The startup scene in Taiwan has become more vibrant than ever in the past few years, with the government recognizing its potential to help Taiwan build another economic success after almost two decades. The emergence of government funded organizations like Taiwan Startup Stadium (TSS) and other local and foreign incubators are signs that more resources are devoted to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. Millennials have also caught the allure of building their own paths, and hundreds if not thousands of them began their own businesses, hoping to fulfill their own “Taiwanese Dreams.”
Among the numerous young startup founders is Arnold Chiang, the co-founder and CEO of Hahow, an education platform aiming to redefine knowledge exchange in Taiwan through the power of crowd-funded, high quality video content. How exactly does he plan to achieve that? It all began with the long-time frustration over the stagnant flow of knowledge and skills.
A rigid and stagnant education system
Chiang first realized how difficult it was to achieve cross-discipline learning when he was studying sociology at National Taiwan University. To him and many of his peers, their career paths had been determined when they were “forced” to choose between focusing on STEM or the humanities in the sophomore year of high school. The rigid education system deprived them of truly figuring out what they were passionate about until they were almost done with college education.
“During my college years, I suddenly realized many of my friends at the top schools all said they didn’t really know whether they liked their majors or not,” said Chiang. “Many of us chose majors simply because our entrance exam scores were high enough for that particular school’s major. And we may in fact end up doing something very different in the future, which means we would have wasted a lot of resources and time along the way.”
In order to make cross-discipline learning much easier, Chiang came up with the idea of building a platform to facilitate skill swapping. Matching users based on the skills they wanted to acquire not only helped users acquire the skills more easily, but also formed some invaluable friendships. Chiang began his first language exchange platform, OBEYO, with co-founder Huang and two other friends. It didn’t take long for their brilliant platform to be recognized and widely adopted by over 5,000 foreigners who were interested in language exchange in Taipei.
“We were able to match over 1,000 people through OBEYO after 6 months, with more than 12 languages listed on the platform,” said Chiang. “Many language centers at universities in Taipei all recommended the platform to their students.”
With the initial success from OBEYO, Chiang and his team began to build the real skill swapping platform, Skillhopping, which allowed users to register different skills they had and got to know people in other disciplines through the platform. With more than 3,000 skills registered on Skillhopping after the first three months, Chiang, Huang and two other friends began to really see the potential of facilitating better knowledge exchange through the power of internet. As a result, they decided to quit their full time jobs and began to focus solely on the platform. Little did they know, the challenging part was just about to begin.
“When we finally decided to start doing this full time, we suddenly realized that we never thought about a business model for the platform,” said Chiang laughingly. “We kept thinking how could we turn a community gathering different skills into a business. We thought about tutoring or freelancing, but then we remembered that many of our users from the past two platforms complained to us about the limited times and locations for trying to swap skills or do language exchange. So some of them brought up the idea of publishing videos on a platform, and that’s how we started Hahow.”
Chiang and his team soon realized how a platform hosting all kinds of videos teaching a wide range of skills could easily solve many of their users’ pains, who are even willing to pay for the content. After conducting some initial market research and confirming their hypothesis, they decided to make it Hahow’s business model and start building it.
Talent acquisition and fundraising
After three months of hard work, Hahow was officially launched in March 2015, but soon they were faced with the difficult tasks of acquiring talented individuals to upload teaching videos to Hahow and raising funds to sustain the company’s continuous operation. With limited fund for marketing purposes, Chiang and the team were forced to spend the most part of 2015 consolidating Hahow’s business model and the website’s infrastructure.
“Since no one had really heard of us, it was extremely hard for us to acquire quality content from talented individuals as well as students” said Chiang. “After using Skillhopping to persuade potential content creators, we were able to start making strides in 2016, which saw our revenue grow 40 times and our reputation slowly being established.”
Additionally, Hahow was able to sustain operation through a $1 million dollar grant from Taipei Municipal Government and over $10 million dollars of funding from Cherubic Ventures. However, according to Chiang, the fundraising process made him realize how tough it could be for early stage startups in Taiwan to raise enough funds to stay alive.
“There are very few VCs in Taiwan that are willing to invest in early stage startups, because most of them are hoping to invest in startups that already have business models,” said Chiang. “I realized that money could be a huge issue for most early stage startups in Taiwan, and we were very lucky to have met Matt and Tina from Cherubic Ventures.”
Improve knowledge exchange through technology
To Chiang, Hahow offers a platform for people who are willing to share their talents, and it also makes it easier for skills and knowledge to flow. Traditionally, Taiwan relies on private learning centers such as cram schools or book publishing to facilitate knowledge exchange and acquisition. However, the amount of revenue that content creators can make through these two routes often do not equal to the amount of efforts that they put in. On top of that, popular video publishing platforms like Youtube are not offering those who really want to acquire new skills through self-learning the right materials. This is when Hahow comes into the picture to fill the void left by these existing outlets.
“Hahow allows those who really wish to acquire new skills to learn from some of the most talented individuals at their own pace and a reasonable price,” said Chiang. “They can even hand in assignments and receive feedback from instructors. This differentiates the content on Hahow from Youtube videos and other existing materials. Our platform’s interaction is designed for the learners’ needs, while offering a healthy business models for content creators.”
Instead of paying content creators a small portion of the revenue generated through their content, which is the standard practice in Taiwan, Hahow returns 80% of the revenue back to the content creators, because it believes it can create an enormous incentive for acquiring more talented content creators in the long run. In other words, Hahow is challenging the existing ways of exchanging and spreading knowledge, and its ultimate goal is to make cross-discipline learning more accessible for everyone.
A business model for the international market from day one
Chiang believes that all Taiwanese startups needs to establish a business model for the international market from day one. Fortunately, he says Taiwanese startups have enough resources and support to leverage as they expand.
“TSS offered a lot of support, be it legal, public relations or business development,” said Chiang. “I think there are enough resources in the startup ecosystem in Taiwan, but I think so far we haven’t produced one startup in the mobile internet sector that can be considered internationally successful, and that to me can make some of the entrepreneurs question why haven’t any of us successfully broken into the international market. Is it the way we are educated or the hidden problems within the startup ecosystem?”
In order to first succeed and survive in Taiwan, Chiang encourages all startups to find the right business models before they start expanding. The old way of finding a business model through gaining traction has proved to be unsuccessful over the years, Chiang believes, because funding can burn out quickly during this process.
“Many people ask why Hahow did not start with building traction or getting sponsors; it’s because we have been determined to build something with a business model from the very beginning,” said Chiang. “We later found that this is in fact very healthy for a startup. In our case, content creators see how they can benefit from the 80% revenue return, and how we are determined not to easily let our revenue burn out. This gives them a huge incentive to produce high quality video content on our platform, and in return, the reputation and organic traffic gained from the content become natural branding assets for Hahow. This healthy business model really helps us establish a solid foundation for our brand.”
With its initial vision successfully fulfilled through the current model, Hahow plans to spend the rest of 2017 consolidating their foundation by acquiring more talented content creators and helping them to gain wider recognition.
“We are happy to see how the power of creation and technology is able to help more people become happy because of learning, which is exactly what we want to achieve in the first place,” said Chiang. “It shows that what Hahow wants to do has a huge potential, and our current model might only be one way of facilitating better knowledge exchange. We plan to start looking into new ways of spreading knowledge and where can be our next market.”
Hahow may have achieved something that many Taiwanese startups are still chasing after, but they certainly don’t plan to stop growing here. Chiang said that once they have accumulated more quality content on the platform and thoroughly established the business model in Taiwan, they hope to carry it over to other parts of Asia and the world, and eventually facilitate more meaningful knowledge exchange at a larger scale.
(Feature photo of the Hahow team, provided by Hahow)