Tips From The Top: One On One With Ashish Rangnekar

I spoke to Ashish Rangnekar, co-founder and CEO of BenchPrep, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? / What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you? 

Ashish: What many people may not realize is my love for snowboarding. I have been an avid snowboarder for the last 13 years. I was born and raised in India and never saw snow until I was 22 years old. One random weekend when we moved here my wife and I visited the Poconos. I decided to get out of my comfort zone and try snowboarding for the first time. Despite falling down repeatedly and being very difficult at first, I loved it! I wanted to get better and eventually worked my way up to an intermediate level.

This relates to starting a company, as it puts you out of your comfort zone. Instead of staying warm on the couch and drinking hot chocolate, you go against the elements directly down an icy mountain top. Just like in the startup world, you give up the comfort of a 9-5 job for the thrill of starting a company. One of the first lessons of snowboarding is to focus and look ahead, don’t look down and focus in the direction you are going. For entrepreneurs, you have to follow the same rules and focus on what’s going to happen in 10 years and what will happen in the short term. Just like with business decisions, you can’t second-guess every turn you make. While you may not always make the right moves, the decision made should have full commitment. If you second-guess a decision mid-execution, it will be a recipe for disaster.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Ashish: The last ten years have been a roller coaster ride, with many ups and downs. My company started as a B2C company 10 years ago and we saw decent in the beginning success, but eventually plateaued. The core business model was not scaling the way we wanted. That was our first setback. So, we needed to reinvent ourselves and come up with a new business model. We needed to redefine the way we do business.

As we pivoted to a B2B model in July 2014, we had to let a lot of people go and build a team from scratch. The hardest day was when we had to let 14 people go in one day. The people were talented and it wasn’t their fault that we couldn’t make the B2C model work. However, our backs were against the wall. With seven people left, we had to start over with and build the company again from scratch. That change made me realize the importance of hiring the right people who will be the right fit for the company in the long run and it is still crucial for the company today. Since that fateful day, we now have 70 employees.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Ashish: The single most important point for a leader is the ability to hire, manage and motivate people. At the end of the day, we are in the people business and for most organizations, it’s all about the people around the leader. Nobody can do it alone and you need talented people to fulfil a company’s vision. Young leaders today, they put functional abilities in front of people abilities. As a leader, you have to figure out ways to get everyone on board with your vision and then enable them to execute that vision. People forget that you need a team. People think of leaders as owning the room during speeches, while all the real work is done outside those situations.

Leaders also need to listen to their people. They need to invest their time with not just senior leaders, but figure a way out to get 1-on-1 with new hires and junior people, so they have a pulse on the inner workings of an organization. Leaders should also figure out a way to have a continuous feedback loop with their people to understand if they are still on the right track to achieve their vision or if they need to make adjustments along the way.  

From a leadership perspective, everyone around you is functional. There is a sales team, a marketing team, a product team, and leaders do not own any of these functions. I am not spearheading any campaigns, building any product, or writing any code. My role as a leader is to hire the right people and enable them to do their jobs well.. Most leaders are actually grown from a functional organization. My role is to enable and empower them to make sure we reach our vision.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Ashish: Realize that it takes time to build something impactful. It’s a long game and we live in a world where everything is measured in small chunks. You need to show progress and growth and that is a very difficult balance, but also sets apart successful organizations from mediocre ones. One key factor, is that we have to make decisions that help support our goal in the long term, but plan in the short term. All execution starts in the short term.

For civic leaders in the government, this is even more imperative. The impact of your work is not going to be realized in the short term. You have to show progress in the short term by being transparent. For example, showing my investors the results of three months of hard work won’t make much of an impact. However, showing them where we are now and what we will look like in 10 years, that’s powerful. Those short term steps might not be exciting, but can make a big impact.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Ashish: A seasoned entrepreneur who has around 500 employees once gave me the important advice – “Be Humble.” As an entrepreneur, you have to be slightly irrational, as you are selling an idea that haven’t been done before. You are doing something new with your model, that is why it called a startup, and not a company. However, you can’t be arrogant about your idea. You need to be humble and flexible so you can adjust, take feedback from your peers or customers and find the right balance.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Ashish: Invest time, not money, with other young entrepreneurs and young aspiring adults who need your guidance. Give them access to your time by setting up office hours to initiate a conversation. In today’s modern world, there are many books and websites where you can get advice from anyone on any subject matter, but I believe it makes a huge difference when someone young and aspiring can sit down with you in person and just feel what you have achieved by being in your presence. This can go far and is how seasoned entrepreneurs should be paying it forward.

I have done this a couple of times, where my company has brought in students from underprivileged areas, allowed them to walk around and open their eyes to the realizations of how success is very much possible. As an immigrant and a minority, they can also soak that in from me and see what can happen if they take that first step. I feel that demonstrating first-hand your accomplishments is much more beneficial and educational than reading an article or book.

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