Why this Harvard lawyer left the Boston Consulting Group to start an online language learning company
This interview is with Alan Park, founder of FluentFlix, a startup that helps people learn Chinese through movies and TV. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
- Duke undergrad
- Harvard Law School
- Boston Consulting Group
- Founded FluentFlix
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I’m 30 years old. I graduated from Duke University with a degree in Political Science, and after that I went to Harvard Law School.
After law school, I went to work at the Boston Consulting Group in Hong Kong. I left BCG to work on my own startup called FluentFlix, which helps people learn Chinese.
Q. Tell us how your career path has unfolded.
A. It’s been a pretty roundabout path.
One key decision for me was to go to law school after undergrad. At that point, I was thinking that I would be interested in a career in academia. But once I got to law school, I realized I wanted to explore the world more, and working in law might not be as interesting as I thought.
So I went into management consulting. When I was in consulting, which I did for two years, I came to a turning point, where a lot of people have to decide whether to stay in management consulting, go to corporate, or do a startup.
For me, doing a startup was something I’d always wanted to do. At the same time, my last project in consulting made me realize that corporate might not be the right path for me, either. I also thought the startup idea I had needed to be done and it was a good time for me to try it out. So I took the plunge.
Q. You moved from law to consulting, and then from consulting to starting your own company. What specific steps did you take to make each transition?
A. Sure. For the transition from law to consulting, it helped that I started thinking about it really early on while I was in law school.
After my first year of law school, I got a pretty good sense that I wasn’t as interested in law as I wanted to be. The summer after my first year, I interned at a law firm, and right after that I started pivoting really hard, and I met as many business school people as I could. I started applying to consulting firms and preparing really hard for those interviews.
Then the summer after my second year, I interned at both a law firm and a consulting firm, and after those experiences, it was clear to me that consulting would be a better fit.
For the transition from consulting to entrepreneurship, I didn’t spend as much time preparing for that. For a long time, over several years, I thought about entrepreneurship, so I jumped into it when it felt right.
Q. What were the thought processes you wrestled with that helped you make the leap?
A. Right. I thought about a future career in consulting, which seemed like it would be a good career. But I knew something would be missing there.
In consulting, you don’t own the actual output. You create a strategy, you make a presentation, but the results are in the hands of your client. That made me think consulting wasn’t the long-term thing for me.
Then for my last consulting project, I worked with a big corporation. I basically worked in a project management function, sitting with the client — in some sense, I became the client. And that made me question whether corporate was for me as well.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurship was something I’d always wanted to do. And I knew it was probably the best time to do it. Once you start getting older, you get married, and you have other obligations, then it becomes a lot trickier.
So I just did a very basic assessment. I thought the upside for entrepreneurship could be great; if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to consulting or a corporation.
So I thought I’d give it a shot. I think for some things, there’s really only one way to figure it out, and that’s by really doing it.
Q. What is it like building your startup and what do you do day-to-day?
A. FluentFlix helps people learn Chinese through authentic video content, things like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks.
We take that content, and we convert it into a form that people can learn from. Building the product involves creating content. We put on a layer of language learning content that enables people to understand these videos.
It also involves a lot of software development, so we have developers building the underlying site. And then it involves marketing and reaching out to customers and other potential partners.
So basically my days revolve around doing those things.
Q. What do you spend the bulk of your time doing these days?
A. I’ve started handling a lot of the user experience elements. I basically designed the FluentFlix product. So I’m drawing mock ups, and I’m talking to users with those mock ups.
The point of that is, if we can perfect as much as we can before developers actually code anything, we actually end up saving a lot of time and money.
I also spend a lot of time talking with users about potential features, as well as managing our content people and developers.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current role?
A. The number one thing is that entrepreneurship is an act of creativity. There’s something that didn’t exist in the world before you started, and through your efforts, it comes into being. The world is a different place because you started on that path. That’s the most exciting thing.
You also build a team, and you try to create an environment where everyone can perform at their best. That’s been very rewarding. And creating something that customers like, that improves their lives, has been fantastic.
Q. You work with a remote team. What are best practices you’ve learned around how to do that successfully?
A. My team is in Shanghai and Taiwan. I’ve met one of my employees a few times and the others I’ve never met.
It works, firstly, because they are good, responsible people who are passionate about the product. That makes up for a lot of other difficulties that could arise.
You can also do certain things to structure things better and facilitate communication. For example, having standard work hours when you know when each of the people are going to be online. So, I wake up at 5:30 a.m., and they get off work around 6 p.m., so we can touch base then. And right before I go to sleep around 9 or 10-ish, we touch base again. So things like that help.
Using online tools like this project management software called “Flow” also lets you stay on top of what’s going on in each other’s calendars. So using productivity tools like that is also key.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how will what you’re doing today help you toward that goal?
A. I’d like for us to become a company that’s well known for providing technology solutions to help with learning foreign languages. In particular, I’d like for us to be known for bringing immersive experiences to language learning, because I think language learning right now tends to be very textbook-based, very boring, very cookie cutter, and not customized at all. So we’d like to bring things like video and personalization to make language learning exciting and addicting for everyone. I’m having a blast with that, and I’d like for us to keep having fun.
Q. What advice do you have for people who are potentially interested in exploring some of the roles you’ve had?
A. For people who are interested in entrepreneurship, I think the most helpful thing is to have habits that make you think a lot about entrepreneurship, and to feed your brain with useful advice. You can do that with sites like CareerHoot, or Mixergy, or Lifestyle Business Podcasts. I think trying to absorb as much useful information like this as you can will help point you in the right direction.
A lot of people who have gone to good schools and have had a lot of success based on conventional paths, I think, try to optimize and be better than everybody else according to those conventional paths. But there’s no jury out there or crowd you have to please — that’s all in your head. And I think the sooner you can discover and pursue your actual passions and make a unique contribution to the world, that’s success for yourself and will be in the eyes of people around you.
My advice would be to find your passion, pursue it early, and don’t be distracted by the noise of people around you who may be optimizing for general success.
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