Are you a licensed real estate agent? Do you have your series 7? Are you a CPA? If you answered yes to any of those three questions and you’ve become licensed, or taken your test in the last few years it may have involved a mobile app study guide. More and more professional accreditation and licensing tests have started to offer their study materials for mobile devices, and specifically smartphones.
Bryan Van Demark, the cofounder of New Jersey startup SmartTests discovered first hand how cumbersome study apps can be for professional testing when he was studying for the CPA exam.
In researching this story we found that the study apps available for real estate licenses and CPA certifications were either inundated with extra buttons and functionality no sane person would need, or so light, you might as well be looking at your test study materials on a text editor.
SmartTests has solved that problem by offering the most robust study materials in an easy to understand, easy to navigate and appealing UI. The SmartTests team has baked functionality into the app study guides for the CPA exam, based on the way professionals actually study.
Currently SmartTests is available in a whole suite of apps for the Roger CPA Review. The company plans on building on the success of their Roger apps by offering study guide apps for similar, important professional testing.
Sure this may not be the sexiest startup, but it’s definitely one of the most useful, especially taking into consideration the fact that tests like these often lead to more lucrative career opportunities.
We got a chance to talk with SmartTests Co-Founder John Ceniza. Check out our interview below.
What is SmartTests?
SmartTests is a company dedicated to providing smartphone and tablet testing applications for standardized and professional examinations to facilitate on-the-go-studying.
Our goal is to provide users with a simple, intuitive user interface to make studying easy and enjoyable. We believe that functionality and appearance is what makes an app exceptional. We keep this in mind when we design apps for all our users.
In layman’s terms, how does it work?
Using our stated values of simplicity and emphasis on user experience, we create apps that enable users to effectively study for their exams in a nontraditional, sleek app interface. Most study apps (usually created by review courses or textbook publishers) tend to be cluttered with unnecessary buttons, texts, pictures, etc. Our approach is to take all that out and leave the bare minimum so that the user can focus on the content and not the distracting items around it. By combining rich content and a beautiful user interface, we are able to refresh the typical “study app” and create something totally new and unique.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
John is a self-taught programmer and accounting major with a passion for entrepreneurship and startups. Essentially, he is an accountant by day and a programmer by night.
During the past few years, John has had a few experiences with apps and startups. Before co-founding SmartTests, he created the game “Up, Up” for Apple’s App Store. He was also involved in designing and visualizing (the failed) FinishMyTask.com. Currently, he is the CTO of SmartTests and a co-founder of Varely.com, a site for hassle free casual blogging that allows users to say what they want, when they want. His responsibilities as CTO primarily include programming and designing apps, but as co-founder, he is also heavily involved in business development and fulfilling SmartTests’ vision.
Bryan Van Demark:
Bryan is a day-to-day accountant, but he has aspirations to be a successful entrepreneur.
Bryan finally passed his CPA exam to become officially licensed as a Certified Public Accountant, but the certification proved to be only a small portion of the benefits that the exam would bring. Bryan had recently purchased an iPhone when he began taking the CPA Exam and noticed the lack of a good, reasonably priced app for practicing CPA Exam questions. After meeting John Ceniza at work, the lack of an app turned into a successful business idea, and SmartTests was formed. As CFO of SmartTests, Bryan is mostly focused on growing the business and preparing financial information.
Where are you based?
We are based in the best U.S. state – New Jersey.
What’s the startup scene/culture like where you’re based?
The startup scene in the greater New York area is booming, to say the least. The interesting mix of engineers from the financial district, strong concentration of business majors, and a growing number of computer-oriented people creates a hyper-dynamic environment where startup opportunity is present in any industry you can think of. Surprisingly, the cutthroat “businessman mentality” of New York is almost non-existent in the startup scene. In fact, the community nurtures and supports all growing companies, as evidenced by the many tech meetups and demos found throughout the city at all times of the year. While we still might not be on par with Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley does come in a damn close second.
How did you come up with the idea for SmartTests?
The story of how SmartTests came to be is a mix of a little serendipity and the classic tale of “I have a problem, so let me come up with a solution to solve it.” Basically, when John and Bryan first met, John was only a sophomore in college, trying to find a summer job. Bryan was currently working for an accounting firm and, in addition, was preparing to take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam.
As the economy soured, John was unable to find any sort of part-time summer job, but he was able to score an externship in the same company Bryan worked at. During his free time (the externship wasn’t very demanding) he decided to pick up two books on iPhone programming. After a few months, he created a simple game called “Up, Up” and successfully submitted it to Apple’s App Store.
As Bryan struggled to tackle the monster that was the CPA exam (he has passed all four parts since!), he realized that there were no good apps in the app store that could help him study. One day, John was assigned to shadow Bryan and that was when the great idea came about. John explained to Bryan that he’d been spending his time learning how to code and create apps. Bryan was impressed to hear that and excitedly proclaimed, “we have to make a CPA study app!” Eventually the idea evolved into much more than that, and since then we’ve dedicated ourselves to creating beautiful apps for all sorts of exams.
How did you come up with the name?
Bryan was talking with his dad about what to name the business and they came up with the idea for the name, SmartTests. They were looking for something simple, yet effective. The name “SmartTests” represents our mission (SMARTphone apps for professionalTESTS), but it also very much resembles the word “Smartest” which is also key to our mission as we want to be the Smartest choice for exam takers.
What problem does SmartTests solve?
SmartTests addresses the surprising lack of intuitive study apps in the app stores. While there are some apps created by traditional review courses, they tend to be as unimaginative textbooks are. We are here to give mobile studying a much-needed revamp. We are here to help shape the future of education by combining it with mobile technology in ways that have never been done before.
What’s your secret sauce?
Basically, we make apps that make studying on-the-go hassle free. We think part of this hassle free experience we aim to achieve includes creating apps that do not require internet connection to function. When you are on the go, you can’t always be sure that there is wi-fi or cellular service around you. The last thing we want to do is inconvenience our users by preventing them from studying due to the lack of a connection.
The second half of the magic is the user interface and experience. We believe that like all other apps, there should be a big focus on appearance. Studying usually isn’t a very fun activity. We try to brighten up the mood by providing our users with a perfect balance of elegant and productive design. We design our apps so that it is pleasing to the eye yet not distracting, but also puts primary focus on the content. I think our first collection of apps (Roger CPA Review – Practice Tests) exemplifies exactly what we aim to do.
What’s one dilemma you’ve encountered in the startup process?
Shortly after our product launch, we encountered a handful of big and small problems. Two main concerns were marketing and competition. Our app was not the only CPA review app out there in the app store, but it was by far the best one. It had an average rating of 5-stars with 30+ total reviews. While that was great for us, we feared that it might be catching the eyes of our competitors. We were worried that they were going to pour all their money into creating an app similar to ours and just squash us simply because they had a larger marketing budget (ours was approximately $0).
Luck must have been on our side because before any of that could happened, we got in touch with one of the biggest players in CPA review courses, Roger CPA Review. At that time they didn’t have an app out in the app store, and they were thinking of entering the market. After a few months of communicating back and forth, reworking the app and rebranding the app, we were ready finally ready to release a new line of Roger CPA Review apps. With this alliance, we are now able to leverage Roger’s reputation and massive marketing campaign, and they now have a presence in the app store.
What’s one challenge you’ve overcome in the startup process?
A challenge that we encountered very early was acquiring content for our first app. Neither of us had ever done any sort of deal-making activity like this before, so we were uncertain how to approach it at first. In order to get the questions and answers for our CPA app, we had to contact the AICPA, the national professional organization that develops the CPA Exam. We knew that hey had to have some sort of contract for their materials because there were review courses offered for the CPA using AICPA resources. Unfortunately, when we contacted them, they were hesitant to lend their resources to an “app company” because they typically dealt with textbook and review course companies. After countless emails, and a lot of persistence, we were able to convince them that mobile studying is a trend worth investing in. Once we had convinced them of that, there was no problem getting their content loaded into our app.
Who are some of your mentors and business role models?
We tend to look at Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey as our role models, and for inspiration. We appreciate Jobs’ ability to visualize the future and his impeccable attention to detail, and of course very thankful for pioneering the creation of the “app ecosystem.” Dorsey on the other hand is simply inspiring to watch. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his work ethic! As CEO of two companies, it’s amazing to watch him work. We appreciate his drive for success and innovation (Square is a winner!). We wish to emulate all these values when growing SmartTests and pursuing other ventures.
What’s next for SmartTests?
Expansion! Currently we only have a line of multiple-choice question (MQC) apps for the CPA exam. We would like to expand in content and in type of apps offered by creating flashcard apps and apps for other standardized and professional exams. We are also very close to releasing Android versions of our current line of apps. Needless to say we are very excited to continue working on revolutionizing mobile studying.