How 51Talk Became The Largest International Teaching ESL Company


Ms. Ting Shu is the co-founder of 51Talk and has served as the director and senior vice president since its inception in 2011. Ms. Ting co-founded TalkChina with Mr. Jack Jiajia Huang in 2007. From 2010 to 2012, Ms. Ting worked in the enterprise risk services department of Deloitte in China. She received her master’s degree in language science from the University of Tokyo in 2010 and her bachelor’s degree in Japanese language from Tsinghua University in 2007.

About 51Talk

51Talk is the largest online English education platform in China. In June 2016, it became a publicly listed company on the New York Stock Exchange (COE). 51Talk’s mission is to make quality education accessible and affordable, and to enable students to talk to the world.

And they are doing this well.

To date, they have over 10,000 teachers worldwide and over 100,000 quarterly active students. Gross profit in the 3rd quarter of 2016 was RMB $79.6-million, or USD $12.1-million.

I had the chance to talk with Ms. Ting Shu, the co-founder of 51Talk. We learned a lot about each other and the differences between the U.S. and Chinese education systems. As a U.S. trained elementary teacher, I was fascinated to learn about the needs of young Chinese students and how they differ from those in America. Given the cultural challenges we face, I wanted to understand how to build and scale a successful international business, as 51Talk begins in China, extends to the Philippines and now spans across North America.

Below, Ms. Ting shares tips, experiences, and advice for any budding domestic or international entrepreneur.

Ms. Ting, please share two critical habits an entrepreneur needs to launch a successful startup.

Dedicated Attitude

Working with full dedication is essential. When you dedicate yourself, nothing will stop you from getting work done. While building a business, you may encounter challenging situations: tasks are new and complicated, money can start running out, or you can feel physically exhausted. Fully focusing on work and ignoring distractions will keep you going. For example, if I had not spent five years in the Philippines, nor was I completely dedicated to the operations, I could not have built the largest international teaching ESL company, along with a good track record.

Pay Attention to Detail

As an entrepreneur, whether domestic or global, you must pay attention to detail. For example, monitoring costs and analyzing inefficiencies are important parts of building a business, but they are not the most important. Understanding the needs of your customers and providing a unique service that stands out from your competition are critical components for success. Notably, being in the education industry, we know learning outcomes and student satisfaction are vital to success. Therefore, we focus a great deal on the details for improving our teacher training process and curriculum development to achieve the best in our industry.

What are the benefits of a global business, and how do you build and scale internationally?

The benefits of establishing an international company are widely known, in particular because of the ever-growing globalization trend. Apart from getting customers from broader markets, a company can leverage resources internationally. At the same time, it is not easy to go abroad, and it is common for a start-up to face difficulties such as unknown markets and limited financial resources. Luckily, from the day we started 51Talk, we decided to go beyond China and find the best education resources on a global scale.

Please tell us about your launch.

Five years ago, we hired Filipino teachers to provide highly affordable lessons to Chinese students. Unlike some companies that use agents, we set up local operations with the aim to recruit the best teachers. We started from zero, and we now have a local operating team with over 400 people who cover every aspect of teacher sourcing, recruiting, training and retention.

How do you build a global, welcoming community?

To build a welcoming community, we organize many activities for our teachers in different cities and continue to build relationships with local universities. Today, with 51Talk’s American Academy program, we are expanding our business into North America. With an international mindset, we continue to bring the best teachers and education resources in North America to our Chinese students.

What are the two most important business strategies for new entrepreneurs?

Set Goals

Setting goals is always the first step. A company’s broad, long-term aims and more fundamental short-term objectives are both essential for growth. High-level company goals ensure that the growing business is steered in the right direction. Short-term goals help us figure out how to get there and guarantee that we accomplish our long-term mission.

At 51Talk, our mission statement aligns with our purpose: to make quality education assessable and affordable for millions of people in China. To achieve these goals, we set objectives on each aspect of our operations including curriculum development, technology infrastructure, and our teacher development system. Also, we further break down our goals into specific actions designated by those who can take action in a challenging and realistic manner.

Also, it is crucial to be flexible on short-term goals in an ever-changing environment.

Perhaps one of the most critical components of our short-term goals is to connect them to the long-term mission. Most notably, we consistently review if our short-term objectives still align with our long-term mission.

Build Out The Right Teams

Building a team that works well together can be a difficult task in any environment. Bringing together people from around the world who have different skillsets, personalities, cultures and backgrounds is definitely a complex undertaking.

After all, a team should work toward a common goal and support the overall growth of your business. You need to bring in the right people, understand individual strengths, and place employees in proper positions. The role of a strong team leader is crucial. All leaders should make team members feel supported, provide encouragement and demonstrate confidence in each person.

Encouraging transparency and establishing ground rules can reduce unnecessary conflicts within a team.

It is also important to cultivate a culture of teamwork to make team members understand that none of us are as good as all of us. As a global team, we work together and must consider all cross-cultural elements.

How to Become a Teacher for 51talk

You can read more about 51Talk and read our interview series with current teachers in North America. Additionally, 51Talk is always looking to hire new talented educators for their young learners in China. To learn more about becoming a home-based teacher, please find more information here.

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