Startup aims to teach English on the Web

When Danny Wang came to Canada from China in 2000, he soon got a shock.

“I learned about English in China for 20 years,” says the co-founder and co-chief executive of Toronto startup WeblishPal Inc.,  “So when I came to Canada I thought my English was okay – but when I tried to open a bank account, I found I couldn’t understand what the cashier was talking about.”

As Wang discovered, books and exercises only get you so far. It takes conversation with native speakers to really master a new language. And when Wang became a Master of Business Administration student at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, that lesson led to a business idea that became WeblishPal.

For a class assignment, Wang pitched the idea of an online business that would link Chinese students studying English with tutors in North America via web video chat. The students would get instruction directly from a native speaker, and the online conversations would help them master pronunciation and idiom. It’s an idea that has been used in teaching languages face-to-face for years, but in this case, students living in China would be able to learn from native English speakers living mostly in Canada and the U.S.

The idea appealed to Barbara Tassa, one of Wang’s classmates, who had come from Estonia with her parents at an early age. Being younger when she emigrated, Tassa says she had less trouble getting comfortable in English herself, but she saw how difficult it was for her parents. Tassa became co-founder and co-CEO of WeblishPal.

Both Wang and Tassa believed in the idea enough to take it beyond the classroom and start a real business. They submitted their business plan to the University of Western Ontario’s 2010 IBK Capital-Ivey Business Plan Competition and won third prize. That and other positive feedback helped, Wang says, but it’s not all about what other people think of your idea. “For the entrepreneur, you have to believe in yourself.”

Wang and Tassa self-funded the company at first while working at other jobs. Then Brendan Calder, a Rotman School professor who is also an angel investor, committed $50,000 in initial financing.

Getting that much money wasn’t too hard, Tassa says, but attracting financing is a challenge. WeblishPal has enough to move forward for now, she says, but will need to find more, and she knows it will require talking to lots of people. “The entire fundraising process, I would say, is challenging.”

Other challenges include dealing with China’s strict internet regulation, Wang says, and managing a handful of developers in China and India from WeblishPal’s home base in Toronto.

Figuring out how to promote the service in China was tricky, he adds. Wang says social networks have turned out to be one of the most effective means of promotion, and WeblishPal is using video content in particular to generate interest.

Another challenge is prioritizing what to do with limited time and resources, Tassa says. That’s why the focus isn’t on raising more financing at the moment. And while WeblishPal’s concept could be extended to teaching any language, Wang says the company will concentrate on Chinese students learning English for now.

On WeblishPal’s site, tutors post introductions to tell potential students about themselves and the courses they offer. Some tutors are experienced English-as-a-second-language teachers, Wang says, while others are university students.

They can decide what to charge for their services, and students decide who they want to work with. There are more than 1,000 students on WeblishPal today – most living in China – and around 700 tutors, of whom about 10 per cent are in Europe and the rest in North America.

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