How Dan Nivern and Ed Holroyd Pearce transformed the gap year

Dan Nivern & Ed Holroyd Pearce
Dan Nivern and Ed Holroyd Pearce made gap years more constructive

With record numbers of students carrying on to higher education, getting the obligatory 2:1 at university, or even a Masters degree, won’t cut it in the job market any more. With more and more competition out there, work experience and internships are becoming de-facto requirements for many of the top graduate jobs and training schemes. It’s a trend that inspired Ed Holroyd Pearce, 33, and Dan Nivern, 34, to set up in business together.

The pair met as postgraduate students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. They realised that students wanted to spend their gap years doing something more constructive than backpacking, and more business-focused than working for a charity and set out to meet that need.

They decided that it would make sense to offer a broad range of services in the first instance. As a result, they founded two companies: China Consulting and China Recruitment. The companies offered internships, Chinese language lessons for students (Nivern had previously taught English to Chinese businessmen), and more traditional consulting services.

To keep costs low, they started out “humbly” from their flat in London, which meant they could channel all their revenue into growth. By 2008 they realised the internship business had far more potential than their other ideas.

The two firms were folded into CRCC Asia, helped by an external investor. The change of focus was a major success, with growth accelerating rapidly. CRCC Asia’s big breakthrough came in 2012, when it won a contract with the British Council to manage the Generation UK scheme, a series of short-term placements with Chinese firms, which began in 2013. It also now targets students and universities in other countries, especially in America. It now has offices in 11 countries and a turnover of around £4m.

How do they stay on top of it all? By working “really hard” – the differing rules surrounding labour laws and immigration are a particular challenge. But it’s not just legal formalities that can cause difficulties for both students and companies. Cultural differences can still be an issue. The duo note that many Westerners tend to be “overconfident” and unprepared for a Chinese culture that values deference and respect for authority.

For their part, firms occasionally need to be gently prompted by CRCC into giving interns enough work to do – vital for ensuring the placement is a constructive experience. The good news is that this “cultural gap” is closing, with firms more open to Western interns and students more open to China. In any case, clients on both sides of CRCC’s internships report high levels of satisfaction.

Pearce and Nivern advise potential entrepreneurs who are just starting out to “keep costs as low as possible, so you can reinvest more money into your start-up”. They also stress the importance of sticking to one, or at most a few, ideas. “Lots of business ideas land in our inboxes,” but they have only made a handful of investments – “we wouldn’t remain in business if we kept chopping and changing.” Opportunities that have excited them enough to invest in include travel company The Dragon Trip, language teaching site Lingos, and law careers advice site The Student Lawyer.