Can you Introduce yourself?
Sure, my name is Marcos, I’m 25 years old and from San Francisco, California. I studied Ancient History and Education at the University of California Santa Cruz then headed out to China a few months after graduation. I grew up in SF my whole life but I always loved to travel and I knew that I really wanted to live somewhere very different and challenge myself. So, I made the move to China. I first lived in Beijing for about a year and a half, then when the opportunity came, I took a transfer to Shanghai and fell in love with it. I have been in Shanghai a little over a year now with no plans on leaving any time soon.
Where are your current stomping grounds? Any place you recommend for future travelers?
My absolute favorite place in Shanghai is this small but packed bar street called Yongkang Lu. It has so many quaint bars and restaurants and every bar has outdoor seating. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco actually, which might be a big reason why I like it so much.
Plus, everybody there is pleasant and looking to just have a good time. It’s a bar street for chill socializing, and it’s hard to find bar street like that! There is nothing better to me than just grabbing a beer with my friends and talking for hours on end on a nice Saturday afternoon on Yongkang Lu.
As far as visitors to Shanghai, definitely visit Yongkang Lu for a quick drink, and go to the tourist spots because you kinda have to. If you came to Shanghai to sight see, you might be a little disappointed. Its nothing like Beijing, Xian, or Chengdu in terms of cultural heritage, so there are not a lot of beautiful temples to see and stuff like that.
There is one little gem I discovered – it’s a museum called the Propaganda Poster Art Center. It’s a little place in the basement of a building filled with actual propaganda posters, starting from the Revolution to The Cold War. Very interesting and probably one of my favorite museums I have ever been to. What makes it even better is you can buy actual, original, posters to take home.
However, if you came to Shanghai to party and make bad decisions, man, does Shanghai have you covered! There is Shelter, and underground music club that is literally underground because it’s a renovated old bomb shelter. Then, there is Cirque Le Soir, a twisted cabaret themed club with acrobats, midgets, crazy costumes, and lots of chains and whips. It’s worth going just to see how insane it is. But you can never go wrong with Bar Rouge, arguably one of Shanghai’s best clubs. Located right on the Bund with a huge outdoor rooftop area gives you one of the best views in Shanghai. Pair that with flame juggling bartenders, pole dancers, and a lot of people looking to have good time you are not going to be disappointed.
What’s something you’ve found in China that you cant find in other countries you’ve been?
Xinjiang food! It’s a cuisine from a very Muslim area of China, and as a result you get this mix of Muslim and Chinese dishes that are out of this world. I had never heard of this kind of food before I came to China and I was very skeptical at first, but it is now my favorite kind of Chinese food, and I have not been able to find it in any other country. If you visit China, you must try it.
What pro’s has China provided you as an entrepreneur and expat?
It’s gonna sound cliché but, opportunity. There are opportunities everywhere, it’s really just up to you to take advantage.
It’s that simple.
Get out there, meet people, listen when something is interesting, and make moves to get it. Also, just always look at China and ask yourself, “What are they missing?”. There are niches everywhere that need to be filled and all you have to do is see them and then fill it in.
And the cons?
Visas. God, it’s just an endless headache! Getting visas, renewing them, getting rejected, having to reapply, having to go to Hong Kong to sort it out. Then, the government changes the visa rules seemingly every year. It’s just the worst.
You’ve taken a fun career and have combined it with the world’s great past time. Tell us about Martini English.
I like the way you phrased that. I might have to steal it.
It’s a pretty simple concept; We are an English tutoring company, but instead of having a classroom or going to your house, the classes are held at a bar and the first drink of the lesson is always on us.
Most Chinese people are good enough at reading and writing in English because it’s something they can easily practice by themselves. The real challenge is speaking, of course, and the best way to get better at speaking a language is simply by speaking it.
However, speaking in a foreign language can be very intimidating for some people. They are scared to make mistakes and look foolish or not know how to say something they think should be easy to say. So being in an environment to learn without the fear of making a mistake is important.
That’s where the location comes in. We like the bar because it is more casual and fun. We want lessons to feel like you are grabbing a drink with a friend so there is no pressure and you feel comfortable making mistakes and pushing yourself.
Our teachers are a really important part too. All our teachers are really outgoing, friendly, and most importantly, interesting people.
So many times I hear people complain about the boring teachers they had before and say to me how much they love Martini English because they have fun when they learn. Like I said before, we want Martini English to feel like you’re having a drink with your friend, and you don’t go grab a drink with somebody you think is boring. We are very selective with who we hire to be a teacher for Martini English.
Martini English is a one of a kind and simple “Why didn’t I think of that?” idea – when did it make sense to run with it?
Well the idea started back when I was in Beijing, I would tutor some people on the side just for some extra drinking money.
I noticed, when on a date with a Chinese girl, actually, that people’s English gets better after they have a few drinks in them. The girl was very shy and concerned that her English wasn’t very good. She would constantly stop for a long time to think of the correct way to say something and would apologize profusely for any mistake she made. Then, two drinks later, the English came pouring out! Me and her were just having a regular conversation and she was a champ.
I noticed it with myself too. When I had a few drinks in me, my Chinese got a lot better and I would be talking up a storm. I don’t think alcohol makes you better at speaking a language, but it does lower your inhibitions and make you not worry about making mistakes. So it gave me an idea.
I then took this to the people that I tutored. I had them meet me at a nice quiet bar instead of their house and we would have a beer or two. It was awesome, they loved the environment and having a drink. That’s when I saw promise in my idea. The people actually liked it. For a long time it was just something bouncing around in my head.
I would bring up Martini English (which we jokingly called Drunk English at the time) with my friends and they loved the idea and would help me think the concept through. One of the best points was the overhead was almost nothing to start because I don’t have to pay for a location or anything. All it would cost me is $60 a year for the website and $30 for business cards and I’m ready to roll.
Later, I got kinda sick of working for my company. I moved up to regional manager of Shanghai and was making good money, but hated HQ and management. I went to Shanghai trying to make the Shanghai schools the best of the company’s schools, but my bosses made it impossible for me to make any positive changes. Plus, the company started instituting abusive policies that made me like them less and less. So, eventually I said, “Screw it. I don’t have to put up with this.”, quit, and decided to start Martini English.
How are your students responding to such a casual environment?
They love it. I think the clients we get chose us because of the environment we provide. Not everybody learns the same way, some people prefer learning English in a classroom, and that’s good for them. I don’t think we attract those people. When people sign up for Martini English, it’s because they know this is the kind of learning environment they want. They’re not accustomed to the “regular” methods of studying English.
What does the term “This is China” mean to you?
Hahaha, “This is China” is such a popular saying here that lots of people just shorten it to T.I.C. It has kind of become the unofficial catchphrase for foreigners living in China.
Usually, it is uttered in situations where something ridiculous or strange happens and it’s weird to us foreigners but not to Chinese people.
For example, if you are walking down the street and your friend points out a person peeing in broad daylight right on a tree in front of you, you just shrug and say ”T.I.C., bro.” It really has come to encapsulate how crazy it is to live abroad and see just how different Chinese culture is and all you can do about it is sit back and accept it.
Any future master plans you want to share with us?
Master plans, eh? Well besides trying to take over the world from my volcano lair, I want to try and grow Martini English as much as I can.
Right now it’s all about getting as many students as possible and getting the word out. In the future, I think it would be good to have an actual Martini English bar to act as a form of headquarters and place where people are encouraged to come and speak and practice English comfortably.
I would also like to make a Martini Chinese, I know I would be my first customer! Eventually, I can see there being a Martini Spanish, Martini French, Martini Japanese, Martini anything, and it could be placed all over the world.
Now that’s way, way, down the line, but that’s the dream and it’s up to me to make it happen.
Can you give some advice for future entrepreneurs who are looking to branch into China?
I don’t have much. I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out and I have a lot to learn. I would have to say the biggest things that help me are my friends and connections. I am surprised how many times I’ve hit a snag and friend will say, “Oh, I know a guy that can help you with that.”
There are so many people in Shanghai doing so many different things and it’s not hard to find somebody that, not only can help you, but is a specialist in whatever you are looking for. So always keep an ear out because you never know who can help you out when needed.
Have questions for Marcos? Want to keep up with Martini English’s success? Check their website at www.martinienglish.com and watch Martini English grow and change the game for English teachers and students everywhere!