(photo by Jimmy Lin)
Taiwanese brands and professionals want to go international. Foreign startup teams want to establish businesses in Taiwan. Unfortunately, starting a business in a foreign land can be challenging, with obstacles ranging from different languages, legal systems and cultures, to the availability of qualified staff. Each can be a headache for new entrepreneurs. Enter Startboard, an incubator that provides the guidance that startup teams need to achieve success, whether they are coming to Taiwan or aiming abroad.
When Startboard hosted a Singapore-themed evening as part of its “ASEAN-India Startups Nights” lecture program, industry figures and officials flocked to the event. Focused on Taiwanese and Singaporean venture capital, the evening’s speakers included Wu Pao-chun, a winner of the 2010 Bakery Masters competition, Eugene Chen, former head of the economics division of the Taipei Representative Office in the Republic of Singapore, Chou Shihen, one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30 Asia” influencers, and Ivy Hsieh, former market manager for Expedia and now head of business at Zuzu Hospitality Solutions, Taiwan.
The event’s main draw was the collective knowledge and experience on offer. Attendees were eager to absorb everything they could related to talent, teams, capital, operations, legal regimes, taxes, and cultural differences. They were also looking for tips on the practical side of running a business and on breaking into a foreign market.
The ongoing US‡China trade war has spurred a large increase in Taiwanese investment in Singapore, while also encouraging young Taiwanese to pursue their dreams in the city-state and Singaporean teams to investigate the tremendous potential of Taiwan’s innovative milieu. Startboard’s human resources expertise makes it a valuable resource for professionals looking to successfully enter either of these two markets.
“Talent is every company’s most important asset,” says Startboard’s 30-something CEO Uniform Lin, who founded Startboard four years ago to help ASEAN and Indian professionals establish businesses in Taiwan, and to help young Taiwanese startup teams move into the international space.
Building an incubator
Lin explains that he has an Indian friend who came to Taiwan a number of years ago to pursue a PhD in computer science at National Chiao Tung University. After completing the degree the friend, who had received a full scholarship for six years of study in Taiwan, wanted to start a business here, but didn’t know how to overcome the many obstacles involved.
Instead, he went to work for a Taiwanese semiconductor giant until an Australian university poached the by then highly paid white-collar worker two years later with a higher offer. In effect, Taiwan lost a professional it had spent six years cultivating because our startup environment couldn’t hold onto him in spite of his “Taiwan dream.”
If we are to retain talent, we have to make clear that establishing a startup in Taiwan is an option. Even more importantly, we have to be clear about what doing so entails. “That includes the costs and risks of starting a business in Taiwan,” says Lin.
Startboard’s Uniform Lin decided to establish a talent incubator after seeing top-tier professionals leave Taiwan. He has focused his attention on international students from ASEAN and India, helping them negotiate the difficult first steps to starting a business. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
While Taiwanese people can register a company within a day or two, it’s a very different story for foreign nationals. In the case of a Vietnamese team that Startboard advised, it first took the founder six months to make the decision to form a company, and it then took another six months to work through the startup visa process and the funding audit. That lag exposed him to more risk than a local entrepreneur. “Once he started the business, he brought his wife and family here too.”
Investing in Taiwan requires addressing several legally mandated requirements. “Even an investment of as little as NT$100,000 must undergo a funding audit.” Startboard maintains a clearinghouse of information in English and provides follow-on guidance and advice to help young startup teams navigate these hurdles.
“We tell them how to apply for a Taiwanese visa, how to establish a company, how to do financial accounting, how to file taxes, how to find space, how to connect to government resources, and how to find OEM and ODM firms.” Startboard has even put together an entrepreneur’s handbook that passes on their operational wisdom on everything from tax registration and incentives to labor law, managing intellectual property rights, fundraising channels, and coworking spaces.
More than an incubator
Startboard is an expert on business formation in Taiwan for ASEAN and Indian entrepreneurs. Exceptionally diligent about guiding the teams it works with, it puts itself in their shoes from the moment it takes them on. It anticipates the problems its foreign-passported clients are likely to encounter in Taiwan and even helps them network and drum up business.
When it worked with Vietnamese startup team Innoviz, the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Investment Commission deemed Innoviz’s funding, which came from Vietnam, to be foreign investment, and took five months to complete its funding audit. By the time the team finally received permission to form the company, its prospective clients had gone elsewhere. Lin wanted to help the venture succeed, so he accompanied them on sales calls until they finally landed a design project from the Taoyuan City Government.
“The project wasn’t worth much in financial terms, but it was of enormous value to Innoviz.” The following year, Innoviz’s revenues grew tenfold when it used the reputation acquired through the Taoyuan project to win business from PX Mart and the Taichung World Flora Expo. Now on a stable financial footing, Innoviz operates locations in both Taiwan and Vietnam.
Startboard client AImazing works in the financial technology space. Startboard not only helped the Singaporean‡Malaysian team establish the company and its intellectual property rights, but also took it to visit banking groups. “Taiwan’s regulatory sandbox for financial oversight was still a work in progress, so we took them to visit legislators and to meet with people from Microsoft. In the end, market considerations compelled them to develop their business in Singapore instead.”
Even though AImazing decamped for Singapore, it chose to maintain an R&D center in Taiwan, taking advantage of Taiwan’s information engineering and IT strength to continue to develop its point-of-sale (POS) device business here.
Led by Uniform Lin, Startboard has grown rapidly since its founding just a few years ago. The company is already Taiwan’s largest incubator for ASEAN and Indian talent. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Breaking down barriers
“Foreign entrepreneurs have trained up a lot of Taiwanese employees, have a deep fondness for Taiwan, and are fluent in Chinese,” says Lin, who over the last four years has met innumerable foreign teams who have great affection for Taiwan. For example, his Indian friend still constantly encourages friends and family to study in Taiwan, and recommends Startboard to would-be entrepreneurs that he meets. In fact, every team that Startboard has worked with has become a showcase for Startboard’s expertise.
Most foreign nationals seeking to start a business in Taiwan bring in a Taiwanese partner to smooth the process. Lin sees these entrepreneurs as a golden opportunity for Taiwan. “These people have spent time in Taiwan. They’ve studied here and lived here, and they can help Taiwanese brands expand their businesses.” Lin thinks that these ASEAN and Indian professionals can help Taiwanese small business owners who want to enter Southeast-Asian markets bridge linguistic and cultural barriers, which makes them very useful to startups.
“Nowadays, we aren’t just incubating teams. We’re also acting as a communicative bridge between people of different nations.” Lin’s Rolodex includes top-tier Thai and Indian talent, and he’s also recruited student ambassadors to promote Startboard’s ideas on university campuses. “Taiwan’s exchanges with India and ASEAN need to go beyond business cooperation: they need to incorporate a deeper understanding of cultural backgrounds, customs, and cultural attainments.”
He notes that there are currently some 60,000 Southeast Asian and Indian students studying in Taiwan. “Think about it. If even 5% of these 60,000 people are interested in remaining in Taiwan, that’s 3000 people. How many amazing stories can 3000 people create?” he asks, outlining a vision for a more internationally oriented Taiwanese startup culture and a more inclusive Taiwan that is accepted into the international community.