This week we spoke with Estella Chen, Founder of MandarinX, which aims to connect you with high quality and certified Mandarin tutors around the world that help you learn Mandarin with a personalized approach. We spoke about the different focus points within the company, what it’s like being an entrepreneur in the US and next steps for MandarinX.
What is the inspiration behind starting MandarinX?
It all started because I happened to speak these two languages since I was little. When I was a kid, no one cared about speaking Mandarin Chinese as they do now, but my parents insisted that I should at least be fluent in these two languages. So I spent one year in LA learning English and another year in Taipei learning my mother language, Mandarin Chinese, since childhood. Being a language teacher for 20 years, I have taught both English and also Mandarin Chinese. It upset me that there were no premium courses with readily available, highly qualified teachers for this in the market. Therefore, I was committed to producing top-tier Mandarin Chinese courses with the best teachers to create a high-end market.
Tell us a little bit more about the tech behind the product?
I would say that learning analytics is the main tech behind the product, which is our MOOC. However, we’ve also created two sub products. MandarinKID is one for those growing up and looking to learn Mandarin Chinese through cultural by reciting poems accompanied by martial arts movements. We incorporated an automatic grading system to provide student feedback through a WeChat embedded app. The other product is UberChinese for business expats who need instant help with Mandarin sentences and cultural questions. It’s on-demand, pay as you go, and as easy as calling for a taxi. In our model, we have a professional business coach to help you in a teachable moment. We are currently working on the beta version, but still, require more funding to keep building it.
What are you looking to achieve next?
High-quality teachers are as important as the courses, perhaps even more so. Realising this, we recently launched a Mandarin Chinese teacher training programme, specifically focused on online teaching pedagogy. Online tutoring, webinars, and all sorts of communication tools are already ubiquitous in the language education field, yet many language teachers lack a certain skill set and don’t know how to manage virtual classes while interacting with students remotely. This has been an issue discussed over the last few decades, but up to this point, there has not been a well-built programme to help solve this.
Who inspires you?
My grandma inspired me not just in choosing my career path but also is the creation of this business idea. She spoke three languages and was a big driving force behind MandarinX. At the age of 25, she went to Taiwan and married into a Taiwanese family where she was forced to learn a different language and face cultural diversity. She spent almost her life educating not only her children but also many girls who were unable to attend school. I learned most of my Japanese from her and I remember how I mimicked her pronunciation while listening. That’s why I firmly believe that if you learn a language from another human being, as opposed to a book or computer program, the impact lasts longer and creates a better outcome. The other thing she stressed was “persistence”. Everything is possible and can be worked through as long as you are still breathing and don’t lose faith. I spent a lot of my childhood with her, and she was and always will be a source of inspiration for me.
Looking back to the day you started MandarinX, what would you have done differently?
I would have created a solid business model before releasing all MandarinX courses for free for three years the way that I did. Of course, one cannot create a sustainable business with negative cash flow and I suffered a lot by providing a service that required costly video production, among other things. People do not usually cherish something that they get for free, even if it is something of high quality. Another thing I would have done differently is “hire slow, fire fast.” When I first operated the company, I hired too many people without truly knowing about them or the quality of their work and I retained their services longer than I should have. By the time I realized that they were no longer an asset to the company, it was too late to avoid stepping on toes and ending things cordially.
What piece of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Don’t do it alone. One person cannot do it all. It takes a team that is capable, willing to get dirty, and diverse. A good team will see things and catch mistakes that you don’t see and can complete tasks that you might not be able to as competently. Although some say that entrepreneurs have the third eye, which we call “vision”, it’s very important to see the reality of the situation and to accept criticism. Others often don’t see things the same way, so take their suggestions seriously and make decisions based on evidence and rational arguments.
How do you think starting a company in the US has helped you? What separates this ecosystem from others?
Starting a company in the US has helped me build the connections and know more about the trend of the latest education applications. First-hand knowledge is always available with the right contacts, but I liked the mentorship the most. When you start a business here, you can easily get in touch with seasoned entrepreneurs through a lot of events and gatherings. There is a competitive and yet still very supportive environment. People try to help you out and give you a heads-up to keep you from repeating the same mistakes that they’ve made. I am extremely grateful for the world-class entrepreneurs that have coached me on this journey.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Perhaps my favourite quote from an influential person; in which case, I would choose Walt Disney who said, “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” To my mind, people without dreams are lost and worthy of sympathy. I love having big dreams and striving to make them a reality in spite of the difficulty. That’s part of the beauty of life.
You can follow MandarinX’s story on twitter, @Mandarinx_com, connect with Estella Chen and learn more by visiting mandarinx.com