As the founder of education technology firm Wizenoze, Diane Janknegt is on a mission to clean up the internet for learners around the globe.
For the vast majority of us, the internet is a crucial source of information when it comes to learning. That could mean learning a new language, a professional skill, information for an exam – whatever information you need, the internet has it somewhere.
The challenge, often, is finding it. We use search engines run by huge multinational companies to scour the web for information, but the inner workings of those engines are far from transparent and they’re not designed with education in mind. We have never had so much access to information, but finding the information you want can be infuriatingly difficult. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his best-selling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow: “In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the 21st century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.”
Wizenoze was started by Diane Janknegt and Theo Huibers in September 2013 to try and tackle this problem. Instead of you having to sift through search results trying to find the relevant information, Wizenoze uses artificial intelligence algorithms to do the hard work for you – it aggregates information on the internet, verifies and categorises it; once a page has been approved it becomes available through the Wizenoze platform – the largest safe-for-school collection of online content available in the world today. ‘Wizenoze is like a car wash for the internet,’ says Diane. ‘You start with the dirty internet, it goes through the wash, and you have a relevant internet for education on the other side.’
Entrepreneurs are experts in dreaming big, but when it comes to having big goals, cleaning up the internet is an enormous challenge. ‘Lots of people thought it was career suicide when I started,’ admits Diane. ‘We’re competing with the biggest, most successful companies in the world. It’s a huge challenge, but if nobody does it, the world is never going to become a better place.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Diane’s journey started with one of those aforementioned big multinational corporations; as one of the first Microsoft employees in the Benelux, Diane saw the company grow from a chippy upstart into an industry giant. ‘I joined Microsoft back when you had to explain to people what Microsoft was!’ she laughs. ‘I was with the company for over a decade so I saw first hand the huge power that technology and software have on people’s lives.’ Diane grew with the company and ascended the ranks, eventually finding herself in a management position by the late 2000s. Though she still felt passionately about the technology, she missed the entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller firm. ‘The negative part of growth and success is that you inevitably become more corporate,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t feel like others around me had the same passion and desire to push the limits of what we could do. I needed a new challenge.’
That challenge had yet to reveal itself when Diane left Microsoft in 2012, but it wasn’t long before things clicked into place; a chance meeting with Theo Huibers – a computer science professor at the University of Twente – presented them both with the cause they had been looking for. ‘Theo specialises in information retrieval, which is an online search to you and me,’ says Diane. ‘When I met him he had just finished a huge piece of Academic research into whether the internet could play a bigger role in the education of young adults. The research was very positive and he wanted to do something, but he wasn’t interested in starting another company and he didn’t want to do it on his own. Meanwhile, I had left Microsoft and I was looking for a big challenge – I wanted to do something that would make a difference on a global scale.’ The two clicked instantly, and after drawing up a business plan and floating the idea with some early investors, Wizenoze was born in 2013.
From the very beginning, Diane and Theo decided that Wizenoze’s technology should be built from scratch; that took significant time and money, but the decision paid dividends in the long run. ‘We decided to focus our efforts on a few big customers,’ she explains. ‘We let them pay for the technology, then we watched how they used it and came up with better solutions for their issues.’ By working closely with their customers, Wizenoze took their technology from minimum viable product to industry-leading in just a few years; their customers then signed lucrative long term contracts, laying the path for Wizenoze to increase the size of their operation. ‘That’s the goal, ultimately,’ says Diane. ‘If your customers are willing to pay a significant amount for your technology, you’ve found your product market fit and you can start to scale.’
Wizenoze came to the Rise Program already on an upward trajectory, but for Diane, Techleap provided something crucial and hard to access through any other means – the chance to learn from other scale-up entrepreneurs. ‘The connections we’ve made through Techleap have been fantastic,’ she says. ‘Being part of this group with 9 other scale-up entrepreneurs, learning from them and seeing how they’ve tackled different issues is super inspiring. Being able to talk to the top entrepreneurs who have done it all before is amazing too. I think with Constantijn being involved as well, his endorsement holds a lot of credibility – that has really helped open doors for us.
‘I think the main takeaway is, every piece of advice that everyone has on how to run your business, there are always examples of people who are successful doing it in a different way. Sometimes you get conflicting advice but both can be true. The important thing is to be truly passionate about what you’re doing – if you really believe in it, you’ll choose your own path and it won’t matter how bumpy the road gets.’
For many businesses like Diane’s, the Covid-19 crisis has been the bumpiest road they’ve faced so far. The last few months of crisis have been difficult for Wizenoze too, but Diane’s experiences with Techleap and the education technology business have been crucial in helping to spur her onwards to turn negatives into positives for the business. ‘Like any entrepreneur I was looking at our cash flow and freaking out in the first few weeks!’ she says. ‘You have to think creatively to survive – that’s how you find a way to capture what the market wants, even in difficult times. In the end, when 1.5 billion learners are suddenly stuck at home dealing with the challenges of Google, that was a turning point for us.’ The long term effect of Covid-19 could well be that we all have to adjust to learning from home more often, and Wizenoze will be at the leading edge.