Tang Zhiyun, a man in his mid-30s, is developing new ideas designed to change the educational scene in China.
Tang Zhiyun is a catalyst for change. The young looking (he’s 36), well-spoken, devoted father and loving husband, and an experienced teacher, is a success story in the traditional Chinese sense. However, there is one important difference. Beijing-based Tang is also an entrepreneur, running his nascent education-oriented startup company.
Modern-day China is considered the manufacturing hub of the world, synonymous with colossal manufacturing facilities and massive corporations with armies of employees pumping out all manner of goods.
However, seeds of change are being sown. Buried in an unassuming alley near Wudaokou subway station is an interesting experiment that is seen as a positive sign of an evolving economy emerging from the longstanding economic miracle, and a new rising middle class unique in the sense that it is filled with risk takers, creative people, often dreamers and visionaries.
Home X houses a burgeoning number of startups ranging from ambitious high-tech companies to start-ups offering fresh takes on yesterday’s established business models.
Tang straddles the line between these two approaches, hoping to shake up the established and traditional business models in the ultra-competitive English test sector through his own innovations in Yizhuo Education. It was a long, trying journey that brought him to Home X. This is what he had to say about that journey:
Q: Tell us something about yourself.
A: Ever since I was a child, I was interested in learning languages. When I was at school, I was really bad at mathematics and geography, but really good at English. So, maybe that was a gift from God. I love talking with people, sharing things with them. After college, I thought that as I’m good at English and good at teaching, I should take up teaching as a career. That was 14 years ago.
Q: How did you end up in Beijing?
A: The reason why I came to Beijing and started my career is that my hometown in Sichuan Province didn’t have that many language training schools, and the average income is comparatively lower than in Beijing. So, I quit my job in my hometown and moved to Beijing. Very soon, I made 10,000 yuan (US$1,451) in one month. It was like a dream!
Q: What about the shift from teaching to being an entrepreneur with a startup project?
A: This is a whole new thing. Three years ago, we were in the building next door; however the rent was very high. My partner could not help me, I was exhausted every day. So, last December, I decided to end that relationship as we could not gain mutual benefit. It was very expensive to keep it running, I lost some money so I decided the only way was to start my own business alone.
Q: So how did you end up here?
That’s a very interesting question. Every day, I used to park my car along this road because I did not have to pay any parking fee. That’s how I discovered this place. It was in the process of being finished. I asked the doorman what this place was for and was told for offices. I asked if I could have a look around and they took me and showed me around, and I thought, wow, this place fits me. It’s not big and I can afford the rent. So that’s how I found this place for ambitious startups. Some companies moved in, some moved out after six months. The things they are doing are very creative, innovative and involve taking risks.
If you have a really good idea, and your team is strong enough and you need funds, they help you raise the money. However, the first thing is, you have to be very smart. They only help those they believe are really qualified.
It is privately owned. In some ways this place is not trying to be innovative to the extent of Silicon Valley; in fact, many things are still traditional, but they are trying to find new business models.
Q: So, how are you doing things differently now from the traditional model?
I’m in education. Traditionally, education is offline classrooms. However, there is an increasing trend in online education. I think that will be very popular in the future. So, how can I achieve a perfect mix?
If you just give students online courses, they would doubt the effectiveness because face-to-face communication is obviously better than remote online communication, especially when it comes to learning a language. It’s about learning; it’s not gaming. If you ask a young guy to sit in front of computer and study for two hours, it’s impossible.
They don’t have very strong self discipline. They need teachers to supervise them, push them. That’s a disadvantage of online education without face-to-face communication, without teacher supervision.
However, for offline education, especially for private schools, cost is a big problem. In Beijing, the rent is very high, as are all the running costs and advertising costs for acquiring students, which comes to 2,000 yuan per student. You have to do the marketing, the sales, hire people to do marketing and supervise salespersons to communicate with people and respond to queries.
So, I decided to mix these things together. For example, I give them free video classes online, so they can know me, as a teacher. If they think you are qualified, and if you can conduct an interesting class, they’ll continue to follow you. That’s a kind of free and effective advertising as well as something useful for students and reduces cost as there are some free lessons and some paid lessons mixed in.
Q: What’s the background of the students and what are their goals?
Most are students who are going abroad, to the U.K., the United States for higher education, and high school and college students. My core business is IELTS and TOEFL. It’s kind of a trend. When the tuition fee becomes affordable for some families they want to have higher education abroad such as the U.K. and the United States. Another thing is that it’s a good alternative for some students to chase their dreams if they didn’t manage to get into the top universities here.
Q: What kind of challenges are there?
The moment kids enter middle school they have to compete with their classmates, just like in a bird’s nest; as they grow, they have to compete with other birds and kick them out of the nest. So they face a lot of pressure.
Every family, want to send their children to the best schools, but the number is very limited. So, they have to choose the best students. How do they choose? Through competition.
So, many students have told me they lost interest in learning English ever since they studied in middle school since they have to cope with a lot of homework, and they don’t have the time, energy or the mind for creative things.
Compared to how many students the best universities can take, there are far too many people.
Due to the size of the population, everything is very competitive.
Q: What are the main challenges students face?
Basically they face two main issues.
First, their foundation is not good — grammar and vocabulary. Some students have trouble memorizing vocabulary or dislike grammar. Also, they are high school students. Their issue is that they like to play on their cell phones all the time. They have trouble focusing.
With college students, they have to deal with their homework at school. They have to deal with their college subjects workload and on the other hand, deal with the English language exams. So they sometimes just say that they don’t have time.
Q: What is the current situation in the industry?
Currently the focus is on admission tests. What we are doing is shouldering the responsibility of public schools. Think of it this way: if my kid can learn English very well in a public school, there would be no need to pay extra money, spend extra time to attend a private organization to learn English.
Even the government does not hand out school licenses, but they can give out business licenses. Getting a school license is very hard.
Similarly, there is incredible competition within the industry among schools.
Q: How has the journey from teacher to entrepreneur changed you?
It’s like an instinct. I think some people just want to work hard, have a regular income in a school or a company. I don’t think I am one of them, I think I’m a very active person. I don’t need a regular income or very stable income.
I want to have my own school. That’s my dream; it’s always been my dream.
By Hassan Arhsad Chattha, China.org.cn