Taiwanese tech start-ups open to new ideas
Taiwanese hi-tech firms have profited for decades filling orders for Silicon Valley in the United States, becoming a crucial link in the global supply chain. But as competition mounts from the mainland, the industry is scrambling to come up with its own products instead of just making them for big names overseas.
Taiwan's Acer and HTC are now branding laptops, tablets and smartphones to rival Apple, Dell and HP, while government-funded research institutes have shifted priorities from hardware to software, a weak spot in Taiwan's homegrown PC designs. The institutes licence those discoveries to local PC makers.
Despite these developments, two Taiwanese men, Jimmy Chen, 32, and Justin Hsiao, 32, and their American business partner Ryan Carag, 33, still see the core problem as a lack of creativity on the island. They say stifled innovation stops a technology industry worth tens of billions of US dollars from becoming a Silicon Valley-style hotbed of ideas.
Taiwanese technology firms are usually run top-down, with little communication from cubicle to cubicle, they argue, so even the brainiest engineers tend to follow orders instead of making suggestions.
Last year the three partners founded Genie Capital in Taipei. The start-up, financed by its partners and an angel investor, has released the 'Gulu.com' platform and two related mobile device apps, Me Too and Dare Mission. The mobile apps match people who want to go to the same kind of restaurant or see the same film at the same time.
Genie's partners concede they have not made money yet, as the company is still young. But there is no lack of ideas on the staff of 18, all but three of whom are Taiwanese.
Hsiao and Carag explain how they rewrote the rules. How would you describe Genie Capital's management philosophy?
Carag: We try to just basically set directions. We try not to be too rigid. That gives [employees] more room to be creative. Ideas win here. If an idea is sound we will act on it. In another company, it's more hierarchical.
Hsiao: It's a matter of easy communication and easier co-ordination. People just talk all the time. We encourage real-life interactions, but not online separate worlds. I think for a local company, they're just not open to that. They're more used to the traditional way of doing things.
Where did you get those ideas?
Carag: I worked at a more traditional software company, and Jimmy worked at Bank of America, so we both have corporate backgrounds. We all have had our experience with more corporate styles. We've all seen what's possible doing it this way versus that way.
What features of your office encourage creativity?
Carag: Every wall in this office is writable. We use that for impromptu meetings, for hashing out an idea you just came up with or clarifying ideas that are going to get built right then. We also do what we call a regular town hall on Fridays, where the company will get together and show off what we've built that week. If someone finds there's a particular speech they find compelling we might show that for inspiration or edification of new technologies out there, and then we just openly talk.
What kind of music do the staff listen to while working?
Carag: Whoever gets to the radio jack first with their iPod will win. People generally like pop music here or hip hop music.
Why do you let two dogs hang out?
Carag: They're like mascots. When they're here people are pretty cheery. It adds more informality to the office.
You've said employees can openly oppose your ideas. Can you give an example?
Hsiao: We actually built a whole site in PHP, one of the programming languages. There were a lot of reasons behind that choice. One of our new recruits here, just about a week on board, he came up to me with some material on why we should use [the programming language] Python to develop the site.
We were probably three to four months into the process and almost ready to roll out first set of features, about to go public based on PHP. He showed me some interesting stats on how inefficient our original system was. I took that advice and did a lot of re-evaluation. It turned out he was right. It wasn't very pleasant, put it that way. Eventually we decided to go for this new system.
How do you persuade potential employees to accept a job that goes against conventions?
Carag: When we started recruiting, one of the challenges we had was convincing new grads to come work for a small start-up. If you're in the Silicon Valley, there's a sort of heroism about working in a start-up, but here in Taipei not so much. People here value a corporate name, a steady salary, a high salary more than the risk of working for start-up. One thing we had to do to get people to believe in us was to build this office.
How can you see actual results of the open office culture?
Hsiao: It's more how [the platform] Gulu turned out to be. I think this idea came around in summer last year from one of the interns, about searching for food. The whole product that turned out where it is today is based on the management style and how we encourage people. This whole big approach was collected from a lot of the good ideas that came from the employees.
Are Genie Capital's pay and benefits comparable to bigger firms?
Hsiao: We are higher than the average. Most of the guys here know too that it's really a matter of whether the product is going be a hit, and obviously the profit sharing will come after that.
How do you vet people during job interviews?
Carag: We've had candidates who are amazing coders, like really brilliant, but they wouldn't fit. We give candidates a personality test. But it's easier for us to just talk to them. One of the main things we ask them is: do you have a hobby and how passionate are you about that hobby? We hire three out of every 1,000 applicants.
Who else is following your model in Taiwan?
Carag: I was at a conference in Hong Kong, and there were other Taipei start-ups there. There was one guy I hadn't met before, but everyone else I had. [The field] is still very, very small. If people want to see us an example, that's great, but I think we need to reach a certain level of success to be called a poster boy.
The number of industrial parks in Taiwan. They house hundreds of hi-tech companies