Lucas Porter-Bakker: 3X China entrepreneurship journey
Lucas is CEO/CTO of GOJI, an online ESL marketplace and learning service provider; connecting students from all over the world to 25,000 native English-speaking tutors
Lucas Porter-Bakker is an alumni from Le Wagon Shanghai Batch #130. Originally from a non-technical background, he had already been involved in building several startups in Asia.
Lucas is not only taking the role of a CTO at his own startup: he also became a tech <> business ambassador within the premium co-working space nakedHub (WeWork network). We invited Lucas to share his 3X China entrepreneurship journey as well as his transition into tech.
1. Before Le Wagon
Could you please introduce yourself?
I’m a full-stack developer, photographer, and 3x entrepreneur originally from Toronto, Canada.
I’m the founder and CEO // CTO of GOJI, which is an online ESL marketplace and learning service provider; connecting language students from all over the world to native English-speaking tutors. The mobile platform (www.gojinet.com) currently has over 25,000 tutors and students from more than 150 countries.
What were you doing before joining Le Wagon?
After finishing my Master's thesis in Europe in 2013, I wanted to build my own company. My (now) wife, Natalie, and I had initially dreamt-up an ambitious plan to ‘fix’ ESL education in China back in 2007 when we first landed in Xuzhou. So we re-planted that seed and set-out trying to create something. I led a team of six of my high-school friends - who were also experiencing the post-grad doldrums - to China. My wife and I, Alex, Toraj, Marlie, Will, Mark, and my father (who, as a film-maker wanted to document the adventure), built our first company 西思路 (Westgroup); which we established as a wholly foreign-owned enterprise - or WFOE - in the entrepreneurial boomtown of Hangzhou.
During my time as the CEO, Westgroup went from being newly licensed to the foremost Canadian education company in Zhejiang Province - having taught thousands of students - and expanded operations into marketing, training, and technology. We worked closely with Chinese governmental organizations, state-owned enterprises, universities, both Canadian and Chinese companies and businesses; and managed a portfolio of private clients, including Fortune 100 companies, small organizations, and nonprofits. We also collaborated on numerous G20 projects with the Chinese government and became the first foreign entity to win a national public education bid in China, for Xiaoshan International Airport.
Although that wild ride with Westgroup was largely a success - and we had a blast working on it together - it took on a corporate nature that we hadn’t envisioned at the outset. And as a kind of brick and mortar venture, Westgroup was more or less confined to Zhejiang Province. To this end, four of the original eight continued-on with me to found GOJI. This was a way for us to continue building on the original startup, once fastidiously brainstormed by the eight of us in my Mother’s living room in Toronto in late 2013.
GOJI emerged from several motivations. It was a way to make Westgroup scalable; to broaden our student and client horizon from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands. To make quality education accessible all across China (not just in the tier-one cities). And as a way to expand our teaching staff from the few who were willing to move here, to [maybe] millions of tutors around the world. We also wanted to help with unemployment and student-loan debt in the West. We saw hundreds of millions of native English-Speakers in North America who were desperately seeking work, and even more Chinese ESL students looking for a way to sharpen their oral English skills - and to have some semblance of quality control over who their tutors were. But to pull this off, we needed an online school. A place where we could utilize our creative philosophy of language education honed during our previous venture. Prior to Le Wagon, my co-founders and I were working towards these goals.
What motivated you to step into tech?
I have now founded and run three companies over the past five years, and I have been kicking myself the whole way through for not having just learned how to code myself. Tech had been, by and large, one of the greatest financial hurdles throughout my short entrepreneurial career. My professional project at the time was a tech startup and as the company’s CTO (not yet having a background in tech), I was operating inefficiently by not speaking the language. I needed a way to be able to work with my tech team. And so on a professional level, I was motivated by becoming a better founder.
Moving forward from any current engagements, I knew that even minimum viable products (MVPs) can often chew-up a lot of funding. This was a limitation that I wanted to free myself of. I wanted to be able to conceptually develop projects in the future without having to outsource the initial creative development to non-founders. And so on a personal level, I was motivated by the incredible frustration of having to rely on funding and outside technical assistance to make my ideas real.
I am also a perpetual student and love to learn. Having done masters degrees in Science, Law, and Arts - and my undergraduate studies in Humanities and foreign languages - I have had an itch to scratch in tech for a long time. It was a blind spot.
2. Becoming a developer
Why did you chose to join Le Wagon in the first place?
I was first interested in the format of the program; which is an intensive, hands-on sprint. This is how I often like to work. I liked the idea of learning to code the startup way. The full stack curriculum looked thorough, and I was looking for a well- rounded coding bootcamp that was industry-ready. The vibe at Le Wagon (gleaned through some personal research and from having met Thibault and a few members of the Shanghai team at TechCrunch), also seemed to resonate with me. And admittedly, the slogan is literally a version of something I constantly said to myself: I wish there was a way to airdrop years of computer knowledge into my head in a matter of months. Bingo!
What’s your Le Wagon experience like?
They certainly don’t go easy on you, which is great. I found the course content to be very well thought-out and I am grateful to have had such exceptional mentors during the Shanghai: Batch 130. I remember wishing there was more time to further explore some of the units and to dive into other languages — but in retrospect, this is a testament to how inspiring the program was. In just three months or so, the course is kind of moving as fast as it can possibly go. It got my foot well in the door and gave me the tools to know how to effectively teach myself. There are so many resources out there - if you know what you are looking for and how to find them - that you can teach yourself quite easily. Of course, the journey will never be over. There really is just so much to learn, which is good news! I definitely feel like I have a running start.
Finally, the camp, in general, was a blast. My batch-mates were awesome, and there was no shortage of extracurricular events to network, party, and learn about the various corners of tech at the breakneck pace of development in China.
Your final project at the camp was "SignHow". Tell us more about it!
For anyone reading who is unfamiliar with how the final projects work, each of the 18 students had to prepare slides, a deck, and proposal for an MVP to present on pitch-day. After rounds of judging and voting, a few are selected for the final projects. If your pitch was chosen, you lead a team of three or four developers in a two-week, around the clock dash to try and make the idea as real as you can before demo day (the culminating finale). In our batch, there were five projects, but voting was far from easy. There were so many cool ideas and great problems to solve.
I had a tough time choosing what to present. I had a few ideas of my own but settled on a tech-for-good route, and brought in an outside social enterprise. Dounan, a tour de force educator at Le Wagon, had originally told me about the idea and put me in touch with a young Australian entrepreneur, Sophie; who was trying to pull an MVP together. She told me about her frustration with the lack of educational resources available for the deaf community worldwide, and (as someone who is profoundly deaf herself) a proposed solution — dreamt-up by her and her partner:
to create an effective, free mobile platform to learn sign language.
She had not yet been able to get the project funded and didn’t have the technical skills (yet) to build it herself. This was a perfect fit for me, as my Grandmother, whom I was very close to, was also profoundly deaf and had a cochlear implant. As an inspiration to me, she was a huge proponent of the importance of education and contributed greatly to my own. So I kind of did this for her. I pitched the idea.
The project was selected and I ended up with an amazing team. We also had a tremendous about of feedback, consulting, and patience from Maria who’s a bit of a back-end wizard — as well as from Forrest, Sergio, Marc, Dounan, and Thibault; our fearless mentors during the program.
Together we built a web app for SignHow: the first global sign language dictionary created by the community for the community. It is a crowd-sourced, visual platform, meant to empower deaf communities around the world with access to free education.
What would you say was the most fun and the most challenging part of the camp?
The entire experience was definitely both fun and challenging. I’d say for me, I found it tough to know - at first - where the line was between suffering silently with a question or concept, and getting help by asking a teacher or discussing it with my batch-mates. You quickly learn that the documentation for virtually any question you may have is out there somewhere; but with such a daunting workload, it sometimes felt more economical to just ask. Either way, whether you noodle on a puzzle for hours or talk about it, you will learn; so it became a question of when to opt for the former or the latter. In the beginning, I was obsessed with wanting to complete every single exercise in the syllabus. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks into the course that I eased-up and put less pressure on myself to complete every single one of the puzzles. I tried to really let the concepts and syntax marinate, so I knew it back to front before moving onto the bonus questions.
For fun, the group hung out together a lot after live code every day, and on the weekends. We got up to everything from epic feasts, to DJing parties, coding at bars, and some even did weekend trips. Most of us are still friends and hang-out to this day.
You are actively involved in the community after graduation. You are one of the pioneers to join our initiative with naked Hub(co-working space). How do you like the experience so far?
I think the Le Wagon and naked Hub initiative is the perfect partnership. I am now based at naked Hub Hunan road in Shanghai and animated my first workshop on Git and GitHub.
As a tech <> business ambassador, I am constantly getting asked questions and meeting people from both worlds; and being a sort of conduit between the two, I am forced to deepen my understanding of the inextricable relationship between tech and business on a daily basis. And as a former teacher, I love being able to educate, and teaching coding has helped solidify my own learning. It has helped me maintain momentum coming out of the bootcamp.
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