Language Systems, website producers of Popup Chinese and Popup Cantonese, provides lessons for serious students learning Chinese and learning Cantonese. The company is owned by Dave Lancashire, a Canadian who started the company in Beijing and moved it to Chile under the Start-Up Chile program. I recently communicated with Dave about his company by email.
Why did you start Popup Chinese?
On a personal level, I’d been a hobbyist in Chinese computing for a long time and wanted to work on natural language processing programming and lexicon development professionally. The market for this is not very developed, so you could say I started the business to give myself a job….
What obstacles did you encounter in Beijing and Canada?
Since we incorporated offshore through an accountant in Hong Kong, our major administrative issues in China have been arranging residence visas and processing payments as an overseas company.
The hardest thing for us on the content side has been finding creative people for media production. Because the acting communities in Beijing are fairly transient, we always have new people coming in. Trying to coax creative and interesting recordings from even the best can feel like drawing blood from a stone. Perhaps we just need to pay as much as 7-Up?
Why did you choose Santiago over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore?
We’re expanding into other languages as quickly as we can afford to do so. The Start-Up Chile program was the major factor in coming down to Santiago, since it made the costs of setting up a local hub comparable to the costs of launching something similar from Beijing. Add in the immersion experience and it made sense to spend time here.
In the long-run, we are hoping to have an office in Santiago and an office in Beijing. I’d love to have an office in Hong Kong to run our Cantonese products, but we’ll need to see significant growth in revenues there before we can justify it.
Our long-term goal is to have a network of language learning products straddling most major languages and being the go-to place for anyone serious about learning a foreign language.
Did you learn Chinese with the aid of a formal institution like a college, or did you teach yourself?
I started learning mandarin as an undergraduate in Toronto and continued at graduate school before moving to China. That said, a lot of what we do is a response to my frustration at having done things the “wrong” way myself.
I can relate to that sentiment. I learned Spanish the wrong way, so I published Casting Aside Myths to Learning Spanish Efficiently in the hope that someone will learn Spanish faster than me.
Do you anticipate the popping of the education bubble of protracted formal schooling subsidized by governments in favor of net venues like the Khan Academy?
The real problem in the education market is information asymmetry: students are usually ignorant of the value of the goods being sold to them. But this is as endemic in the private sector as in the public sector so I don’t think we would be better off swapping one set of inefficiencies for the other.
The solution is to hack away at the ignorance so that people can make informed decisions about how to make progress towards their goals. As we do that, I think we’ll find that online learning is really complementary to classroom education.
If Popup Chinese is successful, which entrenched interests will suffer most in the capitalist process of creative destruction?
The industry that stands to lose the most from online learning is the traditional publishing industry as represented by companies like Pearson. We expect to cannibalize a lot of the value in the private language instruction market by virtue of having a better (and often free!) product.
A Chinese immigrant describes her 20 years in Chile: