Business model

The first person to put this question in front of me was my friend Pearly, who works as financial advisor in Hong Kong. I was talking to her about the website, and she very naturally asked: “What’s your business model.” I was a bit embarrassed at the time that I didn’t have an answer. The second time was during my interview with Jean-Michel Billaut when, again, the question hit me: “How do you make money from that?”.

We’ve thought about it, of course. But for some reason, I kept pushing it away, finding it irrelevant. Yet if people are asking, I should give them an answer. So I started looking at ‘business models’. As a former arts student, an educator, and a writer, I always find ‘business’ talk alienating at first – until I discover it’s only new labels on standard ideas and concepts. As a translator, I would know that people have different languages, and it’s a good thing if you can speak more than one. So ‘business models’ are simply proposals about the way that an organisation will access resources and derive revenue from its activities. I can handle that.

I looked around, and I found about something called a ‘community model’ – wikipedia would be the best example on the web. In an organisation running on a ‘community model’, monetary transactions are kept at a minimum; most of the tasks are done on a voluntary basis, for intrinsic reasons, symbolic rewards, or because participants derive a direct benefit from working with the community.

That’s how we’ve been running so far, and that’s how we plan to run in the future. The Marco Polo Project is a very cheap organisation to run. We built our website, systems, database and community so far on 3,000 dollars, although the project also received a considerable amount of support – as work-hours, advice and publicity mostly – for a value much higher than this. Our only monetary needs are to pay for web hosting and government fees, less than $500 a year. So we could keep the Marco Polo Project running on a yearly budget equivalent to the price of an i-pad.

Now that is not entirely true. To reach a critical mass of users, and keep our existing community satisfied, we need new features on the website – multiple languages, better searching and sorting, a personalised user page, mobile compatibility – and this in turn will require more design and programming, which will have a cost. On a more ongoing basis, we need to keep editorial standards, both for choice of texts and translation quality control, and someone has to keep the structure together – making sure bills are paid, newsletters are sent and mailing lists are updated. But even then, the platform could be successful on a skeleton team of paid part-timers and interns working flexible hours with no set office. And it’s not impossible that we could raise enough money for such a team through donations, grants and sponsorships.

So that’s our business model: we won’t ‘make money’, that’s not our purpose. We design and develop a free tool for people to practice Mandarin and learn about China; we pick, sort and label a selection of quality Chinese writing; we maintain and engage a virtual community of translators and language learners. We bring together people across languages. It’s not expensive. We’re looking for grants and sponsors. We’re looking for more volunteers. And we take donations. Can you help?

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