Diane Janknegt started at Microsoft just before the turn of the century, when just thirty people were employed in the Benelux. At the American tech giant, she learned what the impact of software can be.
She also wanted to bring about positive change with a ‘big super idea’. Education soon seemed like a logical field. Not long after, she came into contact with her future co-founder Theo Huibers, who had just completed a major academic study on the role of the Internet in learning. She showed that this role can be huge, but then it had to be approached in a different way.
Internet curated for the classroom
The Internet contains so much information that it is superfluous to create new content is one of the main ideas of Wizenoze. But familiar search engines don’t work for education, says Janknegt. The information displayed is not classified by algorithms geared towards education. Search engines often end with products or services. ‘Having to deal with business transactions in the classroom is unethical.’
In the Hemelbestormers series, MT/Sprout talks to entrepreneurs, visionaries, and leaders who are looking for something radically different and who are revamping current systems. What drives them? Where do you start? What are the traps? And what can you learn from them?
Wizenoze takes a different approach. The company searches the Internet for information, checks if it is relevant to education, adds a reading level, and matches the correct result to the curriculum. ‘Everyone has to go through a learning path, with a curriculum behind it. We enrich that with the best of the Internet. At the right time to treat the material’, says Janknegt.
This approach means that the content is always up to date, unlike textbooks. These are often out of phase and unable to respond to the environment and level of the learner.
A change in education is necessary
It’s not easy to change education, Janknegt now knows. Although it is really necessary. The books used are almost the same as when she was in school herself, says the Wizenoze founder.
Furthermore, the role of technology is limited, while the outside world continues to develop. This creates a mismatch when students leave school. ‘If you can use the technology there to make a connection to market demand, that’s a huge motivation. Let’s change the enormous power of publishers, where the money is, in a smart way.’
Wizenoze’s product is also much cheaper than regular publishers, Janknegt emphasizes. This is important in order to generate the impact that the company seeks.
‘I really like numbers, finances and making a profit, and I also think you should only pay for your product. We are absolutely not a foundation. But if you connect a higher purpose to your business, you have an incredibly strong combination.’
Wizenoze started in late 2013 and is now focused on the Netherlands, England, India and the Middle East. The target group extends from primary school to vocational training. A permanent team of 35, plus a roughly equally large loose layer of education experts, ensures that hundreds of thousands of students can use the product, or rather the API.
Solid confidence in your idea
To make an impact, it was decided to offer the platform to providers of student management systems used by many schools and to publishers who want to update their content. ‘Selling to schools is intensive. We have a low price and to be profitable we have to reach many students. That can be done through these matches.
When asked what it was like to open doors to the established order (read: editorials), the answer is short: terrible. “The moment he decides to pursue an idea that can disrupt existing systems, most people see it as some kind of suicide mission. It’s also very difficult to explain exactly what you want and why it’s good. That only comes with age.
Disrupting publishers has never been an end in itself
Soon Wizenoze was labeled ‘Google for kids’. “We had to fight a lot against that. But at the time I wasn’t able to articulate what we were at all, so we couldn’t get our hands on it yet.’
How do you manage to move on? ‘You have to have blind faith in your proposal and not be open to all the comments that suggest why it wouldn’t work. Continue working from an optimistic point of view: “Shit, we are going to change this”. If that’s your sincere motivation, you can defend yourself against all those horrible conversations.
System change is actually a side effect of that blind business trust, says Janknegt. ‘Using a platform to give the internet a bigger role in learning has always been my motivation. Interrupting publishers has never been an end in itself.’
The two ‘pivots’ of Wizenoze
Like many startups, Wizenoze has also stalled multiple times. If you want to romanticize that, you call it a pivot, but it’s actually hitting a wall at 100 kilometers per hour, the co-founder describes. “And that’s incredibly painful.”
The first time it was because they were working on two products at the same time. In other words, it is also a service that analyzes the reading level of a text and makes suggestions to improve it. “That is also very necessary, but the platform to create the collection from the Internet was already a gargantuan task for our relatively small team.”
It was easier for customers to get to that product. An income stream that was therefore suspended. ‘Investors don’t like it when you go for an idea that has a lot more potential, but a lot less revenue.’
It is necessary in our business to take a long breath
The second big change of direction, which according to Janknegt was even more painful, was the realization that the customer (B2B) was put in the center instead of the end user. More specifically: an Internet for education had been developed where students could search for themselves if they did not understand something.
“People aren’t very good at searching and kids certainly don’t have the patience for that. It is not enough to offer good content that does not match the curriculum. Instead of pull technology, we switched to push. A total change in terms of product, but a wise decision.’
Education is like the pharmaceutical industry.
Wizenoze started on the Dutch market. The next step to the UK was used to conduct an in-depth market analysis. That led to a full focus on India and the Middle East, because of the willingness to pay for technology in education, the English language, and scalability. ‘It is much easier for us to conclude contracts there. With much larger numbers.
To the outside world, Wizenoze is growing at a fast pace, but Janknegt likes to nuance that image. As said before, the education sector develops slowly: “Luckily, I didn’t know exactly how slowly, otherwise it would never have started”, and can be compared to the pharmaceutical industry: long development and runtime, but in it you can fly.
“It’s necessary in our business to take a long breather,” says Janknegt. “So we shouldn’t want to compare ourselves to, say, fintechs.”
Diane Janknegt wants to change the system with Wizenoze
- Despite initially making more money from it, Wizenoze parted ways with a second product it was developing and focused on the potential and long-term impact of the current product.
- By offering the product not to individual schools but to mainstream educational system providers, as many learners as possible are reached.
- Look for markets that have higher readiness and volume to scale impact smoothly.
- Blindly trust your own idea, even if you still can’t explain exactly what you want. You sharpen it later.