Chinese studying abroad — an interview with Greg Nance (part two)

This is the third post in my series on Chinese studying abroad and the entrepreneurs serving them. This is the second and final part of my interview with Greg Nance, serial entrepreneur and CEO of ChaseFuture. As noted in the first part of this interview, ChaseFuture offers services like mentoring and essay proofreading for Chinese students aspiring to attend top schools in the US or UK.

In this part, Greg talks about ChaseFuture’s strategy in China, India, and Russia; co-founders and finding early employees; growing organically and creating a business that can scale; and gathering customer feedback as ChaseFuture considers expanding their services to better serve their customers’ needs.

Q: How did you decide to target China first, rather than Russia or India, which I know are also areas of interest for ChaseFuture?
October 18, 2011, was a very fortuitous day. I [had a phone call with] my buddy Ted — I serve as Chairman of Moneythink, he’s the Executive Director, we keep a very close personal and professional relationship — he encouraged me to pursue as many growth opportunities as I could because that would help Moneythink as well as me.

Four hours later I had a lunch scheduled with a friend of a friend who also brought his friend from his program in Cambridge. Those two were both very interested in entrepreneurship, specifically in education and social enterprises. They had heard about some of the work I had done at Moneythink and wanted to meet up. That day they basically planted a seed that began growing very quickly: equip people who want to study abroad with the knowledge, information, and resources to do so.

It’s something I had been thinking lots about because I had a lot of trouble studying in the UK. Even though I was technically on a scholarship from the US with a grant behind my studies, I was having some big issues. We realized there are a lot of issues international students face, especially when there is a cultural/linguistic gap. [Shao] Han, being from China, said China is a good place for us to start. I thought about it. We realize there’s a lot of competition here, but China’s a great opportunity, especially with Han as the ace in the hole for us.

Han ran a blog called “Study in Macau Blog” about his early experiences [studying abroad], where he generated more than a million unique visits to the blog. So he [has] a pretty influential voice in Chinese education [and the] study abroad sphere. He is also a master of Renren and Weibo, the social networks [in China]. With that we realized he could create a big following very quickly — more so than my secondary contacts in India and Russia. So we made the strategic choice to jump in [to China]. As I mentioned, I also have a real interest and fascination with China. So I figured if it means I can come to China, learn a little bit of Mandarin, learn more about the culture and the country, then I’m all for it. That’s where we’re at today.

Q: In addition to you and Han, who else is working on ChaseFuture with you and how did you pick those people?
Early on we were trying to build a website, and, through a friend, we were introduced to a really experienced designer and programmer: a guy named Jefferson Stewart who had done some pretty incredible things. Jeff is a tremendous designer. He designed the biggest virtual currency on Facebook’s virtual rewards. In fact, Facebook basically copied/pirated Jeff’s work when they closed out independent providers and made their own. So Jeff smiles as people play Farmville and [similar games] because that’s a lot of his work behind it. He’s a very talented guy. He used to work at a company called AdKnowledge, which is the fourth largest internet advertising brokerage. We slowly stole him away from AdKnowledge and we’re very fortunate he’s working full-time for us in New York. He’s the third co-founder.

We also were very fortunate [recently]. Han’s cousin, a guy named Zhuang Qian Wei, was a top salesman for Toyota in Wenzhou. But Toyota’s [sales slipped] because of the conflict over the islands. Zhuang Qian Wei was paid on commission, [so although he] still had a job he wasn’t making any money and wasn’t very fulfilled. He’s a natural salesman and we were in Wenzhou for a family visit to Han’s place and decided to talk to him about the opportunity. He’s a guy that smiles easily, really likes answering customer questions, likes letting them know that they’re going to find real value in [something] — whether that’s a Toyota or more recently ChaseFuture. He’s our sales manager, our customer service director, and a tremendous asset to the team.

The newest hire, employee number 2, is a great programmer with 7 years of freelance experience. She had a very fulfilling job, but luckily she came to one of my [talks] — I do talks at local universities and events on entrepreneurship, business leadership, and mountaineering. She happened to be in the audience and thought I was a bit of a schmuck, but she got to talking with Han after the presentation and they really hit it off. He let her know that we were looking for a senior engineer — Han’s a very charming guy and was able to talk her into leaving her very fruitful job. So we’re super excited to have Liu Li as our second employee: a gal who can really take our technical development to the next level and allow us to reach some scale.

We pair that with 28 mentors that actually work with our clients. Legally they’re independent contractors — although I hate that term because there’s no feeling, no intimacy there. I let them know as they sign the contract that they are part of the family, and we mean that. I’ve known many of these people for 10–15 years; others are college friends, so 5–6 years; others are Cambridge buddies, debate friends from high school; so I go way back with many of them and we’re in this together. They are [technically] independent contractors though, again, I’m not a fan of the term.

Q: Have you found any mentors outside of your circle of friends or your circle of contacts? How have you been expanding the mentor network?
The first 19–20 were exclusively friends; that was the first generation. [Since then] we’ve been growing organically through the network. A couple of friends put me in touch with another friend who’s been a great asset who has now put me in touch with another friend — so the little family tree has developed that way in a couple of different places. As we grow, especially in strategic [subjects] like computer science, statistics, finance, mathematics — areas where my network isn’t as strong — I luckily have various mentors who have a very strong networks there. So they’re able to put me in touch with folks from great universities that have studied those [subjects].

Initially we budgeted thousands of dollars for LinkedIn targeted advertising to build the right team, but we’ve now moved that money over to Facebook and Renren advertising for future customers and clients because we don’t need to put money in [that area] yet. We greatly prefer to work with people that we know and like, so we’re creating win-wins amongst friends.

Q: So are you targeting specific schools and then going after mentors based on their educational experience? Or are you just hitting your network up looking for good people who are a good fit? A little of both?
It’s a combination. The Chinese are very brand-conscious, so we’re naturally able to charge more for having a stronger brand. What a stronger brand means in this sector is [mentors] that come from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, the Oxford/Cambridges of the world. So that’s really who we feature on the site. Although a lot of our workhorses are super quality even though they don’t come from the Ivy League schools; they’re folks from University of Utah, University of Colorado, UCSB. They’re amazing, so when students [ask]: “Who’s my mentor, where are they from?” [and we respond] “This is Jessie from UCSB”. They say, “Wow, he’s so smart!”. “Yeah, he got in everywhere he just chose to go there.” It’s kind of a learning opportunity for Chinese that very smart people go to all kinds of universities; not just your top-shelfs. So that’s fun learning on both sides, in that respect.

Yes, we do target the Ivy League calibre schools for our marketing purposes, but the roster is populated with all kinds of people.

Q: What kind of geographic distribution are you getting of Chinese students? Are they mostly in Shanghai?
It’s a decent mix because Renren is our biggest marketing channel, although we’ve done face-to-face lectures in Beijing and Shanghai as well as in Shenzhen. A lot of customers come from those [cities]. It’s all about trust. There are so many study abroad agencies, [trust is] what sets us apart: we think we provide better value, but people have to trust that value.

We’re a new company, so how do you build that trust? For us it’s about really doing a very good job with one or two clients from a specific place and we’ll see that, for example, we helped Judy from the Forestry University of Beijing and then, a week later, there are three more clients from that program. We do a really good job there, now there are 15 clients from that program. And before long we’ve serviced the lion’s share of a program.

So that’s really been the strategy: we focus on doing the very best. I think it helps differentiate us that we really put in that 110% percent.

But yes, we’re targeting Beijing and Shanghai primarily, although through Renren we’re able to reach more folks. We eventually want to travel to those places, too, both for curiosity’s sake and for business development.

Q: Do you think you’ll expand your physical presence to other cities in China, or just reach out through the web or just travel? Are you planning to open additional offices?
We’ve been bootstrapping [and are] just now raising a seed round. To keep our overhead low, it’ll be primarily web-based and webinars. Those actually work very well, which I’m surprised by. I like to be able to make eye contact… but even over Skype I think you can still relay a lot of key information and demonstrate a lot of the value. Personality doesn’t come through quite as well but, for saving thousands of dollars, it’s ok.

[For the future], we’re developing a campus ambassadors network where we give people basic discounts off our service if they are well-connected on their campus, they’re a student leader, or if they can refer us to several of their friends. So [recently] we’ve begun developing this network. It’s especially important in India and Russia where we don’t have the funds or our own network, so that’s where we’re making the most inroads on the campus ambassadors. But even in China we think that’s a pretty sustainable growth strategy for us. We’re basically enlisting people to create, again, win-wins for their friends. That’s part of the DNA of our company, we like to help each other and it’s even better when we help people get into universities and we’re able to make a little bit of money and create impact all the while.

Q: You have the strong focus on China, are you concerned about the split focus between India and Russia as you start targeting those markets? Will that put too much stress on you guys? How are you making sure you have the bandwidth and processes in place to do that?
So that’s the thing that keeps me up at night. I have an advisory board we’ve assembled. Half says, “You need to be moving more aggressively into these places,” half says, “The best way to kill a business like yours isn’t starvation but indigestion.” So with that mixed advice, where do I sit on this? I want to be thoughtful in the expansion because I think it’s key in creating the kind of company, and impact we want. But you’re right, how do you design the processes.

I’m in the very privileged position where between Zhuang Qian Wei and Han, they run the show in China. You could literally kidnap me, or deport me back to the US and this ship would sail fine. Han and Zhuang Qian Wei are fantastic at what they do and that gives me a lot of breathing room to strategize on the India/Russia front, to build more contacts there, and to learn from what they’re doing so well here in China. Because they’re masters of the messaging, the customer support, and the operations, I’ve realized you can’t grow a Shao Han or a Zhuang Qian Wei on a tree. You can’t just wave a wand and have those guys appear. Instead, you have to find the best possible talent you can and then cultivate it.

Han and I spent a lot of time [together] early on. He’s a natural at operations. We built the system together, and he’s the guy that executes it day in and day out. He’s the guy that grinds on it. I have to find someone who has that kind of personality in India and Russia, that also has that talent, the connections, the foresight, and the marketing guru built-in. I think it’s kind of a one-in-a-million and so I have the hounds searching right now. We have several campus ambassadors in both of those places that have their eyes peeled for the superstar. And I’m confident that as we’re bringing in funding, we’re working to create some buzz in those places, that we’ll be searching and hopefully the right kind of candidate will also be searching for the right kind of opportunity and the stars will align.

But you’re right, it’s a huge issue and it’s one that if the bandwidth is too diverted — if you chase two rabbits you chase neither. We’re very cognizant of that, but we’re very lucky that our China team can execute day in day out without me.

Q: What’s your advice to someone who is a founder of one right now? How do they vet people, or should they just run with what they have? The market might pass them by in the process but is it worth letting the market pass you by so you can make sure you attack it appropriately?
That’s a hairy one. My thinking is: put yourself out there, go to various networking events, go out to lunches, meet with people, ask for advice, and every time share your pitch because I think passion is contagious. You’ll surprise yourself that more often than not, you’ll hit a line drive in the gap, or maybe even a home run instead of striking out. [Striking out] will happen too, but you gotta grow some thick skin as a founder or co-founder. And if you’re trying to find your better half, the key is to get out there and go pitch.

That said, don’t over-promise as you go into meetings. I think going into these things slowly is a good idea. You meet, you talk about their vision, you hear their ideas and their experiences. I always recommend folks reach out to people who they’ve worked with previously just to get a better sense of how they work and how they operate. Make sure there’s compatibility and just get on the same page. I jumped into [some] relationships too fast on the Moneythink project, and I ended up firing two of my friends. It’s not fun. It’s a rough process. We’re on speaking terms again and we’re friends again, but it’s not desirable.

So I strongly advise: share your passion, but move in slowly.

Talk about expectations up front, whether that’s title, salary, equity. These things are much better decided sooner rather than later. And make sure again that there’s both the compatibility present as well as a match for the skills: are they what you’re really looking for, or are you giving half the company away to another techie or another business dev specialist [like yourself or someone already on your team].

Q: How has the idea changed from inception to the one you’re implementing right now, and how did you make those decisions to alter your course along the way?
That’s something you have to think about a lot as an entrepreneur because even if things are going well, there might be a better opportunity that you can seamlessly move towards — or [you might need to] even very painfully move towards a better plane. For us, the customer has been our magnet. We’ve tried to follow what the customer needs and how we can satisfy that within what I call our wheelhouse.

As an entrepreneur you want to realize your’s and your team’s strengths. And with that, both in this project and in Moneythink, I’ve really tried to find the sweet-spot, find the wheelhouse and go for it. Exploit it, leverage it to the fullest for your customers — for the people you’re trying to help.

For ChaseFuture, we initially were just a proofreading service. But we realized that really homing in on admissions and the pain-points for the customers [would be beneficial]. A lot of that was things that we could address really quickly over a 30 minute Skype call — something a customer is willing to pay close to double for, if not more. The pivot basically was: what are customers looking for and how can we better provide that?

With the Moneythink project, initially we were very stock market oriented because it was the investment club and that’s what we were good at teaching. But, the students we were trying to mentor — some were interested, but others not as much. But when we talked about Allen Iverson blowing through $200M — which he did, he’s now bankrupt. When we talked about Lil Wayne and his mixed tapes and how he built a lot of buzz when he was 16 years old and how it led to [him becoming] a multi-platinum artist, and the branding lessons therein, students were much more interested in that and Russell Simmons and Jay-Z and lessons for business leadership than they were in me talking about Wal-Mart and Starbucks stock, naturally. In hindsight [those things] seem obvious, but at the time those were decisions that we had to [deliberate over].

My advice to other entrepreneurs when deciding “Pivot or Proceed:” find the smartest people and put them in one room or on one email thread, and get the best ideas you can from them.

Because no matter what your experience or perspective is, it’s helpful to at least hear other ideas. Remember that every advisor is a focus group of one, where they have their ideas — but remember that they might have a dog in the fight, and they might have their own biases. So be critical as you evaluate those.

But at the end of the day I think that a CEO, more than anything, can be judged by the decisions they make. You’re the executive officer, what kind of executive decisions are you making. And with a “Pivot or Proceed,” get all the data you can, look out at the future and envision that future, the steps therein required. Do you have the team to pivot? If not, what are the opportunity costs to continuing to proceed. Evaluate each of those things.

Q: You mentioned talking to customers, learning from your customers. How did you actually do that? Did you follow a formal customer development process or was it more informal?
Another mark of a good founder is being a good listener. For us we try to keep open ears, both on the operational side from the mentors — how we can make their job easier — and also customers — how we can better [address] their needs. Fill those so we can better help them, and ideally make more money and impact throughout. For us, there was no formal process. Han and I typically would grab lunch or coffee each day while we were business school students, when we were starting the project. Now we work two feet away from each other so we usually have headphones in but we unplug to quickly talk whenever we need. And we share feedback: “Hey, this customer is asking if we have cover letter and CV advice because they’re going for an internship.” Oh, we should do that because again that’s in our wheelhouse, that’s part of our sweet spot, we hear that enough times — we’ve heard that probably 25 times now — so we’re rolling out ChaseFuture Career [soon].

It’s not quite a pivot because it’s very much in the wheelhouse, it’s still proceeding toward a higher plane where we’re looking for the better opportunities and we think the career focus [is a good one]. We’ve also had students ask if we could mentor them and help with proofreading on a dissertation, or a longer writing project in English that they think they’re totally unready for. And we provide them with a mentor that shows them: “You’re very ready for this, you can totally do it, and I can even help you make this English sound polished through proofreading and editing your statement when it’s ready.” And so we’re rolling out ChaseFuture Academics in the future as Master’s and Graduate students do dissertations in the UK and the USA … [and] just want a leg-up with some mentorship from people who have already earned their PhDs or have already earned their Masters.

Both these instances are attributable to being good listeners. In this case it was pretty easy because a lot of people were saying it so we’d have to have willful ignorance to be ignoring it. That said, you also have to know when you know more than your customer. There’s the adage often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d listened to my customers I’d be trying to make faster horses.” Or Steve Jobs intentionally doing away with focus groups, intentionally not listening to customers because he had this more compelling vision. I don’t pretend to be in the pantheon of Jobs or Ford, but I do know that I know more about studying abroad than my customers, primarily. With that, I have additional insights on the career process. I’ve done internships at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, so I have some insights into that process as well. And I think I can add value, so I’m trying to design the simplest way to create the biggest impact for the customers and that’s kind of how we proceed. So being good listeners, but at the same time realizing that you are an expert in your domain and leveraging that expertise to do the best you can, is critical. !

I look forward to reading your thoughts on the second part of my interview with Greg Nance. Next up is my interview with Danny Wang, co-founder of WeblishPal. Sign up for email updates below so you don’t miss it!

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