There are millions of students across the globe and most of them turn to the internet for help when doing their homework. For this reason the web offers unlimited opportunities for developers and these millions of users across 35 countries prove that Kraków-based Brainly knows how to help students.
Michał Borkowski, CEO and a co-founder of Brainly, spoke to Justyna Wróbel about the $15 million acquisition that the firm has recently made with funds raised in a round led by Naspers, a South African media company, as well as discussing the start-up’s beginnings and developmental plans.
What have you been up to in the last few months?
Well, over the last few months, we’ve been focusing on expanding rapidly in the US market. We opened our New York headquarters last year with the intention of furthering this goal and just this summer, we announced our acquisition of the US online learning platform OpenStudy.
OpenStudy’s users were invited to join Brainly’s existing 60 million monthly users in order to create a single global community with the shared goal of exchanging knowledge between students online. The partnership means that our platform is bigger than ever, offering students more access to the information they need.
That is a great achievement, congratulations! What are you planning on doing next?
We will continue to hone in on the US market, implementing a series of new features that will make online learning even more fun and efficient for our users. For instance, we’ve just launched our Challenges feature, which encourages students to answer questions in specific subjects, such as English or Maths, or to prepare for their SATs.
Within one day of launching, we saw answers increase by 30 per cent compared to the week before. We intend to attract even more users to Brainly, by continuing to offer these types of engaging updates to our platform. We also want to continue to bring Brainly to as many students, in as many locations, as possible—we’re constantly working towards adding new regions and languages to our platform.
You have received the Best EdTech Start-Up award. What other awards have you earned and which are the most valuable for you?
The Best EdTech Start-Up award was particularly exciting for us because the EdTech space is extremely crowded. There are always new forms of technology that are being added to the education space, but we at Brainly believe that it requires more than just the most innovative technology — it also requires a student-first mentality.
It was a real honour to receive this award because it showed that the community values our unique vision and our passion for putting students first and for finding ways to support and inspire their learning outside of the classroom, in a strong, social community. It provided validation for our message: that we need to keep a social component in any type of personalised learning and that peer-to-peer learning is a crucial element in how students engage with education today. We believe students should feel empowered within their own academic trajectory.
There is also the $15 million recently raised. How has that investment helped you develop Brainly?
The strength of the idea and the execution of the platforms was enough to build an incredibly robust word-of-mouth following, when we first launched. Our initial localised strategy really allowed us to focus in on replicating that success in each market, and that global traction was something that investors were very receptive to.
While we are always looking for ways to reinvest in our product and to make sure that we offer useful and exciting features and more intuitive experiences within the community, our funding rounds have been put to good use, in large part, to move into new markets in an effective way.
We’re now focused on users in over 35 countries. Our most recent round of funding was directed into building up our US team and office, as well as developing our relationship with students in the US an in making an effort to start work on monetisation features.
You have mentioned the office in New York. How important is it for you to have an office in the US?
Opening our office in New York has really helped us double-down on growth in the country. We had saturated our early markets and felt that the product was strong enough to make an impact in the US in a big way.
The EdTech market in the US is inundated and students have more options to choose from than any other part of the world. However, our many successes abroad showed us the most strategic path in order to be able to carve out a space for ourselves and to build on our organic growth.
Our dedicated New York team has been a major factor in helping the company focus on this new opportunity for growth and to make this vision a reality.
What is your competition like and how do you show your users that you are better than they are? Do you have competition at all?
There are a few companies that include different parts of our platform, but none that combines them all or that does exactly what we do.
In the EdTech world in general, not many companies take an approach that focuses on the students first, instead they attempt to influence from the top-down, by starting at the school level. We combine each of these elements into one company to form a large online community and study group that focuses on reciprocal Q&As. One of our biggest competitors was OpenStudy, with whom we joined forces in June 2016.
So you are believe in a student-first approach. What else makes Brainly successful?
I would say that our student-first mentality is vital to our success. We are constantly thinking of what students would want to experience while studying, when we decide on new features or how our points system should function.
Additionally, we are not just a tech platform that happens to focus on our relationship with students, but rather we maintain a vision of how our platform could best benefit students and how we can make it more supportive for them. We are data-driven and we have global focus groups where students, and teachers for that matter, have the chance to let us know what their study habits are and how Brainly can fit into their routine.
Our mission is to inspire students to share and explore knowledge in a collaborative community, and to give every student access to peer-to-peer, personalised learning outside of the classroom.
Okay, so let’s go back to the very beginning, how did you come up with the idea of the company?
Growing up in Poland, my peers and I would talk informally before class and quiz each other on various topics. As I went on to higher education, I realised the value of this model of studying because everyone knows something that you do not, and vice versa. People are constantly listening and jumping in on topics where they have opinions, questions or knowledge to share.
This process was so organic and useful to everyone involved that I wanted to create something online that would mirror those tactics.
So that’s where it all started. Poland was first, but what made you decide to expand to other markets? Which markets are you already in?
Brainly began in Poland with zadane.pl, and we saw such positive responses from students that we chose to expand globally. Our message of student empowerment resonated on a massive scale and we felt that others would benefit from Brainly as well. We have users in over 35 countries, and our biggest communities are in Russia, Poland, the United States, Latin America, Turkey and Indonesia.
Once you had set the company up, how long did it take you to realise that you were going in the right direction?
Once again the process was organic. We launched Brainly in Poland and got an overwhelmingly positive feedback from students. We reached over one million monthly users in less than a year. After that major milestone, we saw similar success in Russia, which proved that we could expand and scale and that we could work successfully with communities of students in other countries.
How many people were there when you were starting zadane.pl?
When we started there were three co-founders, myself, Tomasz Kraus and Łukasz Haluch.
How big is the team, now?
We now boast over 70 employees, including our remote team and those who are spread out across our Kraków and NYC offices.
What advice would you give to companies from the region who would like to expand to other markets?
It’s important to focus on one market and localise before you’re ready to expand somewhere else. Make sure you are nailing the experience and that you are learning everything you can from one market, and make sure you are giving yourself room to fail a little bit. International markets can be very different from one another in a space as fragmented and also as complicated and important as education.
How do you see the company developing over the next few years and where will the company be in ten years from now?
Right now we are focused on our growth in the US, and are trying to infiltrate the market the same way we have across the globe. We’re really excited and inspired by the students that have discovered the community on their own and we’re working to constantly stay ahead of the curve, so that we can provide them with the platform they need to take more control of their education and their learning.
Technology is going to have an exponentially increasing impact on the way we work and play, live and learn, and we expect that in the next few years we’ll see the education world opening up to these advances in new ways. We’re already seeing this come to fruition through the growth of personalised learning, as more and more educators place an emphasis there. Advances in technology allow us to individualise learning for each particular student better and, in the future, I believe this type of emerging tech-focused approach will be integrated better into a social solution.
As we see more artificial intelligence (AI) and automation complementing education in the future, it will be important that we understand the value of a social and community aspect in order to best educate our students.
For Brainly, this means we’ll continue to expand our own brand of personalised learning that highlights this social component. Eventually, we hope to create a more even playing field so that all students have access to a built-in support system instead of only the privileged. It’s an exciting time to be in our industry, and an exciting new era.
Click here to read more about the company and join the Brainly community.