In recent years, Taiwan’s startup scene has been growing rapidly, with many ambitious and creative people forming teams to give a go at building interesting products and companies. Along with this trend, a number of initiatives have also began providing advice and resources for these new startups. One such initiative is the Taiwan Startup Stadium (TSS), a government supported accelerator targeting digital tech startups in Taiwan.

I had the pleasure to interview Anita Huang, the head of TSS in early December. She excitedly cleared up many questions that came into my mind when I started to notice TSS half a year ago.

What TSS does is a bit unusual as an accelerator. First, their acceleration effort lasts for an entire year, contrary to most session-based accelerators. Though they do plan to launch short-term boot camp programs, most of the resources are going into building an all-year-round system that provide numerous workshops, talks, and office hours.

Secondly, what is even more unusual about TSS is that they prepare you for other accelerators, as opposed to many other accelerators who discourage re-entries of accelerators. This is their unique mission statement: put Taiwanese startups on the world map. In their “Accelerator Bootcamp Program”, they prepare startup teams for the application process of top-tier accelerators in Silicon Valley and other places. They help refine their pitch, run mock interviews, and fill them in with all essential entrepreneurial English capabilities. The top-tier accelerators they partnered up with include Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and TechStars.

”No other governments did such thing when we started to cold call accelerators out of blue. To our surprise, they are quite interested in the proposal.“ Huang said.

The way Huang describes this unique mission statement comes from a standpoint of market segmentation. Within the startup ecosystem in Taiwan, one finds numerous accelerators and incubators. OneYou can also find consulting firms helping startups in many ways, such as helping with crowdfunding campaigns. However, the common struggle, as Huang noted, is internationalization. Huang thinks that this is where TSS can contribute the most, leveraging the vast connections of her team and the government.

In my opinion, the startup life cycle is like a funnel. In order to successfully exit (become a public company or be acquired), a startup needs to go through different phases throughout its life cycle. Each phase involves its own challenges and requires various resources to overcome.

So the question becomes that, is the difficulty in internationalization the cause of a significant drop in the funnel? In other words, do many startups fail and close up shop, because they cannot find an international presence outside of Taiwan? There are indeed few instances in the recent past that indirectly indicate such need. Gogolook, a maker of caller recognition mobile apps, had 600 millions users and was “married low“ to Naver, the Korean Internet giant, at the reported acquisition price of US$17.6 millions. Another instance,the Chinese startup Dianhuabang acquired Taiwan’s Storysense for US$10 million. Had these two startups received resources to help getting larger overseas market share, they could arguably sell at a better price or did not have to sell at all.

Thirdly, TSS takes no equity from the startups that participate in their programs and events. TSS is a non-profit organization backed by the Taiwanese government, specifically the National Development Council (NDC). It is one of the three strategies under the project HeadStart initiated by the NDC. The other two strategies are deregulation, to align Taiwan’s regulatory environment with international standards, and the Global Fund Attraction, to attract foreign venture capital for early-stage investment and international connections. The NDC secured US$100 million in total for investing in Taiwanese startups, including US$83 million in foreign venture funds that invest in Taiwan startups (As a comparison, the famous Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz launched in 2009 with US$300 million). US$100 millions may seem relatively small but so far it is  one of the biggest venture capital funds in Taiwan.

When it comes to the Taiwanese startup ecosystem, one problem that has been widely recognized is the lack of mentorship. With the success of high technology companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in ‘80s, one would think that Taiwan is a talent pool full of founders. However, the reality is that Taiwan has so far not seen as many successful Internet entrepreneurs as in the semiconductor’s golden age.

Therefore just as entrepreneurs struggle, TSS also struggled to find mentors in the Internet industry as well. Even so, I am delightedly surprised to see the quantity and quality of mentors TSS provides. As Huang noted, most of the founders in Taiwan come from a technical background. Mentorship is especially pivotal to them, since mentors provide the business development insights that the technical founders lack. Vertical and domain expertise are taken into account when TSS matches founders with mentors. Mentorships come in three forms: 1-on-1 mentorships, office hours, and experience sharing workshops. One example of 1-on-1 mentorships is that GMobi, a global provider of mobile Internet services, is matched with Phone Doctor Plus, a phone hardware examiner app and helps Phone Doctor Plus to take on the smartphone second-hand market.

Finally, I asked about the number of startups that TSS aims to serve. The startup quantity problem resembles the mentor problem; the nascent Taiwan startup community might still be short of qualified startups for TSS to promote or train. Huang said that they currently target roughly 150 startups founded by Taiwanese in either Taiwan or any corner in the world and out of 150 startups, 65 of them have participated in TSS events, which shows a high penetration rate. It is quite a milestone considering that TSS just started less than a year ago.

The business of accelerators may take up to a decade or more to see return in investment due to the long lifecycle of startups. I believe that TSS has a good jumpstart and the right angle to take on the extremely hard problem.

“Our team is mostly aspiration-driven,” said Huang. “We have the talents. …and I refused to see that it goes in vain.”

(Feature photo of Taiwan Startup Stadium and its first graduating class, from startupstadium.tw)

 

Wen Shaw

Wen Shaw works as a growth hacker at Touch Of Modern in San Francisco. He loves startups, music, movies and camping. Contact him at wenhsiang.shaw[at]gmail.com.

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