Close up photo of three individuals working together at desk

Before its headline-grabbing sale to an industry leader, startup Wisr grew deep roots at Case Western Reserve

How a jazz pianist started in pre-med and pivoted to entrepreneurship at the university, then launched Cleveland startup companies that garnered national attention and investment

As a high school senior in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 16 years ago, John Knific struggled with a choice familiar to many in his position: where to attend college that fall.

A musician with interests in science and medicine, he wanted an institution that was flexible enough to let him participate in a range of disciplinary offerings. Case Western Reserve University turned out to be the perfect fit.

John Knific

“Case Western Reserve threaded some tough needles,” said Knific, a 2009 graduate. “To offer excellent programs in so many different disciplines—it was [an ideal] match.”

By 2016, Knific’s experience selecting a school had led him to co-found Wisr, a company that applies technology and peer networks to help prospective students find the right campus for them.

Last month, EAB, a consulting firm advising more than 1,300 educational institutions, bought the Cleveland startup. While terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, being purchased by a dominant industry leader is among the most positive outcomes a new company can achieve.

“For many entrepreneurs, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that, frankly, not many ever experience,” said Michael Goldberg, a Weatherhead School of Management faculty member who also leads the university’s Veale Institute of Entrepreneurship. “The sale is total endorsement of Wisr’s team and how startups, even in Cleveland, can make it.” 

For Knific, it’s also validation that in choosing Case Western Reserve, he gained far more than a wide array of academic experiences. He credits relationships developed through the university—as well CWRU’s early investment—for Wisr’s eventual sale.

“When I ultimately decided to not pursue music or medicine,” Knific said, “it was the network I’d built through Case Western Reserve that’s helped me carve a career path I never expected.”

Accidental entrepreneur

While Knific originally intended to attend medical school after earning his undergraduate degree, those plans changed after he and a roommate launched an entrepreneurial venture aimed at high school students who hoped to pursue performing arts degrees in college.

At the time, most applicants either traveled to audition in person or submitted DVD recordings of their work—approaches that were time-consuming for applicants and selection committees alike. If students instead could submit videos of their performances via a web-based app, Knific and his roommate theorized, the process would be easier for everyone involved. Their company based on the concept, DecisionDesk, began with a focus on music auditions.

“We very quickly scaled to a couple dozen conservatories before graduating,” Knific said. “I fell in love with starting a business.”

Along the way, the team leaned on experts available at the university—including Bob Sopko, director of CWRU LaunchNET and faculty at the Weatherhead School—to raise venture capital and reach new clients.

“They helped me know how to go into battle to grow a business with very little background,” Knific said. “We were among the earliest software startups raising venture capital in the region.”

Pivoting to Wisr

After nearly a decade of success, DecisionDesk struggled, and its leadership decided to shutter the company. But Knific was quickly working on his next venture.

(From left) Kris Ciccarello, Kate Volzer and John Knific

Now equipped with experience in education and enrollment technology, Knific partnered with local entrepreneurs Kate Volzer and Kris Ciccarello to found Wisr.

“Every student and member of the campus community far and wide should have their own personal support network,” Knific said. “That was the vision.”

The company’s first pitch happened in a familiar place: on the Case Western Reserve campus with Lou Stark, vice president for Student Affairs, and Tom Matthews, associate provost for Student Success.

“Before we’d written a line of code for the software, they agreed to become our first customer,” Knific recalled. “It was a huge leap of faith in one of the school’s alums.”

Starting as a pilot program for the university’s Alumni Association, Wisr worked out its kinks, scaled up and secured dozens of clients within a few years and, in time, expanded their services into orientation, mentorship programs, enrollment and more.

“There’s so much on the line choosing a school—these are major financial and life decisions,” Knific said. “Wisr found a niche in helping students and parents choose the school that’s right for them.”

When the pandemic hit

Prior to COVID-19’s arrival in this country, Wisr’s leaders had serendipitously created new products to offer its college clients more value and efficiency in their cycles of recruiting, enrolling and educating students.

One such effort, targeting what’s known as “summer melt”—when prospective students submit a deposit but ultimately do not enroll that fall—proved effective in a pilot with the University of Chicago. Using Wisr’s new services, the top-10 U.S. News & World Report-ranked institution saw a nearly 30% decrease in its summer melt, which was already relatively low.

In November 2019, Wisr launched the service more broadly; less than a month later, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in China.

As cases and deaths rose, and lockdowns shuttered campuses and businesses, higher education faced increasing uncertainty. It was a critical moment for the company and its clients—how could college be the same with such an unforgiving threat to public health?

Word got out about Wisr’s successful pilot with the University of Chicago.

“Almost overnight, we brought on nearly all of the Ivy League schools,” Knific said. “We were all hands on deck, into the night, for weeks. For a young company like us, the stakes felt as high as could be.”

Wisr met the challenge. More than 70% of the institutions working with Wisr hit or beat their 2019 enrollment figures for fall 2020.

Goldberg, a college classmate of EAB’s CEO, had made an introduction to the company earlier in its lifecycle. Over time, the company continued to appear on EAB’s radar—especially when Wisr’s revenue grew by more than 300% in 2020. Ultimately, the two entities agreed on a deal.

Knific, who still plays jazz piano, celebrated by buying a new keyboard and, he said, “a few good bottles of wine.”

What’s ahead

While the pandemic isn’t over, vaccinations are increasing and cases, hospitalizations and deaths have shown promising signs of slowing. Many colleges and universities have successfully managed operations through the pandemic.

The Wisr team will remain based in Cleveland. In his new role as an EAB managing director, Knific will oversee integrating his one-time start-up’s operations with EAB.

If Wisr had existed when Knific was in high school, he would like to think his college decision would have turned out the same.

“There’s no place like Case Western Reserve,” he said. “It’s a joy to help others see this for themselves and know it’s the right place to be.”

This article was originally published April 13, 2021.