Anthony, from the USA, is a seasoned entrepreneur. He has been living in Taiwan for the past couple of years, and has in this relatively short period of time developed his own coaching business. The service his business offers is directly related to the consulting work he has been undertaking over the past couple of years in Taiwan: coaching students intending to apply to a high school, university or grad school for further education in the USA, and assisting them with their admission. Anthony initially began providing coaching admission services to potential students in Taiwan after hearing about the bad experience of his acquaintance, who had used an expensive – but ultimately ineffective – existing Taiwan-based coaching admission service. This acquaintance was Anthony’s first customer.

Business structure: Anthony has teamed up with a Taiwanese partner and investor. He did not actively seek a partner or investor. He was approached after a Mainland Chinese company – offering similar coaching admission services – attempted to extend their reach into Taiwan. Anthony’s Taiwan-based company can add credibility to the Mainland Chinese ‘sister’ company, as Taiwanese traditionally send more people to the U.S. than their Chinese counterparts. In turn, the Mainland Chinese company can assist Anthony’s company with marketing (for instance, by creating a website).

Anthony’s general perception – and what he sees as the general perception of the foreign community in Taiwan – is that it is complicated to start a business in Taiwan. And that there is much confusion related to starting a business in Taiwan. Confusion relates to various issues, such as requirements pertaining to start up capital and Taiwanese partners. This is in contrast to the U.S., where starting a business is straightforward and much more standardized. Anthony has relied on his Taiwanese partner, his wife, and his father-in-law to deal with business registration issues, visa issues, and so forth: “[Such issues] are ‘behind the curtain.'”

On the language issue:  the perception amongst the foreign community is that one needs to be able to speak Chinese to start a business in Taiwan. Anthony somewhat refutes this perception. In his particular niche (well educated, English-speaking, middle and upper-class Taiwanese students and their families), Anthony uses mainly English in his business dealings. “[The need to speak Chinese] depends upon the type of business.” In fact, by using English – almost exclusively – in his communications and contracts, Anthony is able to define his niche and his brand, and differentiate himself from the competition. Anthony advises foreigners intending to start a business in Taiwan to take control in developing their brand. He advises budding entrepreneurs to ask themselves the following: “What do you stand for? What is your differentiation?”

On challenges along the way: when asked about the difficulties faced in starting a business in Taiwan, Anthony mentioned the following:

  1. Finding a good accountant who speaks English;
  2. The variety (and seemingly ad hoc) payment methods of his clients. In this regard, Anthony takes a laid-back approach, and accepts whatever payment method or plan proposed by his client. This may include cash up front, to cheque, or to cash in random installments;
  3. The lack of standard form contracts, particularly standard form contracts in English;
  4. The application for his credit card being refused; and,
  5. Lack of familiarity with the Taiwanese legal system.

Another challenge Anthony mentioned is the lack of openness of some aspects of Taiwanese society. Whilst Taiwanese are extremely open and welcoming to foreigners (and westerns in particular), one is “lead in only so far”. Anthony related the story of his western friend who spoke fluent Mandarin and was promoted very quickly within the management hierarchy of a local bank. After some time, his colleagues – in a bid to oust him – began conducting the meetings in the local Taiwanese dialect. His friend soon resigned. It may be that his colleagues were genuinely resentful of an outsider moving up in the ranks so quickly. There is a saying in Chinese: 人怕出名,豬怕肥. It literally translates as “people are afraid of becoming famous, pigs are afraid of getting fat”. We all know what happens to a pig when it gets too fat! Perhaps it would have been advisable for his friend to move up in the ranks with greater stealth.

On cultural differences: Anthony also made note of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Taiwan. In dealing with these cultural differences, Anthony advises budding entrepreneurs not to get frustrated.Rather, one should understand that things are done differently in different parts of the world. Anthony related an amusing anecdote, saying that having a mother from Peru and understanding that people in South America don’t share the custom of showing up to meetings on time. He said that ten-minute to an hour delay is pretty much the norm, and that just how they get things down. He emphasizes that when it comes to cultural differences, particularly those involving business etiquette, personal judgement is neither necessary nor beneficial. Accepting how things are is more imperative and practical.
Some of the cultural differences Anthony has encountered are as follows:

  1. Formalities. In the U.S., the meeting begins with getting straight down to business. In Taiwan, one should be aware of formalities, such as offering your guest a drink, small talk, and so forth.
  2. Manner of speech. Americans are very direct. Yes means yes. No means no. In Taiwan, yes can mean a lot of things. And generally, “I’ll think about it” means no.
  3. The business relationship. In the US, the contract is very important in business relationships. In Taiwan, business is done more on relationships and trust. For instance, some of Anthony’s clients refuse to sign a contract.

Advice: Nonetheless, Anthony advises foreign entrepreneurs to not get frustrated by this. Alternatively, budding entrepreneurs in Taiwan can either: (a) Find a niche where such challenges will not affect business; or, (b) find a niche where it may in fact be advantageous for being a foreigner.