Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning

John Pasden

While I was editing the interview that I did with Julien, the founder of Marco Polo Project, I was fascinated by the problems one needs to solve in order to grow an online project to the point of having enough human and economic resources for investing even more on software and content development and create a great product.

Hence I asked to myself:

Who else was able to realize something amazing on the field of online Chinese learning?

And I thought about John Pasden. A couple of days after I contacted him. John was kind enough to accept to answer to a few questions. This is the result of our conversation!

Introducing John Pasden

John is the founder of Sinosplice, the first blog dedicated to Chinese learning (it went online on April 2002), All Set Learning, a Shanghai-based learning consultancy that promises you to answer to the question “How do I learn Chinese?,” and Chinese Grammar Wiki, which I consider the best free resource out there for anybody interested on learning Chinese grammar.

How to get the kind of job you want

John, I think I can safely claim that you are one of the few “authorities” out there, when it comes to online Chinese learning. All started with Sinosplice, your blog. Today even my grandma understands that a great blog may become the starting point of an even greater career. But ten years ago it wasn’t like that. My question is: when did you realize that the web could help you on pursuing your professional goals?

Ha, I certainly didn’t plan it that way! I was just as lost as anyone when I first arrived in China. In fact, I think that coming to China in the first place to just teach English and learn some Chinese was all a part of an active effort to avoid thinking about a “real career” for a while. What I didn’t count on was enjoying learning Chinese so much!

So my blog just grew naturally out of my desire to share my experiences in China with friends and family, and then it slowly morphed into a website more focused on learning Chinese (with occasional digressions to keep myself interested).

From there it has changed a bit as I’ve made the transition from hobbyist to a professional in the field. But really, none of it was planned. I’m just glad that I stuck with my blog, even though there were times when I haven’t been quite as enthusiastic about my blogging. Sinosplice has become something of an externalized memory bank, as well as a chronicle of a young guy figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

Probably what really hit home the importance of my blog was getting a request for a meeting from ChinesePod in early 2006, based pretty much off the contents of my blog and the reputation I had built with it. That meeting led to the first major job of my career, and ever since I’ve taken my blog a bit more seriously than just a casual diversion.

Nowadays I often hear expats complaining that “China has changed and isn’t that easy anymore to make your living here.” I agree that the situation has changed, however I think that China still offers more opportunities than many other countries, both on and offline. What’s your take on that?

I definitely agree. But I think you have to try a little harder now, to want it a little more. Honestly, I feel very lucky, like a lot of what happened to me kind of just fell in my lap. Nowadays, I think that happens less, but it also takes less courage to come to China, because this place has been demystified a fair amount over the past ten years.

There are opportunities here, for sure, but you better come prepared to get out there and seek them out (and probably pay more attention to second- and third-tier cities).

[Furio: I don’t think John was lucky. He slowly built a reputation online and, on the internet, “trust” is the best currency you can get to either build your business or land your dream job.]

allset learning

Teaching Chinese in Shanghai

After your adventure with ChinesePod, you decided to start your own company. Which are the challenges, as a foreigner, to own and run a company in China?

There are many. I think you’ll find that a lot of foreigners don’t like to publicly talk about these challenges too explicitly, because there are a lot of gray areas in China, and doing business here catapults you straight into that mass of grayness.

My own business is less gray than most, partly because our clients are foreigners. It helps keep things simpler. But to give an example, what if the tax bureau told you your company had to pay taxes at the rate of x% for this year, and then at the end of the year told you that no, actually you have to pay more than that, and because you weren’t paying the higher rate all along, you now also have to pay an additional penalty?

You might protest that “this is what you told me to do,” but the tax bureau might still demand that you pay up or risk getting your whole company shut down. In a situation like this it certainly helps to have a good understanding of Chinese law, but “rule of law” does not work the same here as it does in the USA, so my expectations for “justice” are a bit divorced from the reality here.

That’s just a simple example, and every company will run into various issues of this sort. It really takes persistence and determination to succeed here. Capable Chinese friends and a bit of luck don’t hurt either!

You didn’t open a “Chinese school.” What you offer is a personalized service that addresses the different needs of each customers. Can you explain how it works?

Sure. AllSet Learning is a consultancy that offers a service I designed to be a more perfect replacement for learning Chinese either at a school or from a private tutor. The core principle is personalization, and the service starts with me (the lead consultant) getting a good understanding of each client’s current level, goals, learning needs, and learning preferences.

From there, I design a custom curriculum from the ground up which includes various study materials, multiple teachers, flexible lesson times, and regular coaching and feedback. The service is designed to be both personalized and responsive, and it evolves to meet the needs of the client as their Chinese improves.

What are the sticky points of the majority of foreigners that decide to ask your help?

Each client is quite different, but some of the common themes are: (1) “school classes are boring and I don’t get to talk much,” (2) “the materials I’ve been given before aren’t what I really need the most,” and (3) “my tutor doesn’t really understand what I need, and doesn’t push me or correct me enough.”

Our clients tend to be pretty hardcore. They often come to us after they’ve tried other alternatives and are getting fed up.

Towards startups and the internet

Content is king,” people say. And they are right. This is the reason for which every company, especially the ones that sell digital products, is rushing for opening a blog. What’s your take on content marketing and how do you handle it on your company?

Hmmm, that’s a tricky one, and one that I haven’t 100% solved yet. In some ways, Sinosplice is the marketing arm for AllSet Learning.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to do all that stuff on AllSet Learning directly? Well, yes, except that then I’d be robbing Sinosplice of fresh content.

Couldn’t I do both? Theoretically yes, but I know I’m very busy, and if I tried to do both, I think I’d end up with a half-assed blogging effort on both sites.

So, for now, I stick to mainly product announcements, company news, and intern profiles on the AllSet Learning blog. When I want to do something more fun, I do it on Sinosplice, and when I’m looking for more discussion, I do it on Sinosplice.

Down the road, I’ll do more content marketing on the AllSet Learning site, but not quite yet. We’re in this for the long haul, and it will all come in due time.

Looking at your blog, Sinosplice, it seems that you aren’t trying to “exploit” it to get more leads and customers. Have you even been afraid to “destroy” your blog by transforming it on something too commercial?

Thank you for noticing! I have actively refrained from flogging AllSet Learning services or products too much on Sinosplice, precisely because I don’t want to destroy what I’ve built up for so long. I’m going to do it occasionally, of course, because I really believe in what we’re building at AllSet Learning, but there should be a balance.


Chinese Grammar Wiki

When I stumbled upon the Chinese Grammar Wiki I went straight ahead to check the page that explains how to use the particle “了”, which I think it’s a good way to judge a Chinese grammar. I was impressed by the quality and the number of the examples. How this project was born? Which were the biggest challenges on realizing it?

Glad you like it! The project was born out of necessity, really.

Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more comprehensive resources online for Chinese grammar? It’s because they’re not profitable… at least not for a long, long time. It doesn’t make sense for most companies to try to develop a huge all-encompassing guide to Chinese grammar when just a basic outline will suffice to keep the company going. Trying to thoroughly cover all aspects of a language’s grammar is a massive undertaking, and will literally take years to do it right.

So why are we doing it? Because the services we offer our clients revolve around personalization. We don’t require our clients to use one particular textbook or learning resource. This makes it difficult to track a client’s progress and mastery of various Chinese grammar patterns over time. It’s easy to do if you just follow one textbook, but as soon as you start mixing up the resources, it gets confusing.

So we started out with our own standard lists of grammar patterns that clients needed to master at different stages of language acquisition, but we had to continually update the lists, and then we had versioning issues. It was clear that keeping everything in one central location online would be the way to go. And that’s how the Chinese Grammar Wiki was born.

[Furio: This incremental process remembers me of a quote (I think Bill Gates said it) that I always repeat to myself when I feel overwhelmed by my projects: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” The lesson is that if you only focus on the short term you will lose momentum and never accomplish anything worth your time, while if you focus on the long haul and work day by day (or “Bird by Bird,” to quote Anne Lamott) you can reach amazing results.]

Why did you choose to do not translate the examples in English?

That was largely a resources issue. We went broad first, and then filled in more detail later. Also, if a page is still being actively edited (including the Chinese sample sentences), it’s really a pain to try to keep the translations in sync as the editing continues (especially when it’s different people doing the two), so it just made more sense to hold off on the translations for a time while the dust settled.

Actually, over the past few months translations have already been added for all Beginner (A1) and Elementary (A2) grammar points.

You called the grammar a “wiki” and released it under a Creative Commons License that allows people to copy, distribute and adapt the work. My guess is that, when you made this choice, you were hoping to get an external collaboration on the content creation (as for Wikipedia). Is this right? If yes, how is it going?

Yes, I would love to have more help from editors that share our vision, but it’s not something that just anyone can contribute to. I’ve had some offers to help with the editing, as well as emails from users pointing out typos or asking questions. The most active editors, though, besides the full-time staff at AllSet Learning, are the interns.

Our interns have been a huge help building out our company’s vision from the wiki. And since every wiki article (complete with sources) can be viewed as a mini research paper, it’s work really very well-suited to an intern serious about improving his Chinese. We have a nice library of Chinese grammar books here, as well as in-house Chinese teachers always ready to help.

Why did you take the time to realize this resource? Is it just for fun and giving value to people? At the opposite side, is it just content marketing in order to reach more people and get more customers? A combination of both? Something else?

I mentioned before that the Chinese Grammar Wiki grew out of a necessity for our clients, but it definitely goes beyond that. I’ve felt for some time that there should be a more complete resource for Chinese grammar out there, and there comes a point when you get tired of waiting for someone else to build it!

[Furio: I’m laughing while I’m reading this for the first time because Julien, the founder of the Marco Polo Project, answered to me exactly the same: “I thought something like this should exist.” Men, motivation moves the world!]

So yes, I want my company to provide value to all the struggling learners out there. Some students (like me) naturally gravitate toward grammar, and I want to provide something that they can sink their teeth into. I also want to change the perception out there that “Chinese has no grammar,” because Chinese grammar has a very cool inner logic to it.

I certainly hope that the Chinese Grammar Wiki can serve something of a content marketing role, but if were simply a matter of “return on investment” I never would have started it.

[Furio: Yup, Chinese grammar isn’t really the most sexy topic to market haha]

And then what?

You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?

Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.

That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.

John, thank you for your time!

It was my pleasure! Thanks for asking such great questions.

Photo Credits: Photos by John Pasden

5 thoughts on “Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning”

  1. Great interview, Furio. I’m continually impressed by the quality of content you’ve been putting up.

    John, I’ve always admired your entrepreneurial spirit and hope someday we’ll cross paths. If you’ve never made it out to Xinjiang, consider this an official invitation ;)

    1. Hey John,

      thanks for your time and for sharing your experience!

      I’ve learned a lot from it and I believe that anybody interested on setting up a start-up on the field of “education” will benefit from it : )

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