Sean McGibney and Oliver Leach from The Chairman’s Bao (TCB) joined us on 17 March to give a guest lecture about the evolution of the company and the lessons they have learned from running a business for Mandarin learners.
Both are University of Leeds alumni, graduating in 2015 from Chinese and Spanish (Sean) and Asia Pacific Studies (Ollie). The pair spoke frankly about the highs and lows of starting and running a business, sharing valuable insights with attendees.
Read on for an overview of what we learned from their talk.
How it all started
Frustrated at the lack of engaging reading material in Mandarin, Sean started out by producing articles himself based on interesting news stories and posting them on Facebook. The reaction showed that he was onto something.
This creativity and initiative proved to be well-timed. When the website was launched it became the first product of its kind on the market for Mandarin, and the site remained free for 15 months to make the most of this advantage. This was also in the early days of Facebook advertising when it was a particularly cheap and effective tool for gaining new users.
The Chairman’s Bao attracted over 30,000 users in the first four or five months, and now caters to over 100,000 individual users and 300 teaching institutions worldwide – including the Mandarin Excellence Programme. Users range from parents signing up for their small children, to 85 year-olds exploring Mandarin for the first time, and an unexpected source of loyal institutional subscriptions has been the military.
Sean and Ollie were forthcoming about the pros and cons of the approach they took to develop the business.
Developing the app is one thing they might have handled differently with hindsight, potentially looking for investors to move it forward more quickly rather than bootstrapping.
They described the wide range of support that is available to small businesses, including match-funding and training, which they hadn’t been fully aware of in the early days.
How university set them up for success
Sean and Ollie credit their language-learning experience as a source of many useful transferrable skills. The ability to put themselves out there and be uncomfortable, a key aspect of language-learning and study abroad, has served them well in their business endeavours.
One aspect of this is the confidence that comes from knowing that you can deal with challenges. Ollie believes that without this experience from learning Mandarin and studying in China he may not have been as well-prepared for the time he spent in the high-pressure world of investment banking.
Having to self-study at university, and particularly to learn a language well, also builds confidence in your ability to learn. It was clear from the presentation that the entrepreneurs have had to develop skills in many areas to succeed, including accounting, marketing, management, and much more.
The pair also value the global outlook and international mindset they gained from their degrees, as “getting out of your bubble” and being able to think differently are also advantages in a fast-growing start-up.
Networks and support
Sean benefitted from enthusiastic support from the University of Leeds when The Chairman’s Bao started to develop from an idea into a business.
Through the Careers Service and SPARK he was able to make use of office space – which helped to separate ‘work’ from his studies.
Lecturers in East Asian Studies were generous with their advice and connections, introducing Sean to teachers and others in their networks who could help. Vouching for the fledgling company in this way helped trust to form early on, and to this day TCB cite their strong relationships with teachers as crucial to the company.
It is clear that networks developed with peers have also been central to the success of the business. In response to one question about what they gained from university, Sean and Ollie reflected on the many conversations they had about business ideas, and the support they would offer each other on CVs and other development activities.
Don’t underestimate the power of surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals and ambitions!
The Chairman’s Bao continue to maintain strong links with the University of Leeds. Offering internships to current undergraduates allows them to provide development opportunities for students as well as benefitting from the skills and enthusiasm interns have to offer. Some placements also develop into longer-term roles at the company.
Their pricing structure is carefully considered to make the product accessible to a wide range of customers in education. The company also run competitions for schools, giving those who might not be able to afford institutional membership the chance to win a subscription for their students.
Looking to the future
With the EdTech sector “really taking off” and a strong bank of knowledge and skills from their experience running The Chairman’s Bao, Sean and Ollie are optimistic about the future. TCB continues to go from strength to strength, bolstered by the accelerated shift to online learning during the pandemic.
Sean and Ollie, and the success of The Chairman’s Bao, are a great inspiration for other aspiring entrepreneurs!