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Kevin Chen of italki: “Don’t assume”

Don’t assume (When you assume, you make an A** of U and ME…) This goes for everything. In order to make the right decisions, you have to understand your business, your users, your product, and your team. You should use everything you can to get a better understanding: data, surveys, personal conversations, anything. This is even […]

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Don’t assume (When you assume, you make an A** of U and ME…)

This goes for everything. In order to make the right decisions, you have to understand your business, your users, your product, and your team. You should use everything you can to get a better understanding: data, surveys, personal conversations, anything.

This is even more important when you’re dealing with colleagues or other relationships. Empathy is crucial. You have to listen carefully and find out the facts and perspectives for yourself. Chances are, your assumptions are wrong, and your understanding of the situation is incomplete.


As part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Chen.

Kevin Chen is co-founder of italki.com. Previously, he co-founded famento.com, and worked in financial research. He is active in the Shanghai startup community through techyizu.org and xinchejian.com.

Kevin holds a degree from the London School of Economics, and Georgetown University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thanks for asking! My high school was a magnet school for technology, and in university, I studied “Foreign Service”. My first career was in finance, and I was lucky to get the opportunity to work in London, New York, and Tokyo. However, I found that banking wasn’t for me. I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and with a more positive impact. I decided to move to China without a clear plan (not advisable). When I arrived, I started taking Chinese classes, and that’s when I realized how important immersion is in language learning. Being able to learn a language with native speakers all around me, was very different to my experience in primary school.

In the early 2000s, the internet was excited with the potential of social networking, and I co-founded a startup focused on recording family history through a family social network. Like a lot of first-time entrepreneurs, we made a lot of obvious mistakes, and the company ultimately failed. However, the ideas around social networks and language learning led to italki. I was lucky to run into a team that had similar ideas, and had the talent and skill to build it.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re trying to change the structure of language education. For both students and teachers, we’re revolutionizing how, when, and where you can learn or teach. We’re able to bring the benefits of technology so you can learn from anywhere (home, office, your bathroom), anytime (mornings, lunches, after work, weekends), and on any device (phone, computer). Even more disruptive is the idea that you can learn the way you want, with a teacher who can customize a path that works for you. You can get a personalized, authentic, cultural experience with a live native teacher, which we believe is more effective and motivating.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At my first startup, we had an idea about trying to record everyone’s family history online with family trees. Imagine a Facebook for families mixed with Ancestry (the company). We spent a lot of effort building this site. After more than a year of development, I flew to San Francisco and Miami to present the product to potential customers (one key customer type was funeral homes). The general feedback I received was… very negative. In some respects, I think wewere too early for the market. But the bigger lesson was that we took too long to really understand the needs and perspectives of our customers. Since then, I always suggest to new entrepreneurs to learn about Customer Development and Lean Startup.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

We’ve been around for many years, and it’s really hard to pick one mentor or adviser to thank. I’ve always appreciated the hearing stories and experiences from other entrepreneurs. They help you recognize that many of the struggles you’re going through are universal for growing companies. That includes stories about dealing with team conflicts to learning about how other companies create a positive culture. I received pitching advice from one entrepreneur/investor, which I still remember for its raw energy and ambition (“I’m going to drop a nuclear bomb on this industry…”). I’ve also appreciated the perspective from our board members and investors, who have provided a more financially-minded look into our work. They supported us through our difficult financial times (one of them paid for our servers with his personal credit card for a time). We’ve been around for many years, so there are a lot of stories to tell and a lot of people to thank.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have received a lot of advice from different mentors, coaches, and advisers. Through hearing their experiences and perspectives, I learned a lot about startups and investment. I think I have a better understanding of startup teams, as well as my personal tendencies, and how those affect the company. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility for your own choices. Through their help and my experiences, I’d like to say I’m not the same person that I was when the company started.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

My understanding of disruption is that this is a description of the process when many humans rapidly adopt a new way of doing things. In general, these early adopters started doing this because it generated a significant benefit for them. The unfortunate side effect is that people and institutions who are invested in the old way of doing things were forced to adjust to the new ways.

I think the negative side of disruption is a question of how much concern we have for the people who have been disrupted. Nobody today thinks much about the people in those industries when oil lamps were displaced by electric bulbs, encyclopedias were displaced by Wikipedia, or chemical photo processors were displaced by digital cameras.

However, the pace of technological change is increasing, and societal changes are happening everywhere and with more drastic outcomes. I think there is a real question about how much change people can handle, and what we can do to reduce the pain of this process.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. Accountability cannot be delegated

It’s the difference between responsibility and accountability. As a cofounder, it really means everything you are not satisfied with is basically your fault.

2. Culture eats strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker)

Getting people aligned with the same understanding is very difficult. It’s easier at the start, and gets more difficult with more people. The cost of communication rises, along with errors and misunderstandings.

3. Don’t assume (When you assume, you make an A** of U and ME…)

This goes for everything. In order to make the right decisions, you have to understand your business, your users, your product, and your team. You should use everything you can to get a better understanding: data, surveys, personal conversations, anything.

This is even more important when you’re dealing with colleagues or other relationships. Empathy is crucial. You have to listen carefully and find out the facts and perspectives for yourself. Chances are, your assumptions are wrong, and your understanding of the situation is incomplete.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The vast majority of people who are learning languages (1.5+ billion people by some estimates) are still stuck in the traditional ways of learning. Covid-19 forced a lot of people to try online learning, but there is still a tremendous amount of room for change.

italki is providing individual students and teachers an alternative to traditional language learning. The space is still very young, and I think there’s tremendous appetite and space for further innovation. For us, the future is about hybrid models that draw from the best of humans and technology. We’re working on ideas that help create these integrated experiences.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Sapiens and Homo Deus — I think Yuval Noah Harari presents a very compelling picture of how our world is constructed and how it is changing. Given the immense societal changes brought by technology, I think the risk is that we don’t understand the world as it is now. We’re stuck seeing the world through a lens that is increasingly outdated. We have to be willing to reassess our intellectual foundations, and ask ourselves if they continue to serve the purposes they were intended for.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

― Marcus Aurelius

It’s important to remember your own personal mission while dealing with the inevitable struggles. I think we’re here on earth to help each other. It’s easy to forget that in the rush of everything that is happening.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Well… to help people believe in lifelong education. You never stop learning. 
Learn from everyone. Every situation carries a lesson. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. Use every opportunity to draw from the experience of others. When you’re ready, share your own experience.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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