CRCC Asia – from £500 start-up to £3.5m international success story

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Ed Holroyd Pearce and Dan Nivern CRCC Asia

Founded with just £250 each from its young founders, CRCC Asia – an internships and study-abroad business – is set to turn over £3.5m this year. They reveal how their idea to link UK businesses and students with opportunities in China blossomed

Ed Holroyd Pearce My interest in China began when I bought myself a teach-yourself-Chinese textbook aged about 13. After I finished my undergrad at Cambridge, I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London, and also worked part-time for a Chinese airline.

Dan Nivern I did French and German at Oxford but then, having spent a year in Alsace and in Freiburg, heard about a teaching position at the university in Hebei province [northern China]. I went to China with no Mandarin, spent six months there and organised a summer school. Then I came back to the UK to do my master’s and met Ed on Soas’s International Management for China course.

Ed Holroyd Pearce As the downturn began in the West, China was hitting the headlines for fast economic growth. Our potential clients asked themselves: ‘Where are these opportunities? There’s cool stuff going on in China.’

Dan Nivern We realised that a lot of young, ambitious people in the West wanted to get corporate experience in China, and it was – and still is – quite difficult to do on your own. We thought it’d be great to offer exposure to the finance, legal, marketing and engineering sectors to young people who want to go into those professions.

Ed Holroyd Pearce They’re getting sector-specific experiences in transferable skills, similar to what they could be getting in the UK or Europe but it’s in a country which is more challenging. They tend to make great contacts on our programme too. We have up to 2,000 students a year from more than 150 countries. I’d encapsulate the benefits our clients reap from our programmes with the phrase ‘international confidence’. Almost 90 per cent of students and graduates who sign up with CRCC Asia clinch graduate-level jobs within three months of returning home.

Dan Nivern [When we started out in 2006], it was important to be dedicated and stick to the working hours commitment. A lot of failed start-up stories involve people trying to do it alongside a job. I don’t think that works unless you’ve got both the best idea in the world and the easiest day job in the world.

Ed Holroyd Pearce We put in £250 each. We’d alternate between working in my flat in Maida Vale for a month and Ed’s in Waterloo for a month, so that we didn’t bother our flatmates too much. We bought business cards for £50, spent about £30 on getting a student to do a logo for us and paid another £50 for the website. We’d cold-call magazines and newspapers ourselves.

Dan Nivern Just before the 2008 Olympics, I moved to China and set up our Beijing and Shanghai offices. Ed, during this time, was based in London and helped to grow our offices in San Francisco and Pennsylvania and built the systems for the sales and marketing side. Then, about three years ago, we did a bit of a switchover – I moved to San Francisco and started working with the US and Australian teams…

Ed Holroyd Pearce …and I started overseeing the Chinese offices, mainly from London but doing a lot of travel. It’s good that we have live chat on our website… Whatever time of day, someone from our organisation will be on duty. I front-load my working day so that I first check through emails from colleagues in China, and get them on Skype; then I can check up on UK-based things; by late afternoon – the last hour or so – Dan comes online from San Francisco.

Dan Nivern Saturday is the only day that’s free for me. Friday lunchtime onwards is bliss – there’s no one else around anywhere in the world – but Sunday evening sucks.

Ed Holroyd Pearce We’re now running a scheme with the British Council in Shanghai – the China Disability Scholarship Programme. We’re really pleased about the increase in funding scholarships over paid-for programmes. Cathay Pacific covers the flights, which we’re very grateful for. We waive the programme fee totally, and the British Council covers the living allowance. We also have our own internal scholarship programme.

Dan Nivern We’ve been approached by a couple of other organisations, one of which – a US company that does internships globally – would love to do a merger with us. Also, we’ve built our own portfolio of investments, investing in younger entrepreneurs who are building companies, normally related to China.

Ed Holroyd Pearce Working together for so long, we’ve learnt which battles to pick. Underneath it all is total trust.

Dan Nivern There are ups and downs in marriages, and it’s the same in a business partnership. It needs mutual trust and respect. We’re quite compatible.   

CRCC Asia vital stats

Founded 2006

HQ Bishopsgate, London

Staff 60 personnel in 11 global offices

Client list Google, Santander, the Cabinet Office, Bloomberg, EY and Tesco, among others

Awards Entrepreneur of the Year at the British Business Awards; Cathay Pacific’s China Business Award

Turnover £3.5m-plus projected for this year, up from £2.6m in 2013 and £2.9m in 2014

Investments Through its Entrepreneurship Fund, CRCC Asia offers £10,000 investment and other resources to China-related businesses

Twitter @crccasia

Ed Holroyd Pearce is a member of IoD London

To find out more about the company, visit crccasia.com

About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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