Every person has a story. A story full of different choices that shaped him to the person he is now. It’s always interesting to learn about someone’s early beginnings, the path he took and the life decisions he made to be where he is today.
Richard Coward, CEO of China Admissions is no exception – he too has a story. Discover Rich’s early entrepreneurial ventures, how his connection with China started and how he was able to build China Admissions from scratch to the successful education platform that it is today.
I set up my first business when I was at school at 15. During that time, I started going out with my friends more.
I didn’t have so much money. My parents gave me pocket money but I wanted to spend more. I wanted to go to parties, watch movies and have fun, but not at the expense of my parents. They have given me amazing things and opportunities, it didn’t feel right to ask them for more.
I remember once, I was going out with some friends and I only had about five pounds to spend. So, I started to think about ways I can earn more money.
The natural thing to do when you want to earn money is to get a job. I then started working at a supermarket and at the local pub a couple of times a week. I served food and worked in the kitchen. I also delivered the local paper around in my village.
I was making quite good money that I had plenty to spend. But after about a month, I was quite tired and I didn’t really enjoy the work. I felt like I had already learnt everything and it was becoming monotonous.
My side jobs were also sapping my energy from my school work. Studying was much more important as I wanted to get into a good university. My grades had started to drop, particularly in Maths. I was struggling to find time to put the extra work in. In the end, I gave up on the jobs to have a break before looking for something else.
My first business
It was around that time that my friends and I started looking into eBay. It was just becoming popular. We started to look at ways to make money and see what kind of opportunities we could find.
We started importing some products from China and experimented on buying and selling. We learned from each other; it was really fun to exchange ideas on products and strategies. We would spend lunch times and free periods checking on products and looking at opportunities.
I remember reading for hours about how to write great advertisements, how to attract visitors, keywords, price points, and the psychology of sales. I loved the work, it felt like there was no limit to what you can achieve. There was always room to learn and improve.
For example, I tested different advertisements to see what impact that would have with conversion rates, at different times, and different products. I learned that specific keywords worked better than others. I kept reading, testing and improving, and learning from others.
Some of the products we sold were eBooks, wristbands, and other tech products. I really had a breakthrough because I was making more money than when I was working several jobs. I was working on the new business more, but it didn’t feel like I was working. I could do it any time, and with friends. It felt natural and fun.
It felt great to be able to create a system that would then generate ongoing income. I would wake up in the morning, see emails saying I had received money (whilst I was sleeping). I thought it was pretty awesome!
We had made £1000 in 3 days. I was out at a party when my friend called me to tell me I had made over £200 pounds that day. All that while I had been playing sport and the party.
From this early experience at school, I realized the potential of the internet and that I was always going to be hooked by it.
***This was way back 2003, and a friend I did this with has continued the business. He is now doing well with his own warehouse, eBay and Amazon stores. The business name is elecTech stores, check out his eBay shop here: http://stores.ebay.co.uk/elecTech-Stores.
Why I came to China
I was sitting an economics class at the University of Exeter in the UK when I thought how little we know about how economics works.
Humans are unpredictable, and putting all of the world’s people together is even more unpredictable. But my frustration was to sit in a classroom to learn about theories. I just wanted to get into the world and start doing something. I felt that we need a combination of theories and practical experience to see results.
This is why I wanted to come to China, to learn about China and see what it is really like, because I had been studying about it for so long, and how it was growing so much. I also felt like I wanted to push myself more and do something more challenging. I thought that learning Chinese and understanding China could be useful in the future.
So I booked a meeting with my program director to see if I can take some time abroad, there wasn’t a program in China that I could study on and receive credits for, so I did some research and took a year break from the University, and applied to study at Peking University myself with the help from a friend in China. A lot of people in UK don’t realise you can just do this but you can, and this is kind of where the company was started. I realised that China can be really accessible.
I had some doubts about coming to China, and had no idea what to expect, but when I arrived in Beijing the first few months were the most amazing of my life, I met so many amazing warm people and felt so welcome in China. Learning Chinese was amazing and I felt like I was really growing, like this whole new world opened up. Being able to communicate with 1.4 billion people and understand how they think, was mind-blowing. I would try to take taxis everywhere because it was a great opportunity to practice Chinese (and it was actually cheaper than hiring a Chinese teacher!) I remember the drivers would frequently stop and show me some of their family photos, and a couple of times they refused to let me pay for the taxi fare!
Since I had only really spoken English for most of my life, and a little bit of French and Spanish. But China and Chinese is so different to European languages and the culture is so unique and fascinating. From that moment I became addicted to China and Chinese.
Looking back, I remember having no idea what it would be like in China, and whether I should come, but I just did it, and it was such a good decision for me.
The timing couldn’t have been better with the economic boom, just before the Beijing Olympics, and before the financial crisis, the exchange rate was 16 RMB to 1 Pound. I saw a massive change in the period I was in China and huge pivot and development in the city. I also learnt from many smart people at Peking University, and had even more fascinating conversations with very smart people from China and all over the world.
I grew so much in that time, and also helped me to realise that you can get much more of an education from experiencing different cultures than you can in a classroom. Actually many people will study in the same University for 4 years, and then go on to study Master’s in the same country, or even the same University, without ever studying abroad. In every subject you can benefit from having at least 1 semester abroad, because most learning doesn’t happen in the classroom.
From my experience, most of my education has happened from the people I meet, in the restaurants, at events, on the sports field, with your friends, but also it happens by travelling to new places, and experiencing new things, and just getting out into the real world and doing things, challenging yourself and growing.
One of my top experiences of my time in China was taking two months teaching English in a school in rural China near to Wuhan. I was one of only a few foreigners in a city of millions. As the only foreign teacher in the school, I was teaching to huge classes of hundred, and I was asked to give a speech to all 8000 of the school, which I gave in Chinese.
At this school I worked together with another teacher and co-authored an English book for Chinese learners, which is now in its third edition and available on Kindle. Link is here. Amazing experiences and opportunities like this seem to happen in China!
Another highlight of my time in China was visiting factories in south China, the ones I had been learning about in Economics class. In China, many cities specialise in one product, and you can go to “glasses city”, where they make 80% of the world’s glasses, “bra city”, “toilet city” and other seemingly strange places also exist. I went to some technology and clothing centers near Shenzhen and discussed about potential business opportunities and learning about them and I met an Australian entrepreneur who showed me some factories he was working with. It was so fascinating to learn how they work, and to speak in Chinese to them. They invited me to dinners where they served sea cucumber, tortoise and drunk plenty of baijiu. They gave me so many free product samples of weird wonderful and fascinating products.
The problem with Universities now is that a lot of people get comfortable by staying in the same routine, in the same circle of friends, in the same place. And actually with the rise of the internet, you can learn so much online, its not necessary to be in one place for so long (especially if you only have 10 or so classes per week, like on many programs). The whole world is open to you, and anything is possible. If you go to study abroad you can accelerate your learning by being in a new environment which will challenge you and change your thinking. It will enable you to see the world differently and give you unique opportunities. That’s why I think studying abroad is an essential part of education.
My next turning point came when I was back in UK after graduating and looking for a graduate job.
Actually I was planning on being a lawyer in London, and went to interviews at some top firms.
There were some points in one of the interviews at a top law firm in London. I was talking about why I wanted to be a lawyer, and I gave an answer about why its great to be a lawyer, and then he asked me about being an entrepreneur and about China, because I had written about some of the things I had done in my application, and I felt like a completely different person. I felt so enthusiastic.
Since studying in China and coming back to UK, I had been telling my friends about my experiences in China, and they became interested, so I helped some of them to study in China at Chinese Universities. I was calling up some of the admissions offices, practicing my Chinese, helping my friends prepare their documents, to help them get accepted.
I kept in contact with some of my friends to see how they were getting on and I saw what amazing experiences they were having. For example, I had a friend who was starring in a music video for a famous popstar, and others who had started their own businesses.
From the experience of the interview at the law firm and from hearing my friends experiences in China, I really missed being in China, the feeling of excitement, the growth and the opportunities. I also felt I wanted to do something more meaningful than just working for a corporate job in London. I wanted to get back out there into the unpredictable and fascinating world of China, and I wanted to help more international students to come to study in China to experience this, because it feels much more meaningful, and valuable.
So I decided to come back out to China, I enrolled on a language refresher program at BLCU, and came to Beijing and started China Admissions by signing the first contract with a University: China University of Political Science and Law.
It is the most rewarding work for me, because it feels like I’m just working with friends like I was at school, learning all the time. It doesn’t feel like work, and it feels like there is no limit to what we can achieve. Combining this with my love of China, being able to help others to experience the same opportunities that I experienced, and seeing happy students coming to China and how it changes them for the rest of their life. I’m just excited to think about how we can continue to open up Chinese Universities and China to international students in the future, and how we can improve their education and help more people to have the opportunities and experience that I had.