How I Scratched my Entrepreneurial Itch While Teaching English in China

Did you ever have a creative idea about what you do in the shower or while meditating or while on a mountain trip? I see these kinds of stories constantly and that’s exactly how I got into business.

This is the story of how I created a successful business called Ninjodo while I taught English in China, a business that would not even begin for another 6 years.

I will give you the most important lessons I learned through the whole process. You know how things are with lessons, they help, a lot. Now, if I were you, I would be asking why would a dude from Australia teach English in China for 3.5 years.

To understand why I was there, you have to understand how I got there. I had kinda just fallen into business but it was not my original intention.

A little side-note. Did you read Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and grow rich”? In that book, the author mentions a secret that he writes subtly. This story will be just like that. Read carefully and draw your lessons from it.

How I Got There

When I was younger I was always pulling apart computers and keen to figure out how things worked. I loved it because problem & puzzle solving seemed naturally built into technology.

When I got to high school and got to pick my subjects I was computers and business all the way. But I switched schools and they didn’t offer computers to business started pulling ahead.

Like many entrepreneurs, school started to bore me, and after getting some less than awesome scores in year 11, I decided I wasn’t on the right path. The school would not get me where I needed to go. You can imagin, I had EXTREME opposition from my mum and teachers. I dropped out in year 12 and went to TAFE to focus purely on business which I loved learning about. Haha, now that I think about it, time from decision to leave to enrolled and in TAFE on my new path, left school on Thursday, started TAFE on Tuesday.

( For our US readers, TAFE is a vocational college which the State funds.)

Fast forward to the end of the year, It was the morning after new years eve, I remember it so clearly. I was frustrating myself with where I was again. I craved more from my path, I decided I wanted to go to uni, but at 18 I was missing the key requirement, finishing Year 12.

It wasn’t hard to found out when the lecturers came back from break (which was 2 weeks away) and I contacted the head of faculty of business to ask if she would meet with me about me coming to uni. She agreed for some reason, so I jumped in my car and headed West to plead my case before the uni.

What was going to get me in the door? I had no idea.

board-of-judges

They say in business, it’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of resourcefulness. This was one of the times.

I did what’s called an Assets Audit on myself. You can do this whenever you need to figure out what you bring to the table in a deal, a pitch, a partnership. What did I have to offer? Some pretty good marks from business at Tafe, my determination to carve out my own path in life. I could get in the door for Accounting (cause it had twice the intake) and switch later. And then on the night before my interview I decided I’d write an essay as well. I wanted to tell them why I thought I should be there.

I got accepted in late round offers and on my journey went. Kept going with Business (spent 4 years doing a 3 year degree 😛 ) but again, with the exception of my first year picked every subject I wanted to do. It gave me a great mix of management, marketing, commerce, accounting)

But still no formal focus on computers, only my own on-the-side love for them.

The 4th year was a hard finish, and pushed myself kicking and screaming over the finish line. When you have that entrepreneurial itch, 4yrs in a country town, learning theory and not getting out there doing takes it toll.

So my first year out was in the family business, it was an awesome training ground. I got exposed to companies from $50million turnover down to half a million, all in some form of trouble and needing to be saved.

Lessons from The First Business I Ever Took a Part in

It’s funny, my first big business lesson I learned was about what kills big businesses. Those tend to be exactly the same things. And it’s usually something to do with the owner. Sabotaging partners, taking too much cash out without knowing their numbers, not asking for help until it’s too late, not learning enough of the right things to avoid getting screwed over by others (intentionally or otherwise).

Second big lesson was cashflow fixes everything. If you can find cash quickly in your business (either by finding new revenue or cost cutting) you can fix most problems. (Provided of course you use that time to fix the problem, not throw money at it)

Cash-Flow

So I was 22, 1 year out of uni, I was doing 60 & 70 hour weeks, and it really started to creep up on me. I felt like I should be doing more than what I was. When I started looking for alternatives, I dropped all restrictions in my search and China came up.

From the time I saw the ad online to Teach English in China, to the time I had sold my car, everything I owned, completed the qualification course and in the middle of North East China was 2 weeks exactly.

When I went into the airport in Sydney Australia, the temperature was 30 degrees (celsius) when I walked out of Harbin airport, it was -24 C. Didn’t speak a word of Mandarin but I was ready for an adventure.

China-Entrepreneurship

I was in China from February 2007 until June 2010 I lived in 3 cities while I was there, 2 years in Harbin (where they have the Ice Festival, and a wicked beer garden in Summer), 1 year in Shenyang (awesome city where I started my first business) and 1 year in Changchun (where I started my second business, and met my amazing wife). It was me doing my soul-searching and boy did I find it …

The Entrepreneurial Itch

So, I initially went to get away from business and do just do my own thing, find out what my real path was. I taught English to pay my way. It was about 45 days into my China trip and I couldn’t help myself, I started getting that entrepreneurial itch again.

If you have it you know what I’m talking about. You see opportunities everywhere. Your brain just doesn’t stop coming up with things, or trying to solve problems. And China to me felt like the West must have been but 50 years ago. China is really a fertile ground for business.

Chinese have an AMAZING saying:”No person could ever be hungry if he/she gets up at dawn and works until sunset for 360 days in a year”. 360 DAYS?! How about that? So, no OH&S, rules were just guidelines, money would solve anything, stupidity was your own demise, and the idea of seizing opportunities just wasn’t the norm. It was awesomely refreshing.

But, without an option for a visa I had to head back to Australia, but after a few months I felt that pull again and my old boss said to come back and have my old job back until I figured out what I wanted to do.

If you’re parting ways, don’t burn your bridges. You never know when that bridge could be in use again.

Don't-burn-bridges

I got lucky and went back again to China only a few weeks later and I got a call from my would be business partner, saying she had split from her other partner and still wanted to do business together and to join her in starting a recruitment business to find and place ESL teachers.

We built that business from nothing to be one of the most recognised and trusted brands in the space in China in just 18 months. That was the first company that had a foreigner at the helm. We split our responsibilities down the middle.

I do the marketing, and take care of the teachers, find, interview and screen them, she took care of finding the schools to place them into. I was in the foreigners corner, she was in the Chinese corner, and we agreed it would be us that had the cultural arguments in the middle (rather than the teacher and school).

The Beginning of Ninjodo

It was in this business which we started while I was operating from another city where I first realised the power of CRMs. We started out like most people using spreadsheets and inboxes to run the business, and pretty soon it was clear we had to start keeping some sort of file on the teachers we needed to place. We also had emails we were sending again and again which birthed the need for email templates. Sound familiar?

Now, that is a recurring theme amongst most of our clients. They build a successful business on spreadsheets and inboxes, but the CRM is the missing link for their bigger success. The biggest thing is that the CRM takes a huge load of your mind and enables you to do high-leverage; high-impact things for your business.

After realizing that, I started my first real coding project. I had to build what would turn out to be my first CRM platform. It would store all of our clients (teachers and schools), as well as allow us to send those email templates in just a few clicks saving tons of time. I then added in our Jobs, developed a screening system and it just kept going on from there. Our entire business operated through this system, teachers logged in, we logged in, everyone was on the same page.

This was the single most critical piece to our success. Without a CRM like this we just simply wouldn’t have gotten big enough to ever be noticed. It allowed us to scale and today that business continues to thrive. They still use the platform I developed all those years ago.

A CRM is the single best piece of technology you can introduce into your business. It digitised your business which allows you to operate from any location, any time, and scale with minimal staff.

Did you notice another recurring theme? I know a lot of successful startups that began by solving a problem for themselves. After I came back from China I developed Ninjodo to this successful startup and I don’t intend to ever go back.

I don’t want to lie to you, that wasn’t easy at all. In my case, I had to sell all my belongings and go all-in on Ninjodo. I want to thank my wife for her unconditional help, her support means the world to me.

The way she treats me can be another blog post, and who knows, I might even talk about that in the near future.

That’s it for today.

So, did you catch all the business lessons I mentioned? I hope you had as much fun reading this blog post as I had creating it.

Remember: Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Share this blog post if it inspired you.

And if in some case, you didn’t catch all the lessons from my story here they are for you:

  1. Do whatever you have to follow your own path. Do it on your own terms and don’t let anyone else tell you you can’t do it your way. There is not “right way” or “one way” of doing anything. It’s a myth.
  2. It’s not a matter of what resources you have, but rather how resourceful you are willing to be.
  3. Be decisive and trust your gut. Once you make a decision go all in, it pays off.
  4. Don’t be stupid, plan your business – What I learned from a $10 Lego box
  5. If your business isn’t working, it’s most likely because of you. You’re either missing important skills, wallowing in stories that don’t serve you, or not really putting both feet into something.

About the Author

Simon Ogilvie-Lee, Founder & CEO of Ninjodo.