The Evolution of a Startup Helping Students Hack Standardized Tests: Samson Abioye on Pass.ng

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Standardized tests, in Nigeria, are what nightmares are made of. Any Nigerian who has applied to a university here knows so. There are at least three popular ones that strike a tutorial fear at the heart of even the smartest of high school seniors; WAEC, UTME and NECO.

In these exams, failure rate has been climbing geometrically in the past years, and more than less students have continued to try sketchy work-arounds to test well. A couple teams are seeing things very differently, however — they are helping students test well by helping them prep well using the pervasive object of attraction and distraction for millennials; smartphones.

The online exam prep vertical is beginning to get a lot of attention in Nigeria. Last year, Prepclass was the darling of judges at the TechCabal Battlefield, but another player in this new space has been coming up in conversations – Pass.ng.

Pass.ng has been hitting interesting milestones lately; accreditation from the country’s major testing body, one million tests taken on the platform by 60 thousand users and an equity-free $5000 grant from local telco, Airtel. The startup is generally having a great 2015.

Pass.ng CEO, Samson Abioye joins TechCabal in this interview. He tells us how Pass.ng has evolved and how the Airtel grant turned the operations around at Pass.ng.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Samson Abioye, CEO, Pass.ng

TC: You guys are hitting some interesting milestones; a million tests taken on your platform by 60 thousand users. Please, share other stuff that has been going at Pass.ng since launch.

Samson Abioye: Yes, you are right. Since launch, we got an endorsement of our application by the exam body, JAMB [organizers of UTME]. It was an exciting one for us. We have built a network of tutors who provide explanatory and coaching feature on the platform.

We began with prep test for JAMB examination and we added two more; WAEC prep test and Post UTME’s. Many of our audience who tested well in their UTME exam prompted us to provide test prep for Post UTME exams. It’s been more of trying out what works and what doesn’t. We are still very early and are trying to get the right model.

There are a couple things we stopped building. The JAVA app, though with thousands of users had to die, likewise the BlackBerry. We discovered there was no way it could be properly maintained and it affected our projections. We also stopped the iOS version of the app in development stage. We discovered it was not just about having all the apps, but about providing users with exactly what they need to learn and re-learn. And that is basically on web and Android

For us, it was one of the best decisions we made considering the age demographics of our audience, who are either accessing via web or Android

Interesting; growing in the direction of your market like that. Thanks. Winning the Airtel Catapult-a-Startup competition has been a big one for you guys this year. How did this come to bear on your operations? What specific things changed about the way Pass.ng was being run?

Yes, it was a big one for us. Two things changed. First was our billing/payment structure. Second was the marketing and PR that came with the Airtel partnership. On billing,, we had a very complicated system of payment before. It used to be that;

1: Users went to bank to pay a certain fee
2: Send us their information and teller no
3: Send also their app serial no (then the app generates a serial number on each device it is installed on), we then send an activation code to unlock the app for premium test

It’s a weird way of running a service

That’s some clunky go-round

Very tedious; that simply means we had to attend to every single customer that paid, it was neck breaking.

At a time, users revolted against the payment structure; they insisted they weren’t going to the bank, since most our subscription was small compared to the cost of getting to the bank. They insisted they would pay via recharge cards. So we started taking payment options via MTN recharge cards then. We had loads of credit on our phones; and had not idea how to convert it.

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Since then, we have seen the need for a seamless integration of payment options into the model. Many of our users also don’t own bank accounts and therefore can’t pay through cards/online. The telecoms payment integration was an excellent fix to this nightmare, and now users can decide to make payment via the telecom channels created for Pass (USSD, App, Web, SMS) and at their convenience too.

We also had the co-branding with Airtel. A special SIM was created called “Airtel-PASS SIM”. This SIM already comes with one month full subscription on PassNG. The SIM card was given to students preparing for such exams.

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Airtel fully came on board with you guys. I haven’t seen this Airtel-PASS SIM though.

Yes, I guess that’s because it was not really in market per say, it was available at strategic locations, close to schools and predominantly their marketing team championed this course. They took the SIM to schools themselves.

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And of course, your platform is deeply entwined with Airtel right now. It says on your website that only users with Airtel phone numbers can subscribe on the platform. Are there plans to make subscription accessible to subscribers with other telcos?

Well, for now, that’s what the site reads, but we are testing a provision for other network subscribers. Unlike VAS services, education is very unique; it’s meant for all and our partners understands this. We are testing a technology that will allow everyone pay for premium access on the platform, it will be announced once we are sure it works.

The only catch is, the service on Airtel comes with its zero-rating advantage. As at now, we allow sign up from all networks, just the premium access which comes by subscribing can only be done on Airtel network.

What does Pass.ng’s team look like right now? What’s a typical day like at Pass.ng?

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The team grew from four to fifteen. Our team is basically made up of developers, front-end designers, content developers, education specialist and then our customer support. It’s a young and brilliant band.

Generally, we all look very smart in the morning, ready to hit some milestones. Sometimes things get into an overdrive when something breaks down; an API for instance.

Meal comes in by 12 noon and everyone is happy. We are always looking out for birthdays; it’s double meal that day. I get to sit more with the tech team but occasionally bump into other dept.

LOL. So you are more into technical end of things.

Yes I’m a core programmer; one of the best during my set in school. I won 2013 national best developer for computer science students back in school. So the tech team finds it easy to approach me.

That is awesome. What school was that?

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Fantastic. Let’s talk about the tests. How do you source them and also address royalties? If they exist, that is. I remember the JAMB accreditation. How does that partnership work? Does it come to bear here?

Yes royalties exist; the JAMB agreement covers that; we both have our roles and responsibilities, which is confidential between the two parties.

Also we respect individual intellectual properties and we are even in talks with authors/instructors who have come up with content that we think is good for us. We will keep working to reach other parties as well.

How does this play out with other exams?

We will figure it out. We have contacted many of them but haven’t concluded. Its a long step that takes several efforts.

Aside the prize money from Airtel, do you have other investors? That Airtel bit though, is it a grant, equity investment or something else?

It’s a grant. It was given to all 7 startups on the CAS train. So the NGN 1 million cash prize does not translate into equity.

Well, for now, I have a couple of investors basically, 440NG and L5Lab. I have investors like Tomi Davies as well.

So, how much of the company do you still own?

I haven’t announced this before, but I still own about 55% of the company. Yes, almost half is gone. A lot has happened within one year.

A bit of a Pass.ng uncut there, thanks. Meanwhile, I love the sliding scale on your subscription model. It is optimized for longer term subscription. Does this work just so; draw in longer-term subscriptions?

That’s supposed to be the trend, but the outcome isn’t exactly like that. Most people still subscribe for the daily access fee, this is basically due to the average credit balance on their mobile phones. For many of those kids, NGN500 ($2) is a lot, but it’s interesting as we see people move from daily subscription to weekly

For us it’s about people who choose to convert from daily to weekly and then to monthly. That shows they have enjoyed the service and developed more trust in it. We are hoping to see more of that.

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Kindly give us a breakdown of Pass.ng’s audience profile. Who they are, how old, what gender and where they come from? PC versus mobile?

Ok. Age range; 15-24, very tech savvy audience. More than half are female. 90% of the traffic comes from mobile; the major reason the solution has to be fully mobile.

What insights have you had about your model from working with students and parents in the past months?

Looking at the demographics of our audience, this model currently works; they are tech savvy, social and the cost is affordable.

But another concern are the parents. since they could be an enforcer of the usage of the service or otherwise. In some case, they are the ones with the purchasing power, so we need to convince them more; that their kids can learn right from their mobile devices.

Some are skeptical on this approach. A parent / coach learning feedback is essential in this approach.

What are Pass.ng’s biggest challenges right now?

Getting the right set of people to work with to produce quality content is a big task that comes with its cost. Parents who don’t believe in EduTech or mobile learning tend not take the system seriously. Seeking endorsement from exam and regulatory bodies is also uneventful.

What’s next for Pass.ng?

Having learnt what and what doesn’t work, we want to focus on improving our services and expanding our operations to cater for more prep tests.

In short we want to scale.

Secondly, opening up a B2B channel would be a dream come true. By then, organizations and institutions would be able to employ our platform for their needs. A payment channel for everyone irrespective of their network is in pipeline, this will afford more users the opportunity to upgrade to a premium service.

All images via: Samson Abioye