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Barbara Tassa, co-founder and co-chief executive officer, WeblishPal (Manulife Financial)
Barbara Tassa, co-founder and co-chief executive officer, WeblishPal (Manulife Financial)

A SPECIAL INFORMATION FEATURE BROUGHT TO YOU BY MANULIFE FINANCIAL

From student to CEO Add to ...

Barbara Tassa’s small business began as a class assignment at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management – “Give a one-minute pitch of an idea.” Her classmate Danny Wang proposed to link students of English in China with anyone in the English-speaking world willing to teach them, online, by speaking to them over Skype. Hey, she asked Mr. Wang, why not? And WeblishPal was born in December, 2010.

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Ms. Tassa, 29, of Toronto, is co-founder and co-chief executive officer with Mr. Wang. She and her parents learned to speak English when they came to Canada from Estonia two decades ago.

Q: What inspired you to start a business?

Barbara: A combination of an interesting idea, a customer problem I could relate to and a fun teammate.

Q: Why is this business right for the times?

Barbara: From a technology perspective, more and more people have Internet, more and more people are comfortable using video technologies online. Education is always right for the times, and when it comes to English education specifically, there is a growing demand in China to improve English skills.

Q: What are the rewards of starting a business?

Barbara: Allowing yourself to be creative in a business environment, which you don't necessarily get on a day-to-day basis if you're working for somebody else. You have a lot of responsibility and you have to do a lot of things, but it's great because you have fun with it, you get to experiment, you get to see what works, what doesn't. It’s really fun trying to see what works because nothing has been written in stone yet.

Q: What's the biggest triumph so far?

Barbara: Launching it and having people using it. It's really exciting when you actually get that first customer, and you're able to help them with their goals. One of the first customers on WeblishPal was looking to get into an MBA program in China and needed help with her admission essays and preparing for an English interview. We were able to make sure she had the final touches to get that successful admission.

Q: What was your toughest moment?

Barbara: I think they're ongoing. I think it is the daily struggle. You see the long term vision, but there are always minor setbacks.

Q: What is the biggest challenge?

Barbara: If our goal is to be the biggest English training platform online, the biggest challenge for us as a startup is driving awareness. Right now we're working on a shoestring budget.

Q: What advice have you sought?

Barbara: As a startup, we definitely talk to as many people as possible. You want to talk to experienced entrepreneurs – what was your process, what did you go through – so you can get a sense of what you should be looking for or anticipating. We definitely want to talk to people in our industry, education and online communications, to get industry-relevant information. How things are done currently, how to position ourselves uniquely in the marketplace. We have reached out to our peer network as well as the professor network to provide us with specific tips. For example, the first time I did the corporate taxes for WeblishPal, I called up my accounting professor, and said I've filed my own personal taxes before, but I've never filed for a corporation. What do I need to do? He helped me file those taxes.

Q: What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

Barbara: Get started. Work with people who see your vision and want to help you out. There are a lot of resources out there. And if it's a matter of being too timid or afraid to jump into it, often you just have to push yourself and start working on it. The path will be clearer once you actually get going. The key is to get going.

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