Story of Sjoerd Koolen — founder of Botvise

Sjoerd is the founder of chatbot platform Botvise. After working at Microsoft for 6 years, making sure that bigger organizations were able to deploy their products effectively through consultancy and in-house training. The problem was that there was not enough time to reach everyone effectively and answer all individual questions. How can I tackle their problems, being cost efficient for the client. With trial and error in e-learning, I found out that that wasn’t the solution either. It needed to be something that could deliver answers to questions, needed to be scalable, and being able to learn from individual questions so that tailored answers could be given. That’s how the idea for chatbot platform Botvise came to exist. A customizable chatbot platform to accompany and advise employees of bigger companies when implementing new software.

What led to the creation of Botvise? / What is the story of Botvise?

At Microsoft, I had to deal with big corporates with a lot of people. I wanted to include all those people in my story, answer all their questions and always be there for them. A lot of things went really well but this was something that could still be improved and I found that difficult. Microsoft gave me the freedom to build a system myself and create a lot of content. With only 2 views after 6 months, this was not the result I was aiming for. I asked myself: “Sjoerd, would you use this yourself? No.” So what do people want? They want their questions answered as fast as possible. I noticed the chatbot hype getting bigger and I thought: “Alright, how am I going to establish a chatbot platform that is focused on guiding and advising people at big corporates?” I started building and it evolved into Botvise.

What can Botvise do?

Botvise can guide employees through conversations and answer their questions so they become more productive in their work. Service desks can focus on the more difficult cases to solve, and organizations get valuable insights on how their workforce looks like and what they need. It can also analyze personas which results in the ability to give more personal advice at the end of the conversation. It’s like a content management system, customizable per company, so they can easily build and further develop their own bot.

Can you already call this deep-learning?

This is not deep-learning yet but that is definitely the next step. There are already some AI attributes in it but the goal is that the bot is going to understand the context in which questions are asked.

I’m curious about where I’m going and that’s what I love about entrepreneurship. Seeing my Trello board puts a smile on my face. Looking at the roadmap and all the things we will develop.

If you could spend 2 hours per week on your company, what activity would you spend it on?

My favorite thing to do is product development, building mockups, discussing within my tech club, seeing the product come to live and after all this, seeing the reactions of clients. Hopefully, that fits within 2 hours… I’m very happy that I developed a product that I think is cool and I’m convinced it adds value to end users. I think product development and discussing what is and what isn’t possible are the most fun things to do and I would prefer to do this 24/7 and leave the rest to others.

What book did you give away the most and why? What are your top 3 books that had the most impact on you and your life?

I don’t read a lot of books, that is definitely something I could improve. Recently, I got caught up in the book Homo Deus. Although it’s written in a very American way, which is taking a 150-page book and extend it to 300+ page encyclopedia, the story is quite interesting though. Harari talks about the challenges and goals of humanity, that are going to shape the twenty-first century.

Which purchase of €100 or less has had the most impact on your life in the last 6 months?

The only thing I can think of is a water bottle. I lost it while cycling and I specifically wanted the exact same bottle from the same brand. Luckily I got it ‘back’ for a few euros. Other than that, stuff for my bicycle, and the occasional dinner. I don’t buy much I don’t need.

What is something you are spending too much money on?

Going out for lunch or dinner. Other than that, I’m quite careful with how I spend my money.

Was there a moment in your life when you failed, that contributed to later success?

I failed many times in life. I will save you the date stories haha. But failure that contributed to later success… good question. It is not necessarily a failure but more a skill that I developed over time that has brought me a lot. Public speaking. I sucked at it in the beginning. Sometimes a presentation went quite well, the other time it was a bit too much the ‘Sjoerd-show’, instead of really going into the actual content. But by practicing to speak in front of an audience a lot, I got better at it. Although I still get nervous beforehand, I now love giving presentations and it is something I learn from every time. It has helped me connect with people and deliver compelling presentations.

If you could put a billboard in the middle of Amsterdam, what would you put on it?

Pay attention to what you are doing and say no to distractions. Go your own way. Too many people look at their phones while being in traffic for example. Also in general terms, I believe that we should focus more on one thing at a time and don’t let your attention fade to things that don’t really matter.

What is one of the best investments you have ever done? This could be an investment of time, energy, money or anything else.

Developing my product. Even though it doesn’t yield money in the short term, the process of an idea coming to life makes me very happy. Investing time and other resources to build something you believe in is the best investment you can do. Something else I spend a considerable of time and money on is cycle racing. It puts my mind at ease and keeps me in shape.

What is an unusual habit of yours?

I probably have a lot of unusual habits that I might not even be aware of. Probably the most annoying one is that before I can actually sleep, I have to try to go to sleep, then go to the toilet, and only when performed in that exact sequence, I will be able to fall asleep. Happens every night but I don’t know why and it’s such a waste of time. Another one… for some reason I am terrible at packing my bags before I am going on a trip. It’s like a mix of an autistic person and a chaotic person at the same time who is grabbing socks, and then pants, then socks again, then towels, then some books, etc.

What advice would you give to a young, ambitious student who recently graduated? What advice should they ignore?

Do not worry about exploring. Just try something. You often hear that it’s better to work for a startup compared to a corporate. But people tend to forget that corporates already found out the processes. They employ experienced people that you can learn from. So both startups and corporates have their unique capabilities that can help you develop yourself.

There’s also too much worry about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). You should focus on persistence. Keep going and don’t worry too much about the things you’re seemingly missing out on. Don’t quit something because the grass seems to be greener on the other side. Give it some time and pursue what you are doing even though it’s not always fun. 

I worked with a corporate for six years. From day one I’ve always wanted my own product. Should I have started building that instead of working with Microsoft? Maybe. But then I wouldn’t have had my network, the experience with one of the biggest companies in the world, and seen a lot of other companies in the process.

What is your advice about finding out which things student, that don’t know what to do, should try?

Start with something. Try different things and build up experience. Then you have your base, a foundation to explore new opportunities. Because they WILL come. Of course, I would have preferred to come up with FaceBook when I was 20, but even that is not the most important thing. It’s about developing yourself by gathering experiences, meet and talk to real people who can teach you a thing or two. Accomplish that and after a year or two of being in your comfort zone start to look further. Sometimes it is also totally okay to stay in your comfort zone for a while. You don’t always have to feel uncomfortable to develop yourself. Try to balance it and find your flow. People tend to drive each other crazy with opinions on what someone should or shouldn’t do. Find your own way. Just try things and along the way you will find your muse.

What is bad advice you hear in your profession/industry?

People want to belong to a group and once they do, they tend to follow and believe most of what is said in that group. Take Apple, for example, they make great products but (like many others) are not perfect at all times. However, some followers of that company don’t want to hear those bad things, they don’t wánt to be critical somehow. On the other hand, people can be over-critical as well. In the past, I had a lot of discussion with big corporates about the cloud. It was the new, next big thing as opposed to big data centers. They could not believe that our cloud, which has thousands of people working 24/7 on maintenance and security and could even withstand a nuclear attack, was safer than their own data centers. It is not necessarily bad advice I hear that worries me. It is the fact that so many decisions and likings are based on assumptions and perception.

To what have you become better saying no to in the past 5 years?

You can only use your time once, so you have to make choices. I don’t have any problems with saying no. Everyone has his or her priorities and that’s that, right?

What do you do if you feel overwhelmed or unfocused?

Definitely cycling. Apart from that, I have been trying mindfulness. It has helped me to put my mind at ease. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep at night because my mind is racing with thoughts. With mindfulness, I can ‘turn my brain off’. It helps me to become conscious of my thoughts and to practice ‘parking’ them.

I did a mindfulness course, a down to earth version and I found it very useful. It has a positive impact and actually I should do it more often, each day. It doesn’t have to take longer than 10 minutes. I use an app that talks me through it but it shouldn’t be too wishy-washy. It’s a kind of guided meditation.

What is your goal?

Personally, I want to be and stay happy. Professionally I want to become the internal knowledge platform for every corporate. Corporates have a lot of knowledge but they don’t utilize it optimally and it’s not being spread easily enough. When people leave corporates, the knowledge leaves with them and I want to change that. I see chatbot as a first form of collecting that knowledge and restoring it, like a hub. I want to become the factor standard of this, so it’s known that corporates that want to succeed, use this product. A product to absorb the knowledge and develop further to make corporates smarter. There is so much knowledge in people but it doesn’t always find its way to others. I’m obsessed with finding the optimal answer for what I need to know. I have a passion for the speed of knowledge.