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Zoonk, a history

· 15 min read
Will Ceolin

I've been thinking about creating Zoonk since 2007. Now it's finally the time to make it happen. On this post, I share some details of the path that led me to this point.

A "zoom" to knowledge (v1, 2007)

The year was 2007. I got a full college scholarship to study Journalism and I ended up quitting my job as a salesman in a computer store. But the thing is: I still needed some money. So, I thought I could start an online business.

Coming from a poor family, I knew how important education was to change people's lives. I wanted to create something that would help people learn new things.

Without a clear idea of what I wanted to do, I sat down with my uncle Vitor to think about a name for this business. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to bring knowledge closer to people. He almost instantly said as a joke: "It sounds like you want to zoom to knowledge".

The expression "zoom to knowledge" stayed in my head. I put them together and came up with "Zoonk". I even thought of another "official" explanation for the name: "The living knowledge that moves independently." I thought of it because the word zoon also means an organism that moves independently.

So many ideas, so little time...

I thought of a name, I knew I wanted to do something in education but reality is: I had no idea what I was doing or what exactly I wanted to do. I was just a 17-year-old kid with a lot of dreams and no idea how to make them happen.

Then, life happened. I tried other ideas and I actually forgot about Zoonk for a while. I think I had registered the domain at some point but I forgot to renew it. Then, by the end of 2008, something happened: Felipe Massa almost won the Formula One World Championship. Brazilians were excited about Formula One and I thought I could create a website about it.

So, I did it. Corrida F1 was an encyclopedia and blog about Formula One. It ended up becoming quite successful. At some point, the website had more than 500,000 monthly page views. It became my main income during college and made me forget about Zoonk for a long time.

First version of the Corrida F1 website

A Netflix for news (v2, 2014)

Fast forward to 2014. By now, I had been working at the university I graduated from and kept my Formula One website as a side project only. I was happy with my job and I was making a decent living. But I was also feeling a bit lost. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, I quit and that's when I started thinking about Zoonk again.

But, as a graduated journalist now, I thought knowledge could mean "news" in this context. Netflix was the hot topic of the moment, so I had the "brilliant" idea of creating a Netflix for news. I thought I could create a website where people could pay a monthly subscription to read news from different sources. I thought it would be a great way to help people find quality news.

It didn't work. I didn't neither the resources nor the knowledge to do it. That was my second attempt to build Zoonk and that's when Everton Teixeira designed the Zoonk logo we still use today.

Early version of Zoonk as a news website

VR Games (v3, 2015)

The following year I moved to the Netherlands to study Artificial Intelligence. It always bothered me how little the education system had evolved since the Industrial Revolution. I thought AI could help us to make learning personalized. That was a common topic of conversation between me and Bruno Seidel, a friend I made at my previous job. This was our vision captured in this video edited by Simoni Helfer:

There was a "small" issue, though: I was living abroad and I didn't have a job. Short on money, I started thinking about Zoonk again.

My third attempt of building Zoonk was to create virtual reality games where kids could learn any subject by being immersed in a virtual world. I thought it would be a great way to make learning fun. So, I invited Bruno to join me and we started working on it. He was doing the design and content and I was doing the programming.

I had an issue back then: I used to get lost by the hype. I was always excited about the latest technology and I thought it would be the solution to all my problems. That's why Zoonk ended up being about VR in 2015.

Needless to say, it didn't work. It was hard to scale because VR games were difficult to make. The technology was expensive, which would make adoption much harder for schools. And the format wasn't quite right, either. Looking back, I can't imagine how I thought kids would stop what they were doing in class, put some goggles on and learn using a VR game. That wasn't going to happen.


The goodThe bad
I learned a lot about VR.I got lost by the hype.
VR did make it easier to understand how something works in real-life.VR games are hard to scale.
VR is expensive and it's hard to get people to adopt it.
Difficult to create content.

Early version of Zoonk as a VR game

We were using Meteor for our website.

Embracing WebVR (v4, 2016)

Still immersed on the VR hype, I thought about focusing on especialized content for education. In my mind, the main issue with the previous format was because it was too generic and expensive to create content. That's when I found out about A-Frame, a framework for building VR experiences on the web using WebVR. It was perfect in my mind:

  • We can use cheap web technologies to create VR experiences.
  • We can reduce the cost of creating content.
  • We can reduce the cost of adoption since it runs on the browser.
  • People can use Google Cardboard to learn with Zoonk:

Google Cardboard

That was our fourth attempt to build Zoonk. Now we had Ivan Rubin, a 3D Artist from Finland helping us as well. We crafted an experiment where people could go inside the digestive system using VR.


The goodThe bad
I gained WebVR experience.WebVR technology isn't ready for mass adoption.
WebVR can be much cheaper than traditional VR.VR isn't comfortable for using for hours of learning.
VR makes it easier to understand a complex subject.Creating content is expensive.
We'd need a friendly VR editor to scale content production.

A virtual reality scene showing the digestive system

Giving VR a last chance (v5, 2017)

I was still convinced VR was the future of education. So, I decided to give it another try. Bruno Seidel and I thought we needed to make it simpler to create VR games for education. But we didn't have our 3D Artist anymore. So, Seidel decided to design some simpler games using basic shapes that I'd be able to develop using WebVR:

VR short game where users would learn about colorsStoryboard for educational game in VR

We tested some VR stuff with kids and they loved it:

Kid playing with VRKid playing with VRKid playing with VR

But even making those games simpler, we didn't manage to fix the scaling issues and make sure those games would affordable for schools to adopt them. So, we decided to give up on VR on our fifth attempt of building Zoonk.


The goodThe bad
Kids loved VR.Schools can't really afford VR tech.
We finally realized VR isn't the tech that is going to change education. At least, not right now.By making our games simpler, they lost the fun aspect.

Interactive learning (v6, 2017)

After giving up on VR, we had the idea that worked best so far: Interactive learning experiences that looked a lot like Duolingo but using storytelling.

We'd give students missions to play. Each mission would be a story where they'd learn a new concept. We'd use a lot of illustrations and animations to make it fun. Simoni Helfer created this video to showcase our new product:

Everton Kayser was responsible for the UI design of this new version.

Kids loved it. About 90% of the kids who tried it, liked it. Bruno worked on the animations and I coded a mobile app using Ionic. I really thought this would finally work. But we found some roadblocks:

  • How to make money from it.
  • How to scale the content creation.

Making money is a common issue in this field. We want to improve how kids learn but they aren't those who pay for the product. We needed to convince teachers and school managers. But, for them, this was just another tool they would need to learn.


Overall, we learned the most from our sixth attempt of building Zoonk:

The goodThe bad
Kids loved it.We didn't find a way to make money from it.
Kids learned better when compared to traditional lectures.We didn't find a way to scale content.
Teachers were also excited about it.Convincing schools to adopt new tools was harder than I thought.
Interactive learning felt like the right approach.We needed better arguments to sell this to schools.
Not clear how to ingrate this to the school curriculum.
We needed a tool for easily crating those games.

Zoonk Creator (v7, 2017)

I left the sixth attempt convinced that the main blocking our progress was an easier way to create content and, therefore, scale it. So, I decided to build a tool that would make it easier to create interactive learning experiences. It was called Zoonk Creator and that was our seventh attempt of building Zoonk.

By now, only Bruno Seidel and I were still actively working on it. Gilberto Borges was giving us some feedback on how to turn it more into a role-playing game and also creating a History game. But most people who previously collaborated with us had lost faith on the project and left (rightfully so since we didn't prove we could turn things around after so much time).

In the meantime, I created a new game: Frankenstein's Lab where kids could learn about chemistry and biology by building their own Frankenstein monster:

Zoonk Creator screenshotFrankenstein's Lab gameplay

The stories became more interesting, the storytelling was better and it did improve the content creation process but, by turning it into a role-playing game with multiple scenarios, it became more complex to create.

In the end, I ran out of money and I had to stop working on it. I was still convinced that interactive learning was the future of education. But I didn't have the resources to keep working on it. My savings were over and I had to find a job.


The goodThe bad
More interesting.More complex to create content.
Better storytelling.RPG is great to consume but hard to create.
We built a tool for creating content.It still wasn't clear how to make money.
It was possible to scale if we had more money.

Interactive stories (v8, 2019)

After a couple of years, I've decided to give it another try. I was still convinced that interactive learning was the future of education. So, I started working on a new version of Zoonk. This time, I wanted to focus on interactive stories that were simpler than the previous version.

For example, instead of having open-ended stories that made them too complex to create, they would have a fixed number of scenes: 10. Basically, every choice would lead to the same scene next, whereas the previous version would have a different scene for each choice.

It kinda worked. This was the most adopted version of Zoonk so far: more than 100 people played stories and more than 10 people created their own stories on the platform. The numbers weren't quite as good as my Corrida F1 project but it was a promising start after so many failures.

For this version, I also had the help of Sephora Lillian - who would become my wife one and half year later. She was responsible for day-to-day operations and she also helped a lot with publicizing the project to her wide network.

When people started using this, I realized it had a lot of potential but for a different audience: Parents creating stories with their kids. So, I turned it into Ikidoo, a spin-off of Zoonk for parents and kids:

Storytelling app screenshotIkidoo content creation screenshot

But I gave up because it didn't work for the target audience I wanted: students. So, the eighth attempt of building Zoonk was a failure too.


The goodThe bad
Discovered a new audience/product.It moved away from my target audience.
It was easier to create content.It looked more like a storytelling app than a learning one.
More engagement.Unclear how to link it with the school curriculum.
Positive feedback.Not everything is better learned with stories.
Users didn't learn as much as v6.

Social network for sharing learning resources (v9, 2020)

At some point in 2019, Sephora mentioned how hard it was for her to keep track of all her learning resources and how good it would be to have a central place to organize that information. So, I decided to turn Zoonk into a social network for sharing learning resources and keep the storytelling part on Ikidoo only:

Learning path screenshotReal-life example screenshot

This was by far the most successful version of Zoonk. It had thousands of visitors and more than 10,000 learning resources shared. But it also moved away from my original vision of interactive learning. I think this product had potential but that wasn't the product I wanted to build.

I started all this because I wanted to improve education; because I wanted to make learning more fun and engaging. This wasn't the case anymore. So, I decided to stop working on it when I got a job offer to join Standard Bots full-time.

It was the first version of Zoonk fully open-sourced, though.

A white label for interactive courses (v10, 2023)

I stopped working on Zoonk for a while but I never quite forgot it. During the pandemic I thought people would build similar solutions for interactive learning and my work wouldn't be necessary anymore. That didn't happen and I still think it's something important to build.

This is where we are now, the tenth attempt of building Zoonk: An open-source platform for creating interactive courses. It comes from the learnings from all the previous versions of Zoonk, both the good and the bad.

It's kinda of a white label version of Duolingo. It doesn't have all of Duolingo's features but you get the point: An open-source way for everyone to offer interactive courses.

I hope Zoonk will be for learning what WordPress is for blogging.

I don't know if this is going to work or if it's going to be another failure. Only time will tell. But I'm excited about this new chapter and building it in public, sharing everything I've learned over the past 16 years.

For every iteration of Zoonk, I've learned a bunch of things that helped me a lot in life. So, even if this new version of Zoonk doesn't work, I'm happy with the journey so far and I'm curious to see what I'm going to learn this time. The advantage now is that everything will be open, so other people can learn from my mistakes and successes too.