Interview with Angelo Huang,CEO of BlaBla
When he first moved from Taiwan to an American university, Angelo Huang abruptly confronted the best kept secret of English learning: books don’t prepare you to interact with native speakers. That’s why the founder of Blabla EdTech harnesses the power of videos to provide real-life English experiences to learners all over the world.
Q. How many languages do you speak?
A. Right now, at this moment, only two: English and Mandarin Chinese.
Q. How many have you learned or tried to learn in your life?
A. A lot, but not successfully. Japanese, Korean… There has always been a problem for second language speakers. You can watch TV, movies (from Hollywood, in the case of English), but it’s very hard to actually practice them. I tried to learn Korean, by watching Korea movies (he laughs. Well, he laughs a lot during the interview), but if you don’t use it, it’s not going to work.
Q. So learning vocabulary and grammar is not enough?
A. No. If you go to America, you’ll see a lot of people who speak English very well, while not being good at reading or writing. And also a lot of Chinese who have grown up there and can speak Chinese, but aren’t able to write or read it. I saw that and understood that we communicate verbally in a different way than we write.
Q. Was it easy for you to learn English?
A. I’m trained as a computer scientist, so I don’t focus that much in real languages, but as English being the programming language, I used it a lot, also conversational English, when I grew up. It was when I started my career when I realized how bad my English was, so I spent tones of energy talking to people, hired a coach to help me to talk in public and tried to make friends I could connect to and learn further. But, if I had a magic wand and could ask for a wish, I’d like it to give me the languages skill, because I don’t have it.
Q. Although you seem to be a social person, aren´t you?
A. I’d say I’m introvert-extrovert. The introvert part is because I like to build things, products, in an engineering way. But I also like to sell what I do. That’s where the extrovert kicks in. It’s a strange combination. I don’t want to do only 100% of the selling, nor only 100% of the building. I want to build something and sell it.
Q. What are your personal hobbies and interests?
A. I like to run every other day. And then I’m interested in robotics –although today it is still in a very early stage– and in space technology. I feel software can be very useful to power human intelligence and AI in space in robotics in the future.
Q. You are based in California, but right now you are talking to me from Shanghai. How do you manage your social life working between continents?
A. Well, I feel my entrepreneur life is very boring and lonely (laughs again), because I don’t stay at one place for very long. I grew up in Taiwan and at twenty something I moved to USA and settled there when I funded my first company. Mostly everyone around me was my employee or my investor and it’s hard to become friends with either of them. Then I started this company with operations in China, where I hadn’t done anything before, so it’s also very new for me. But I have got used to it. On the other hand, my wife is going to have my first baby, a boy, in February, and I’m so excited about it.
Q. Why did you move to USA?
A. I went to the University of Southern California to earn a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and stayed there in the Bay Area near Silicon Valley. I worked for Yahoo for a while, and then funded a B2B company, which sold tools for sales teams of technology companies. After 7 years I sold it and started Blabla EdTech.
Q. What did surprise you the most about the American culture?
A. It was the first time I travelled abroad on my own, and it surprised me that life wasn’t at all like in Hollywood films. And then at school I realized people had much better communication skills than I thought. There were people from India, Europe, everywhere, all combined in a small community and everyone speaks freely about their opinions. That’s when you realize how tiny you are and I had to struggle to get used to it, because it wasn’t in my culture to speak up. But in America you’ve got to sell yourself, that’s important and the first thing I learned. I’m still learning today, and educating the people around me, I’m telling everyone in the office: hey, you have to speak up, otherwise I wouldn’t know what you are doing. And I think there is an American culture for that.
Q. And something you missed of your own culture?
A. Something I think you also have in Spain: a very convenient city life. Europe its very similar to Asia in this regard: the thick public transport networks, the very connected cities always with people nearby. Where I live in California you barely see anyone. Even if you live in an apartment, and not in a house, you don’t call your neighbor. People are very distant from each other. There are only a few major cities with this city vibe, which is different: New York, Chicago, maybe Los Angeles. I think this is one of the reasons I wanted to have offices in China. I miss that city culture with lots of people around where you can always go to someone downstairs.
Q. Do you prefer to keep starting new businesses or to stay in them to let them grow?
A. It depends. In my first start up the product became very mature, so I felt my contribution wasn’t going to be that important any more. Then I realized I needed something I could work on for many, many years, with many, many people, in many, many countries. That was something I was looking for with this startup. And even now I’m still looking for it, for something very big. Let’s put it this way. If could start Telefónica, I would be really happy (and, of course, he laughs again).