From Idea to $27 Million Impact: Greg Nance's Mission to Transform Student Lives from China and Beyond
The college admissions process for U.S. universities is labyrinthine. But being a Chinese international student who lacks access to necessary resources, such as local counselors who are familiar with the application process or older students who have also gone on to American colleges, often exacerbates this elaborate and complex process. Many articles surfaced exposing unscrupulous Chinese agencies that capitalized on this demand and allegedly cheated the application process with plagiarized essays, false recommendation letters, or forged transcripts.
In 2012, Greg Nance, an American entrepreneur, saw this immense demand but wanted to tackle it differently from the profit-focused agencies. In addition to the idea of building a potent business, Nance was driven by a pedagogy-focused social mission: to truly service and deliver enduring value to these students in mentorship and scholarship opportunities. His passion for social impact pushed him to build a platform that would connect these international applicants to mentors online, who would help them with admissions and scholarship mentoring.
"We try to remind them in the process that the result of where you get in and the opportunity it manifests is very important, absolutely. However, it’s the learning, the development, the growth behind that which is also critically important." Nance founded Dyad.com (formerly known as Chase Future), an edtech startup with the mission of expanding access to education. So far, they’ve raised an impressive $27,157,029 in scholarships and helped over 2,000 clients from China and 25 other countries, including Egypt, India, Colombia, Honduras, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, France, England, and America
The Privilege of Good Education
From an idyllic town outside of Seattle, Nance grew up in a family of educators, with his mother and grandmother being teachers, and was surrounded by great teachers and a supportive community. It was only until he attended the University of Chicago that he acknowledged his privileged background.
"I went to school in Chicago on the south side, where a lot of students can’t even dream of the opportunities that I was taking for granted. It was a huge wake up call. I resolved to try to do something about it, try to help out, try to connect students on campus to the local community to help as mentors and be useful, try to add some value as we went."
This realization pushed Nance into entrepreneurship, which eventually propelled him to business school. He attended Cambridge Business School, sponsored by Bill Gates’ Gates Scholarship. In conversations with fellow business school classmates, Nance and his peers found one striking commonality in each of them—they all had strong mentors who offered guidance and support to them in times of difficulty. In discovering this, they hoped to pay it forward by building a community of mentors to share insight and expertise.
"Screw It, Let’s Do It"
The combination of opportunity and curiosity pushed Nance into China. Shanghai, specifically, offered remarkable opportunities for a booming business. It was also a great place for Nance to pursue his personal hobbies in climbing, running, and hiking.
"And so, I just followed Richard Branson’s adage: 'Screw it, let’s do it,'" Nance said.
As a solo founder, Nance drew support from a variety of mentors, from which he built an advisory board with. He also searched for local elite talent in Shanghai, which is the key to unlocking bountiful opportunities in China, Nance said. He stumbled upon these connections by chance, ranging from a local developer he met at a conference to a marketer he met at TEDx to an operations who began as an intern. Admittedly, Nance didn’t have much to draw from in the beginning. He barely even spoke Chinese, knowing only nihao and xiexie, “hello” and “thank you.” So Nance capitalized on his strengths and steered clear of his weaknesses.
What Nance wanted to do was build the minimum viable product, and then meet as many people as he could to further develop and refine the product before launching and promoting.
"I knew early on: I needed to inventory my weaknesses, I’m not a natural salesman, I’m not a developer, I have pretty limited technical understanding, and I’m not a naturally gifted strategist," Nance said. "The one thing I thought I had was a lot of energy, I wanted to use that effectively, and so I basically put myself in a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of people."
As an ultramarathoner with 155-mile races through Gobi Desert and Malaysian jungles under his belt, energy was indeed one of Nance’s advantages. In the early days, he went to conferences, meetups, coffee chats, even jogs and hikes; he accepted almost every single invitation that was extended to him. What Nance wanted to do was build the minimum viable product, and then meet as many people as he could to further develop the product so that it would grow into something he’s proud of as he goes.
It’s difficult enough to found a business, but to do so in a foreign environment is even more daunting. "My rolodex was literally zero moving to Shanghai, so I knew I had to change that," Nance said. "I started to build a network, a community of friends that could help me not only as we’re building our team, but when we started searching for clients, when we started searching for content contributors, when we started searching for partners and then investors."
That’s one aspect I really admire about Chinese culture—how hospitable it is, and how welcoming you feel even when you’re brand new and you’re clearly fresh off the boat.
But once Nance got his network off and running, his status as a foreigner turned into an advantage. "Chinese people are very curious about you when you’re from a different place and they prone to say yes for a coffee," explained Nance. "And the result of that is you can meet lots of folks pretty quickly, and they want to better understand you and your motivation, why you’re in China, and what you’re in here to build." Nance was quick to add, "that’s one aspect I really admire about Chinese culture—how hospitable it is, and how welcoming you feel even when you’re brand new and you’re clearly fresh off the boat.
Eventually, Nance’s relentless networking yielded valuable meetings and contacts that turned into Dyad.com’s most valuable asset, the team. "My mentality is always find the very, very best people you can,” Nance said, "I live by the adage best team wins."
Founding the Company
When Nance founded his startup, it was just him and his credit card. Once seed funding from angel investors came rolling in, he was then able to incorporate his company formally. He managed to stagger incorporation so as to save money in the process of building the edtech startup.
"Don’t get too caught up with formalizing on day one,” Nance advised. "You really want to work on building a real product, seeing if there’s any real viability before you squander $10,000 or $20,000."
While putting that advice into practice in the early days, Nance later on bolstered Dyad.com’s legal structure to support the cross-border nature of its business. "We’re actually a Washington State C-Corp, which is the same as Amazon, for instance, but we also have a Chinese local entity—that’s required for the business we’re in," noted Nance. “And we basically have a foreign entity for our investors and to hold our IP, but we also have a local infrastructure in order to sign contracts in China and to have an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license in China.”
With this lucrative market, Nance soon faced intense local competition.
“Within three or four months of building something successful in China, you will see half a dozen or more providers that look a lot like you, that borrow your color scheme, borrow the text,” Nance said. “I’ve even seen a rival website claim that I was the CEO of their business with my background.”
However, this speed also drives innovation in the company. And though the stereotype of China as a land of copycats is applicable in some cases as mentioned earlier on, Nance describes the modern Chinese culture as fundamentally creative in its own way. He also predicts a relative role reversal of Western and Chinese innovation in the future, especially as technical innovations grow and develop with each day. WeChat is one famous example, with over a billion active users and more sophisticated applications than other rivaling messaging apps from elsewhere.
The Importance of the First Customer
However, the number one challenge of founding a company, Nance describes, was in finding the first customer. Before payment is collected from a tangible customer, everything is merely hypothetical. Nance wanted to seek out the most talented and motivated students—regardless of economic status or family income—and help them overcome their key obstacles.
When Nance founded Dyad.com, he had one like on his Ren Ren (the Facebook of China back in 2011-2012) page—himself. At the time, he made short five to eight-minute videos explaining relevant college admissions topics: how to write a personal statement, how to ask for letters of recommendation, how to make a compelling CV.
This content marketing brought Nance his first customer, Han Feng Liu. The two got in touch online before meeting in a coffee shop in Beijing, where Nance interviewed Liu about his needs and anxieties regarding the application process. With this information, Nance built out his first ever curriculum and received a little over $80 for it.
"It wasn’t a huge thing by any stretch, but it’s enough to inspire a little bit of confidence and a little bit of actionable intel — and that’s the name of the game. As an entrepreneur, that first sales gives us a lot of actionable intel and it gives you the hope to keep moving forward, and I think both of those can be in short supply early on."
Chinese vs. Western Education
In China, a student’s future essentially banks on a high score on the very competitive gaokao, a college admissions test that determines whether a student can attend university, as well as where and what they can study. It is a pivotal moment in the life of many Chinese people, as “candidates must perform well in the gaokao to gain admission to the better universities, where graduation guarantees a bright future with status, wealth and even power,” Zhuang Pinghui writes. As a result, those who do not want to be restricted by the gaokao or by their low scores may opt to study abroad.
Globalization is another factor for the rapid growth in the study abroad market. The global prestige and fame of top American universities ranks the U.S. as the most popular destination to study at, followed by the UK, Canada, Australia. The 2017 Open Doors report cites that in 2017, 32.5 percent of all international students studying in the United States currently studying abroad came from China, which is almost double India, at 17.3 percent. “One of the common reasons is students want the best economic opportunities later on in life,” Nance said. “They are eager for a cultural experience. They’re also very excited about the chance for immersion and to improve their English, French, or German and have a more global outlook.”
But Nance describes the current state of the education consulting market as fragmented and crowded, akin to the pre-Amazon bookstore industry. With thousands of mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar style agencies, the industry is booming. Yet they’re missing something. “Imagine you have a big goal — your big goal is to go to Stanford, a great school in California, USA — and the person who is going to be guiding you, an alleged expert, not only has never gotten into Stanford or studied there, but also has never been to California or the US, and actually doesn’t speak English,” Nance said. “...So it’s really a big lose, lose, lose under that situation and we want to flip that and create a big win, win, win.”
With Dyad.com, Nance hopes to offer an option that focuses on personal growth, which will thus reflect itself in the applications process.
Dyad.com’s Fundamental Social Impact Mission
The stress that comes with college applications is further intensified by the weight carried by the international student. The one child policy in China creates a strange ratio: one child with two parents and four grandparents. The child thus carries the weight of all three generations, so the education of the child is a huge family decision, regardless of their choice of local or foreign education.
“There’s a lot of pressure, stress, and anxiety on this child,” Nance said. “The result is what the family is thinking about.” But that’s not what Nance wants to solely focus on. He believes in the process; he wants to invest in the development of the student that will help the student attain their desired result. What Dyad.com seeks to do is to provide guidance to these students beyond essay-writing tips and test-taking strategies, in their approach, their perspective, their attitude, and their viewpoint on the world.
Dyad.com’s dedication to social impact shines through in its pro bono work in working with lower income Chinese families as well as Syrian refugees who receive great mentorship for free. Their pedagogical approach is one part of why they were able to generate $27 million in scholarship awards, according to Nance.
"We genuinely have a social mission in addition to trying to build a great business that’s dynamic and servicing and delivering great value for lots of people."
Though he arrived in China with few connections and little practical knowledge about the edtech space, Nance was determined in his lifelong mission to pay it forward, fueled by his energy and passion. An insistence on quality mentorship and a bold mission to expand education access helps differentiate Dyad.com from other competitors solely seeking profit.
In China you better expect to be copied; you better expect to move quickly if you want to keep your edge.
“Frankly, for most of the competition, their mission is to get the founders very rich,” Nance said. “Our social mission is one big differentiator that a lot of our eventual scholars really felt during their buying process. We and all our associates at Dyad.com are fired up by this and it makes a big difference.”
In his journey, Nance not only seized an opportunity to fulfill a huge market demand and build a profitable business, but also one that would give back to the community in his endeavor. Equal parts entrepreneur and adventurer, Nance holds a diligent, selfless attitude that shines through in his ventures, an inspiration to all who are seeking to succeed not only in the growing Chinese market, but also life as well. “We’ve built a really good educational method, model, and then operations to sustain growth. It really builds up the students and their backgrounds, their approach, their perspective, their attitude, their viewpoint on the world such that when they earn admission, which they do at very high levels, they earn scholarships at very high levels and they are able to acclimate to an entirely new culture, an entirely new academic system seamlessly because they’ve been trained by their Dyad.com Mentors to prepare for that.”
Ultimately, however, Nance is acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead despite Dyad.com’s continued success.
"That stuff is difficult. In China you better expect to be copied; you better expect to move quickly if you want to keep your edge."
That’s the kind of mentorship advice Nance has for those aspiring to follow his path and make real impact in China.