In this article, LCB’s managing editor, Aaron Posehn, sits down with Adam Menon, founder of Chinese Learn Online, to discuss his experience building a Chinese-language podcasting business in Taiwan over the last decade.
This post is the first in a series on entrepreneurship in Greater China. A listing of all interviews are currently listed here.
LCB: It’s not every day that a person decides to build a business to teach a language that is not his mother tongue, and in a foreign country no less! How did you originally start Chinese Learn Online, and was it your intention to do so upon coming to Taiwan?
AM: My original plan was to come to Taiwan to teach English for a year and then head back to Canada to work in my field (computer science). I enjoyed my teaching experience though, and that one year quickly became three. However, I didn’t want to lose all the experience I had gained in teaching and learning Chinese by going back to Canada, so I started looking for a way to combine these experiences with computer technology.
I noticed that most resources for learning Chinese were developed by native Chinese speakers, which makes sense. However, how they learned Chinese was very different from how native English speakers would learn. Many times I kept thinking to myself that if I was the teacher, I would teach it very differently, so I decided to experiment by starting a course from the perspective of the learner, basically teaching others the way I wish I had been taught. That’s how Chinese Learn Online (CLO) was born.
LCB: Tell our readers a bit more about Chinese Learn Online. How do you specifically help your customers to learn Chinese, and have you decided to focus on a specific type of teaching style or clientele?
AM: One of my favorite resources for learning Chinese was Pimsleur. They use audio-based lessons that are progressive, so as they teach you words in Chinese, they reuse them in future lessons, forcing you to keep up and practice what you’ve already learned. I really loved that format, but there were a few problems with it that I tried to solve with CLO:
1. There were only 3 or 4 levels available. After finishing those, I wanted more.
2. There weren’t any written resources available for it. Many times I wished there was a transcript with which I could follow along.
3. It was very Beijing-centric in terms of pronunciation and word usage. I had to relearn some of the material for Taiwan.
I tried to solve these issues with CLO by offering many more lessons (420 lessons across 7 levels), and using Taiwanese speakers, with available transcripts and other exercises that you could interact with.
My target audience is mainly users who want a full self-study Mandarin course, and who want to work through the lessons at their own pace, or who want to supplement their current learning with additional self-study resources.
LCB: I noticed that you’ve actually started a number of other projects and businesses since coming to Taiwan, such as a number of apps selling on Apple’s app store, as well as a newer website, www.ReadTypeChinese.com. Could you expand upon these, as well as any other projects you might be involved in?
AM: Over the years, the technology and tools available to users has improved tremendously, so I’ve had to try and keep up with those. More and more people are now using smart phones and apps for their learning. I currently offer an Introduction to CLO iPhone app, plus a couple of other Chinese flashcard apps. In the future I plan to add more lessons to the CLO app, while also adding an Android version.
Another project I’m working on is www.ReadTypeChinese.com (RTC). I got inspired by trying out one of many sites out there that teaches users how to program. I loved the interactivity of those programs where you “learn by “doing,” meaning that they teach you a concept, and then ask you to implement it on screen, providing immediate feedback so you could see right away if you are on the right track or not.
I tried to use that concept with RTC, which is a progressive course, similar to CLO, and focuses on reading and typing. As a new word or character is taught to you, you are asked to type it on screen to confirm that you understand it. As more words and characters are taught, users will be given more in-depth reading material to work with, while a counter keeps track of how many characters they can read and type so far.
LCB: What were the main difficulties you encountered when first establishing yourself as an entrepreneur in Taiwan? How did you manage these problems?
AM: My first challenge was to obtain the proper visa to stay in Taiwan. As a boot strapped startup, I didn’t have much money and didn’t want to go through the expenses of registering my business right away, even before I had my first customer. So I enrolled in a local language center and obtained a student visa. This gave me my first formal training in Chinese, while still giving me time to work on my business on the side.
As I wanted to keep expenses low, I hired university students to help me out. Instead of renting an expensive office, we used free wifi to work in the lobby of a local hotel. We did this for almost a year, before they kicked us out. Fortunately we had enough revenue by then to afford to move into our own office.
LCB: As a second part to the last question, what types of challenges do you encounter now that you and your business are firmly established in Taiwan?
AM: There are pluses and minuses to registering your business in Taiwan. If your clients and revenue is local, then it obviously makes sense. In my case, most of my revenue is from overseas clients who pay using services like Paypal. Taiwanese banks aren’t as friendly with Paypal like Western banks are.
One other issue I’ve had is the cultural differences in dealing with Taiwanese clients. In the Western world, if someone is not interested in your services they (hopefully politely) decline on the spot. In the Chinese world, since face is so important, there have been many instances where the client wasn’t interested in my services but wouldn’t tell me directly, causing me to incorrectly believe I still had a chance with them. I would have much rather they told me directly so we could both move on.
LCB: What are the key assets that helped you to build your business?
AM: Like any business, having a good product is crucial to success. All the marketing in the world won’t help you if your core product isn’t any good. I’ve also been blessed with great employees and local support, which has helped get the business to where it is today.
LCB: Did you experience any problems as a non-Taiwanese citizen when first setting up your company? Specifically, were there any types of legal obligations that you needed to meet?
AM: Getting my business registered in Taiwan required filling out a lot of forms, a lot of which were in Chinese. I ended up hiring a lawyer to help me do this. She also helped me get a business visa, which involved signing a contract between myself (business owner) and myself (employee), which I found odd.
There were other rules like requiring startup capital to be deposited into my bank account. However, this money had to come from overseas, so I had to wire Taiwanese money out of my bank and then back again.
After a year I had to go through another process to renew my business visa, which I found to be a bit of a hassle.
All of this is worth it if you have the revenue to support it. If not, you might want to consider other alternatives.
LCB: You’ve been very involved with the entrepreneurship community in Taiwan, even leading your team to victory in the 2011 Startup Weekend competition in Taipei. Has participating in the entrepreneur community in Taiwan, and especially the foreign entrepreneur community, helped you to improve your own businesses and business knowledge over the years?
AM: Absolutely. It’s great meeting other like minded entrepreneurs–both local and foreign–to see what kinds of challenges they are going through and what you can learn from them. I’m also happy to provide advice wherever I can.
The challenges are different, depending on what kind of a business you’re starting. Obviously, marketing to Chinese consumers requires a different approach than to Western consumers. These are all insights you can learn from others in the community.
LCB: What advice would you give to someone today who wanted to start an internet-based company in Taiwan?
AM: Taiwan has a lot of benefits going for it. It is a relatively low-cost environment, compared to many Western cities, so you can bootstrap yourself a bit more easily. Rent, food, employee salaries, and taxes are all a lot cheaper than in most Western countries.
However with that, you have to deal with additional paperwork and regulations for being a foreigner, along with language and cultural issues that you’ll need to tackle. At the end of day, you can decide for yourself if the benefits outweigh these challenges.
LCB: What’s next for you and your businesses?
AM: I have a few projects on the go at the moment that include upgrading some of the tools on CLO to allow users to better learn the content on there, starting a new podcast where I interview other foreign Chinese speakers, adding content to and building up the RTC site, and adding content to and releasing an Android version of the CLO app.
To visit either of Adam Menon’s websites mentioned above, you can click here or here. Additionally, you can also read a guest article that Adam wrote for LCB earlier this year entitled Master Chinese for Business by Only Learning What You Need to Know.
Aaron Posehn is currently the managing editor of LearnChineseBusiness.com and is a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he also currently works as an academic editor in Taipei. Endlessly interested in the cross between business and culture, he has written a free guidebook on how to learn Chinese characters for business and travel purposes.
Find Aaron on LinkedIn here.