The PIE: What is your background and how did you come to start Tandem?
Arnd Aschentrup: My background is more in community than in learning. A few years ago, I would have never, ever dreamt of founding a language company. I have always thought of myself as a really untalented learner.
“My background is more in community than in learning”
I really struggled through French in school. Learning Swedish abroad during my exchange was extremely difficult for me. We were approaching this whole topic from a background where my co-founder and I actually founded our first business out of university.
The PIE: What business was that?
AA: We founded a community for comedy writers, who could collaborate online to provide jokes for all of the larger German late-night shows. There’s actually such a thing as a German comedy show believe it or not! And so we essentially became, as a student business, one of the main providers for all of the German comedy shows of crowdsourced content with our community of writers.
This business then evolved more and more into a TV production business, where we used our writers to write our own content. To this day it’s an animation production company and is still around.
From there, our next venture branched out when we produced our first TV content. That became a successful business quite quickly and was acquired. When my co-founder and I got back together, we started to think about what our next big thing would be.
The question for us at the time was how can we utilise community and utilise the new technology of that day? For the first time, this was enabling video chats on mobile phones and making your phone your main communication device.
The PIE: Tandem has had a large recent uptake of students – could you tell me why you think the app is proving so popular?
“The Chinese market has grown very dynamically for us”
AA: The Chinese market has grown very dynamically for us. It is our largest single market with more than 13% of our daily active users.
This pointed us to this situation very early on, that the combination of language learning and cross-cultural connections resonated very well in this market since we launched Tandem.
Despite the firewall and the slow internet speeds for some international providers, it is a market with a lot of demand for speaking with international learning partners, and also cultural exchange.
A couple of months ago, we saw a big spike in signups in China following a viral post on Chinese social media. The topic was etiquette when speaking with foreigners, which underlines quite nicely what I think is at the heart of our mission and what we want to accomplish as an app, and what seems to resonate very well in the market.
We’ve seen spikes like this from time to time but this was the most impressive one so far.
The PIE: What is it that appeals to users about cultural exchange?
AA: I think this is particularly fascinating for a lot of our members in China and many other countries. The ability to speak with everyday Americans and people from Australia and the UK.
This is very far from normal, everyday life in China, especially outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen which are a lot less international than maybe what we are used to in London, Berlin and New York. It’s not just that, though.
There are also exchanges between Chinese and Japanese and Korean members on Tandem – as a lot of Chinese people are also looking to learn Japanese or Korean and vice versa.
The PIE: How do you deal with tensions between countries, for example China and the US?
“A lot of Chinese people are also looking to learn Japanese or Korean”
AA: I think, first of all, this is one of the things that I personally find the most motivating – to facilitate these types of global connections between everyday people taking part in everyday lives and forming friendships, besides all of the political tensions that are rising.
This is one of the more valuable and more important contributions that something like Tandem makes in the grand scheme of things, to really get a deeper understanding of each other’s culture and of each other’s perspectives that are oftentimes quite different from what you read in the news and what you digest through politics. S
o to facilitate these human connections and hopefully, a bit of cultural understanding between Europe, China and the US is an important contribution that we can make.
The PIE: Are the conversations moderated by the Chinese government?
AA: Conversations on Tandem are not moderated by the Chinese government as long as they take place in one-on-one chats. Sometimes we get a glimpse of what these types of conversations are like when users post them on social media.
I found it deeply fascinating when somebody posted their conversation between a young Cuban girl and a young Chinese student right after the death of Fidel Castro, where they compared how their respective history books saw their communist past and how that’s experienced by people.
And so I think it offered an interesting perspective on how people come to a new understanding of what they’ve learnt in school and what they perceive in media through direct personal connections that they would never otherwise have outside of a digital app like Tandem.
The PIE: How do you keep on the right side of the Chinese state?
AA: I think we have to be very careful around things that are posted in public forums, the Chinese government is very interested in moderating those. This, essentially, is very serious and for app developers as soon as something is posted in a public forum it puts you as a service provider at risk of being taken offline immediately.
From this perspective, we’re happy to provide one on one conversations with Chinese members that are private and not moderated or monitored. So yes, this would be a significant stumbling block for a company like us to have public forums in China.
We wouldn’t want to get into this level of moderation requirements that the local market would require us to do.
The PIE: Do you have to try and protect Chinese users in any way from getting in trouble when using the app?
“Most people within China are much more savvy and knowledgeable about what’s allowed”
AA: Most people within China are much more savvy and knowledgeable about what’s allowed and what’s possible to post publicly and what’s not. They are quite conscious and usually, the conversation strays away from political topics.
So far, we haven’t had any incidents on the platform. As a company, we are obviously very much in line with European and Western norms when it comes to free speech and we wouldn’t dream of moderating political content that otherwise adheres to our community principles.
But in this case, I think what we see mostly is that these are private and less political conversations that are really about cultural exchange and about forming friendships rather than about political debates.
The PIE: How has Covid-19 affected your business?
AA: What we’ve really noticed with Covid is that all of a sudden people became way more comfortable with live chatting and with video chatting. As we work in digital, we’ve been quite comfortable with video chat for a longer time, but many people discovered Zoom for the first time and they discovered that you can actually do sensible things in an efficient way online.
So within three weeks, our video chat volumes grew more than in the three years before, because all of a sudden it was something that people were much more comfortable with, and probably a lot of people realised that there is value in this.