On Starting A Business Teaching Mandarin Chinese Online

Published: November 18th, 2019
Founder, Mandarin Monkey
Mandarin Monkey
from Taichung, Taichung, Taiwan
started September 2016
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

We are Mandarin Monkey. We are Mandarin/Chinese content creators made up of myself (Tom) and my wife (Ula) Cain. We have produced 250+ videos on YouTube and as of writing this, 62 podcast episodes where we discuss various topics using both English and Chinese throughout. We also sell a phrase and grammar eBook, conversation packs (for Chinese study), T-shirts, accessories and Audiobooks. Oh and Teach in both group hangouts and private 1on1’s online.


The business is still very much in its infancy at the time writing but is growing steadily every month. The majority of our income comes through the support of Patrons using Patreon as a platform to facilitate the monthly subscriptions. For said subscription, the ‘patrons’ get several perks we have listed on the site. Including Google hangouts, private lessons, eBooks and merch. Our other income comes from selling eBooks, YouTube, Audiobooks and other merchandise.

We have no illusion or expectation of immediate success and have thus far gotten to where we are through hard graft.

Currently, our main product is our ‘hangouts’ where we facilitate group language exchanges using Google’s streaming video platform. As mentioned above we also package up and sell a bunch of other mainly digital products to help people learn. Currently searching for sponsors for the podcast and considering various pivots for the business.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

It was 2016, Ula was 6 months pregnant with our daughter Kairi and we were living in the UK. We had savings enough for us to see us through until the baby was born and wanted to keep busy during that time. Ula’s passion has always been teaching, both English and Chinese and mine (Tom) had been in the creative side of things, particularly video production. We thought, why not put those two passions together and start a YouTube channel, and see if we could help some people before returning to ‘normal’ work.

Mandarin Monkey was born. When we started we actually wanted to create a live teaching platform for English speakers studying Chinese but after some bad web design company choices, we decided to drop the idea.

For any who wish to have some more details on what we used to create, we found a cheap (under $250 USD) camera from an electronics store and used Premiere Pro / After Effects to edit. We also used two cheap photographer lights with softboxes and a green screen.

We started to create content for YouTube on a fairly regular basis, two or three videos per week and got some good traction. Hitting a 100 subscriber milestone (harder than it sounds) after about a month. After we reached five hundred subscribers we had to take a break as our daughter was due and taking care of a newborn and content creation doesn’t work so well together.

YouTube Channel

Six months passed, and we got back on the content train. Producing lessons at a similar frequency to before, but this time with a bunch of pivoting in our content (something we are still doing to this day). In 2018, we started our podcast which currently gets roughly 5100 listens a month.

Mandarin Monkey Podcast iTunes


After our second child was born we decided (quite recently) to ramp things up. We sat down and discussed how we would like to take the channels forward and what our ultimate goals may be. After jotting down a business plan of sorts we started to create again but needed to find a way of earning extra money, so we started our Patreon in order to generate slightly more stable income.

Since we have been concentrating on the business side of things and slowly increasing the quality of our content, our patron numbers have started to grow. We haven’t reached our monetary goal yet and still need to work part-time but have made a commitment to continue to graft until we do.

Always add more value than is expected. Your customer will talk about you. Notable service deserves being noted.

Currently, we are trying to decide how much of our current income to reinvest in the business and on which side of it, be it better equipment, hiring help or promotion/advertising.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Making good money on YouTube is difficult, especially within the narrow educational field. We had to think of a way to make our passion into a business. There were only a few ways to do this. Firstly create an online school of sorts and provide online lessons, second get sponsored for the podcast/videos (working on it), thirdly we could sell eBooks or physical goods or we could make money from advertising on videos.

We have chosen to sell time, although this is not our ultimate goal and we will be looking to provide a service which would be more a mix of all the above.

Making eBooks took a lot of work. We started with a rough draft in a google doc and after several passes between the two of us decided to put it into Adobe Illustrator and make a PDF. We designed all the artwork ourselves (didn’t have enough to pay for a pro) and edited and drafted ourselves as well. After three or four months of toiling over a couple of laptops, we finished the book. Bear in mind, at this time we were both working full time at other jobs and doing the book during the evenings and weekends with two children.

We then paid for a private and professional studio to help us produce an audiobook, a valuable learning experience as we had never done this before.

The Audiobook

Setting up the merchandise was quite straight forward, finding a printing partner and knocking up some designs then linking them to our WooCommerece store on our website.

Every time we produce or record a podcast of video it’s a ‘product’ and each of them has their own difficulties. Scripting, rewriting, scouting, designing, rehearsing, shooting, editing, coloring, delivering, etc. Depending on the scope of the project it takes time. At the beginning of a content creator’s career, this is the time you don’t have much of.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We started the business part-time in 2016 as mentioned above. The process of doing so was very straightforward as we just had to sort out a Gmail address and a YouTube channel. You have to go through various YouTube checks before being able to upload and lift an upload limit.

We really started this business during the summer of this year as our full-time contracts for our day jobs were coming to an end and we had the option to work part-time. Both being teachers in Taiwan we had a bit of flexibility.

We created our Patreon page and got our first supporter in 2018 August. It was a $1 pledge (who is still with us but current upgraded to $5) by a gentleman by the name of Electric Cat. To whom we are very grateful. We decided to raise our game by creating a way for people to practice their Chinese with us and other learners online. After adding this service to our Patreon as a tier reward we started to get more patrons. We set the price to hangout with us at a very low point. But added so much value to those participants 80% have upgraded to a much higher tier.

Our website is made completely through Wordpress by ourselves. It changes often as we are still testing the effectiveness.


So as mentioned we had full-time teaching jobs during the early days when we had to work evenings and weekends for a year or so. Now we are both working part-time to cover the bills and Mandarin Monkeys’ income is going back into the business. We don’t expect to be getting any loans or credit cards to fund the business.

We have always liked the saying ‘be first or be better’ and we try and innovate where we can to separate ourselves from the straight teaching types. In the beginning, we thought our style was more geared towards children and our style was more colourful and loud. As we got data back from YouTube we found more adults our own age watched our videos so changed our style again.

After this, we fell out of love with straight teaching methods and wanted to try something much more innovative so we created a movie-style teaching method which as far as we know are the only ones to do it.

As mentioned briefly we also, in the beginning, wanted to create a website that allowed students to learn Chinese online and would put you in front of a Chinese teacher. We hired a website design company that ended up costing us $10,000. The money we had saved and asked to borrow from family members to fund. The website company didn’t deliver on their end and the idea ended up going bust. The lesson here for us was to spec out the idea much more thoroughly and to find a website company who understands your vision and is able to deliver on the tech side of things. We went to a cheap, we got cheap.

Currently, we are still deciding which way to take the business as we host these hangouts and private lessons which take up three of our four available working days. We never wanted to sell our time with this business but found the hangouts to really benefit learners and found them to be a great way to meet new people and push your Mandarin to the next level. We are looking to outsource these though, finding Chinese teachers with a similar mindset to our own and having them jump in on the hangouts to take over and leave us more time to create podcasts and educational videos.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

So far we have lost very few of our customers. We find the absolute best way to retain your customers/followers is to add more value than they pay for. We have done some basic Facebook adverts in the past and have found them somewhat helpful but have really been trying to push organic growth as we hadn’t had the budget to spend on paid advertising up until this point.

We have been posting videos and podcasts every other day for a while along with the occasional Instagram post and Facebook group posts when we release something. We reply to every comment on everything as quickly as possible, engaging our community is a top priority.

On reflection, we will be putting much more emphasis on Instagram and Facebook posts and running much more involved marketing shortly. Both are still powerful tools and have pockets of energetic and passionate learners waiting to be found. This would mean daily posts to all and trying to teach something with each post. Always asking questions.


Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Always add more value than is expected. Your customer will talk about you if you are talking worthy. Notable service deserves being noted.

As cliche as it sounds, you have to make your own luck. Be in the right place at the right time and just work as much as you can, every day take another step towards your goal. Even if it’s a small one.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

So many audiobooks, to name a few:

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Always add more value than is expected. Your customer will talk about you if you are talking worthy. Notable service deserves being noted.

As cliche as it sounds, you have to make your own luck. Be in the right place at the right time and just work as much as you can, every day take another step towards your goal. Even if it’s a small one.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Chinese Native teachers to host the online hangouts.

Where can we go to learn more?