September 2011


By Casey Hall and Peijin Chen

Entrepreneurs are translating Chinese locals' interest in English, and foreigners' desire to learn Mandarin, into business plans

Hank Horkoff  

Co-founder and CEO, ChinesePod

ChinesePod has caught onto two simultaneous trends – podcasts and the world's increasing interest in China. Since launching in 2005, the company now boasts more than 1,800 Mandarin lessons for all abilities.

"Our philosophy from day one was to start with something small, and actively listen to our students and understand what problems they were having. We then tried to think of ways to use technology to solve those problems. When we first started we had only an mp3 file and PDF transcript. Soon after, students were telling us, 'This is great, but I'd like to be able to review the lesson more.' So we built a suite of review activities and exercises with dialogue, key vocabulary, expansion exercises and flashcards. Over the last couple of years we've started to get a lot more attention from institutions, like universities, government bodies and corporate firms. Since 2005, we have continued to develop and modify the product and personally I think we're not even close to being finished. But we are, especially in terms of Chinese-language training, leading the globe in what we're doing and we want to take an aggressive stance. We want to push, develop and continue to maintain this leadership position."

John Pasden

Founder, All Set Learning

Eleven years ago Pasden came to China to learn Chinese and teach English. Now, armed with a graduate degree in applied linguistics and experience working at ChinesePod, he is trying to offer a more individual approach to Mandarin education.

"I became really interested in the individual side of learning Chinese; how it's a personal quest for each person. I wanted to establish a business where I could speak face-to-face with students, understand their needs and try to do some new things to help them learn. With All Set Learning I wanted to use technology, but also bring a human focus. We're in China, surrounded by Chinese people, and that brings many opportunities for one-on-one conversations with locals; that's what we're all about. I think personalization is the key because many businesses, including start-ups, are obsessed with scaling. Obviously there's good reason to be obsessed with scaling – businesses have to make money or they die. We are completely privately funded. We were profitable within the first year and I'm in this for the long haul. We're not going to be huge anytime soon, but huge isn't the goal – the goal is to create something really cool."

Nick Winter  

Co-founder and CTO, Skritter

Inspired by a video game, Winter and his college roommates created Skritter to help students learn Chinese and Japanese characters.

"One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and my friend Hatt was still awake. He stayed up all night to play a Nintendo DS game, where you're a ninja who is also a surgeon. In the game, you use the stylus to make quick strokes to perform surgery and fight against opponents. I saw this stroke-writing action, and thought, 'What if you could have that stroke-level feedback, but for learning Chinese characters?' I needed something to help me study Chinese, since I was forgetting characters almost as fast as I learned them. Skritter uses handwriting recognition to give you stroke-level feedback on your character writing. This not only teaches you how to write, but also lets you practice really fast. We're not taking the monkey-throwing-bananas-over-his-shoulder approach to learning, where you forget old words as quickly as you grab new ones. Our customers tend to fall into three categories: those who rave about how much they're learning, those who get addicted and ask us to add ever-more-obscure characters to our database, and those who really, really want an iPhone app. So I'm working on the iPhone app now."

Kevin Chen  

Co-founder, italki

Chen came to China in 2004 to learn Mandarin and find start-up opportunities. That opportunity presented itself in the form of italki, which uses social networking to promote global language education for its 730,000 registered users.

"Italki is comprised of two parts: the community piece and what we call 'the marketplace,' which is a little bit like Taobao for language services. We're more of a platform, rather than a school. If you're interested in studying German, for example, you can get on our site, buy virtual currency and use italki credits to schedule a Skype lesson with a German teacher. The teacher and student then decide on a lesson format themselves. In the past, if you lived in, say, Kansas and you wanted to learn Arabic, the best you could do was buy something like Rosetta Stone, or a CD. The deepest pool of Arabic teachers doesn't live in Kansas or in the US, they live in the Middle East – and there are a ton of trainers out there who are happy to teach you. It's just a matter of giving people an opportunity to connect with each other, and to help these teachers prove that they are legitimate and can deliver results. On italki you can see how many classes and students each teacher has, and also look at their testimonials so you can check if this guy is for real."