For GoEast's 6th Anniversary this month, I interviewed one of the co-founders of GoEast about her experience starting and running a business, leaving her teaching experience behind her and learning about business administration and management in order to support other teachers. Maria Mao (毛瑞), CoFounder, COO and HR Director of GoEast Language School, taught Chinese at Jiaotong University, and has a BA and MA from Beijing Foreign Studies University in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.
"If we are the bosses then we can decide when to work."
The promise of setting your own schedule is an appealing idea, especially to someone who's not a morning person. This was the promise that convinced Maria Mao to be a co-founder of GoEast Language Center. The reality of starting a business was very different than the promise and involved a lot of early mornings and long days. Six years later, she enjoys her work at GoEast so much that the best part of vacations is sitting in the airport on the way home, waiting to board the plane, and starting to work.
Maria majored in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language at university, attracted by government promotion of the major in an effort to bring Chinese language, culture, and economics to the world outside its borders. Although the government guaranteed jobs for students studying to be Chinese teachers, what was missing, at the time, was a career path and opportunities for professional growth. Maria and the other co-founders of GoEast decided to set their own career path by starting a language school.
"At the beginning... we did everything... we fixed our toilet as well."
As any business owner knows, at the beginning you do everything yourself. Maria and the two co-founders, Emily Wang and Jane Luo, were all trained as Chinese teachers. They educated themselves so they could take care of the finance, administration, taxes, and many other tasks necessary to establish a company. When presented with a problem, Maria works to find a solution. "I search, I learn, I ask people [and] I learn a lot from online courses," she says. She is particularly interested in operations and HR management and lets the other co-founders focus on their own strengths in other areas such as marketing. The founding team has a balance of skills and interests which makes this distribution of responsibilities possible.
One unique educational resource for Maria and the other GoEast teachers is their own Chinese language students. Foreigners working in China come to GoEast for language training from all industries: CEO's, university professors, and technology researchers, to name a few. Many GoEast students have international business experience and have taken the time to share their expertise with the co-founders and teachers. A few students have even used what they learned at GoEast to provide professional education to Maria and her colleagues in Chinese, a mutually beneficial relationship rarely found at formal educational institutions. For Maria, these unique exchanges are confirmation that she made the right choice in establishing GoEast.
"Put people in the right position and let them have the power to do something amazing."
Maria's interest in HR management stems from her belief that people drive success. Her professional goal is to "be the one who can help teachers enjoy their teaching." A passionate teacher herself, she knows the frustrations and limitations that teachers face. Maria is proud to use her administrative knowledge and resources for managing time, money, and a business that gives teachers the freedom to focus on teaching.
The GoEast team has grown steadily over the last six years from just the three co-founders to 14 full time teachers plus nearly a hundred additional part time teachers around the world. When recruiting talent, "we work hard to let them know who we are," and what we value, says Maria. In the early days of GoEast, a teacher approached the language center, asking to join the team but they had to turn her offer down because they couldn't afford her. Years later, after their growth stabilized, Maria reached out to the teacher and she jumped at the chance to join them. Another teacher tracked GoEast's achievements for five years before giving up a higher salary at an established company to join the team. Maria maintains that the core members of the team define the company values and attract future talent. In this case, teachers dedicated to long term growth at a company that achieves concrete results.
"Be honest with yourself: if you're not growing then stop."
How did Maria know they were succeeding? Statistics. Before founding GoEast, the co-founders thoroughly researched the market to determine the feasibility of the company. They checked the number of foreigners coming to China each year, using the visa statistics to determine how many were coming for work, travel, or with their spouse. They also looked at the number of international students at local universities and set their goal: if they could get 0.1% of the international students at universities then they would succeed.
At the end of the first year, each of the co-founders was making less money than their previous job and they considered giving up. Wisely, they returned to the statistics and reviewed their goals with a simple question: are we growing? The statistics showed that they did indeed have positive growth so they kept going. Five years later, they are still growing, increasing their teachers, clients, and revenue.
"The team gives me confidence as we grow."
As they celebrate 6 years of continued growth at GoEast, Maria is pleased to recruit and support more teachers. "[We] continue to attract positive and enthusiastic teachers... [who] can learn fast and put their learning into action." Having confidence in the team and their dedication to personal, professional, and company growth gives Maria hope for the future of GoEast. "Maybe we will have a bigger community... maybe we can focus on travelling, business, it's all possible." As always, for Maria, it comes back to people: "A lot of people have great ideas, but who will... make it come true? Only people can do that."