Turning your interest in Chinese into a business: The Chairman’s Bao

Leeds alumni Sean McGibney and Oliver Leach answer our questions about running a successful business for Mandarin learners.

The Chairman’s Bao (TCB) is the most comprehensive online new-based graded reader for students of Chinese, and forms a part of teaching in over 300 Mandarin teaching institutions around the world. The app and website include an ever-expanding library of over 6500 lessons, at a range of levels and aligned with qualifications including HSK and GCSE.

We asked Sean and Ollie about their Mandarin Aspirations stories. Read on to find out what motivated them to study Chinese at university and how they turned this interest into a successful business.

They discuss the challenges of balancing work and study with running a business, the learning philosophy behind TCB, and their words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and students of Chinese.

Sean McGibney

Sean McGibney studied Chinese and Spanish at University of Leeds and founded The Chairman’s Bao alongside Tom Reid in his final year of study in 2015. Currently Managing Director of The Chairman’s Bao, he has overseen the company’s growth from university bedroom concept to an international force in the EdTech industry with over 120,000 individual users and over 300 global partner institutions. In his spare time, Sean sits on the Board of charity Leeds Irish Health and Homes and volunteers with Alzheimer’s Research UK, as well as being a keen runner and cyclist.

Oliver Leach

Coming previously from an Investment Bank specialising in Mergers and Acquisitions, Oliver joined the Team as Business Development Manager in February 2018 and became a Director in 2020. His existing broad role at TCB spans from marketing and branding to sales and customer service. Outside of work, Oliver is a long-suffering fan of Reading FC.

Why did you decide to study Chinese at university?

Sean: I wanted to keep up my Chinese language having spent time in China growing up. I liked the additional options of studying newspaper reading, politics and culture modules which felt a step away from what I had studied at school.

Ollie: I was born in Hong Kong and always felt I had a tie to the region. I wanted to return in any capacity and saw learning Chinese language as the best way to get to go back. The non-language modules would allow me to enhance my knowledge of the region and discover topics that aligned with my wider personal interests, such as media and culture.

Was the experience of studying Chinese at university what you had expected it to be?

Sean: It was more than I expected as it exposed me to much more than language learning. Leeds was a great place to study Chinese due to the number of overseas Chinese students, which made it easy to meet language exchange partners and friends in a non-academic environment. This helped a lot with speaking and listening practice.

Leeds was a great place to study Chinese.

Ollie: Yes, I had completed an introduction to Chinese language as an extra-curricular activity at school, so had a working understanding of a teacher’s approach to learning Chinese and the sheer volume and type of work that needed to be done!

What Mandarin-learning frustrations were you addressing when you started the Chairman’s Bao?

Sean: We initially launched The Chairman’s Bao (TCB) as an intermediate to advanced resource, as there was a gap in the market at this level. We wanted to provide daily, graded content that spans a wide range of topics and interests – a step away from the traditional rote-learning style of language study. We also saw the website and app as key to ensure the content’s accessibility, so students could study wherever they found themselves across the globe.

Ollie: I felt that Chinese had been left behind in terms of learning a language through modern means, as it was still heavily focused on rote learning. Mobile applications and online platforms had been released for French and Spanish that were way ahead of anything coming out for Chinese.

How does the app reflect your Mandarin learning philosophy?

Sean:

The key is to study little-and-often.

I enjoy studying our lessons as they are easily digestible, and it removes the barriers to study that often exist when learning Chinese. You can read down a level for a quick refresher, whereas you can challenge yourself by reading up levels and using the study tools when you have more time and fancy a challenge.

Ollie: Studying little and often is a key belief philosophy that underpins our App. We want to make everything as easy as possible for the user whenever they find the time to do a quick 10-15 minutes of study, be that on the sofa, bus or in fully fledged study mode!

We also want our content to be fun and engaging, instead of the more traditional “I did this and then this”. We want students to learn words like “selfie” and find topics that interest them.

Language learning doesn’t feel like a chore then – it becomes about enjoying the process rather than just enjoying the idea of speaking the language to a high level in the future.

This is harder to achieve for higher level content, but our approach there is still to consciously avoid topics that we believe to be stale and try instead to find news stories that you could talk about it in a social setting.

Learning Chinese is very time consuming – how did you balance your degrees and starting a business?

Sean: I like to be busy and find it very difficult to sit still without something to grab my attention. I really enjoyed the variety of starting a business alongside studies, as it allowed me to split my time between lots of interesting tasks while learning new things, without getting too hung up on one or several pieces of outstanding work. I find it really useful taking to-do list notes on my phone that sync across to my laptop and I remove each completed task. Simple, but it really helps me!

Ollie: At times with difficulty! I think people have more hours in the day then they realise and planning and managing your time as efficiently as possible is crucial.

With little-and-often study, it’s about finding time when you didn’t think you had it during bus journeys or breaks in-between lectures.

I always keep a calendar of the tasks I have to complete in the short (day), medium (two week) and long term (longer) on my notes on my phone as surplus to diaries etc. This way I always know what I need to do, what is urgent and when to not be overwhelmed! Sounds simple but constantly writing out lists means that nothing unexpected comes up and means I can relax when nothing is pressing.

Two big challenges learners encounter are mastering tones and learning to read characters. How did you approach this in your own study before TCB existed? How does TCB help learners to overcome these challenges?

Sean: I was exposed to Chinese characters on the first day I studied Chinese and I have never felt overly reliant on pinyin. That said, at TCB we have a focus on reading and listening with a live dictionary which provides easy lookups on characters and speaks the word aloud.

Each lesson also comes with graded, human-spoken audio so you can follow the text as you listen which I feel helps to move away from the reliance on pinyin.

We also have handy tools for practicing stroke order and character writing. Stroke order isn’t something I was taught when I started learning Chinese, so I find this tool helpful as it improves the accuracy and speed of my character writing over time.

Ollie: Before TCB I would endlessly write out characters and practise tones with teachers and language partners. With TCB, I still write out characters and practise the tones but the tools available make things far easier. I can practise the stroke order online, and hear native speakers say every character at the push of a button, so I don’t have to wait until I’m in class to hear a native tone.

What is your daily schedule like nowadays and how easy is it to fit Chinese learning into your day?

Sean: My daily schedule is still very varied, as with any start-up company. My role spans lots of disciplines including management, sales, marketing, customer service, finance to name a few.

For the first two years of TCB, I read every single article (ca. 2,500!), however these days I admit I do struggle to include daily Chinese study in my routine.

As the saying goes, though, you can always find time. Perhaps that’ll be my resolution for 2021!

Ollie: Each day brings a wide range of different tasks that need completing. Sales and marketing to dealing with customers both individually and on a school/business level, my work tends to change on a daily basis!

In terms of fitting Chinese learning in, it is definitely something I have slacked at recently! Every day we proofread the keywords, grammar, idioms and proper nouns for lessons published that day, although this is more for boring things like double spaces, there are definitely some characters that I didn’t know before that I have picked up through osmosis.

Do native speakers and non-native speakers have different approaches when it comes to developing Mandarin learning materials? What do you feel are your advantages as non-native speakers running TCB?

Sean: We have a native-speaking Content Team comprised of 17 part-time writers and editors. As Directors, we source the stories that we believe our users will enjoy studying. I think this combination works well, as we get the skills of the Content Team for the content production backed by our quality control processes, while we provide exposure to the stories that often wouldn’t appear in native news resources in Chinese.

Ollie: I think that we understand the sheer scale of the task of learning another language, especially one as difficult as Chinese. We know what content and tools would make this process easier, and about the realistic language learning goals one needs to set themselves. When one comes at language learning from a non-native background, they are also able to provide tips and tricks that helped them get to where they are with their ability today, and I think are proof that learning the language is achievable, because there are certainly times when it feels like an impossible task!

You were one of the first graded reader sites launched. Now that the market is more crowded, do you think other people with a Mandarin app idea can still succeed? Based on your knowledge of working in this field, what are the main challenges they should expect to face?

Sean: I think we were fortunate in the timing. At that point language learning materials for European languages had moved online but Chinese was somewhat left behind. That said, I think anybody with an idea should go ahead and research their route to market. Don’t research too long before doing, though, or you’ll never get a product to market!

Ollie: We were calculated yet fortunate in our timing and being first to market with Chinese. Other applications can always succeed, as long as they are well-researched, polished, and shared amongst a team that all believes in the product and are pulling together in the right direction. The challenges are similar that every young company faces; time, funding, people, opportunity cost of other employment and self-motivation. Whilst the opportunity to work for yourself and amongst people is very appealing, that is not to say it is without challenges!

You do talks at schools, and TCB is used by the Mandarin Excellence Programme. What do you tell this next generation of learners about the benefits of learning Mandarin?

Sean:

  • Study a little bit every day and you will make a lot of progress over time.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and use your Chinese whenever you have the opportunity. Chances are any Chinese native speaker you encounter will have faced the same difficulties studying English so will be very understanding of any errors you make.
  • Find a ‘language parent’ rather than a ‘language partner’. When parents correct their children, they do it naturally in conversation by modelling the right way to say something.

Ollie: Enjoy the process of discovering a new language and the opportunities that it will bring. Learning a language like Chinese unlocks a whole wealth of culture, travel and almost anything that anyone would find interesting! I would argue that these opportunities are unrivalled when comparing a language course to other degrees. The ability to have a year abroad is fantastic, but even that is only dipping the toe into the pool of wider opportunities!

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.