I could talk for days about my time at Praxis and SpanishPod, and why I left; the same goes for SpanishPod101. I’ve talked to my friends about it until their eyes glaze over. Even some listeners who seem to want all the behind the scenes dirt, I seem to bore them after a few minutes.
So even though this part of my professional career has been very, very public, I’ve largely kept quiet about it.
When I first moved to China in 2007 to work for Praxis Language, I was hired as an Academic Developer for SpanishSense.com, which was a terrible podcast. I was hoping to change some things about it going in, but I had no vision of being the Project Manager. I was moving to Shanghai for adventure, not work. I was sick of teaching high school. I accepted a five digit pay cut to make this move, rented out my townhouse, and left… imagining that I’d have a day job, I’d study and master Mandarin, and travel on the weekends.
It did not turn out that way. On my first day of work, they offered me the Project Manager position to launch the new SpanishPod.com, to help build it from the ground up. I accepted, thinking hey, I got a promotion on my first day! The founders of the company sat me down and told me, we want you to fight for your ideas! Fight us!
It would be months before I had an idea, and the more I got to know them, the less I wanted to fight them. I was learning the ropes, learning their system and philosophy. I was also freezing, as there was no insulation in that office; we wore our coats in the office. There was a freezing draft that blew directly onto my keyboard, so I took to typing with my scarf laid over my hands like a blanket. We caulked the window several times. The management watched us, amused.
Anyway, that model of day job/language learning/weekend travel was out the window for me. Instead I was busting my ass during the week to get the lessons entered into the system so that the popup definitions would work, keeping up with user comments in the evenings, working weekends. The fledgling SpanishPod site got all my waking attention.
There were some huge flaws in the program. The exercises, for example, were designed by a computer programmer for cPod; there is no instructional or pedagogical value to them. You can search the whole archive and never hear me recommend them once. Worthless. “But some customers like them,” was the response…. sad. When I asked what the instructional value of the exercises was, the answer was “because they are computer generated!”
Also, I can’t believe how many hours of my life (and Esti’s life) were wasted on those stupid popups: when you mouse over words in the lesson, their English definitions and parts of speech would pop up for you. Newsflash: Spanish is not written with characters.
So I kept plugging away, but after about a year I really wanted to leave. My expat friends were all getting paid better, jetting off somewhere on the weekends, studying Chinese at their leisure. Me, I was working my ass off and getting paid like a first year teacher.
The work got better. I negotiated a modest pay raise, got my apartment paid for, got five more vacation days, and a round trip plane ticket home (one per year). They signed me up for a health plan. The office moved from that gross cold factory to a nice new building.
Still, at this point, it wasn’t fun. The management had started pulling the rug out from underneath us. They were reorganizing the office, changing the products, discussing cuts. When Leo was transfered to the Marketing Dept, Leo told me himself… in a chat. There was no memo, no meeting. I found out from a user comment that Pa’ Que Sepas and Del Taco Al Tango were paid content instead of free. They regarded our video series “La Clave” and “Cooking with Tabasco” as a waste of time and resources. I was mad at how they were treating Clay, Amber, Marco, Erica… I knew I wasn’t safe.
I remember hearing a lot of crazy shit from the management, which shows how out of touch they were with us, with language learning, and with the Spanish learning market in the USA.
- “Aspirational learners do not want lessons about food.”
- “A dictionary does not need definitions. It’s still a dictionary, just without definitions.
- “The website is pretty self explanatory.”
- “I don’t think you can make grammar entertaining.”
There are plenty more of these gems, buried in the back of my mind somewhere. Embarrassing. There was that time when KC wanted to talk about SLA and regaled us with his cursory knowledge of Krashen (which would have been groundbreaking had it been 1981 and had he actually understood it). Embarrassing. There was another time when the two Irish dudes in the office rounded up the PMs, four Americans, and proceeded to tell us what American learners want. Embarrassing. I was embarrassed for them.
Anyway, near the end they were panicking, because sPod and the other services had plateaued in terms of sales. sPod was paying it’s own way, but Italian and French were not, and growth was not increasing. Italian and French were closed down, Spanish was reduced to 3 lessons a week. They said that ChinesePod would also reduce to 3 lessons a week, which was a lie that they told us.
HH came up with a stupid idea called “Open Language,” which would reorganize our content and be sold to teachers, so that teachers could shop for content. I quit going to those committee meetings, because the premise was too stupid; teachers do not want to pay to make work for themselves. I am a teacher, I said; wake up. HH yelled at the rest of the group, apparently, for their lack of commitment.
Finally, the management discontinued sPod’s video series by memo. They thought it was a waste of resources.
So they were cutting cutting cutting, and no marketing to speak of. Our success depended on people discovering the service and signing up for subscriptions, but they refused to advertise or do anything to bring the message to the people. So I left.
When I left, I had had an offer in my pocket from Innovative Language Learning in NYC, and was trying to swing a teaching job back in Seattle. In the end, the teaching job fell through, so I took the job at sp101. Which I can talk about in another post.
I found out a few months later that KC and SW had fled China. Their other business, Kai En English School, had failed. Their teachers began missing paychecks. The local staff, it turns out, hadn’t been paid in months. Apparently “gangsters” came to their offices to collect their debts, but SW had returned to England, saying he needed back surgery. KC fled to Taiwan, and told people “he didn’t feel safe.” It was a scandal in the local news, in the expat community, and among the cPoddies. Well, the cPoddies didn’t care that much; all they wanted was to make sure they kept getting their lessons. KC responded to the criticisms, saying “there were some inaccuracies,” which is a sad sad sadly weak defense.
Anyway, all that cutting, the layoffs, the lies they told to us… it was not about the company succeeding; it was all about them trying to scratch together some money to keep the gangsters at bay one more day. And in the end, they fled the country.
A tragedy all around? I doubt it. For all their sorry crying about how the company wasn’t making enough money, it turns out that the management were all taking home six digit salaries. One night JZ left her contract out on the cPod table, and the Chinese staff saw it. She was making three times what I was making; easily over a hundred times what the local staff made, for two days a week of work. Must be nice to be the star. You can’t tell me the three founders were making less then JZ.
It doesn’t offend me so much that they took home truckloads of money every year, I know that people are greedy. I’m more mad at myself, that I believed them when they said they needed to cut content and staff due to the global economic crisis and poor sales. Once I saw that my career aspirations were just a cog in their money mill, I got out.
Also, my supervisor was kind enough to recommend that it was a good time to leave.