Can you introduce yourself?
Hi I’m Kyle Balmer (白马楷）and I run Sensiblechinese.com, hanziwallchart.com and I’m a co-founder of WaiChinese. All are companies revolved around teaching the Chinese language to foreigners and helping them learn Mandarin well.
Sensible Chinese is a blog with a focus on providing a sensible methodology for learning Chinese, Hanzi WallChart sells large Chinese character & word posters and digital goods and WaiChinese is California based startup using cutting-edge tech to teach the Chinese tones and pronunciation.
Where are your current stomping grounds?
I’m currently back in London, where I was born and grew up (Brixton, South London). I’m back here via Vietnam (my first startup was a television station in Ho Chi Minh City), New York and Beijing, where I started up Hanzi WallChart. It’s good to be back in London after years living, working and studying elsewhere.
Any place you recommend for future travelers who are visiting?
The last big trip I took was from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet and then overland into Nepal en-route to Mumbai, India where I was attending a wedding. Fantastic overland journey! Tibet in particular is stunning. In China I was primarily in Beijing. I’m a big walker and love strolling for hours around central Beijing, getting lost in hutongs and finding wonderful places to eat along the way. If you have time in Beijing one day turn off your phone’s map and just let yourself get lost.
You’re well traveled – why China?
Primarily to learn the language for business reasons. I’ve never had proper job-jobs but instead started my own companies in the UK, America and Vietnam. China is a little bit of a no-brainer business wise because of the serviceable markets involved. Currently my businesses are Chinese language focused but we are looking at a flip of the WaiChinese technology to better teach English to Chinese speakers. Apart from the business aspect I like learning languages and fancied the challenge of Chinese. It’s an amazingly logical and consistent language and it very much appeals to my more analytical / OCD nature.
What’s something you’ve found in china that you can’t find in other countries you’ve been to?
I bet you hear food a lot here, which would be my immediate answer. The goop that we get overseas that passes for Chinese food is a pale imitation (dare I say, insult) to the food you can have in China. I’m lucky to live close to a very authentic Chinese restaurant back here in London so that alleviates the pain of not having cheap, amazing Chinese food all day everyday. Apart from that there’s a certain charm to the unregulated (or, “differently” regulated) aspects of the Chinese web. Taobao truly is a treasure trove once you’ve jumped through the hoops of getting onto the system without an Identification Number! There are other Wild-West like services like DuoMi which is basically Spotify for free with no ads. Alibaba in particular is a wonderful resource (full of counterfeit goods and dodgy dealers!) when used properly. Think eBay or Amazon but instead of shopping for individual goods you go shopping for commercial quantities or indeed a whole factory who can produce customized goods to your specification. A very powerful tool indeed and not mirrored anywhere else in the world.
What pros has China provided you as an entrepreneur and expat?
I never considered myself an expat and honestly was not in China for long enough to warrant the term. I began in China teaching at a university in Beijing. This was mainly to pull together enough cash so that I could work on business ideas I had at the time.
However, as I mentioned I’ve never really had a proper 9-5 job, mainly because I’m rubbish at it. At the first whiff that I was being messed around by my employer, I pulled the plug and started my own business. If you are going to teach in China don’t do it as I did which is under the table with an employer who was quite happy to screw me over. Because I’m comfortable not holding down a job I was able to walk away from the situation the moment it started to stink but I met many, many foreigners who didn’t step away in time and got caught up in miserable work they didn’t enjoy. Some had been stuck for years in crappy situations like that. So – work with someone legit when looking for a placement if teaching is your goal.
As an entrepreneur manufacturing costs were the biggest boon. My first company in China was producing large posters which I had manufactured and shipped from Shanghai. I used Alibaba to source all the elements of the business (manufacturer, packager, shipper) for fractional prices compared to the quotes I was getting from Europe and the USA. The business would not have been viable if I had manufactured in the US, which is where my majority customer base is.
And the cons?
You’ll often hear that Chinese business is about trust. The problem with a lot of services and businesses in China is that there is very little trust. In the West if someone cheats us we can use contract law to come back at them. Whilst it’s technically possible to do so in China, the perpetrator’s connections (or the size of their war chest) means that often a contract is worth less than the paper it’s written on. Enter the concept of 关系 . Chinese dealings are tied together by personal connections. Being introduced by a friend of a friend as a reputable person has much stronger implications in China than a mere paper contract. These social ties act as the network of trust that is not provided by the legal system and plays an incredibly important role. Relationships are similarly important outside of China but in China they are particularly important due to a lack of viable alternatives in the legal system. I hesitate to refer to this as a con because it depends on whether you are inside or outside of a 关系 network. If you are inside and trusted then you’re good to go. If outside then it’ll be a much harder struggle. However, as a foreigner (and especially if you lack the language) getting in will be harder. The other major con of business in China is the internet. VPN or even VPNs plural are a must but even then be prepared for some hurt. Lack of unrestricted and fast internet is crippling to business, especially on-line business.
What are the intentions for your blog? Did you anticipate its growth?
There’s a lot of information about the Chinese language out there already – the main problem is that it’s all a little bit of a hodgepodge. I’m working to systematize the information a little bit more and offer concrete steps for studying Chinese. It’s possible to cobble together this information by spending months reading the existing material but I want to make Chinese much more accessible to everyone who has an interest. Part of this effort is in demystifying some of the nonsense and providing a concrete plan.
The growth has been much faster than I expected. The blog really only launched 3 months ago – that’s when I started to really push content and focus on the social media. We’ve grown from a standing start of me being the only visitor to around 3000-5000 visits every day. There’s been similar growth on social media from 0-3000 twitter followers on @fluentchinese. So, all in all pretty chuffed to be able to offer something valuable that people are responding to. I’m always looking for ways to collaborate with other people in the space so if anyone is interested in projects shoot me a message via Twitter.
What does “This is China” mean to you?
I’ve never particularly liked this phrase as it stinks of resignation and defeat to me. You hear a lot of expats using this to “excuse” certain things they see or hear in China. So much so that TIC has become a sort of routine resigned sigh. I’m of the opinion that if you have a problem with something and want to do something about it then you do it, not whine about it. If you can’t do anything about it then equally you don’t whine about it. I tended not to hang around expats for this reason – there was an awful lot of complaining, to no end. Anger and indignation is powerful when used for change but otherwise it just drags you and everyone around you down.
Any future master plans you want to share with us?
Increasingly I’m working with a lot of people in the Chinese learning sphere on collaborative projects. There is a lot of great content out there that I’m helping people get to audiences and eventually turn into products. The blog will continue along this route, working with bright, interesting people on great content and products to help people get a grip on the Chinese language. My largest future plans are with WaiChinese. Increasingly the language learning market is dominated by one-on-one Skype based lessons on one side and game-based language learning apps on the other side. The problem with the lessons is it requires chunking time out of a busy schedule – the difficulty of this means that a lot of people turn to the gamified language learning apps for their “quick fix” of language learning.
The problem with these apps is that they are good at teaching vocabulary but that’s about it – using these tools as an entire learning strategy is unbalanced and dispiriting the first time the learner tries to talk to a real Chinese person and finds they cannot! WaiChinese seeks to bridge this gap by using tech to facilitate rather than remove human interaction. Our teachers work with students on pronunciation, tones and spoken Chinese but the interaction is asynchronous rather than requiring both teacher and student to be online at the same scheduled time for a block of time. This allows language lessons to be fitted around your schedule. The other cool aspect is that we’ve cracked Chinese tonal recognition. If you use Google Translate or Siri and try māmámǎmàma you’ll get an output of 妈妈妈妈妈 or something similarly useless. Most voice recognition patches meaning together using context but we’ve finally got the tones under control – this allows us to not only “show” the learner their tones visually as they speak but also to collect data about where common errors are and shape personal curriculums based on this information.
We’ve been growing like crazy with WaiChinese over the last 5 months and have (surprisingly for a startup!) been making money. We’ve got endorsement from the Confucius Institute and are rolling out into more US Universities at the moment. Now it’s the time to start adding some rocket fuel to this so we’re seeking funding at the moment from US, UK and Chinese sources. Once that’s in place we can really start growing and fleshing out the feature set. We also have some big collaborations coming up that I can’t yet talk about – safe to say that the result will be providing a very powerful end to end Chinese content delivery and teaching system. Those are the big upcoming changes I see in the future.
Can you give some advice for future entrepreneurs who are looking to branch into China?
To some extent this depends on the business they are running in China so any general advice would not be too helpful. That said, if you’ve built a successful business in China you likely have the “right stuff” to do it anywhere. Entrepreneurship is about not just having great ideas but actually following through, implementing the ideas, throwing out the ideas when necessary or sticking to the plan when everyone around you tells you to quit. If you have the grit to do this in China then you can do it anywhere else. I’d say that’s more to do with the entrepreneurs personality and stubbornness rather than their physical location. To take Benny Lewis out of context: “attitude not latitude”.