Journey of a New York lawyer to education entrepreneurship in China – Terry Crawford
InitialView was founded in Beijing, China in 2009, and offers virtual interview services. InitialView helps students to apply to the US and the UK universities, and job-seekers to apply to top multinationals by demonstrating their spoken English abilities. InitialView uses in-person, unscripted interviews which are then uploaded to their proprietary interview platform. InitialView’s proprietary platform allows viewers to, within seconds, determine the interviewee’s English ability and interpersonal skills. Their technology is currently patent-pending in both the US and China.
InitialView was founded by former New York lawyer Terry Crawford and his wife Gloria Chyou. InitialView recently expanded to India as they were seeing a demand from Universities to use their service for Indian student applications. In this interview, Terry shares his journey from a New York lawyer to setting up an education and hiring related startup in China and expanding to India.
How did InitialView come about?
I was previously a lawyer practising in the Beijing office of a Wall Street law firm (interesting side note: when I was in New York, I was fortunate to work with Vikram Pandit’s private equity fund which was investing in India, before it was bought by Citigroup and Vikram Pandit became Citigroup’s CEO), and I often encountered difficult situations where it was costly or time-consuming to get an accurate picture of what was going on. I was involved in a few hiring decisions, and while we could get a large number of resumes that looked good, as soon as we interviewed the individuals we knew they weren’t right for the job. Often they didn’t even have the skills that they said they did on their resume. I started to wonder why video interviews weren’t used as part of the interviewing process, and I quit my law firm in 2010 to see if I could figure it out.
At the same time, we saw that Chinese students were applying to the US universities in rapidly increasing numbers, and that often there was a disconnect between the paper-based application and actual communication ability of the applicants. We approached Georgia Tech about doing a pilot. While they were first cool to the idea, their numbers from China shot up while we were talking, and they decided to give it a shot.
For a long time it was just my wife and I, with the exception of a few key individuals who would pitch in from time to time. We started off thinking that we were going to hire all these people to do certain tasks, but in the end we learned how to do them all ourselves in order to save money. In hindsight, this was a great thing: we now know in detail how all of our processes work, and this was particularly good because we were obsessed with providing a good experience to both universities and applicants. Now it is no problem attracting high performing individuals who are excited about revolutionizing how people decisions are made, but we still benefit from the years of know-how that we (painfully) accumulated while we were figuring out the business model.
How has the growth been since you started?
Last year was when things took off. We ended the year with over 50 top colleges and universities in the U.S. using our interviews. We had no idea that our interviews would be accepted so fast, and now we are accepted by many of the top schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins and many more. We have applicants of all types interviewing for all types of schools, and many admission officers are telling us that often it is the interview that makes a difference in a student’s application. Everyone is a borderline applicant somewhere, and our interviews generally give applicants an extra boost of credibility.
We’ve also been hired multiple times to assist with executive searches for international organizations. This is particularly exciting for us, as many organizations have international teams who need to hire individuals, but interviewing those individuals and coming to consensus can be difficult. Our technology allows us to do the first round of interviews with candidates located anywhere in the world, and then the hiring team can review at their leisure, regardless of where they are in the world. Even when dispersed, the hiring team can more quickly come to a consensus on whom to focus on, thereby saving time and money while making better decisions.
Revenue and funding
While we do have one angel investor, we made the decision early on to primarily use our own savings to fund our operations. We are glad that we did—we have maintained control of the company, and now that our operations are generating significant revenue we have a lot of options. We also learned to do a lot more with less, and that made our business model more nimble. I think many companies take on funding too early, only to find that they haven’t figured out their business model, or that what they want to do won’t scale beyond a niche market.
As an American expat living in China, how has your experience been starting up in China?
While there’s no question that there are challenges in doing a business in China, by far most of the issues still come from fundamental questions surrounding growing the business, questions that would exist anywhere. Since we’ve been able to get the support of prominent U.S. institutions and already have many success cases that we can point to, we are actually in a position that would be difficult for a local competitor to duplicate.
I can’t deny that having a legal background and being able to speak Chinese has also helped. While it was time-consuming, I took care of the entire company set-up myself, to the point where government officials came to recognize me and would often even help me navigate the bureaucracy—it turns out that a tall white guy roaming the halls of government agencies is both difficult for government officials to ignore and sometimes even endearing to them. Now that I—as a former New York lawyer—have the experience of starting a business in China under my belt, it makes our plans for expansion to other countries even more achievable.
What do you think makes InitialView an attractive option for students?
Students come to us because our interviews are accepted at most of the top universities to which they are applying. All competitive students are looking for ways to make their application stand out, and there’s no more compelling way to do that than with the medium of video.
While every individual case is different, on the whole the data shows that similarly-situated students who have our interviews enjoy a higher rate of admission than those who do not. Last year, Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr, two schools which very systematically recommended our interviews, found that students with our interviews had a rate of admission that was more than twice the rate of admission for students who did not have them. If one considers how a video interview enhances the credibility of the applicant, then it makes sense that admission officers would go with the candidate that they can be more sure of verses the candidate who only provides paper-based (and easily forged) documentation.
Most students apply to 10+ schools. Assuming that the 10+ schools encompass a range of competitiveness, the student is likely to be borderline at 2-4 schools. We know from admission officers that in many cases our interviews help tip the balance in that student’s favor.
To be honest, there’s nothing special about what we do; all we do is increase transparency. There are top students with an amazing drive and communication skills, but until now they have not had a credible way to display that before admission officers. We provide them with a platform that helps them demonstrate their abilities.
Any specific plans to get into job recruiting in India ?
I’ve been amazed at the response we received from your initial article, and as a result we are about to start working with some organizations on a few pilot projects. Notably, not only do our interviews save time and money, they also increase the profile of HR within an organization. Currently we still have the capacity to do 1-2 more projects in India, so we invite any HR leader who might be interested to reach out to us.