Founders story – Eden and Ilya from Culture Yard

Founders story – Eden and Ilya from Culture Yard

Culture Yard is an online Mandarin Chinese language school, providing live, online Chinese classes with native, experienced teachers from China. Culture Yard offers group and private classes and supplements the live online classes with prerecorded self-study materials. Our students come from more than 20 different countries and we run a vibrant online community in our WeChat and Facebook groups.  

Culture Yard has been nominated and selected as one of the finalists for the 2021 UN Social Impact Award in China and recognized for its effective learning curriculum and making Chinese language learning accessible.  

Founders Story 

Founders Eden Lunde and Ilya Cheremnikh have similar backgrounds in that they have studied Mandarin Chinese as a major in university at their home countries (US and Israel, respectively) and moved to China to improve their language skills and learn more about the culture first-hand.  

Eden has always been fascinated by the Chinese language and culture. Growing up, her dad went on frequent business trips to China and his stories sparked her imagination about China. When she was in high school, she applied for a scholarship to study Chinese in China and embarked on a half-year exchange program to Harbin in northern China. She continued learning Chinese in university and, upon graduation, immediately looked for opportunities to move to China.  

Ilya Cheremnikh, Founder

When Ilya moved to Beijing in 2008, he was disappointed by the existing language learning options and the outdated methodology. Knowing that he was not alone in his frustration, he decided to create a Chinese-education program that would teach Chinese in a holistic, engaging way. This prompted him to open a brick-and-mortar Chinese language school catering to the expat community in Beijing in 2009.  

Eden later joined Culture Yard in 2016 first as a student to improve her Chinese, then later as a colleague and finally as a partner. 

In 2020, when COVID hit China and everything went into lockdown, Eden and Ilya saw an opportunity to leverage their knowledge of the Chinese language and their network of excellent Chinese teachers to make Chinese language learning accessible to everyone, and to teach practical Chinese that can allow students to learn Chinese from 0 to complete fluency. With this motivation, they pivoted Culture Yard to its current incarnation – an online Mandarin Chinese Language school.  

Starting first from its existing network in Beijing, Culture Yard has grown in the last two years to employ over 20 teachers all around China and now has several hundred regular paying students from over 20 different countries and all around the world.  

Moreover, Culture Yard is now a completely remote company with over 30 team members based across three different continents.  

Eden lunde, Founder

Culture Yard’s main challenges 

Our first big challenge was learning how to reach a worldwide audience for our online business. We had a network in Beijing but we had little experience with online marketing and education, so we had to learn a lot on the way.  

We realized from the start that online marketing is a long-haul game, and we have invested heavily in both organic social media marketing and in SEO.  

We have decided that we want our outreach to be completely organic and that we want to build a community around our company. So instead of paying for advertisements we started to pour all our efforts into writing language-related articles for our website and creating visual content for our social media channels.  

Happily, some of these efforts are already paying off and now we are looking at how to grow them even further.  

In addition, no one on our team has a technical background, so we had (and still have) a steep learning curve when it comes to using technology and learning the technical aspects of promoting our website.  

In terms of our potential market, although the US makes up a large part of our potential market, due to the current tension between the US and China, China’s image is not favorable among a large subset of Americans. Nonetheless, there are enough Americans that also see the importance of learning the Chinese language anyway, especially in business circles and for children.  

There are also many opportunities for Culture Yard in Africa, South America and Asia; a big challenge for us is tapping into these markets and understanding the specific learning requirements and habits in different countries in these regions.  

Culture Yard’s opportunities 

There is no denying that China already has an important role in today’s world and we believe that this role is only going to grow. Even though the Chinese language may not replace English as the main language for international communication, there will be many opportunities for Chinese language speakers in the business world, and parents will want their children to learn this important language of the future.  

In addition, before the pandemic, China had a growing number of international students coming to study in Chinese universities, many of which have dramatically increased in their ranking in the last decade, and some of which are now ranked among the best in the world. 

We believe that when pandemic-related border restrictions are over, students will come to study in China again and will need to learn the language and pass the required language proficiency tests (the HSK exam is China’s main language proficiency test for foreigners and is a requirement in many Chinese universities), preparation for which is one of Culture Yard’s main program offerings.   

Moreover, due to restrictions on travel, the online education industry has been growing much more quickly during the pandemic, and is expected to continue growing post-COVID as it allows for flexibility of time and space, as well as access to previously untapped markets. Culture Yard is currently just one of a few organizations worldwide solely dedicated to the tuition of the Chinese language online.  

Advice To Other Businesses 

  1. Never compromise on your team. Whether you are a business just starting out or if you are an established company, be super picky about who you choose to work with. We have made the mistake of hiring too quickly and learned that it is worth doing more things yourself and waiting for the right team member to join rather than hiring someone you won’t get along with personally or professionally.  
  2. If you can avoid it, don’t build your own tech deck. One of the best pieces of advice we got when we were starting is to look for existing tech solutions instead of building your own. Building your own tech solutions (unless that is your business) is very costly and if you are a small business, you are much better off using existing solutions and paying a subscription or other fees.  
  3. Don’t pay for advertisements when you are just starting out. There are many ways to attract customers online that only cost you time and that will be more helpful long-term. You can organize events or webinars, write content on social media or useful articles on your website, start a Facebook group, or just talk to everyone you know about your new business. Paying for advertisement works but it can cost a lot to figure out exactly the right type of advertisement works for you and your potential customers. For a small business, it may just be too costly.  
  4. Network (a lot!). Not everyone is a big fan of networking, including us. It was a skill we definitely had to learn. Luckily there are many ways to let people know about you and what you are doing without having to go to networking events and randomly chatting to strangers– you can reach out to podcasts in your industry to share your knowledge, look for speaking opportunities on webinars, sign your company up for local pitch events, or become a mentor in your industry.  
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