Chris Lin's light bulb moment happened about three years ago in the children's section of a Southeast Michigan Borders store. He'd gone there looking for books that would help him teach Chinese to his adopted daughter, Mandy. "There were about 160 Spanish books, and only three Chinese books," Lin explains. And none of them presented Chinese in a way that was accessible to children.
Lin, determined to provide Mandy with a better option, decided to write his own book. He shared it with family and friends and soon won a small following. Before long, Lin realized that he had a business venture that might just have wings.
Called Mandy & Pandy, the series of books and accompanying CDs introduces preschoolers and grade-schoolers to the basics of Chinese language, including phonetic pronunciation and character recognition. The first in the series, Ni Hao Ma, won the 2007 iParenting Media Award for "Outstanding Products Call".
Three other books followed and two more are in the works, along with a television show in development with China's largest television network, CCTV, and Los Angeles-based PorchLight Entertainment. The show is scheduled to air in 2011.
With projected revenue of about $10 million by 2013 and increasing interest in cross-cultural learning, Lin is hoping to make his Ann Arbor office the site of a growing edutainment enterprise. The aim, Lin says, is to make Mandy and Pandy as well known as Nickelodeon's show, Ni Hao Kai Lan, a children's introduction to Mandarin Chinese that has become a marketing powerhouse for its creators. "The best marketer of this [material] out there is Nickelodeon right now," Lin explains. "And we're riding that wave somewhat to success."
Five years ago, Lin wouldn't have suspected he'd be heading up a children's book company. The Troy native earned an economics degree and MBA from University of Michigan and worked in fast-track marketing jobs at Ford Motor Co. (at one point serving as its marketing director in China) and General Motors, and as a senior consultant at Deloitte Consulting. "I was working in traditional, well-paid MBA jobs," Lin says.
But the fast track was taking its toll. Four years ago Lin and his wife adopted Mandy from China. His travel and work schedule meant lots of time away from home and left him exhausted on the weekends he shared with his family. By the time he walked into the Borders store looking for Chinese books for Mandy, he was ready to make a change.
Lin's first investor was his mother, who gave him $5,000 to produce his first book, a critical boost. Each book takes about six months to write, illustrate, translate, and produce. Last year, Mandy & Pandy's revenue was just $10,000.
"We've definitely had our share of hard times," says Lin. But the startup is making its way towards something big. Persistence has helped. Two years ago, Lin secured space for Mandy & Pandy books on Borders shelves; a deal with Barnes & Noble soon followed. "They agreed to carry our books in their top markets," he explains.
According to Lin, revenue is expected to reach nearly $150,000 for 2009 with exponential growth from there, in no small part to the hiring of children's publishing veteran Byron Parnell in January. Parnell, a sales executive from multicultural publishing powerhouse Kane/Miller, had the distribution connections critical to getting Mandy & Pandy on more bookshelves across the nation.
If book orders were discussed in the tens of thousands before, now they are talked about in the hundreds of thousands, says Lin. Mandy & Pandy has now secured $500,000 worth of orders from buyers. "It's been a quantum leap," Lin says.
And the company's success hasn't gone unnoticed. Ann Arbor Spark, an economic development group, in October granted Lin's company with $244,000 in matching funds. It's one of the first "media-type companies" the group has invested in, says Elizabeth Parkinson, director of marketing and communications for Ann Arbor Spark. But, the group's "sweet spot" is innovation, and Mandy & Pandy fits well within that description, she offers.
The investment from Spark was a "big boost," Lin adds, at precisely the right time. He had met representatives from Los Angeles-based PorchLight Entertainment at a book expo. In March a co-development agreement was formed between PorchLight and CCTV Animation, a subsidiary of the Chinese network, to bring Mandy & Pandy to TV screens around the globe in 2011.
Called Snap! Let's Go!, the show follows the adventures of a Chinese girl named Mandy and a "Western" boy named Matt. Along with their Panda friend and a dragon named Snap, they learn about each other's language and culture. The show will teach Chinese children English, but is designed to be reformatted to teach Chinese to English-speaking children in North America and possibly around the world. It marks the first collaboration of a TV animation series between CCTV and a North American production company. Lin will serve as the show's executive producer.
"CCTV has the largest children's audience of any broadcaster worldwide and has shown exceptional quality in their animated programming," explains Bruce Johnson, president and CEO of PorchLight in a March statement. "With international interest in China roused during the Summer Olympics, the timing is perfect for this type of show."
Still, Lin is intent on building his audience for the Mandy & Pandy books. Two more books, A Visit to the Zoo and The Colors of the Lake, are expected out by the Chinese New Year in February, he says. He's also building an interactive community on Mandy & Pandy's website, including blogs aimed at getting parents more involved in teaching their kids Chinese, and book discussion groups.
Lin says his startup earned its stripes its first two years in business, but finally seems to have hit its tipping point. Now, he boasts, the sky is the limit.
Michelle Martinez is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. Her previous article for Concentrate was Density Talks: Ann Arbor Should Listen. Feel free to send feedback here.
Chris Lin is not on the Gong Show-Ann Arbor
Mandy & Pandy
Chris Lin's Mugshot-Ann Arbor
Chris Lin at his Office-Ann Arbor
Chris Lin's Inspiration-Ann Arbor
Chris Lin Has Been Know to Indulge in a Cigar-Ann Arbor
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He would love to visit the Three Gorges Dam.