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How to start a language school in China
I'm Verena Bayer from the website chinaorbit.com I will now interview Jeremie Rossignol, who started a business in Beijing two years ago.
1.Why did you decide to start a language school for foreign students in China?
Actually I did not decide it alone, I was brought in the project by two of my partners, the Hutong School project, and I found it was really a fantastic idea to provide young foreign talents with support, to learn the language, to come to China, to do an internship and to introduce them to the Chinese culture.
2.When did you first come to China and what was your motivation?
I came to China, the first time in 2002 to do an internship myself at the French embassy. At this time I was very interested in diplomacy, and my motivation was to discover the country. To have a first experience abroad in a very far away country, and to see if I would like to work in an international company, or not.
3.Do you regret it?
Absolutely not, that's definitely the best decision I did in my life.
4.What were your first impressions when you started the business?
It was my first business, I was 27 year at that time, so quite young. I didn't study business before, so I had no knowledge in business, so it was extremely exciting. But at the same time very scary, because I was learning a lot by doing, but it was nice. When I remember it, we were starting with a very low budget, very low investment, so at the beginning we had a small apartment with my colleagues and we were building everything out of nothing, basically. That was a very impassioning experience.
5.From having the idea, how long did it take to establish the language school?
In our case it took about six months to elaborate the concept, then it took about six months to launch it, to rent our office, start having first costumers, the first logo, website, advertisements, etc. Then it took six months more to reestablish it, to have it run as a real company. We are only two years old, so I would say the first six months elaboration was before these two years, so it's been one year now that we have reached a certain level that we are not a start up company anymore, we are a small sized company.
6.From which countries are the majority of your students and which age group are you aiming at?
That's a very good question, because I am very proud to say that the Hutong School so far will have 23 different nationalities in the last two years. We had people from all over the world. Many Europeans I would say, we had lots of Germans, French, Dutch people, Spanish, Italians, so from all over the world. The kind of group we are aiming at, there are three main categories of people who join our program. The first one, students who are in the middle of their studies and want to do an internship in the frame of their studies. The second category are people who just finished their study, who just graduated and look for an internship as a way to launch their career. And the third category are people who are a bit older, who are around 30, 35 years old, even older. We had people who are more than 50 years old who came to the Hutong School and these people use the Hutong School as a sort of platform to start a new life or a new career in China.
7.Do the students have to have any prior knowledge of Chinese?
Absolutely not, we start a Beginner Course of Chinese every month. Every month we have a new Beginner Course starting, actually we have very small groups of Chinese classes, most groups are made of three to five students, so we start every month. For people who already have learned some Chinese before or are at an advance level, we organize private classes, or classes with only two or three students during which students work on very specific grammatical questions or they are doing some conversations.
8.Which different courses do you offer?
We have two main courses that we offer, the first one is our internship package. It consists of an internship placement in a company six hours a day, plus two hours Chinese classes every day. The students are also accommodated in our apartments in the City Center of Beijing. Our second program is an intensive Chinese Program, it is for people who want to concentrate exclusively on learning Chinese. It is four hours of Chinese classes every day plus the normal package, accommodation, cultural activities and support with all kind of practical problems.
9.Has it been difficult to communicate with the local agencies?
Yes, sometimes it's true that the communication with Chinese partners in general is not always easy. We have a very different understanding of how to make business and how to communicate. Our cultural background is very different, so sometimes the communication is not easy, it's difficult to aim at the same standard. That's the main difficulty. You can't expect the same standard in Germany or in China. That's very hard sometimes, when you work with Chinese partners, to adapt them to the standard you are trying to reach. But so far it works out very well.
10.Can you give us an example of a typical experience in China, which you wouldn't expect to happen in Europe at all?
There are many things, really good things and sometimes bad. I think for this I will have to take a personal example, I have very intrusive neighbors, they are very nice, very friendly to me, but at the beginning it was very surprising that on Sunday morning around 7:30, 8 o'clock, I had my neighbor with an old Beijing women entering my house, and starting screaming my name to see if I was there and told me, you didn't clean this part of the house. At the beginning I felt very upset and said, what are you doing in my house and screaming at me. Later I found out that it was a way to show me a lot of friendliness. In China, the line between your private life and your public life is very different than in Europe. In Europe we really respect peoples privacy, in China it's a bit different, you don't have a very clear distinction between your private life and your public life. Sometimes it's a bit surprising at the beginning, that you find people very intrusive and they are trying to enter your private life, they want to know your private life. The fact that you are a foreigner also helps a lot, because they are curious, they want to know about you.
11.What do you like most about living in China?
What I like most here, that basically everything is different. Everything is different than in Europe. You are like a little child here. You can't walk 50 meters on the street without seeing something totally weird that you never saw before. That's very nice.
12.What has been your worst / best experience in China?
That's very difficult. I think they are both related to the Hutong School. The Hutong School has definitely been my best experience in China. Great experience because I have gathered very brilliant colleagues, very nice ones, and a very nice community with the students. Everybody is very nice, so I think most of my best moments in China were here in this office with my colleagues or the students. And the worst experience might be the Hutong School as well. At the beginning when I was new, it was very exciting but it was quite scary. We were all out of money, we were investing not much, but still everything we had and the cash flow at the beginning when you start a little company without too much funds was very tight and I was trying hard to gather the right people around me, to have the right persons at the right job. Sometimes I missed some financial incentives to keep them in the company. That was quite hard at the beginning, that you have your project, you know where you want to go but you don't have success. That's very frustrating.
13.Is there anything else you would like to say, maybe a tip regarding starting a business in China?
If I have an advice to give, I don't have a lot of experience, only a few years, but if I have an advice to give to someone who wants to start a business here, I would advice them to invest not much at the beginning. I think it's a very different country, a very different context of law, the way you organize things, you deal with partners, you negotiate, everything is different. So if you have an idea, and you want to implement the idea, it's good to invest little at the beginning and to see if it works, and then to invest the big amount. I would say go slowly, don't let yourself go too fast.
Thank you very much for the interview and good luck in future for the Hutong School.