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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: How blogging helped me as an entrepreneur (you are here)
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


The good times for EFL teachers in Taiwan ended in 1999

Along with Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, Taiwan invested early and invested heavily in English education. By the mid 80s, foreign teachers were in such high demand that it was not uncommon for people fresh off the boat to be earning over $35USD/hour and without any prior teaching experience. Very, very few schools were foreign run and those that were had a big advantage.

Even into the late 90s, most competent foreign teachers who were bilingual or had a bilingual local partner could successfully start English teaching schools. It wasn’t like that in 2006.

Since Taiwan is a fantastic place to live and very open compared to other Asian countries, a relatively percentage of western English teachers decide to stay for the long-term and settle down in Taiwan. It’s far more common than in Japan or especially Korea. For most of these teachers, the best career option is to open a business that leverages their unique skills as a foreigner—generally either an English teaching school or a western-style restaurant or bar.

The number of foreign-run English schools (and restaurants) in Taiwan has exploded and the bar has been raised year after year for decades. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese children has been decreasing. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world right now. The result of these two trends is that the market is brutal—the supply and quality of schools has been increasing while the demand has been falling. While it’s still easy in cities that foreigners don’t like to live in, the market was saturated in Taipei long ago.

Opening a school in 2006 in Taipei wasn’t quite as tough as now in 2016, but far, far more difficult than in 1996. Fortunately for me, I had a huge unfair advantage.

Starting without capital

As I wrote earlier in this series, I was a top-performing English teacher. I was earning over double what most foreign teachers did and I had a very loyal following of students, but (legally) opening a school takes some money. Finding a suitable local partner is also extremely difficult for most foreigners. This blog helped me avoid both of those problems.

I was getting about one serious contact per month from someone who had read my writing on this site and wanted to start a business with me. While some were basically looking for someone to do everything for them, I did meet one very agreeable couple who had been struggling for several months after buying a school with only a dozen or so students. But they seemed like their hearts were in the right place and they really cared about providing a quality education for their students. They had read quite a few of my articles on teaching and even better it turned out they knew my best friend Martin! It wasn’t clear what I could do for them that would make economic sense though, since I was earning over double what the average foreign teacher did and I lived out in Guishan, not Taipei.

In the end, they offered me something that was both a great deal and a bit crazy—for me to join their school, recruit students, use my teaching methods, write a curriculum and handle the entire academic side of a new program for them. I’d have no base salary, but take a set amount per student per hour that I taught personally and 30% equity in the business with no money down.

There was a great deal of risk for me. The first class I opened only had 5 students. It was a huge, huge drop in pay and a lot more work but it was a fantastic opportunity. About a year and a half later, our business had grown and we bought out our closest competitor, moved into a bigger location and I took on 50% stake (for which I did invest some of my own capital). Yes, I was working far more than a full-time job. I was basically doing a full-time teaching job, plus writing textbooks, exams and exercises, plus recording CDs, plus hiring, training and managing teachers. But there’s no way I’d have had my foot in the door to begin with if not for writing this blog.

Hiring is really easy if you’re #1 on a relevant Google search

For years, I’ve gotten regular emails from strangers asking me about where to teach English or how they can upgrade their skills and get a better English teaching job in Taiwan. While running the academic half of a school, that second group of emailers was fantastic!

Job boards and classifieds usually suck, but blog readers who applied often had an idea of who I was, what kind of academic program I wanted to run and what kind of environment they’d be stepping into. There was still a lot of noise, and I probably hurt my negotiating leverage by having blogged about how much other more established schools paid teachers such as myself but the candidate quality was just head and shoulders above what I found on Tealit and other classifieds.

Blogs can help recruit customers

In my case I don’t think I got a lot of customers through this blog. It’s written in English (for the most part) and my customers were Chinese readers. That said, it might have helped a little bit in terms of credibility and retention for those who were aware of it. As with my business partners, customers could tell that I genuinely cared about teaching as well as possible.

A learning advantage

Much of the learning advantage from blogging came before starting the school. By writing about what I was working on and what I had learned, I forced myself to clarify my thoughts. I also connected with others who cared about the same thing and many of them shared their knowledge in comments. I’m not sure I’d have picked up as much as I did about TEFL or language acquisition if not for all the ideas, book recommendations and other comments from readers.

In fact it worked so well for me that when I decided to leave English teaching and try to gain the skills to break into a tech career, I started another blog to document my attempts. Like this blog, that one was a great learning tool and was instrumental in my success breaking into Silicon Valley as a thirty-something.

Self understanding

For me, the single best part of blogging has been the way it lets me view myself from the outside. This doesn’t work for all kinds of blogs. Many people I know tend to avoid revealing much of themselves online… for very understandable reasons. It’s also very natural and to some degree unavoidable present a false front to the internet—a more professional self or an idealized version of oneself.

To the extent that I’ve been able to be open and authentic in my blogs, I’ve found them to be fantastic tools for understanding myself. If I write what I truly feel, there’s a record to examine later when I feel similar things in the future and I can compare the feelings I had when I wrote and the things that happened. If I write what I truly believe will happen, then I can look back and see what I was right about and what things I was blind to. It’s not easy to do, but it does lead to more self understanding and the ability to make better plans the next time. And that’s good for business.

In particular, I’ve found it invaluable to look back at posts about major life decisions I’ve made and look at the reasoning I had at the time. There are often important things I’ve forgotten. When I was starting a software company in San Francisco, I went back and re-read everything I’d written when starting the English school in Taipei.

Interestingly, while all the other benefits in this piece required a blog to be public, self understanding is arguably improved even more by writing a private blog since it’s easier to be open and authentic in private.

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


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.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a position to be hiring EFL teachers for the first time. While I did gain some management experience as the owner of a three crew house painting business back when I was trying to pay my way through college, this is mostly uncharted territory for me. With the house painting, training was brief, and I was only looking for short-term help throughout the summer months. Some degree of physical exertion was involved– carrying 30 gallon tubs of paint, climbing ladders, walking around on slanted rooftops and that sort of thing.

My current search for an EFL teacher, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite. I’m looking for a long-term hire, someone who will build up from part time into a full time position and stay at it for at least three years, there’s not much physical exertion involved at all, it’s far more intellectually demanding, and people skills are of primary importance.

The Applicants

I’ve started looking well in advance. We have some good teachers now, and they aren’t at a full schedule. It’s a good thing, too. This might be a lengthy search. I put up an ad both on this site and on a free Taiwan classifieds board, and the applications have been streaming in. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people emailing me resumes have been woefully unqualified for the position. Of course, I’ll respect the privacy of all our applicants, but here are a few general examples:

People not even in the same country

It’s difficult for me to understand how someone living in Toronto who can’t speak Chinese at all, has no teaching experience and wants to “try Taiwan” could see himself as a good match for the following:

“Need a dedicated, professional Chinese-speaking N. American teacher. Long-term position.”

People unwilling to meet stated requirements

I can understand how someone who is a little weak in one area, but motivated would take a shot and hope for the best. An applicant with weaker Chinese skills could study intensively prior to opening classes and make it. Someone who only has 6 months of prior teaching experience rather than a year, might be able to make up for that inexperience through hard work. But if an ad says extensive training is involved and the applicants have to be willing to work Monday through Saturday, it’s a bit unreasonable to apply just for one class time slot and be unwilling to train first!

Short-term mercenaries

To an extent, I can understand why a prospective employee would want to get as much money as possible for as little work as possible from the very beginning. In general, everyone wants the best deal they can get. I suspect that the reason so many people looking for this job are looking for the best short-term deals they can get are due to the low-trust nature of the job market for teaching English in Asia. Local message boards are full of horror stories about bosses who promise the stars and renege once they’ve got leverage over their teachers. I’m sure that many of the stories are true, but it’s so bad that many foreigners I know living in Taiwan discount job bonuses completely when they evaluate potential schools. If people think the raise and bonus system is some sort of scam, they won’t be willing to put in the work necessary to get started. Maybe in a year or two, when I have a teacher making well in excess of 100k/month and telling his friends, then recruitment will be easier. For now, sadly, there isn’t much I can do to make applicants trust me.

The Interviews

So far, everyone who has actually come in for an interview has been a pretty good candidate. Obviously, no one has all the necessary skills before training begins, but I’m happy with the people I’ve seen so far. More than anything, they seem to have a genuine interest in education.

The difficult part will be finding someone looking for a long-term position. Most EFL teachers are understandably cautious about taking a multi-year position.

I watched Paul Graham’s talk Be Good last week, and I really enjoyed it. It’s always nice to see benevolence rewarded. It’s also had me thinking about my old school and its success– Ron was always completely focussed on what was best for the kids. “If the education is great, the business side will almost take care of itself,” he said.

I’m exhausted. Over the last few weeks, my partners and I at the school have been negotiating an offer we received from a competing school, Ding’s English. It’s been far, far more time consuming and draining than I had ever expected. Finally, the initial steps are behind us and I can sleep.
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I thought I’d seen everything in Taiwan’s English cram school market. Recently, I’ve had an experience that shows how naive I (still) am. I can’t really get into any details online, but here’s the gist: A school owner offered to sell her school’s students.

A school’s financial valuation

In general, when an English buxiban changes hands, the going rate is about the amount of tuition the students can be expected to pay in a single financial quarter. Thus, if a school is charging 3000NT per month and it has 200 students, then it would be worth 3000NT * 3 * 200 = 1.8 million NT. Location, curriculum and reputation obviously factor in as well, but these things are generally reflected in the school’s student numbers.

I can understand this. A school’s value is definitely dependent on the amount of tuition money it brings in, and while most schools lose some students as the result of replacing any teachers or making any other large changes, most students usually stay. Especially if the teachers stay, and the curriculum is left intact, it makes sense for students to continue. Why bother looking for another place to study if there’s a good chance that things will be fine?

Selling the students

I just can’t wrap my brain around this one. Say one owner decides to “sell” the kids studying at his or her school to some random other school owner who can’t attract students through conventional means. I suppose it’s possible to get them to go initially, if the first owner is pushy enough about it. If the first owner tells the children’s parents, “Sorry, we’re going out of business, but my buddy at another school will teach them for the rest of their semesters,” the parents would be justifiably upset, but they’ll probably take what they can get since they’ve already paid. The problem is, their kids will almost definitely get shortchanged educationally, and they’ll resent it. I can’t see that many staying long enough to ever pay tuition to the school owner who “bought” them.

I know education, even public education, is a business. But this is out there.