Today I’m featuring Eric Bahn on Friday Entrepreneurs. I’ve known Eric for years (we met in college), but I only recently found out he runs a huge online community of GMAT test-takers called http://www.beatthegmat.com. Intrigued, I asked him why he was such a huge nerd. I’m not joking, I really did ask him that below. But in all seriousness, I’m impressed how he’s built something so vibrant for such a good cause. One of the signs of a great community is knowledge being exchanged without your being there, managing everything. And Eric has done it with lots of hard work. He shares his tips below. As you read, check for a few things:
- Everybody’s got a weird talent/interest. Eric did, too, and he did something about it. What makes someone go and create a thriving community around their interest, vs. just sitting around and hoping they get noticed?
- There were no secrets to his success. He just worked hard, kept detailed notes of his own successes and failures, wrote it up for the world, and painstakingly created his blog and forum.
- He has great suggestions for how to beat the chicken-and-egg problem and how to get well-known people to back your idea up. In just 5 months, he has nearly 2,000 registered users.
- Eric has a scholarship to give back to the community, especially those who can’t afford test-prep books. I love it.
I might take the GMAT in a couple of years. What do you think I’ll get?
Ramit, you will get a score of 2342.2. Next question. (joking)
Seriously though, you’re absolutely capable of getting a very high score on the GMAT. I think that with the right materials and a smart study strategy, any person can knock the socks off this test.
Just to give your readers some background about the test: the GMAT (or Graduate Management Admission Test) is the standardized test you have to take in order to apply to business school. The test is out of 800 points, and any score over 700 points is considered very high. For those of you thinking about applying to business school, it’s important to note that the GMAT is one factor that business school admissions folks consider in an application—it’s not THE factor.
Ok, so…it looks like you just run a forum. What can we learn here?
I like to think of Beat The GMAT! as an online community more so than a forum. The forum software I use to run the website is simply an enabler to connect people around the world studying for the GMAT. A lot of people are drawn to my website for the social experience and the group support. Studying for something as dry as the GMAT can be a real drag, but it’s great to have some buddies to suffer with you and help you along the way.
But what lessons can you learn from my forum? Well, Beat The GMAT! is excellent case study of a chicken and egg service that has been successful. Ramit, I think I’ve seen you describe chicken and egg business as a service/product that is useful only when there are a lot of users. Every online forum that launches inevitably faces this problem from the outset—what good is it to participate in the forum if there is no one there to respond?
When I launched Beat The GMAT! five months ago, I had to overcome this chicken and egg issue as well as contend with the fact that the GMAT forum market was all ready saturated. When I entered the scene, there were all ready three major GMAT sites on the Internet that were very active and have been around for years.
Here’s my secret as to how I made my forum successful—I started a blog first. One year prior to starting my forum, I maintained a GMAT blog called “Beat The GMAT!” My site (http://beatthegmat.blogspot.com) provided lots of high quality posts on GMAT strategy, and during the course of the year I developed a very strong readership. I invested a lot of time into this blog, trying to capture every little personal opinion I had in my head about GMAT preparation—down to the type of sandwich you should eat before going into your test (peanut butter and jelly—you won’t regret it!). People who came to the Beat The GMAT! blog appreciated my mission of just trying to help others while maintaining a sense a humor (a lot like I Will Teach You To Be Rich), and before I knew it, word had spread and Beat The GMAT! had developed a brand.
So earlier this year, when I decided to expand my services, I used the Beat The GMAT! brand and URL (the blog formerly lived at the http://www.beatthegmat.com domain) for my forum. My readers all ready knew what the website/mission was all about, so I was able to pick up forum users/contributors in a flash.
Seriously folks, take it from me: if you are considering launching some online service, consider starting with a blog first to build initial momentum. It’s my secret sauce for beating the chicken and egg.
But I don’t understand. Why would you start this? Are you a huge nerd?
Of course I’m a huge nerd! How many other people do you know list “GMAT preparation” as one of their hobbies?
This project really began in April 2005, when I decided to take the GMAT. I decided early on that I wanted to study for this test on my own and not go through a test prep service. The last experience I had with standardized tests was the SATs, and I had done very well on that test. One thing that I have a knack for is developing an effective study plan and sticking with it. So I started a GMAT blog in the spring of 2005 because I thought that other people might be interested in seeing my own personal study strategy for the GMAT. My thinking was that people might be able to use the blog in the future as an example of a study guide that they could use for themselves.
I wanted to be very meticulous with my posts. For each day that I studied for the GMAT, I carefully documented all the material I covered that day (down to the page numbers) and shared some thoughts and “a-ha” moments I had about the material I reviewed. After a few weeks, I noticed that more and more people were commenting on my posts, and before I knew it I was spending a significant share of my time providing GMAT prep advice to other folks.
After I finished my GMAT and concluded my blog (which by this time had a huge readership), I was encouraged by several people to keep serving as a GMAT guru is some capacity. During my prep, I was addicted to GMAT discussion forums and had been toying with the idea of starting my own forum—however, I wanted my website to be different in that it would have a clear social stewardship mission.
The one thing that I don’t like about the major GMAT forums is that they are for the most part trying to sell some service to the users. Some forums try to sell special access areas to users, while others are extensions of professional test prep services that try to suck in more business from its users in an in-your-face way.
Beat The GMAT! is different in that it is a community service project. All content/material featured on my website is free to its users, and will always remain free. Also, any profits that are made are given back to its users in the form of scholarships—I don’t keep anything for myself. This forum is my way (and many of my users’ way) of giving back to the community and helping the greater good.
I see you have a scholarship, too. What’s the thinking behind it?
As I just mentioned, Beat The GMAT! is a community service project where all profits made are given back to its users. I had two reasons for creating scholarships on my website: (1) I think that it’s only fair that the community enjoy the fruits of its labor—without their participation and word-of-mouth, Beat The GMAT! would be an online ghost town; (2) there are a lot of sharp people studying for the GMAT who do not have the means to purchase test prep services, or even prep books. It really is a privilege to be helping these folks achieve their dreams for higher education.
To date, the scholarship programs have been quite successful. In the last five months over $450 of scholarship money has been awarded to several deserving folks—that will buy a LOT of books.
How successful have your forums been?
Today I have over 1900 registered users and over 1500 user posts—well beyond what I had anticipated by this time when I first got going in April of this year.
I’ve been very pleased to date. Each week, I notice a marked increase in traffic and number of posts on the website—but I don’t really define success by these metrics. I think success is really defined by how engaged the users are as a community: that they are helping and supporting one another beyond just one-off responses to questions posted. The site is only five months old, but I’ve all ready begun to identify a few users who are spending tremendous amounts of time on the forum, purely for altruistic reasons. Sometimes I wonder whether these people are carving out enough time to prepare for their own test!
When I see more users really investing in the Beat The GMAT! community like the exceptional few that currently exist in the website, then I will be able to say that the forum is truly successful. I’m optimistic that such a rich community experience will happen sooner than I imagine.
I’ve also been able to recruit some top-notch experts to serve as resident experts on the forum. Stacy Blackman (of Stacy Blackman Consulting, http://www.stacyblackman.com) is deeply involved in the website, sharing her deep knowledge of MBA admissions with the community. Also, Kevin Fitzgerald of Manhattan GMAT (http://www.manhattangmat.com) recently signed on as a GMAT strategy expert, and he provides weekly articles to the forum. These partners have really helped push Beat The GMAT! into an elite GMAT prep offering on the web.
I see you got Stacy Blackman to back your site and offer advice. A lot of small companies I know yearn to have a big-shot expert back their companies. How’d you do it?
I was able to land these great partnerships with Stacy Blackman and Manhattan GMAT by reaching out to my various networks. In the case of Stacy—several months ago I put up a post on my college’s alumni e-mail network to let folks know that I’ve launched a new GMAT prep service. It turned out that Stacy’s husband went to the same college as I did and was an active reader of this e-mail distribution list. He forwarded my post to Stacy, and she later contacted me and offered to help me out with my new venture. Needless to say, I was THRILLED! Stacy Blackman is one of the elite names in the MBA admissions consulting business; she provides a wealth of expertise to the forum.
In the case of my partnership with Manhattan GMAT—Stacy all ready had an existing relationship with this organization, so I asked her to introduce me to Kevin Fitzgerald, who is the director of marketing at Manhattan GMAT. I pitched the idea of involving him in my discussion forum, and he signed on to provide weekly GMAT articles to my members. I’m honored to have Manhattan GMAT associated with my website—like Stacy Blackman, Manhattan GMAT is an elite brand in the test prep industry.
Here’s the big lesson from my experience: when you start something new, let your networks know what you are doing. You’ll be surprised by the relationships you can forge.
Have you had any interest from other companies about your GMAT forums?
Yes, there have been several professional GMAT prep companies that have approached me in the last few months. All of them have proposed a partnership of some kind. I’m being very careful though about forging new partnerships. I want to maintain the mission of my website and keep it community service focused, and I worry that other companies that approach me have an altogether different agenda they want to push. That being said, if you are a company that’s interesting in partnering with Beat The GMAT!, I encourage you to contact me—I’m always open to listening to new ideas.
What are the next steps?
Beat The GMAT! is still young, so in the short term I am going to focus on getting richer content on the website as well as finding experts to contribute to GMAT subject areas that currently have weak coverage. The community and content on the forum is very good right now, but there is still lots of room to improve/grow.
In the medium-to-longer term, I may be interested in expanding my GMAT services beyond just a forum and blog. I’m experimenting right now with various Web 2.0 type services, but I haven’t really found anything that particularly impressed me yet. I also recognize that if I do decide to expand my services, I will have to find some outside help. Right now, I am the only person running Beat The GMAT! I don’t have an engineering background, and I’ve had to learn all sorts of neat programming tricks ad hoc. However, how I’m managing the site right now is not scalable for providing new, more sophisticated offerings.
What do you wish you’d known?
I wish I had known how much time I would be committing to this website! Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love this project. But I almost feel like it has become an obsession of mine. Every time I find a computer that has Internet access, I log on to the forum and start working. It’s very easy for me to spend hours on my website, and I’m sure my friends and girlfriend would like me to be devoting more time with them instead.
Be forewarned, future entrepreneurs! Starting your own venture can be as addictive as crack! But like that sweet high that crack rock delivers (I wouldn’t know from experience), being an entrepreneur—even with a tiny project like my forum—is SO satisfying—Ramit can back me up here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m going to be 25 at the end of this month. I grew up in Michigan and went to college at Stanford, earning my bachelors and masters there. I currently live in the bay area and work for Intuit—a big software company known for TurboTax, Quicken, and QuickBooks. At Intuit, I’m lucky to be part of a new rotational development program (RDP)—it’s a management program for recent college graduates where the participants are rotated in four different functional areas of the company for six month terms: product management, product development, marketing, and process excellence. It’s a great way to get exposure to different kinds of roles early in your career. The program is two years long and I’ve just finished my first year.
Ah yeah, Intuit RDP! I was almost going to work there.
Yep, I remember interviewing with you. I respect your decision though to turn down the offer and start your own thing.
How about your own experiences with the GMAT?
Haha—I’m satisfied with my score. You can read a summary of my experiences here: http://www.beatthegmat.com/viewtopic.php?t=13
Is there anything else we should know?
Yes—don’t always listen to the naysayers. When I first conceived the idea of starting my own GMAT forum, I asked a bunch of people for their thoughts on my idea. Pretty much everyone told me that a forum is a stupid idea and that no one would ever use it. However, I really want to pursue this venture and in the end I went with my gut and just launched—obviously, I’m glad I did.
When you start your own project, definitely heed both the positive and negative feedback, but if someone adamantly tells you that your idea would never work—take it with a grain of salt. If your gut tells you to do it, then just go for it.
Another good example of a person who didn’t heed the naysayers—according to folklore, Fred Smith—the founder of FedEx—originally created the business model for his company in a term paper he wrote as a grad student. Smith got a ‘C’ on that paper and received comments from his professor that the idea wasn’t feasible…
I’m sure Fred Smith is glad he didn’t take his professor’s feedback too seriously!
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