In 2019, Prowise celebrates its ten-year anniversary. Founders Michael Ahrens and Erik Neeskens explain how it all started and why the first decade is only the beginning. A conversation about the drive for innovation, Chinese hotel rooms and Champions League football.
Halfway in the conversation, Michael Ahrens summarises the ambition concisely. He uses a football metaphor to explain how Prowise will go forward from here. “We want to win the Champions League. For us, that means 100% satisfied customers. We have gone through the ranks from amateur-league football to the Premiership and now we have earned a seat at the Champions League table. To excel in the highest competition, you need a ‘Messi’ in some positions, and a good defender in others. But also the coaching, proper care and training pitch are important. With regard to Prowise, we are still making important steps forward.
Drive for innovation
Looking back on the past decade, some great anecdotes come to the surface for both men. They have been working together since 2001. Initially at Paradigit and then under the Stepco flag. Their creativity and ideas on how to move forward in the education sector in terms of technology did not always match with the plans of their employers. If we had a big mouth like that, we might as well do it ourselves.”
Chinese hotel rooms
Put your money where your mouth is. Under the banner “BordWijs”, the predecessor of the brand that would later become Prowise. The duo left for China to find an alternative for the beamer. Prime quality, robust against all impacts it faces on a regular school day and affordable all in one. They realised immediately that the unique selling point was the total solution. A touchscreen, fitted with a smart software and a lift system to make it versatile. Erik: “At the start there was hardly a budget. We were staying in a two-person hotel room in China. Continuously on each other’s skin, foreign food, jet lag and Chinese signs. Try to explain where you need to be then. Those were the days.”
Michael explains that in the first couple of years he would regularly travel to China for extended periods to monitor the production process. The biggest challenge was to make the people there think like Prowise. “The Chinese are concerned with cheap production, and that is not necessarily a bad mindset. But you should never skimp. Think of smooth finishing or the casing. They are satisfied with a one-millimetre misalignment in the casing, we want everything to align perfectly.” Erik adds: “If you don’t make clear agreements, they install LED lights with a short lifespan. Then you have to travel 2000 kilometres to ‘service’ that light on behalf of Prowise.”
All of the savings
Thanks to their history in the education sector, contacts, vision and personal approach, the duo gained the trust of many Dutch schools. The first shipment of touchscreens was a tense moment nonetheless. All their savings were in that container. Erik: “You know the stories; what if the container is full of bricks? We therefore carefully checked whether the touchscreens were shipped in the right container. From the sound to the visual quality. We only paid once the container was sealed.” The principle of quality assurance within Prowise, although a lot more comprehensive and sophisticated now, was born then.
Under Prowise management
Michael and Erik have been confident with their vision from the very first day. Soon it proved that the competition was impressed too. More and more other brands approached the factory where Prowise had gone through all that effort to obtain a strong product. This development led an important thought process. Michael: “We still had so many ideas to make our products better, but we wanted to avoid free riders. We therefore internalised the entire development and design of our products, much like Apple did. We now make all the components ourselves. We design and produce the motherboard in our touchscreens independently. This way, we can continue to add features and safeguard a quality standard that is simply not attainable for our competitors.”
Erik indicates that it is very beneficial that Prowise produces all components independently and under own management. Just consider the privacy and security. “The competition is almost always in Chinese hands and cannot comply with the strict European directives with respect to ISO certifications for instance. Just think about what that means for student details alone. We have never had such a big lead on the rest of the market players, and it is almost impossible to close that gap now.
To be able to compete in the education sector, you need good software that enables you to teach in a modern way. What is the point in having a touchscreen, when it doesn’t have software that supports ten-finger operation when you are working with kids? This is how the education software Prowise Presenter was born. Nowadays at Prowise, almost 100 employees are working on all aspects of software development. An investment of ten years and millions of pounds. As a result, the hard work has paid off: Prowise Presenter is now entirely free for everyone. “Our inventors”, Erik says as he winks when speaking of the development department at Prowise. He refers to his colleagues who make sure that smart ideas are translated into concrete and directly deployable products for in the classroom. “With every new technology we add value to the education sector. That is only possible if you make your own hardware and software.”
With pleasure and passion
Even after ten years and many, many flight hours, the men are still glowing with pleasure when they speak of their passion: Prowise. They love their job. If you wouldn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t be able to stay for ten years, both men agree. This mindset resonated throughout the company. Erik: “For many people, this is an adventure. Together we go through good and bad times. Social atmosphere and labour conditions contribute to a good result.” Referring back to the football metaphor: “You can only win that Champions League cup if your best players are motivated and can find each other seamlessly.”
At the Google factory
In all countries where the company is active, Prowise wants to make sure customers are completely happy with the Prowise solution. From the US to Australia and from Germany to the UK. Erik: “Our mission is: digitalising classrooms. From A to Z. From infrastructure to adaptive software, so students can learn more effectively.” To support this ambition, Prowise has made alliances with international powerhouses such as Google, Microsoft, LG and Intel. Michael: “We are extremely proud of the fact that we have the highest level of partnership at Google. We are one of the only ones in the world who have direct access to their factories to produce our Chromebooks. We also have the gold status at Microsoft and are Intel Technology Partner. All that for a company from the Dutch town of Budel. I often have the feeling that our 200 colleagues count for at least 600.”