Taiwan as an internet startup location

Taipei 101 Skyscraper - After Raining

For the past one and a half years I have had the pleasure of residing in Taiwan, one of Asia’s most exciting, innovative, and lovable countries. There’s one question I always like to ask myself when I arrive in a new country: “Is the entrepreneurial spirit alive in this place?”. Here in Taiwan, it most certainly is. In this post I will discuss Taiwan’s uniqueness within the global economy, and it’s strengths and weaknesses as a internet startup location. Please keep in mind that I am writing this from the perspective of an internet entrepreneur.

At the end of 2009 I found myself in Japan, after having lived in Indonesia for the previous two years. All the while I was, and continue to, conceptualize and build web and mobile products as CEO of Conceptuous. (As a side note, Indonesia is a viable startup location in its own right, and I aim to write a separate post discussing why soon). Whilst in Japan there seemed to be one common question which I was asked by both Japanese and traveling foreigners, and it was, “Have you been to Taiwan?”. My answer at that point was a surprising, “No, I haven’t. Why?”. The answers I received were almost always a variation of the following:

“Taiwan’s culture is alive and thriving!”
“Taiwan has the best food in Asia!”
“Taiwanese people are so friendly!”

I understand that none of the above have anything to do with internet entrepreneurship or innovation. I just thought I’d mention some of the things that lured me here to Taiwan in the first place.

It wasn’t long until I had booked my ticket from Tokyo to Taipei. Flight time was 3 hours, during which I read as much as I could of the Taiwan edition of Lonely Planet. It soon became clear how little I knew about this small island. I won’t use this post to write about Taiwan’s history, and so I highly recommend taking a read of the History of Taiwan on Wikipedia.

Taiwan’s economy is stable and thriving. It’s foreign reserves are the fourth largest in the world. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2010/2011 lists Taiwan as the 13th most competitive country in the world. My own country, Australia, is ranked 16th, whilst China is 27th. In its Global Technology Readiness Report for 2010/2011, the World Economic Forum ranks Taiwan as 6th in the world, describing it as:

“…an international innovation powerhouse. Its patent office is one of the world’s busiest—in 2009 alone, it processed over 78,000 patent applications. That represents a record 3,392 applications per million population, far more than 2nd- and 3rd ranked Korea (2,611) and Japan (2,315)”

In my mind, that is a pretty incredible statistic for a nation of only 23 million people.

In previous years Taiwan’s innovation has been predominately in areas such as information technology, electronics, and hardware, and it has excelled and succeeded in those areas. However, as Taiwan finds itself in the early stages of a transition from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a service-oriented economy (a situation which the majority of the world’s developed countries have also found themselves in), Taiwan’s innovation prowess has begun to cross-pollinate into internet and software.

Taiwan’s population is highly educated, with a 96% literacy rate. I’m not going to research into higher education statistics in detail or list them here, because I don’t believe these are a measure of innovation ability. If you want to take a look at this yourself, you’ll find that Taiwan ranks 5th in the world for tertiary enrollment.

I could sit here and list statistics for you all day, but they really do get pushed aside once you head out and try to start a company. Your entrepreneurial DNA takes over, and the passion for your idea consumes you, as you set out to achieve what others have not yet achieved.

For the past year and a half I have become more and more convinced that Taiwan is one of the most unique and viable locations for an internet startup, not because of the statistics that I listed above (which I actually only stumbled upon a month ago), but because of what’s actually happening here on the ground here in Taiwan. Enterpreneurs, and investors alike, are beginning to understand Taiwan’s unique position in the global economy. As Volker Heistermann mentions on Quora, “Taiwan is ideally placed to be a bridge between mainland China and the West”. It is this fact which makes Taiwan so unique. There is no other country on the planet with such strong business and cultural ties to China, and there is no other group of people (except of course for the Chinese themselves) who understand the landscape of the Chinese internet and business market. Let me tell you why:

  • The official language of both Taiwan and China is Mandarin
  • Some historians state that Taiwan’s culture more closely resembles traditional Chinese culture than China itself
  • Many large Chinese corporations are headed by Taiwanese executives
  • Taiwan has been investing in mainland China for decades
  • Cross-strait relations within the political arena are of course still volatile, however in the business arena they are stable and thriving!

On a recent trip to Shanghai in June, I was surprised and interested to see the number of Taiwanese doing business in China. Not only ‘doing’ business, but ‘excelling’ in business.

But what about venture capital in Taiwan?

From my experience so far here in Taiwan, after attending the demo days and startup meetups, I have to say that venture capital is here, and it is hungry and eager to invest. Startup incubators such as AppWorks have sprung up to nurture young talent, and Asia-based VC firms such as CyberAgent Ventures are opening offices in Taiwan for early stage investment in internet startups.

But it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. If Taiwan seriously wants to work toward establishing itself as an internet innovation hub, it needs to improve upon a few things. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I don’t like to harp on weaknesses. However, I am critical of Taiwan in a few areas:

  • Creativity is something which is nurtured over time. Taiwan’s education system is opening up and becoming more creative, however a tendency toward rote-learning, and an absence of the teaching of abstract thinking skills does not allow the optimal creative environment for ideas
  • If I could say one thing to internet founders in Taiwan it would be this: “Don’t be afraid to think big!”. The reason I say this is because a lot of the internet startups that I have come across are almost too localized, or are attempting to bring a successful startup idea from the West and reskin it for the Taiwanese market. I wrote a post about this a few years ago, titled “Killer apps versus Killer clones“.
  • Existing startup incubators need to put more emphasis on product presentation. Of the startup demo and presentation days I have attended both in Taiwan and China, there is a common theme in almost all of the presentations, and that is a focus on “quantity” rather than “quality”. Far too often I see startup founders talking nonstop, flipping through Powerpoint slides which are saturated in text, metrics, and statistics. At the end of the presentation, the speakers or judges will shake their heads and ask one simple question: “What is your product, and what problem are you solving?”. Less is more! Always! Keep it short and simple – KISS

It feels to me like there is a buzz beginning to form in the air here in Taiwan, almost a collective realisation of the immense potential this country has to succeed within the internet startup sphere both in China and the rest of the world, and I have to admit, I’m proud to be a part of it.

Stay tuned for my second startup endeavor, which we’ll be launching to the world later this year from here in Taiwan. You’re gonna love it 🙂


  1. Hey Scott,

    I came across this post by the way of James Hill. I haven’t been home to Taiwan in several years, but my family is all there. I want to move home, but I am building a career foundation and skills in the US first. This post invigorated a desire to return home and work in the geospatial startup realm.

    I graduated from college in the US, and I’m currently working in Pasadena, CA in the GIS field. Originally, I am from Japan and Taiwan. I work with ArcGIS and currently learning Python. I have my eyes set on mobile and web map services as well as Location Based Services.

    Do you know any startup incubators in Taiwan or companies that are proficient in those areas? I’m very new to this field, so I am not looking to create a company just yet. Ideally, I’d love to work for a young company, or an incubator where I can flex language skills, develop back and front end code skills, and still stay in the geospatial realm (basically make maps).

    I am open to public or private, hardware or software, and definitely keen on internet startups. Any advice is welcome, and I would be more than happy to discuss more in depth.


    • Hiroshi,

      You might try http://www.brytonsport.com
      My former startup.

    • Hi Hiroshi,

      I’m happy to hear that this post generated some nostalgia for your home country 🙂 There’s a bunch of startups here doing LBS with coupons and deals. Are you planning on coming back to Taiwan any time soon? There’s an IDEAS startup exhibition on July 27th which might interest you: http://ideashow.web20.org.tw/


      • Hi Scott,

        I did see that. My visa is still valid then, so I’ll still be working in LA. I am going to attend Hack API to keep learning coding and meet new ppl to collaborate with.

        Thank you for the lead to IDEAS show.


    • Hello Hiroshi,

      It is encouraging to learn someone working on scientific/engineering problems using Python and considering moving to Taiwan. I will soon finish my degree in Columbus, OH and go back to Taiwan to start a career. It is exciting to go back to home country and work on something that could change the world and personal life.

      I am pretty confident that there is not a lack of talents in Taiwan. There are quite a few enthusiastic and competent Python programmers. It is my belief that Taiwan Python community will be boosted in the following years.

      Although starting a business is a very long-term goal for me, I can’t agree more on Scott’s analysis about the location and culture strengths that Taiwan has. If one does not bind him/her to the local market, there’s a good potential to do business in various places of East Asia as well as America. It may take time, but the reward will be significant.


  2. Tim

    Nice blog. Thanks for posting.

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