When I made the decision to co-found Chatterize, I was in the process of searching for my next job. It needed to be motivating and impactful, yet challenging. And I wasn’t finding it. After working at VIPKid for three years, growing the teacher community from 200 to 60,000 teachers, and supporting the company as it grew to become an edtech unicorn twice over, I found that my ambition had grown as well. I wanted to continue in edtech, but most of the available opportunities in China were too similar to my previous role. I wanted something different.
One day, as I was hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in China’s Yunnan province, I got cell service at a resting spot and received a proposal from Lane with an idea for a new business. She initially asked for feedback, but then she asked if I wanted to start the new company with her.
It was a scary decision. At that time I was already in talks with another company to join as a co-founder. That company was funded, had customers, and could pay me a salary. This offer, coupled with the fact that starting a business as a foreigner in China’s hyper-competitive edtech space, made for a daunting decision. Lane and I were facing massive hurdles: no salary to begin with, little in the way of investment monies, and the need to bootstrap ourselves through feasibility testing to a working demo. It seemed irrational to dive headfirst into the deep and murky entrepreneurship waters.
But the allure of creating an engaging and impactful English language learning solution for kids, pushing myself to learn new things every day, building a business from scratch, working with Lane once again…the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.
What was the worst that could happen? If we failed, I would lose time and money, and be back on the job hunt again. Yet I would return to the job market a more valuable candidate because, regardless of success or failure, there is nothing that compares to the learning that comes from building an entirely new company from the ground floor up. I made a financial plan that allowed me to survive for a year without a salary, took care of my Chinese visa, took a deep breath, and said YES!
I’d like to share some of our hard-earned lessons––the things I needed to hear starting out and what I hope will be helpful to anyone thinking about taking the leap. Our entrepreneurship journey has been full of amazing people who volunteer their time to help startups grow, and giving back to the entrepreneurial community is the least I can do.
Lesson 1: Entrepreneurship is not supposed to be easy
Creating something out of nothing is not easy.
Building a team with no money is not easy.
Building the product with a small team is not easy.
Coming up with unique marketing ideas is not easy.
Fundraising is not easy. In fact, it’s supposed to be hard.
Not everyone will be supportive, and some will be brutally honest. Extracting useful information from criticism, however constructive, is not easy.
Starting your entrepreneurship journey with the mindset that things won’t be easy makes the hard times easier.
Running a successful business is a task reserved for those who can push through the hard times. Adjust your mindset and buckle down. The challenge is part of the ride.
Lesson 2: Be prepared to hear the word “No“
If you struggle with the word no, you’re not going to make it in the world of entrepreneurship.
Not everyone will believe in your solution, like your idea, or even agree that you can build it. Lane and I are both non-technical founders, and in the beginning we waded through mountains of feedback regarding our lack of technical skills. But we truly believe in language as a communication tool, and are passionate about building confidence in ESL learners. So we doubled down, did our homework around the technology, and found an amazing chief technology officer. It sounds easy, but it involved months of learning, talking to people in the industry, and hunting down the right person for the job.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore everyone who gives you difficult-to-swallow feedback. Understanding your market and customers is all about listening. Good advisors point out existing holes. The key is learning how to extract the valuable information that will help you and your business grow, while not letting the negative feedback get you down.
When starting a business, you will find yourself in unknown and challenging territory on a regular basis. As long as you’re putting in 100%, you should sleep well at night.
Lesson 3: Do the basics first
Have a clear idea of the problem you are trying to solve.
Talk to potential users to understand how they are currently solving this problem and their pain points around the solution.
Research product feasibility.
Talk to people in your industry. Talk to a lot of people in your industry.
Get advice from founders, programmers, advisors, and investors. Many before you have embarked on this journey, and it’s much easier to learn from them than to try to figure it out on your own.
To facilitate your entrepreneurship journey, Google, LinkedIn, YouTube, Fiverr, WordPress and Canva will become your best friends. When we want to reach out to an expert in the field, we use LinkedIn. When we need to update our website, Fiverr is an affordable option that cuts our time cost. Canva provides us templates that cater to the novice designer with high expectations. Find the avenues that make your journey easier.
Lesson 4: Surround yourself with experienced people
When you’re starting a business, there is so much to do that it’s often hard to figure out where to start. And unless you are the world’s most amazing generalist, it’s impossible to do everything by yourself.
An entrepreneurship ecosystem is extremely helpful, if not vital, for early stage startups. Within our first month, we found an advisor key to our forward direction. Chatterize is also currently incubated by two government-funded organizations, one in Wellington, New Zealand, and one in Beijing, China. The amount and quality of the support we have received is the foundation upon which we will grow.
We had to get creative when it came to building a team. How do you build a team when you aren’t ready to pay anyone a salary? Being able to articulate the product vision and finding people passionate about your solution is a crucial first step. We still keep most of our work within core staff, but we’ve also given out equity, paid consulting rates, supported people through our professional network, and made good use of the inexpensive options that the internet has to offer.
In the beginning, it’s okay to cobble a team together with what feels like duct tape; working after work, during lunch hours, on the weekends, anything to grow your new business together as a team. Advisors and support networks are everywhere, and it’s your job to find them and ask for help. Use all the resources available to you, all the time.
Lesson 5: Working remotely to run a cross-border business is possible
Working remotely has allowed us to be active in more parts of the world, have longer operating hours, and be flexible with our founding team members.
They say founders have to be in the same location for a startup to succeed. For us, that simply would not be possible. But if Chatterize was to be a cross-border operation from the start, why shouldn’t we be remote? If Chatterize is to become a truly a global business, wouldn’t it be advantageous to have key local offices run by someone you trust?
We are well aware that there are challenges to running a remote team. For a startup, clear communication is key, and working remotely means that you have to set up your team for success. Long emails, WeChat group chats, video conferences, and the infrequent but necessary face-to-face meetings have allowed us to stay close and coordinate projects across five cities in three different countries.
Always be conscious that it’s easier for people to communicate when they are together in an office, and that working remotely means consciously creating opportunities for communication.
Lesson 6: Progress is not always a straight line
Honestly, sometimes it feels like we are going in circles. Most of our initial ideas haven been tossed out or re-worked. The financial model, pitch deck, website, and product have been edited more times than we can count. Accept the fact that these are living, breathing and embrace the constant editing. Every update is a step closer to your dream.
Entrepreneurship is a long ride on a rollercoaster of emotions. In the span of a day, it’s not unusual to move from exhilaration to despair, and back again. The path to building a business from nothing but an idea is foggy and has many detours. At times you’ll find yourself lost and unsure, and moving backwards can feel like a deflating waste of time and resources.
The key to success is to wake up each morning with a renewed sense of determination and keep moving. Remember, most startups fail because they simply give up.
Entrepreneurship is about getting your hands dirty, making sure that your business has the resources to survive, finding the right partners, constantly improving yourself, and accepting uncertainty. Things don’t get easier; founders just get smarter.
We don’t always know the answers. Actually, we usually don’t know the answers. But we are willing to learn and improve ourselves. We have encountered many challenges in our first six months and will undoubtedly encounter many more. But we will never give up. Like they say in Chinese, add oil to carry on! 加油！