“Ultimately, people want software that solves advanced problems and is easy to use” with Sameer Bhatia and Mitch Russo
Simple and comprehensive: Ultimately, people want software that solves advanced problems and is easy to use. Those two goals can seem at odds with each other, but our goal is to provide advanced, comprehensive tools in the simplest way possible. A lot of the big names that we compete with have a purely simple solution, and that’s exactly why we are so attractive to large corporations with complex needs. We’re not afraid to go the extra mile to figure out how we can provide a comprehensive feature set in software that is simple and easy to use.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sameer Bhatia. Sameer is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of ProProfs.com. He founded the company based on the vision that knowledge should be freely available to people from all walks of life. Sameer is an ed-tech veteran and has been a serial internet entrepreneur. His past startups have been in e-learning and online retail along with a niche search engine to compete with Google. His academic background is in technology with a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Southern California (USC).
Thank you so much for joining us!
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for ProProfs? Can you share that story with us?
It’s actually a pretty funny story! We created free online quiz software as a passion project. A Fortune 500 company started using it to train thousands of employees. They found my number somewhere and called me and said they wanted to pay me for the software. I said “it’s free!” but they insisted on paying. When I asked why, the person said they don’t want us to go out of business. I laughed and said how I can go out of business from something that is not even a business yet?
But that was my Aha moment. I saw that something I was doing just for passion was actually a business opportunity. This huge company insisted that our free quiz maker product was better than the quiz software they were already paying tens of thousands of dollars for. Suddenly I realized that I had something of value, so I got serious about building the product and the business to support it.
We created a premium version of the software and that launched ProProfs as a business. We now have 8 software products, 100+ employees and serve hundreds of millions of pageviews each month to a global audience.
Can you tell us the story behind ProProfs?
We were running an IT discussion forum for students studying for IT certification exams and decided to build an online quiz tool so our users could share exam questions with each other. The quiz software fit an unmet need in the market, and without meaning to, we suddenly had teachers from different subject areas using our tool to make quizzes. Soon their quizzes started to go viral, gathering millions of pageviews. Before we knew it, large corporations came calling, wanting to pay for our quiz tool in exchange for some additional features like security, privacy, and branding.
It all happened pretty quickly, and we jumped on the opportunity to meet an unmet market need for employee training and testing. We pivoted and created a business with different price points to meet different needs. Over time, we jumped on additional opportunities in training and launched web-based tools such as online survey software, training software, and LMS software.
Since then there has been no looking back. Today, we are like the YouTube of online quizzes and training, and have millions of users visiting our site monthly.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Since we started as a labor of love that went viral, we aren’t like most startups, which formulate a business concept, raise money, and see if they can build a business. Instead, we built something that we were passionate about for our own unmet need and grew very quickly and very organically at first. It was thrilling to see the market response to our product, and we jumped on the opportunity.
Based on this, we didn’t have the “hard times” typically associated with the super early stage of a startup. It was pure adrenaline and momentum because we were responding to market demand rather than trying to build it from scratch.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We had a fast start, but it has taken tremendous persistence to maintain growth and get to where we are today. I’m really proud to be a privately-held software company that directly competes with corporate giants with deep pockets. ProProfs now has more than 100 employees and our software is used all over the world to build smarter employees and happier customers. I often say that I’m building a 100-year company, and I balance growth with integrity.
I tell entrepreneurs that one of the best ways to start a business is to solve a problem you are facing yourself. We have repeatedly done this, and have expanded into new product lines based on our unique ability to meet a need for both ourselves and our customers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
To flip the narrative a little, we went for it when we first started, and it was a great start. Our quiz tool reached millions of people very quickly and the content naturally went viral. We had it easy with our Quiz Maker startup, and the mistake we made was assuming we would see the same response to new products when we launched them.
The assumption was “if you build it, they will come,” but even the iPhone required initial marketing push. Just because your first product goes viral doesn’t mean your second, fifth, or eighth product will do the same. So my takeaway is to take risks and make intuitive leaps, but also invest in marketing. Build a great product that your initial set of users love. Then invest in marketing. It’s like fuel for the fire and can really make things take off.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ve always said that satisfaction is too low a bar for us. We need to pursue delight. We want to delight our customers with our product and our support. We are a Software as a Service business, and it’s natural to think that we are in the software business, but in fact, we are in the service business.
It’s become increasingly difficult to speak with “real people” in the software industry. Most websites do not even have a phone number. Consumers are used to jumping through multiple hoops to reach a human being when they have a problem. We use our own software — ProProfs Live Chat — to support our customers 24/7. We also use ProProfs Knowledge Base to provide self-service help. But we don’t stop there — we also have email support powered by ProProfs Help Desk and an 800 phone number. Interestingly, we first built these products for ourselves so we could offer the absolute best customer support and they are now used by many market leading companies.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Love what you do. ProProfs was started as a labor of love, and I still love what I do! For most of us, work is the thing we spend the most time doing. This means it’s important to feel happy when you think of the work you’re contributing to the world. I am doing stuff I love and that creates value, and that feels really good.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My dad is a huge inspiration to me. He often shared his entrepreneurship stories with me, the most important of which was when one of his companies hit a rough period. He realized it was too late to enter new markets, and there was no way to course correct from within the slump. Based on this, he told me, “You should expand when the going is good because when the going is bad, you won’t be able to.” He inspired me to be thinking of new products and markets when the going is good. I’ve taken his lesson and focused on growth and expansion each time we have the opportunity and the resources to do so.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does ProProfs currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
ProProfs is visited by over 15 million people each month. That’s more than 180 million people for the year. If we were a country we would be among the top ten most populated countries in the world. More than Russia and Mexico. We have been able to build this success thanks to our freemium model and to our commitment to building delightful products that are super simple to use. The ease of use continues to attract more and more people to our website each year. We continue to invest in improving our technology, product and user experience.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We monetize our free tool through advertising. Our software tools start at $5 per month and go up to thousands of dollars per month based on feature set and usage. Corporations invest in our tools to provide employee training and customer support.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Understand your customers and what a day in their life looks like. Once you really understand them and what tasks they spend their time on, you get a real understanding of their pain points and how your products and solutions can help improve their life. In the initial days, my personal cell phone was posted on every page of the website. At any point, any of our users could call me directly. Talking directly to customers in those early days made me intimately familiar with how people were using our software and where they were running into trouble. I’ve maintained management systems to ensure we never lose sight of what our customers need most from us.
2. Make it easy. We believe that software should make people happy. We put a lot of effort into keeping our tools simple and easy to use. We carefully design each screen, write each sentence, and craft our software so that when people use it, it’s a simple, delightful experience.
3. Its all about the team. One thing I know for sure is that happy customers start with a happy team. In the early days it was easy to maintain motivation and build a positive culture with a small team. As we have grown to more than 100 employees, I’ve ensured that we constantly pursue ways to support our employees in working hard and playing hard. I truly believe that happy employees will directly result in happy customers, so this is a major company effort, not an afterthought.
4. Focus on value creation. We are always looking for ways to add more value to our customers. Experience has taught me that if we create highly-valuable tools, people are willing and even eager to pay for them. All of our eight tools are constantly being upgraded and improved so that our customers receive the maximum value for their investment in ProProfs products.
5. Simple and comprehensive: Ultimately, people want software that solves advanced problems and is easy to use. Those two goals can seem at odds with each other, but our goal is to provide advanced, comprehensive tools in the simplest way possible. A lot of the big names that we compete with have a purely simple solution, and that’s exactly why we are so attractive to large corporations with complex needs. We’re not afraid to go the extra mile to figure out how we can provide a comprehensive feature set in software that is simple and easy to use.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My wife and I have set our life goal to positively impact 3 verticals: Education, Health and Relationships. We consider these to be the cornerstone of human life. We are already in education and serve millions of people each month through the free content on ProProfs. In relationship space, we have Marriage.com, which supports people in building healthier and happier marriages. We have our eyes open as we wait for the right opportunity to impact Health — we’re open to ideas! :)
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!