How Learning Chinese and Attending HBS Helped Me Found a Company

4/30/13

When I was in high school, I never thought I was very good at languages. Just ask my Spanish teacher. In college, it took a bet with my sister to make me start studying Mandarin. Based on my previous track record, she thought there was no way I could master one of the world’s most difficult languages. My desire to prove her wrong was all the motivation I needed.

I continued studying Chinese through the end of the academic year, then traveled to China to spend the summer at Princeton in Beijing, an eight-week, intensive, and immersive Chinese language program. We spent our days attending lectures and drill sessions, learning countless Chinese characters, and engaging with professors over meals and during hour-long one-on-one sessions. This boot camp environment worked wonders. All participants were able to communicate in Mandarin in less than 12 months. I could do this because I had access to arguably the best language learning resources in the world and because I was able to travel to China and steep myself in the country’s language and culture.

Unfortunately, immersion programs like this are inaccessible to most people. They’re expensive and require students to spend a significant amount of time in a far-away or difficult-to-get-to location. It seemed to me there was a need for an alternative solution. Before coming to Harvard Business School, however, I didn’t have the resources to explore an entrepreneurial option.

My first year at HBS changed all of that. From the faculty and curriculum to the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab), HBS enables students to turn concepts into real business ventures. No surprise, therefore, that HBS facilitated the birth of the venture I’m working on, Lingua.

Lingua was born last November during a long car ride from Boston to New Jersey with an HBS classmate. Along the way we discovered a shared passion for learning languages. At the end of the trip, we agreed to meet again once we were back in Boston.

During our next discussion, we decided to pursue a venture around immersion-based language learning for students with previous exposure to a language. The business concept we landed on was a hybrid model that combines in-person and online learning experiences to rejuvenate students’ speaking skills.

We plan to provide the in-person component via what we call Language Boot Camps—one- or two-day intensive and immersive learning experiences that will give participants the opportunity to use their skills in a conversation-based rather than instruction-based setting. Students will pledge to speak the given language exclusively throughout the program, as they spend most of their time in small groups, playing games, writing skits, and engaging in debates and other activities under the guidance of a fluent speaker. After that, students will gain continued exposure to their language through the program’s online component, which will provide them with a variety of instructive materials we’re creating—short, interactive tutorials, for example, and access to an online community of language learners with whom students can connect and practice.

HBS has been an invaluable resource in helping us catalyze our concept. For example, we applied to the HBS Rock Center Accelerator Competition (RCAC), which helps new ventures using the lean startup methodology test concepts by providing them with $5,000 in funding, access to a network of mentors, and inclusion in a group of peers going through the same entrepreneurial journey.

We prepared for the competition by thinking more carefully about our product and the value it would deliver to our target market, and by developing a series of hypotheses and associated tests that we would use if we received RCAC funding. In the end, we were fortunate to win the award, and we have spent our time since then using the funds and feedback from our mentors to better understand curriculum effectiveness and customer demand.

We’ve now determined that our target market should be high school and college students prepping for achievement tests or placement exams as well as opportunities to study abroad; senior citizens preparing for global tours; and executives who have been posted to foreign countries.

As our strategy continues to evolve, we believe we are on the right path for succeeding in the language-learning market. But even if we fail (as so many entrepreneurs do), we know that the skills we’ve acquired through this process will be invaluable, no matter where our careers take us in the long run.

Michael Monagle is a first-year student at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, he worked for Amazon.com in China and for Reed Elsevier in New York. Follow @

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