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Start a business, do something big

By Nana K. Sidibe & He Shan
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 25, 2013
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"I still think the environment in China is good enough for young people like us," says Huang Jiajia, the 28-year-old founder of, who knows a thing or two about being young and entrepreneurial.

The English-tutoring website, which was founded in 2011 by Huang and two other Tsinghua University graduates, offers one-on-one online English lessons for as little as 15 yuan per hour.

Huang said the venture has made him optimistic about opportunities for other young people to "do something big," despite the challenges he has faced with 51Talk.

Public skepticism, especially about the site's low prices, has been one such challenge he has to tackle with. "In China, nobody asks why Taobao and Jingdong are so cheap," said Huang . "We consider that 51Talk is a service like Taobao and Jingdong because we are an e-commerce company. We cut down everything that doesn't matter to the service itself, like rental fees."

Huang added that the goal of 51Talk is making English is accessible to all, which is why the founders are committed to low prices.

The hyper-competitive market for language teaching and tutoring services has also been a challenge for the founders. They first attempted a Chinese – Japanese online school in 2007, before realizing that the demand for Japanese wasn't as great as it is for English – one of the most spoken languages in the world and a symbol of globalization.

The English language industry is experiencing a significant growth in China, as speaking English can ensure better job prospects. In the past few years, the services of learning institutions like Wall Street English or 91Waijiao, have been much in-demand, and it is not unusual to see children learning the language at a very young age.

"Most of our students learn English because English helps them to have a better opportunity in their career," said Huang.

Huang believes that, unlike his competing websites, 51Talk provides good service at an affordable price. The 700 to 800 teachers hired are all Filipinos and possess bachelors' degrees. Their specialization doesn't have to be English, as long as they demonstrate that they have the capacity to teach.

English is one of the Philippines' two official languages (the other is Tagalog) and the country has a literacy rate of 92.6 percent, according to the Central Intelligence Agency Factbook. But many Chinese students would still prefer to work with teachers from the United States or the United Kingdom. To combat this issue, 51Talk offers free trials to prove that their teachers are as good as any other English teachers.

Huang added that those preferred British and American teachers may not be especially skilled at teaching. "Actually, there are not a lot of qualified foreign teachers in China," said Huang.

Huang has also faced difficulties convincing people of the value of online education. A lot of people still prefer traditional teaching methods and are reluctant to switch.

But, despite those difficulties, 51Talk is growing. Huang, who refused to disclose exact figures, said that the website made several million yuan in revenue in 2012 and has attracted investments from ZhenFund, founded by Xu Xiaoping and Sequoia Capital China, and DCM, an American venture capital firm, which invested several hundred million yuan and several million U.S. dollars, respectively.

"The DCM investors are involved a lot," said Huang. "We have a meeting every month to discuss the operations, how we improve, and what we do next."

Huang said that, unlike some other young entrepreneurs who hope to flip their start-ups for quick cash, he has no exit plan. Instead, he is focused on the company's long-term future.

When he hears people complain that the Chinese business environment has worsened in the last five years, Huang is quick to disagree. "If you compare China's business environment with other countries, for example, in Japan, you can't imagine how hard it is for young people there to start their own business," he said.

Huang is right, in the sense China's tech and Internet start-ups continue to attracted investors and capital ventures. Still, despite having two successful investments in his own portfolio, Huang advised young people not to rush into starting their own businesses.

"Do your work down to earth first," he said. "If you find something really exciting, you can follow your heart, your dream and do it."

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