Finding the Best

How do you find the best? Whether it’s an apartment, a tenant, a job, or an employee, I don’t believe the answer is classifieds. As I wrote a few days ago, classifieds tend to aggregate the worst of what a market has to offer, since the poor offers remain while the good ones are promptly snapped up and removed from the listing.

Two really cheap apartments

Taking this thought a step further, the very best of what a given market has to offer likely never hit the classifieds to begin with. A great example would be my friend’s old apartment. It was in an absurdly expensive part of Taipei, had two rooms a kitchen and a great rooftop patio, all for just 14,000NT/month (~450USD). Why was it so cheap? For one thing, his landlady wasn’t very interested in the hassle of finding tenants. The reason Martin knew about the place at all was that he was friends with Rob, the previous tenant.

Martin isn’t the only one, either. I have a great deal on my place too, and I found it through a friend of a friend. I had just gotten out of work and ran into him at 7-11. He told me he was moving out, and he just happened to live in the area I wanted to move to. As soon as I heard the price, I pounced on it. Like many other great bargains, it never even got advertised before it was off the market.

The important factor in both anecdotes is that it helps to have the right friends.

A really skilled programmer

My college friend, Tom Kerrigan, was at least a couple standard deviations above the average programmer. He started working on a chess AI when he was 14 and by the time I met him as a freshman at UC Boulder, he was already earning significant royalties from it. Simply put, he was smart and applied himself. So, did his resume spend much time sitting around on job wanted boards? Not that I know of. Intel took him on as an intern before I even met him, and Microsoft snapped him up before he was out of school.

Really talented people never seem to stay on the market that long, unless by choice.

How I found our last two hires

In my last piece, I wrote about my unsuccessful use of classifieds to try to find a top notch EFL teacher. I did find two suitable teachers, though. One is teaching my Up&Away based curriculum for 1st and 2nd graders, and Simon hired the other to teach our advanced classes. Both of these guys have pretty much the exact skill set it would take to do our most demanding classes– they have experience with language learning and teaching, they speak and read Chinese pretty well and they’re eager and take pride in their work.

The power of social networks

We didn’t find them. They found us. Both of them did look at classifieds during their job search, just as I myself did in my first couple of years in Taiwan, but what brought them in was this blog. As a result, they each had a decent idea of what kind of place my school was and what was involved before they ever emailed me.

In a sense, they were self-selected to have at least somewhat similar ideas about teaching and work just by the fact that they didn’t close their browsers as soon as they got here.

In a similar way, this site is the entire reason I ever partnered with Pagewood to begin with. If it hadn’t been for my writing here, Simon never would have known who I was or we had a good friend* in common.

Concluding thoughts

  • Having a lot of friends helps
  • Keep in contact with like-minded people
  • Really great bargains don’t require much advertising

*It turns out that this good friend is the same friend who had the great apartment

Finding Employees through Classified Boards

As a partner of Pagewood English school, one of my responsibilities is finding top-notch EFL teachers. We’ve hired two this year, and it wasn’t nearly as easy as I had expected.

In years past, the standard methods of finding English teachers were primitive at best. In bigger cities, a lot of companies sent people to the youth hostels to put advertisements on their bulletin boards. In Jiayi, where I lived when I first moved to Taiwan at the end of 2002, strangers on the street occasionally tried to recruit me! Some larger schools advertised in news papers. Now, the most popular option is online classified boards.

The advantages of classifieds boards

I like that classified boards range from free to cheap. I also like their reach. Thousands of people can see a single posting. Best of all, online classifieds are easily searchable.

With these thoughts in mind, I wrote up an advertisement for teachers, posted it to a popular site, sat back and waited for the resumes to come pouring in. And come the did. Within a week, I must have read nearly a hundred resumes and/or emails in regards to the job posting.

The problem

Unfortunately, out of all of those resumes, only a handful were worth responding to, and not a single lead coming solely from the classifieds lead to an interview. Some of the applicants were living in other countries and hadn’t even started learning Chinese. Some had never taught before. Others were backpackers looking for a temporary job to refuel their bank accounts before continuing on a tour of Asia. In short, nearly the entire endeavor was a waste of time.

This lead me to reflect further upon the nature of classifieds in general. Back when I was a college student in the US, I had used a classified board to find high school students to paint houses and it was reasonably effective. Why was it that the classifieds were such a failure this time? Was it just an anomaly, just poor luck?

Classifieds are fundamentally flawed

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to think that very design of classifieds bring the most exposure to the least desirable people, jobs, or apartments. The best bargains are snapped up quickly, leaving the boards full of average to poor offers. The poorer listings remain available for much longer since nobody wants them and tend to dominate search results. Furthermore, poor employees are more likely to be fired and end up right back at the classified board, as will over-priced apartments or poor job offers.

Classifieds, by their very design, tend to concentrate the worst of what the market has to offer.

The reason my search for painters went well is that I was looking for unskilled employees with little experience to differentiate themselves from each other. The distribution of potential employees was relatively flat. Now, on the other hand, I’m looking for exceptional people whose skills aren’t very easily quantified. For this, online classifieds are worthwhile only if they’re free, and even then they’re a long-shot.


Ever since taking a stake in my school, I’ve been very strict about failing students. Experience has taught me how necessary it is to fail the students who should fail.

A long time ago, when I was at a large chain school, I wasn’t allowed to fail students. Due to business reasons that were incomprehensible at the time, I had to just keep giving students re-test after re-test until they passed. After passing them, these students would drag the entire class’s progress to a snail’s pace over the next semester. Invariably, those same students ended up failing the next semester. Letting them continue was not only bad for their classmates, but it hurt their learning too.

Now, I have a better understanding of how my old boss felt. Many parents are simply too proud to accept the idea of their child repeating a semester. Many would take their children to a different school, rather than let them repeat a semester. Their reaction is even stronger than that of parents who can’t accept the results of entrance tests.

I know first hand the business costs of actually failing students. I fail about 15% of the students in each class every semester, and those that fail are more likely to quit our school than those who pass. I’ve probably lost over a dozen students who would have stayed if I hadn’t made them repeat a semester. Especially for a small school without external funding, that hurts.

However, the benefits of failing them are clear– the rest of a class can move more quickly without them, and they can learn more in a class that’s suited to their level. In the long run, the superior quality of education provided does lead to more new students.

Considering my goals of putting education first, I’ve been very, very strict about failing students. Anyone who fails a semester test has to drop down a level, as does anyone who fails a smaller test and two subsequent retests. But this week, I let a student continue after failing two retests of a smaller test.

She told me that she really wanted to stay in her class. She offered to do extra work. Her parents had nothing to do with it. She was motivated to work harder, so that she could keep learning at a faster pace. That was hard to say no to. If she really is self-motivated, she’ll probably do fine. If not, then she’ll fail the next final test and drop down a level then.

Chinese Perakun

Chinese Perakun is one of my favorite tools for reading Chinese online. It’s a Firefox plug-in for Chinese learners. When it’s enabled, it displays a pop-up with an English translation a pinyin pronunciation and larger version of the character. Below is an example, in which I hovered the mouse over the phrase “導體”.


Perakun pop-up translations work on anything displayed on a Firefox page, including news sites, email and chat windows. It handles both simplified and traditional characters and it’s got a pretty big dictionary. Go to the install page to get it.

Note: I’ve been big fan of perakun for years. The only reason I haven’t written about it sooner is that I thought everyone knew about it. I recently found out that a couple of my friends who are more motivated about Chinese learning than I am didn’t know about it and that’s why I’m writing now.