Edwin Mitchell is an international educator turned entrepreneur in Ningbo, China. Originally from Marietta, Georgia, Edwin took a teaching job in China in 2012. In 2015 he partnered with Oliver Zhang, an international school teacher and researcher from Hubei, China, and together they founded All-Star Exams. Their exam and language training school prepares Chinese students for the exam and language requirements of entry to foreign universities, and since its launch they have enrolled and worked with more than 200 students.
You founded an exam and language training school in Ningbo, China, aimed at helping Chinese students get into the foreign university of their choice. There are many Chinese companies that do language and exam preparation like this as well – what sets you apart?
Yes, competition is fierce. However, Ningbo is not as big as Shanghai or Hangzhou, so there’s slightly less competition. We focus on what we do well, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and SAT. We also have the benefit of having former students (who are now attending university in the USA) working in the summer and serving as dual mentors/teaching assistants.
Given popular perception of China in the West as a strict, controlled economy, many entrepreneurs may not consider starting a business there. What motivated you to try starting a business in China? Has experience as an entrepreneur here challenged any previously held beliefs about the country?
This opportunity actually presented itself to me at a time when I was looking for change. I was working with Oliver as a part-time job with a friend of mine. Things went quite well and he approached me about doing this full-time.
Starting a business here has been much easier than I had imagined, and I definitely owe that to having a Chinese business partner. Because of Oliver, we’ve been able to tackle any issues that have presented themselves. There’s no way I could have navigated the process on my own, and I’m sure it would have cost a pretty penny to hire someone to do so.
What unique challenges do you face as an entrepreneur abroad?
Reaching your target demographic in the best way. It’s a challenge for any entrepreneur, but being a foreigner adds the cultural difference to the mix. We’re able to learn from our students and parents and adjust accordingly. Fortunately for us, Oliver studied and lived in Australia, so he has valuable international experience to draw on. That’s in addition to my experience in education and business from back home in the states.
Starting a business can be difficult even in one’s own home country, much less in a place where the laws, language, and culture are completely different. What personal qualities have helped you survive and succeed in such unfamiliar territory?
Being open-minded, as cliché as it sounds, has been key. I think expats can sometimes become easily irritated by the cultural, legal, and linguistic differences, and I think it’s important to be able to stay calm and open to evaluating situations with context.
Describe your most impactful learning experience as an entrepreneur abroad.
Oliver and I took a trip to his hometown just outside of Wuhan. While there, we decided to visit an international school out there, on a whim, and see if we couldn’t secure some business. We did some research overnight and showed up at the gates the next morning requesting a quick meeting with the headmaster. We lucked out and he granted us some time to pitch our business. The headmaster was slightly annoyed with our unannounced visit, but also admired our confidence. He was ultimately impressed and showed interest in working with us in the future.
Although we’re doubtful the logistics of the inter-city program will work out at present, it was a great experience to go out on a limb and see some positive results, especially as a young/small business.
As an entrepreneur starting out in a foreign country, you no doubt had a full plate learning and adjusting on top of working to establish and run a new business. What were some of the biggest time management challenges you faced? What personal time management tools and/or strategies do you use to keep up with the busy life of an entrepreneur?
Time management has always been tough for me. The biggest challenges are finding things to stay busy with when classes are not in session. Our work is quite seasonal, so in the downtime we’ve got to manage our time and find things to improve on. High season is easier to manage because we’re in grind mode. Low season is where it’s important to stay vigilant and hungry to learn and improve the business. Oliver is good at keeping daily/weekly to-do lists to keep us on track. The lists have been very helpful for me especially.
Do you find time management practices in China different from in the US? What steps have you taken to adjust or compensate for differences?
I haven’t found things to be all that different, actually. People procrastinate and wait until the last minute just the same as back home. “Hope for the best; plan for the worst,” have been words to live by. Always give yourself ample time to deal with unforeseen setbacks as best you can.
Describe the most satisfying moment for you as an entrepreneur.
It may seem simple, but seeing groups of students posting pictures abroad in the US while wearing our t-shirts will always stick with me. It was really cool to see and think that these kids were touring US cities and rocking our logo.
What is the most exciting thing on the horizon for you professionally and/or your company?
For now, I would have to say summer holiday. Summer is our most busy time of year and this year we’re looking to have more SAT students than we’ve ever had. So, we’re looking forward to getting back to the summer grind.
Thinking back on your experience, what is the biggest piece of advice you would give an aspiring entrepreneur, particularly one interested in starting a business abroad?
Find a business partner who is a local and someone who you know and trust. Together you can see things from various angles and navigate cultural, legal, and linguistic issues more smoothly, saving you time and money.