If you studied Mandarin anytime after the mid 2000s, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of ChinesePod. The popular podcast series, which features free conversational podcasts and the option to pay for extra learning resources, is a sensation within the sizable community of English speakers who are making their first forays into the world of learning Chinese.
Its founder Hank Horkoff launched the program in 2005. In the decade that followed, he grew ChinesePod from an obscure podcast to a popular learning resource, successfully exited the company, and is now at the helm of an exciting new startup.
That new venture is Magnet, a WeChat app and separate SDK that aims to bring ecommerce-like convenience and insights to brick and mortar shops. Think “you might like this” recommendations in clothing stores, or being able to skip a cafe line and order right from your seat.
But to understand how Magnet came to be, it helps to start back in 2005.
Learning the ropes
“In retrospect, we were fortunate to catch a couple of trends – podcasting and the growing interest in China and Chinese at the time – which we were able to ride,” says Hank.
In the mid-2000s, podcasting was novel to most people outside of the tech world. General interest podcasts were just starting to make an appearance, many of which consisted of a few people talking around a microphone about the topic du jour. Highly-produced podcasts with sponsored advertisements were still few and far between, meaning that most were run by hobbyists, or arms of existing media organizations. There was also the problem of piracy.
“With ChinesePod, we expected that all our lesson media files would be pirated,” says Hank. “So we decided to Creative Commons-license them and make money by selling subscriptions to complimentary services.”
A business decision made out of necessity turned out to be an accidental stroke of genius. ChinesePod’s podcasts went viral in a way that would have been unthinkable if users had to pay for each .mp3 download.
Less than a week after launching its first set of lessons, ChinesePod had its first paid subscriber. By the time Hank exited the company in the spring of 2014, the company had a staff of more than 80 people.