My first child, whom we nicknamed Pipi, was born in 2002. Pipi wasn’t like other children. Not particularly social, he wasn’t interested in traveling and didn’t care about what he ate or wore. He lacked a group of friends, placed great emphasis on cleanliness, and was only ever interested in a select few activities, to the exclusion of all others. As a child, he was fascinated by dinosaurs and could tell you what each one looked like, as well as how they would have behaved. When he was older, Pipi tried to uncover the secrets of immortality. And like every other child I’ve known, he enjoyed playing video games.
I couldn’t really figure Pipi out. I remembered what Shen Yifei, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, once said on the subject of autism: “In some countries, autism is not considered a disease — not every child needs social interaction.” I also recalled a conversation I had with Pipi when he was 8 or 9 years old. We were talking about our ideal lives, and I told him that when I was young, my dream was to be a physicist or an artist. “That’s not a dream; it’s a job,” Pipi responded. “My dream is to transcend space and time, and to see the origins of life.”
In 2012, I took Pipi to Paris for his 10th birthday. The trip involved a 13-hour flight and cost around 15,000 yuan ($2,200). I watched him run back and forth between the paintings in the Louvre searching for where the dates were printed, trying to piece together their history. My hope was that these exhibits might help him transcend space and time and bring him closer to fulfilling his dream.
Today, I have two children and run Aha School, an education startup. The vast majority of Chinese parents and educators now recognize that the rote learning approach to education is not enough to meet children’s needs, and that early exposure to liberal arts is vital to raising a successful child. Embracing this shifting of ideals, I founded Aha School in 2016. A virtual academy, it offers 400 curated courses, has 15 guidance counselors on staff, and has provided on-demand education services to over 10,000 Shanghai families.
At the start of this summer vacation, many Chinese parents worried their children would spend their few idle months lost in the virtual world of “Honour of Kings,” a popular mobile game. I dreamed of a better way for my children to spend their vacation. Well-off families have shown staggering passion for sending their children abroad to study during the summer holiday. England and the U.S. tend to attract the majority of these students, but their programs are also more expensive. NASA’s Space Camp, for example, can cost close to 40,000 yuan, once all fees are factored in and the agency has taken its cut. Singapore has proven to be another popular destination due to its status as an English-speaking country just a few hours away by plane. With camps costing in the neighborhood of 10,000 yuan for six days, Singapore is also relatively affordable for some families.
But is there a better option, one that would allow lower-income families to experience life abroad without having to bear the burden of such significant travel expenses? Recently, I visited Sichuan province in southwestern China to see how the people there were using education to alleviate poverty in largely Tibetan-populated areas. It was late June, and China’s entire school-age population was getting ready for their two-month summer vacation. I suddenly wondered whether it would be possible to give these children the chance to experience a few world-class museums, just as Pipi was able to do as a child. Specifically, I wanted to bring together 100,000 families, because with that many families involved, the cost per family would be about the same as a Big Mac. My colleagues and I quickly put together a list highlighting the top 10 museums in the world.
By late June, my mind was made up. Over the last 10 days of August, my team and I would broadcast a live stream from a different museum in a different city each day. Before, if a child wanted to visit one of these museums, a huge investment of both time and money was unavoidable. And even if they were able to go, they wouldn’t necessarily receive specially tailored, age-appropriate introductions to the various exhibits. Many children have yet to find a way to unlock the priceless treasures housed in the world’s museums, and parents often complain that their kids express no interest in such exhibits. My vision was to bring specialized museum knowledge, enthusiastic broadcasters, and one-of-a-kind exhibits together. By utilizing live-streaming and archived recordings, I could, over the course of 10 days, bring a world-class museum experience to any family in the comfort of their own home, all for less than the cost of a single meal.
In order for the project to make sense economically, my team had about a month to recruit 100,000 families who were willing to pay to watch our broadcasts. In the early stages of the project, we weren’t sure whether we would have enough time to pull off such a tricky experiment. Success is always the goal, but we decided that even if we failed to recruit enough families and had to refund their payments, we would still have gained a better understanding of the needs of China’s children.
Luckily, things went surprisingly smoothly. We even gave our plan an eye-catching name: “100,000 Children, 10 Museums: Satisfy Your Curiosity.” And we tried to tap into public sentiment: By cooperating with verified social media accounts, we were able to expand our audience steadily, first to 50,000 families, then to 100,000, and finally to 150,000. We chose our price point: 19.9 yuan. According to a 2016 white paper about the popular social media network WeChat, this was the average amount of money included in the millions of virtual red envelopes users sent to one another — in other words, what the majority of WeChat users considered pocket change.
Many people were surprised by our business model. How could we offer our product for 19.9 yuan in a world where the average cost of attracting a new customer online exceeds 100 yuan? But what these people fail to understand is that in an environment of constant change and innovation, you must break with the prevailing business models and cost structures to the point of completely remaking them in order to compete successfully. We took advantage of WeChat’s built-in relationship networks to offer group deals for our broadcasts. In this way, we could turn one user into 10, 10 into 100, 100 into 1,000, and so on, with our longstanding customers demonstrating an incredible willingness to introduce the product to their friends on social media. By offering our service at such a low price, we were able to maximize sales volume.
To live the entrepreneurial dream, it helps to be adaptable, or unfazed at the prospect of managing tasks at short notice. So far, we’ve run into uncertainties at almost every stage of the project. The museums we’ll be broadcasting from are all quite different, as are the countries where they’re located. Many of the issues we face are quite technical, making it easy to get caught up in the details. We needed to adopt a more simplified way of thinking in order to find quick solutions and push the project forward. In establishing collaborations, we emphasized the importance of thinking things through from the perspective of our partners, and we quickly mobilized a large group of people willing to work with us. With their support, we ultimately had more than 200,000 Chinese families sign up.
From Pipi, I have a deep understanding of the influence art can have on children. How can we expose children with a thirst for knowledge to the fruits of global civilization at a time when, developmentally, they need it most? I don’t know how Pipi will turn out, nor do I know what kind of happiness or inspiration our virtual museum tours can give to all of these children. For Pipi, all I could do was give him a world of possibilities and, after opening his eyes, let him decide for himself what he wants to do with them.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and David Paulk.
(Header image: A child looks at a piece of art by the Chinese artist Samantha Li at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Oct. 31, 2013. Bertrand Guay/VCG)