#Asia In China, three Americans have created an Uber for English lessons

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Yoli's founding team. Photo credit: Yoli.

Yoli’s founding team: Drew Kirchhoff, Luke Priddy, and James LaLonde (left to right). Photo credit: Yoli.

Fifteen minutes is not a long time. It’s a short ride on the metro, a long article on Medium, or – if you’re one of those freakishly productive workout people – a high intensity ab workout. It’s also the length of an English class on Yoli.

“Since we’re on mobile and we’re on WeChat, we wanted to try 15 minutes,” says Drew Kirchhoff, co-founder of Yoli, an education startup based in Beijing. “A lot of people weren’t believers – they thought it was too short. They thought we were crazy.”

Yoli offers Chinese speakers one-on-one English classes in an on-demand system similar to Uber’s. When a student requests an English class, any teacher can claim it if they’re available. The entire service is conducted through WeChat, from automated student-teacher matching to classes, where teachers and students exchange written and audio messages. For each 15 minute session, Yoli teachers earn US$4.

Drew likes the brevity. “If it was half an hour […] or an hour” per class, he says, “I don’t think I have that time, because I need to carve it into my day and plan for it in advance.”

Yoli’s 15-minute classes occupy a unique space between traditional online courses and free-talk sessions where students and teachers converse freely without a set structure. To spare teachers the hassle of planning every lesson, Yoli provides a curriculum and enough course material for 180 classes. For students, there’s even less preparation. There’s no need to schedule anything in advance – they just have to take out their phone and participate.

“If you want to learn a language, you need to speak it,” says James LaLonde, another co-founder at Yoli. “The biggest issue [for Chinese speakers] is really speaking, not learning the grammar or the vocabulary, but gaining confidence around speaking.”

WeChat only

Yoli is one of the few companies that runs almost entirely inside WeChat, the messaging app that dominates social media in China. The company doesn’t have an office. Its staff – which includes teachers, customer service, and developers – works remotely. Payments are processed through WeChat’s mobile wallet.

The only services Yoli uses outside of WeChat are PayPal, which the company uses to pay some of its international teachers, and Huajiao, a Chinese live streaming app in which Yoli teachers organize student get-togethers and social activities after class. And that’s only because WeChat doesn’t support live streaming – for now.

WeChat has over 800 million users, 60 percent of which use the app more than 10 times a day. That’s not surprising given how many services and functions are packed inside the app, from ride-hailing to splitting bills.

Yoli has teachers from all over the world. This one is live streaming from New York. Photo credit: Yoli.

Yoli has teachers from all over the world. This one is live streaming from New York. Photo credit: Yoli.

James and Drew met while working at Yodo1, a mobile gaming company in China.

“Every time Drew [and I] would bump into each other in the hall we said we gotta do something on WeChat, we spend our whole lives in it,” says James.

Drew felt like he had to get out of developing smartphone apps. The duo saw WeChat as the future for mobile in China. They founded Yoli last October, along with Luke Priddy, an English teacher. A year later, the trio have run more than 10,000 classes through their WeChat account.

Treading carefully

Of course, putting all of your eggs onto one platform can be risky. Whereas a mobile app is your sovereign territory, WeChat brand accounts can be shut down immediately, losing companies hundreds of thousands of followers and customers overnight. The larger the account, the higher the stakes.

Yoli’s team is aware of this. They ran into trouble with Tencent, the company behind WeChat, early on when they used Alibaba Cloud to store classroom content, not Tencent’s cloud service.

“We were getting all these people downloading PDFs every day from Ali,” says James. “And they shut down our PDF downloads. They just shut it down.”

Plus, Yoli will occasionally run over the maximum number of notifications its WeChat account can send a day – a hard limit that Tencent sets to prevent spamming. When that happens, Yoli classes cut off abruptly.

Today, the team has a strong relationship with the Chinese tech giant, in part through their own guanxi or connections. One of Drew’s friends is Jason Ng, a well-known internet celebrity who blogs about China’s tech industry. His coverage of Yoli caught the attention of Tencent, which profiled the startup in August in a rare gesture of approval. As Yoli’s user base grows, the startup’s rapport with Tencent will only become more essential to the company’s future and livelihood.

“If I was a startup, I would really think about Tencent’s ecosystem and what they’re lacking,” says Drew. “If you can build what [Tencent] lacks without competing with them, that’s the trick.”

In December, Yoli plans to launch Mandarin Chinese classes. Though the mechanics of the classes will be similar, the curriculum will have a completely different structure from the English one, says James. Since English is part of China’s national curriculum, the startup can serve its Chinese users – intermediate to advanced English speakers – the same level of content. In contrast, Yoli’s Mandarin lessons will have several tiers of difficulty.

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