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Joshua Wohle recently founded Mindstone, an online learning platform that helps you learn faster, remember more and share your insights, with co-founders Patrick Cootes, Melody Lang and Florian Zysset. All four founders have taken the pledge, multiplying Mindstone’s impact. We recently sat down with Joshua, who has made a 10% pledge, to find out more about Mindstone, the team’s motivations and his approach to impact.
Tell us about Mindstone
The underlying reason for creating Mindstone is really the idea to try and identify the sector where you can have the biggest possible positive impact on the world. And we’re big believers in the idea that education has ripple effects that no other industry has, so if you’re able to help people become better learners, which is the mission of the company, that will spill over as positive benefits in a bunch of other industries. So it’ll have effects in health, it’ll have effects in sustainability, it’ll have effects in basically everything else. And so that was the core of the company.
What brought you and your co-founders together to create Mindstone?
For the last 7 years, I’ve built a company called SuperAwesome, which was about building a safer internet for kids. That was already a pretty valuable goal to start with and with that being a decent success, there was really a ground zero exercise of okay, if money is not a motivator, if I think about the next 20-30 years of my life, how can I optimise that time in the best possible way? So that’s kind of where it came from.
We all have slightly different motivations for coming together. On a personal level, I moved around schools quite a lot. I grew up in the Netherlands, I was there for 13 years and then I did 10 years in Switzerland and now 10 years in London. But even in the Netherlands, I moved around to about five different schools in eight years or so. I started schooling in the Netherlands, did high school in Switzerland, I started university twice and dropped out twice in Switzerland and then I finally started and finished it here in London in Computer Science. Then I did my MBA remotely, through the Open University, and so I also had this kind of a personal angle to a bunch of different learning styles in different environments which have always left me very disappointed with the educational quality and everything that came around it.
I knew I needed an educator as part of this venture as I’m not one. I did an enormous amount of reading in the past 2-3 years leading up to this venture. Rule number 1 that seemed to apply was technologists trying to change education and continuing to fail over and over because they just don’t get education. So I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen and then I got introduced to Patrick. He’s a really good teacher and he’s been rated outstanding by Ofsted. He was a teacher for 18 years with a specialisation in epistemology. He kind of got to the point where he realised himself that he was pretty good but that his impact was always going to be limited to about 30 students at a time. And he was trying to figure out if there is a way that we can change that because as much as he was enjoying that impact, he kind of felt, okay well that’s the furthest that I can ever go unless there is a fundamental change.
Melody came from a different angle where she was just passionate about the space itself and how it was changing and then she spent four years with Knewton, which brought with it a very interesting experience. Then she spent two years investing in the space - specifically around the future of work and how people learn. Now she’s going back to it from an operational perspective because she realised she was more passionate about operating a company and scaling it herself than just investing in it.
Florian’s angle is very different again. Florian is a developer and our CTO. He’s a self-learner. He did his bachelor’s remotely and he built some really big systems before he ever got his degree. So his angle is that he has learned everything himself from the internet. He’s passionate about giving someone the ability to take any subject they want to learn and really go in-depth and scaling past just the development scene. Developers are able to, or at least are portrayed to be able to do this more often, and it’ll be interesting to see how you can take that and scale that across many different industries. So how do you become a top-notch economist without ever going through university, but just based on everything that’s already available online.
What drew you to Founders Pledge?
I was the one who knew about it and brought it to the table but everyone directly jumped on it and knew that it was the right thing to do. So yeah it wasn’t even a question, I didn’t have to convince anyone, it was literally just about hey guys, this is a thing - and everyone instantly was like ‘yeah, that makes sense’.
I think we all have slightly different motivations to it. Personally, it’s the possibility that we can be wrong about how best to make a difference. At the end of the day, even if we were to have a very successful exit one day, I’m most likely not going to use that money for personal stuff. I’ve got enough money on the personal side so I’m going to try and direct that money in ways that are appropriate, but I might be wrong in that. So signing up to Founders Pledge is an admission that you know what, we might not be the best stewards of the money that might come out of this, let’s make sure we have some risk mitigation by seeking advice on where that money could be best spent. That’s my personal motivation.
Tell us about your three-strand approach to impact
So this is similar to the reason for us signing up to Founders Pledge, it is somewhat a risk mitigation strategy on how to have the best possible impact. We’re building Mindstone which we think is definitely one possible solution to how we can improve learning. And we might be right on that or we might be wrong. If we’re wrong on that, I’m also investing in the ed tech space because others might be right and it would be great if we get to help those that are right try and make sure that they then push it through. And last but not least, we’ve got the charity angle, so even if we’re wrong on what we’re building and I’m wrong with the companies I’m investing in, well maybe Founders Pledge and charity overall are actually better at making a real impact. So you have those three strands to try and make sure that at the end of the day, there’s a lower chance that everything you’re currently doing is just wrong.
Do you have plans for measuring Mindstone’s impact?
We’re very passionate about making sure that we are going to implement rigorous testing to ensure that we are actually having the impact that we are wanting to have. Interestingly, we’re going to have to invent what that really means because there is no common measurement framework of what it means to be a good learner and so we’re going to have to invent some of that and then measure ourselves by our own standard. But we’re still very excited about that, for sure.
The things we get really excited about right now is when learners are using the system 7 days a week. We had a user who actually sent us a message saying this has changed the way they’re interacting with content and they were able to structure it much better. It’s very anecdotal-type evidence that we’re getting at the moment.
How has your experience of Founders Pledge been so far?
From a structural perspective, it was what I was expecting, but from a support perspective it was more than I was expecting. I didn’t expect the honing in on the priorities exercise and what came out of that. I’m pretty methodical and the last thing I would have wanted would be for Founders Pledge not to be methodical and then me start to question: wait, is the money actually going into the right places? As I understand it, that is the whole idea behind Founders Pledge; it is a systemised, properly impact-based way of actually making sure the money goes to the right places.
What parts of Founders Pledge are you most excited about?
I am really excited to meet the other founders and other like-minded people that have done this. So if you look at that three-stranded approach and how I’m trying to have an impact, getting introduced to more people who are trying to have an impact and figuring out if and how I could potentially be helpful to those people as well. Or potentially how those people might be helpful to us trying to achieve what we’re trying to achieve too. That’s something I’m excited about. It’s a shame that we’re now in this COVID period but I’m looking forward to that in future for sure.