Nic is the owner of the prestigious ACES English buxiban in Kaohsiung. His perseverance and entrepreneurial spirit is an inspiration for the foreign community. He offers his insights into living, working, and raising a family in Taiwan.
He studied Chinese at a university. After graduation, he traveled to China to improve his Chinese proficiency and learn martial arts. Fortunately for us, he decided to move to Taiwan, where his wife is from. He started teaching English in an advanced program in Taipei. An entrepreneur-minded person, he took his experience and passion for teaching and opened the sole branch of ACES English buxiban in Kaohsiung.
My Kaohsiung: Why did you decide to move to Taiwan and especially Kaohsiung?
Nic: I received a scholarship to do an intensive Mandarin summer course. I chose to do that in Taipei because during my time in Mainland China I had heard great things about Taiwan, and my university Chinese professor recommended the program. That original 3-month language learning holiday was back in 2006. Several years later, around 2012 my fiancee and I decided to move out of the cold capital city and down to the southern city of Kaohsiung where she was originally from to start our family and put down roots.
My Kaohsiung: Looking back, what is one thing you regret you did?
Nic: I love this question. It really gave me pause. As an 18-year-old (18 years ago!!!) I never would have imagined I’d be where I am now, surrounded by the people I am, and doing what I am now. The big and small life choices we make lead us to very different places. Seeing my old friends and acquaintances doing awesome things in their lives now who had made different decisions than I did at one of life’s crossroads makes me really happy. It’s a fun way to see different “What if I had…” scenarios play out.
Having said that, I wouldn’t change anything. Looking back over the past 12 years I don’t feel like I missed or passed up any opportunities. If anything, I tried to do too much. I just wish there were more time in each day!
Nic was raised in the Rocky Mountains of America. He grew up hiking, camping, hunting, skiing, rock climbing, rafting and mountain biking. During his time in the university, he worked as rock climbing coach and outdoor adventure guide at the university’s recreation center. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in International Public Relations with a focus on Asia and a minor in Chinese. He has been living in Asia since 2005, spending one year in Mainland China studying Chinese and Kung Fu before making Taiwan his home in 2006.
My Kaohsiung: What was the experience of starting a family in Taiwan, from an expat perspective? Any advice for others?
Nic: I’m a total neophyte (新手) dad and family man. Taiwan is just the place where it happened. Being in the father/husband position is a super steep learning curve, regardless of where you are geographically. But as far as Taiwan goes, the pediatric hospitals, health care system and new-mother support services are top notch here. I’m impressed by how considerate city and building planners are towards making everything stroller/mother friendly. There are playgrounds in every neighborhood and tons of indoor, air-conditioned spaces with insanely cool jungle gyms and other kid-oriented activities and programs. Lastly, Taiwanese people overall are very excited to see babies and little kids and are quite helpful to parents. They can sometimes be a little overly friendly and offer unwanted help; there’s not much consideration towards personal space, but they are well meaning. Kaohsiung has a been a great place to raise a family.
My Kaohsiung: What are your personal and professional goals?
Nic: Personally, I want to make a positive difference in the world, go to bed each day feeling proud of what I accomplished that day, and be excited about waking up the next day to do more. My most important personal goal and challenge is to keep upping my father/husband game to make my Superwife and two amazing children my top priorities.
Professionally, I would like to raise the bar of English learning in Kaohsiung. I’ve done hundreds of placement tests for students who want to transfer to ACES English from other systems, and it’s really uncomfortable explaining to parents that even though their child studied in another system for 2 years that they can’t keep up with our 6-month students. The unfortunate truth is that a lot of parents don’t know their children’s English isn’t improving because the parent’s English isn’t very good and they don’t know how to recognize high quality language instruction. But news is slowly spreading and we’re already making a difference.
Over the past 7 years I’ve seen the numbers of parents growing who want their kids to attend bilingual schools and/or high quality extracurricular English programs. They want to give their kids a tool and competitive advantage that will enrich their futures. I’m really proud of what my team and I are able to do for those forward-thinking kids and parents of Kaohsiung. We offer a low cost and very high quality English program that produces fast and stunning results. I just wish more of Kaohsiung’s parents knew about us!
My Kaohsiung: What are some things that frustrate you [about Kaohsiung]?
Nic: The lack of driving etiquette down here. There is too little respect for “the rule of law”— doing the right thing because you should to do it, not just doing it when you feel like it. I know it’s “inconvenient” to stop for that red light, but that’s the law. Far too many locals have a complete disregard for traffic rules in Kaohsiung, and it’s infuriating and life threatening. They drive like they are playing a video game. I see fender-benders daily, and weekly see really nasty accidents. If I were a traffic cop, I would easily hand out at least 10 citations just on my 20 minute daily commute to work.
My Kaohsiung: If you could, what would you change in Kaohsiung?
Nic: The Kaohsiung City Government needs to get serious about cracking down on this reckless driving. For long-lasting effects it would probably take a huge government propaganda campaign to educate Kaohsiung’s citizens about why they need to think about all the other drivers on the road and not just of themselves. The government could and should proactively try to stop this reckless driving. I’ve heard arguments that the budget isn’t big enough to employ enough traffic cops. My rebuttal is that if they put cameras on every intersection I guarantee that investment would pay for itself many times over. They would be able to pave the roads in gold in just a few years! There is no excuse— based on my 5 years of living in Taipei, Taipei has already figured out how to make people drive more responsibly. Kaohsiung just needs to make it a priority and follow the capital’s example.
My Kaohsiung: As a business owner in Taiwan, what were some of the challenges you had to face or surprises you didn’t anticipate from your research?
Nic: My business partner and I had seen almost viral success with our teaching methodology in Taipei, so we assumed that expanding into Kaohsiung would be a breeze. It turned out to be more like trying to row a gear boat against a strong headwind on flat water! There are a whole different set of values and priorities at work in Kaohsiung.
As an example of how values have economic repercussions, look at the frightening turnover in store fronts in Kaohsiung. Countless businesses go under because it’s so hard to build up patronage here. If a new restaurant opened in Taipei, most people would be excited and curious to go try it out. But in Kaohsiung, the majority of people tend to be more conservative and peer at new businesses suspiciously, not daring to go in and try it. They’ll wait until they hear from an acquaintance that the service is good before they do. And if the experience was a little bit too unfamiliar for them, they probably won’t return because it’s unsettling for them when things are done too differently from what they’re accustomed to. And to throw in another wild twist, a lot of Kaohsiung-ites intentionally WON’T recommend a business even if they thought the service or product was good because if the person they recommended it to didn’t like it, that would reflect poorly on them. It’s very difficult for a new business to operate in a place with those values.
Going hand-in-hand with local values are the priorities at work in Kaohsiung. In my particular situation, it was a huge obstacle for me that learning English is NOT a priority for many parents here. Taipei is insanely competitive when it comes to academics, and ACES English absolutely thrived in that environment because we have very high expectations and standards for our students, and we demand a lot of hard work from them. I didn’t expect that I would have so many conversations with parents explaining why 1) it’s important for their children to learn English, and to do it well, and 2) that the hard work they do now will pay off, so they as parents need to help at home and encourage their children to stick with it.
Two of the main pillars in our teaching system is that the parents attend class with the kids to be involved in their education, and that the students need to practice a lot on their own at home between classes. Needless to say, this has been a very difficult sales pitch to more than one parent who has walked through our doors.
My Kaohsiung has visited Nic’s school and can attest to his unique brand of teaching. The classrooms are modern and spacious. His teaching technique is fast-paced and designed to teach English through practicum, unlike many schools that teach just book material. Nic requires his teacher to have Chinese proficiency, which is against most buxiban’s rules, since he believes that speaking Chinese aids English learning. The most unique aspect of ACES is that parents sit in the classroom during class…how many English buxibans do that?
My Kaohsiung: What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting an after-school language school?
Nic: It’s more time consuming and stressful than you can possibly imagine. Even when you physically leave the office, it’s very difficult to stop thinking about the endless to-do list. When you care about the wellbeing of your employees and the success of your students, the pressure of responsibilities piled on your shoulders is mentally and physically exhausting. Also, even though you’re putting your heart and soul into helping your students master English and teaching them the values of responsibility and hard work, it’s a mostly thankless job… except for when it’s not.
Eventually, after several long and stressful years, you will find your niche clientèle and they will support you and encourage you, and the joy of seeing their awesome kids improve will start to outweigh the irritation of lazy kids with bad attitudes and the occasional rude customer. And then you’ll start to have people traveling from all parts of the city, and even from the neighboring city Pingtung, because finally people are beginning to understand what you’re all about, and they begin to see that hard work pays off and that high standards and quality education are important and worth traveling for. Then, most days, the headaches and frustration of running a business all kind of seem worth it and you’ll have a little more fuel to go into the next day with.
You need to make sure you set off into your entrepreneurial battle with a good business partner and surround yourself with like-minded and supportive people because there will be a lot of stressful times in the beginning and their advice and kinship will make all the difference between making it or breaking.
Nic is a humorous and kind [teacher]…Nic is an awesome and patient teacher…Nic never gets angry, he encourages us!Students of ACES English
My Kaohsiung: What is a typical week like for you—including work and family commitments?
Nic: Right now my kids have more claim to my time than my business does. They’re incredibly cool little things and I want to spend as much time with them as possible, and help out Superwife because they’re also a huge handful. I’ve been fortunate enough to finally be able to only go into the office five days a week instead of six, so I try to give my family as many hours as possible on those two days off. One good thing about working in an after-school business is that I don’t usually need to go into the office until after lunch, but I also don’t get home until quite late after they’re already in bed. Superwife and I try to make the most of our mornings, playing with the kiddos and some days taking them to a gymnastics, art or music class. I head into the office right after lunch and am solidly in work mode until about 10:30 or 11:00. All I can say is it feels good to be down to a 50-hour workweek instead of 60.
It feels good to be down to a 50-hour work-week instead of 60.