Why Is This SF Startup Copying China’s Fastest Growing EdTech Company?

Usually China copies America. Did you know that ~10% of all phones sold are replica iPhones, Samsungs, and other popular brands, but without the logos? In China, there is even a word for this industry, it is called “Shanzhai.” It refers to a replica product that infringes on the original branding, but often in obvious ways.

But there is a shift happening, especially in education. Given China’s massive population and fiercely competitive economy, companies innovate in order to meet demand. In most major cities, a family with 1 child will spend up to 52% of their household income on education. So Chinese startups are catering to this demand, and growing like crazy. VIPkid is a prime example.

Founded in just 2013, VIPkid is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion dollars. They host live 1-on-1 online English lessons by connecting Chinese kids with North American tutors, and it estimated they conduct 15,000 lessons per day. They have attracted $125 million dollars in investment from top funds like Sequoia, Learn Capital, and even Kobe Bryant. 

There is nothing like VIPkid in America, or at least until now. A small San Francisco startup called BlockSchool might be one of the first companies to copy VIPkid’s business model. Instead of English, they are offering private 1-on-1 coding classes for kids ages 5–13. Spoiler alert, I’m one of the creators!

Learning to Code === Learning English?

To understand why we’re copying a Chinese company, it’s worth understanding the similarities between the two markets. Is the learn-to-code market for kids anything like the learn-to-speak-English market?

1. Coding is a language just like English.

At BlockSchool, we believe coding is a language just like English, Spanish, or Chinese. To learn how to speak another language requires constant practice, and coding does too. That’s why VIPkid’s classes are 25 minutes, and ours are 40.
If coding is a language just like English, it should also be taught at a young age while the brain is still a sponge. VIPkid teaches kids as young as age 5, and so do we.

2. It’s difficult to find a great English tutor in China, and a coding tutor in the US.

Depending on where you are in China, it can be difficult to find an English tutor at the right time for a reasonable price. Some English tutors charge hundreds of dollars per hour!
Similarly, good luck finding a private kids coding tutor, even in a big city like New York or San Francisco. Unlike the matured English market, the kids coding market is still nascent, so there are only a handful of companies offering in-person group classes. Given coding jobs pay phenomenally well, and coding is taught in limited settings, there are also much fewer available coding teachers than English teachers.

3. There are strong economic incentives to know English in China, and coding in the US

In China, 80% of executive roles require proficient English [1], and of course these are usually the highest paying jobs. Similarly, coding is one of the highest paying jobs in the US too. An entry-level Facebook software engineer will make about $114k and it goes up quickly from there [2]. Even coding bootcamp graduates increase their salary by 40% on average. 

Given all of the similarities between the two markets, we are happy to follow in VIPkid’s footsteps as one of the few American startups copying a Chinese startup. There are plenty of ways we’re different, namely the fact we teach coding in a Minecraft-like world, but it’s also worth sharing where our roots come from. 

If you're interested in signing up for BlockSchool, your first class is free. Sign up here!


[1] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-06/10/content20956678.htm [2] http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=SoftwareEngineer/Salary/7162591b/Facebook-Inc-Entry-Level