a year. Yes, I kept a list of that.
Now, in 2017, Ashank has moved on from searching for his dream job to helping thousand others get into their dream B-schools. Here is Ashank’s story of perseverance.
Mathematics over engineering
Seated in his cabin, just adjacent to his classroom where he had just concluded his Sunday afternoon class, Ashank recounted how he had reached his zenith. From a young age, he had a keen interest in maths and hence chose to graduate in Mathematics instead of going after the more mainstream goal of an engineering degree. But he was in for a rude shock after graduation. He recalls,
I realised nobody valued a Mathematics graduate in India. I was offered jobs that had nothing to do with number crunching or analytical skills. I thought it was a sin to not be an engineer in this country.
But despite repeated rejections, he decided to stand by his principles and not take up any job offers that didn’t let him leverage his analytical skills. This led to 142 rejections in less than a year and a period of financial trouble and psychological stress. To add to his trouble, Ashank realised that his poor English-speaking skill laid an additional barrier to finding a good job. So as a non-engineer who couldn’t speak English well, and armed with a skill set that wasn't appreciated anymore, the future didn’t look very bright for Ashank.
The CAT dream
Ashank didn’t really want to do an MBA. But in 2009, he realised that his career and even survival could depend on his ability to crack CAT and similar MBA entrances. Confident of his number-crunching abilities, he wrote CAT 2009, after a month-long prep that focussed on improving his verbal abilities. He explains,
Technically, I did not ‘write’ CAT; I clicked it (laughs). This was the year CAT went online. That I had got myself an email address in January 2009 should be enough to let you know about my digital capabilities.
When the results came out, Ashank had a bittersweet moment. He had scored 99.65 in the quant section but had scored quite low in the verbal section, bringing down his overall score. He was distraught.
At this stage, a close friend convinced him that he could actually make a career out of his quantitative skills. He started working as a backend quant staff at a CAT coaching institute in Delhi. The pay was not much but he liked the work environment. He had access to a lot of quant questions and their solutions too. “I would also make it a point to solve the questions posed by students on different CAT/GMAT forums. Gradually, I started creating my own questions,” he recalls.
To enhance his odds of getting a better CAT score, Ashank’s original goal was to improve his English and communication skills. But another goal blossomed simultaneously for Ashank: he wanted to teach quant and also prove that he could succeed despite his then below-average English communication skills. He says,
I was determined to prove it to them that the strongest teacher in the room is the one who can take any quant question and solve it using five different methods in five minutes. It shouldn’t matter if the language of instruction is English, Hindi, or sign language.
The turning point
While still continuing with his behind-the-scenes role at the institute, Ashank was presented with the opportunity to fill in for a faculty member. The feedback from students was so good that Ashank soon took on the full-time teaching role. He said,
Thus began my love for teaching. Perhaps it was for my good that those 142 companies had rejected me. I had now found my career.
But Ashank didn’t give up on his MBA dream just yet. He continued to solve questions and appeared for future editions of the CAT but the results were almost the same. He would score a 99.xx percentile in quant but less than 80 percentile in the verbal section. This put him out of reach of his dream B-schools.
Then, in January 2012, he decided not to pursue the MBA dream anymore and instead dive deeper into what he was good at- quant. He moved to Bengaluru and decided to start a company, TestCracker, with his friends. He would take care of quant, while the others would handle verbal.
The first six months were a true litmus test though. Having set up an office in Koramangala, TestCracker was barely breaking even because of high rental costs and the competition from other more deep-pocketed CAT training centres. Ashank was on the verge of quitting, but decided to persevere for a little longer. To make the unit economics work out, Ashank partnered with educational institutes like Christ University and Jyothi Nivas College and began training students there.
This also helped him build a brand and get more footfall to his weekend classes at his Koramangala office. The team soldiered on and experimented with other exams like IIT-JEE and bank entrances, but CAT continued to be their main focus. Having been bootstrapped so far, Ashank notes that they have trained more than 2,500 students for CAT and IIT JEE, and estimates that TestCracker is currently the third largest in terms of number of students enrolled in a calendar year(for 2017). He says,
Our philosophy is simple: the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. We have produced the best results in CAT in 2015 and 2016 (in percentage terms) but the journey has only just begun.
Till recently, Ashank had written CAT eight times, not to get into an IIM but to know the pattern of the year and test himself against two lakh others. He claims to have scored over 99 percentile in quant (or Quant + DI in the earlier format) eight times, including 100 percentile in CAT 2015 quant. But verbal continued to be his Achilles heel, till CAT 2016.
As part of his annual ritual, Ashank was preparing for CAT 2016, when his team encouraged him to try and aim for an overall 100 percentile; not to get into the IIMs, but for the goal to serve itself as a personal catharsis of sorts. He followed the advice and a rigorous study plan and managed to achieve it. He quips,
In CAT 2016, the worst part was that I could not get a hundred percentile in quant but the best part was that I had 98.6 percentile in verbal (VA&RC).
Ashank believes that the key takeaway from his journey is that one should never underestimate the power of one's personal strength. He feels that the more important thing is to set oneself in the right direction and then solve problems with perseverance. Looking back, he believes that he was at his best when he was facing the worst circumstances. He notes,
I am more scared of the day I become complacent. So, I decided in 2010 to solve every quant problem ever asked in any exam that has a quant section. I keep an exact count of the number of quant problems I have solved, so far 13,060. I still solve hundreds of questions every week.
TestCracker currently consists of a team of about 25, and Ashank’s goal is to grow their footprint across India, digitally. He adds,
We are trying different approaches, while exploring hybrid (online+offline) models, and working on feedback constantly.
From the offline classroom model, Ashank slowly aims to enter the online ed-tech market with TestCracker. This market though has seen a lot of activity in India, but given the shortage of good teachers and online resources there seems to be enough room for more players. According to a report by Redseer Consulting, the ed-tech market size was pegged at around $2.5 billion at the end of 2016 and poised to grow at 15 percent over the next three years.
Byjus' is currently the most prominent player in the ed-tech space in India, having raised over $200M in total funding from investors Chan-Zuckerberg initiative, Verlinvest, Sequioa India and others. Ventures like Simplilearn, Embibe, PaGaLGuY.com, Handa Ka Funda and Toppr are some of the other players looking to improve the Indian education system.
Coming to massive open online courses (MOOC), Khan Academy launched in India in 2015 by partnering with Tata Trusts to offer freely available online content tailor-made for India. Unacademy, Coursera and Udacity are some other MOOCs who have a digital footprint in India.