Kars Veling might have one of the shortest LinkedIn descriptions out there: “Fascinated by internet technology.” It’s concise, to the point and quite frankly, it says it all.
As the founder and currently CEO of LessonUp, an online platform for teachers to create interactive and engaging content for their students, Kars knows all about what technology can do if put to the right use. It enables people to achieve more and to inspire.
I just love tech. At 10, I started coding and I never stopped. I love programming and fixing real things with it.
Walking the line between CTO and CEO
There is no doubt that technology is Kars’ real passion and so over the years, he has had to learn to balance that with running a company.
Prior to starting LessonUp together with Janneke Plaisier, who would later also become his partner in life, Kars founded strategic internet agency Q42. He acted as its Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for nearly 17 years before he took a step back to focus on LessonUp, and is now still on its Board of Directors.
“If I had to choose between being a CTO and CEO, I would choose CTO,” he says.
His whole journey with LessonUp started with the idea for a tool that teachers could use to make their classes more engaging and fun. The initial focus was on the product, making it as easy and intuitive as possible for teachers to use. Kars’ drive to create a tool that his target audience loves has been a key aspect of what has made him successful in his career. Yet, he also knows that there is more to running a great company.
“For a product techie like myself, the hardest part in this journey has been realizing that it’s not the product that helps you grow. It’s the people around you, the communication.” Putting together a team of people who do not necessarily share his technical background has been a challenge and it has definitely been a change from running Q42.
“It’s a completely different ballgame,” he says, “but it’s the adventure I’ve been looking for.”
Growing the team and the business - and falling in love
Kars has always strived towards delivering a great product with just the right features, and he’s been doing that with his customers in mind. “The main thing that we focus on is helping teachers. They are the ones that help children grow and inspire them, so we want to make their job easier and more fun.”
His mission is that every lesson that is created on LessonUp gets shared, so the entire teacher community on the platform can benefit from it. “There are around 8,000 teachers teaching Dutch and we want them to see each other’s lessons and inspire each other.”
And Kars and his team must be doing it right, because there are now more than 120,000 teachers subscribed, the business is profitable and there are plans to expand internationally. The challenge for Kars now is to drive the company forward towards those goals, while also looking for its next CEO.
The thing is, LessonUp would have a CEO in the face of Janneke if only she and Kars hadn’t fallen in love. The two of them co-founded the company back in 2014 and a couple of years later realized that they were meant for each other. “I fell in love,” Kars says simply. “This is not something you plan for.”
And while the two of them couldn’t be any happier, they were faced with a hard decision. “We knew that if we wanted to take our relationship seriously, one of us would have to step out of the company. It so happened that Janneke had been wanting to start her own pilates studio, so she took the opportunity to do that.”
For more than a year, Kars has been steering the company on his own and is yet to choose his future CEO. It’s a matter of trust, he says, so he is taking his time to find just the right person.
“In Q42, it took me 8-10 years to learn I needed to hire a CEO. Now it’s only been four years, so I’m doubling my speed of learning,” he laughs.
And while Kars and LessonUp are there to make teaching (and learning) more fun and engaging, they are doing their own learning all the time, too. Running a company has taught Kars to design a product that customers love, to build a great team and to lead it into international expansion.
As he says, “by 2023, LessonUp will be active in six countries.” He has the goal and the ambition, and it’s only up from there.
Listen to the podcast with Kars at buzzsprout.