An Interview With John Knific, The Co-Founder of Wisr

“Ding!” John noticed that his company’s customer support site received one customer message. Soon, “ding, ding!” he received several other messages. Minutes later, “ding, ding, ding, diiiiiiing!” Messages were pouring in. It was a Thanksgiving night, and John was at his home. He didn’t know what was happening. At the peak, the support site received hundreds of messages within few minutes. He quickly called his team together and they started responding to those messages. They didn’t stop until 6 in the morning on the second day.

“When we first launched the company, we didn’t fully understand how to support customers.” John Knific told me. In Oberlin College, you may have heard from the career center about Wisr, an website that allows students to chat and schedule a call with Oberlin alumni. John is the co-founder and CEO of Wisr. Before this, he also owned an online video audition company and provided its very first service for the Oberlin conservatory who used to require students mailing audition CDs to the college. During the admission season the college received thousands of packages, and John’s company solved the problem by making the audition process online. The service was a success, but John also starts to understand more about customer support by staying up all night in Thanksgiving responding customers’ questions.

Being an entrepreneur means you have to think about everything, and everything is hard. Funding, prototype, technology, human resources, marketing, and so much more must be considered, and there are so little time allocated for each thing. When John talked about his earliest experience with start-ups, he chuckled and said: ”instead of understanding our customers and making our product valuable to them, I worried more about something like the design of the logo, or what my website should look like. But what I should really think about is what’s the one thing of my company that customers are willing to pay for.”

What is the one thing that customers will pay for? From my experience in taking the Intro to Entrepreneurship class with Bara, I think that is THE question that many student entrepreneurs should think about. In the class, “Internet” always seems to be a solution for any problems. Don’t know how to choose a major? Let’s build a website that has all the information of each major. Don’t know where to find meaningful events? Let’s build a page that can let people search events. Don’t know too much about different job? Again, a website will solve it. Because the Internet seems to be so powerful and it lowers the barrier of being an entrepreneur, students can easily lose focus. They want to do everything, but which one, even just one product that can be valuable to customers and make them buy it.

Wisr is also an internet-based company, but John keeps in mind its main mission. He wants to build a platform where people can meet others with similar interests and learn from their experiences. Through Wisr, he doesn’t want students to just get a few pieces of advice. He wants students and alumni to establish a deep mentorship that would greatly benefit each side. The idea of mentorship is the core value for John, and it drives him to get rid of distractions and make his product useful in building a mentoring relationship.

If we think of mentorship as maintaining a deep and meaningful connection with other people, John also applied this value to his business model. For education start-ups, there are two main types of business models: you can skip the school and directly sell your product to students, or you work with the school and let it distribute the product. And Wisr chose the latter. John told me: ”it is a lot slower with the second one because it takes close to a year before the school can start using our product.” He continues: “but that’s what we want our company to be. We want to build a long-term relationship with schools.” Wisr right now is constantly improving their products based on the feedbacks from colleges and students, and several weeks ago they also worked with the Oberlin career center to offer a visit to their headquarter in Ohio City.

In the headquarter, you can find where John works by searching for a desk that has a photo of his son dressing up like a dinosaur. It reminds me so much of my father who also loves to put my photo on his desk. Once he got a new office and couldn’t find any photos of me, so he used the printer in the office and printed some. But it was a black and white printer and he used them anyway.

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