Arnout Hemel is LTG’s VP of Product and Marketing and a 15-year veteran of the online industry with experience at Microsoft, Accenture and CheQQer, a pan-European travel startup.
We sat down to talk with him about the pitfalls of the current test prep market, what it’s actually like to help build a startup and what you learn from driving across Africa in a 20-year-old Land Rover.
Talk a little bit about your own education:
I studied econometrics in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen, and did my thesis in Japan on the differences in information seeking behavior between Japanese and Dutch consumers.
Why Japanese consumers? The best thing about working in education is that it really helps people – there’s a real function to what we do, and we’re capable of building the best test prep app
The best thing about working in education is that it really helps people – there’s a real function to what we do, and we’re capable of building the best test prep app
Japanese consumers tend to use very different information in selecting a product. They look at the company behind a product instead of a brand. For example, they would know Proctor & Gamble whereas here everyone knows Tide, the brand.
Japan was a great time where I got to experience a different culture and travel around Asia. This is where the travel bug first infected me.
Speaking of passions, why do you love working in education tech?
When I started my MBA at Sloan, in the first week I was forced to say what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to do a startup in the education space. Back then I thought about building gamified educational apps for kids because my own kids never tire of playing games on an iPad. I found that when I introduced math games with the same dynamics as the games they love they got hooked – it really worked! I never could have imagined that a year after starting at Sloan I’d be working with Elad to change the test prep industry.
The best thing about working in education is that it really helps people – there’s a real function to what we do, and we’re capable of building the best test prep app. We can really change the market, and I believe our products will become the standard for test prep 1 to 2 years from now. It’s such a stupid method [current test prep] to read those thick books. I don’t have the patience for it. I want something that more adapts to me and my needs.
And we’re creating just that. With technology we can tailor something to perfectly fit your needs. It’s strange that so few companies are taking the effort to do that.
Why is that?
A number of reasons, but mainly it’s because they haven’t been disrupted yet. They have a successful business though they know it’s not great, not ideal. You go and buy a book or take a class because it gives you assurance – ‘this is what everyone does so it’s what I should do to pass the test.’
Until there is an app or online system that clearly improves scores, people will keep flocking to brand names. They [the big test prep companies] are not challenged, so they don’t have to change. That’s what were changing.
What did you do before getting into the ed-tech space?
After college I was recruited into consulting. I had a great five years at Accenture and saw a lot of companies from the inside. I found out during this time that consultants often knew what should be changed, but it’s not possible for them to make the changes.
I’ve always been a hands on person, so during the dotcom boom I joined a web development agency where I managed a team of developers who could really create stuff. I felt a spark there: I knew I wanted to create things, develop things, do it myself.
After this company I joined Microsoft and worked as an evangelist for the Windows Live platform, serving as the bridge between the company and their developer ecosystem before moving into product management. The ecosystem produced a lot of exciting services (games, chat bots, etc.) on top of our platform, and as a product manager for Windows Live I was able to develop some exciting new products myself as well.
At such a big company, things move very slow though, so I joined a travel startup, a sort of Tripadvisor for package holidays in Europe, where I managed the product strategy. The startup wasn’t successful, so I ended up in Boston where I got accepted as a Sloan Fellow at MIT, which is where I met Elad and joined LTG.
What’s different between being a product manager at a large company like Microsoft and a startup? It’s really great to have immediate impact on the product and how people experience it – to see huge improvement in usage and user appreciation with each release.
It’s really great to have immediate impact on the product and how people experience it – to see huge improvement in usage and user appreciation with each release.
The product cycles. Currently [for Prep4GMAT] we release a new version every month. At Microsoft it sometimes took a year and a half to release a new version of a product.
We have an extremely talented team that can move fast here. It’s really great to have immediate impact on the product and how people experience it – to see huge improvement in usage and user appreciation with each release. That immediate feedback is great to have.
What are you working on right now?
Now we’re working on a much better looking dashboard, a more intuitive study flow and some cool analytics as well as the first game that will go into the app.
What’s something people probably don’t realize about LTG?
That we have a team of more than 20 people working as hard as they can every day to bring a better product to market.
What do most people not realize about a working in a startup?
The reality is that building a startup is really hard work. You’re not going to be the next Facebook tomorrow, and you probably never will be. It’s much harder work than being in a big company where there’s more structure and well-defined roles. In a startup, you define the pace and if you don’t do it no one will. This causes many people to work till they drop because they can see all the possibilities and want to get the product out the door as soon as possible.
Were you a good test taker?
No. I was very naive in taking tests. For a long time I was under the impression that a test showed your true skill level and it was accurate. But now I know that if you take a long time to prepare effectively for a test then you can score really high.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing?
I love Running. I’m extremely competitive. I used to play field hockey at a high level but since I’ve come to love running, especially marathons. With a little luck I’ll be running my third marathon in New York this November.
What’s your proudest accomplishment? You have to solve problems each and every day, problems you’ve never seen before in your life.
You have to solve problems each and every day, problems you’ve never seen before in your life.
Driving my 20-year-old Land Rover all across Africa, knowing that a car that old – especially a Land Rover – breaks down every day on African roads and being able to repair it with only wire, inner tubes, tie wraps and a monkey wrench.
It makes you very inventive. You have to solve problems each and every day, problems you’ve never seen before in your life. You have to find out exactly what the problem is, how the mechanism should work and then come up with three possible solutions because the first two rarely work.
It taught me that my biggest strength is problem solving. There isn’t anything I’m unable to fix whether it’s a physical, software or usability issue. Everything is fixable.
Would you recommend driving across Africa?
Yes. I think it’s very valuable. Africa is beautiful. You will come across interesting and very nice people and see the world in its most beautiful form. You’ll also encounter a lot of problems. There’s no escape in having to confront yourself, which is always good I think.