James Hill works for III, a startup incubator in Taipei, Taiwan. You can follow him on Twitter at @jameshilltaiwan He submitted this article to Technode.
So, the whole world has heard of Taiwanese tech firms, right? Our iPhones may be made in China, but they’re manufactured by a Taiwanese OEM. HTC, Acer, Asus and MediaTek are now household names, thanks in part to the rise of Android as the operating system of choice. When people think of Taiwan, computer hardware and IT peripherals are usually at the top of the list, before the hot springs, street food and traditional Chinese culture which feature so prominently in tourist literature.
Further down that list are the scores of innovative web services and mobile application developers that call Taiwan home. High levels of education and a developed economy mean that Taiwanese are avid users of smart phones, social media and other Web 2.0 tools. Taiwan is 5th in Asia for Facebook members at around 9 million, out of a population of only 23 million. Smart phone sales are expected to double in 2011, accounting for 40% of total mobile sales. As someone who works for an incubation program here in Taipei, I come across many innovative startups, both web and mobile based, who are disrupting markets here and further afield. For Technode readers, I wanted to point out a few interesting cases and share how new technologies are being implemented on this side of the Taiwan Strait.
iPeen – Lifestyle Recommender
iPeen is Taiwan’s leading recommendation and lifestyle information portal, serving up restaurant, bar, hotel and leisure suggestions for Taiwan’s growing number of well-travelled, well-heeled 20-somethings. iPeen started in 2006 and has grown to become one of Taiwan’s 100 most visited sites, offering not only tips on where to eat and what to do, but also collated newspaper reviews and articles, ecommerce and themed mapping (including by Taipei Metro or Taiwan High Speed Rail stations). Recent additions to the site include discount coupons for restaurants and stores. At the beginning of April, iPeen announced an investment by the Japanese VC firm CyberAgent for a reported $1 million. iPeen’s management say that the new funds will be put towards expansion in the south and central regions of Taiwan, with offices in the cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung. While there are no current plans for wider regional expansion, iPeen’s distinctly Asian approach to user-contributed ‘meishi’ (美食) info would be easily transferable to Hong Kong and the mainland.
5945 Master Call – Find the best workmen
Ever had a leaking pipe but weren’t sure who to call? Stories of dodgy workmen or unreliable plumbers are two-a-penny, and often good, honest workmen are hard to find, especially when 95% of those polled in Taiwan didn’t know how to market themselves on the internet. ‘5945 Master Call’ aims to fix that. Tradesmen who are registered with the site can reach an even greater number of customers by completing a profile that is searchable by district, work type or keyword. Customers can read about their work history, the type of work they do and where in the city they are located. Profiles also feature photos of previous jobs and contact information, creating new business for the mostly self-employed craftsmen. 5945 began operations in September last year and already has over 4,200 tradesmen and companies listed on their site. The service is currently only available in Taipei City and limited to four professions (electricians, painters, carpenters & flooring specialists), so there is definitely room for growth across Taiwan’s other cities and counties, as well as other professions such as kitchen installation and interior design. The site also welcomes discussion of ‘cowboys’ to be avoided, something that could help to weed out rogue workmen.
Gamelet – Flash and Facebook Games
Anyone who has spent any time in East Asia will know that the youth over here are among the world’s most avid gamers, and Taiwan is no different. Gamelet makes around 15 flash games for Facebook and boasts over 800,000 monthly users. While this pales in comparison to the likes of Zynga or Playfish, Gamelet has positioned itself to cater to hardcore gamers, rather than the casual gaming market. Popular titles include Twilight Wars (released last month), Pizza World, and one of their latest RPG offerings, Heir to the Glory. While many games have become popular through Facebook, Gamelet also allows gamers to play on their own site, opening up their games to mainland users and those not on Facebook. The company already receives a sizeable amount of traffic from Hong Kong, which like Taiwan, still uses traditional Chinese characters. Gamelet has been able to leverage the growing virtual goods market as well as take advantage of 7-11’s in-store ibon payment service to drive revenue. For those whose Chinese isn’t so great, Gamelet offers English language versions of Twilight Wars, Pet Crossing, and Pizza World. Check out their English Facebook page for the links: www.facebook.com/gamelet Gamelet’s management say they expect to release other English titles in the next few months, so look out for those.
Saja – Single, Lowest Bid Wins
Who wants an iPhone 4 for only 20 US¢? Or how about a Louis Vuitton or Coach handbag for a fraction of the retail price? Saja www.saja.com.tw means ‘barter’ in Chinese, and that’s exactly what users on the site do. Saja’s motto is “single, lowest price”, which is how someone walked away with a brand new iPhone for practically nothing. People place a bet using Saja’s virtual currency and whoever places the lowest, single bid wins the prize when the time runs out. Saja’s CEO calls Saja a ‘backwards eBay’, and like eBay the site has become massively popular among all sectors of society. While the initial focus was on consumer electronics and computer equipment, Saja is increasingly turning to designer brands, cosmetics, household appliances and even cars to attract a wider audience. The products are provided by the companies themselves and paid for by sales of the virtual currency. But don’t expect any Chinese clone sites any time soon. The team were smart enough to obtain all the US patents for the idea and technology before they launched. Their hard work has brought them significant recognition by local media, and earned them an innovation award from Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Pinkoi – Designer eCommerce Store
Sometimes it’s hard to find real artisan crafts among the tat and plastic on offer at gift shops and department stores. The popularity of Etsy in the US and the lack of a comparable service in Taiwan, spurred Peter Yen, Mike Lee and Maibelle Lin to publicly launch Pinkoi in September 2010. Pinkoi’s limited edition, design-driven ecommerce platform puts the craftsmen and women in Taiwan in direct contact with their customers. Ecommerce is popular in Taiwan, but it was hard for some of the smaller workshops and designers to compete with more established companies on shopping sites like Yahoo!, PCHome or Rakuten. Listing on Pinkoi is free, though the site does take 10% of any items sold. Currently over 100 designers are listed, with plans to add a further 400 by the end of the year. Speaking to the Taipei Times in March, Peter said, “Pinkoi has a lot of opportunities in the Asian market. Etsy is focused on Western countries and they haven’t really entered Asia yet.” To better serve this market, Pinkoi plans to launch in both simplified Chinese and English in the latter half of this year.
Nextdoor – Easily Find the Best iPhone and iPad apps
For iPhone or iPad users, the ever increasing number of apps available is both a blessing and a curse. Finding well designed, useful apps among the crowd can often be a challenge. And for companies and organizations, building an app is often just as hard. iFans by Nextdoor takes care of designing, building and launching apps for public and private companies. Having built apps for TGI Fridays, Business Next magazine, China Times and IDEAS Show, Nexdoor turned their attention to Taiwanese celebrities, actors and singers, producing integrated apps for their legions of fans. The company sees its market rooted firmly in the Greater China region, having offices in both Taipei and Shanghai. The firm has earned notice on the mainland, winning a coveted DEMO Star award at DEMO China in 2010. Many of the emerging tech firms are offering B2B services as a way to quickly grow revenue, and Nexdoor is certainly at the forefront of this trend.
Xiao Min Zhan Chu Lai – Fix those daily city gripes
Coming from the UK, I am well versed in the British custom of complaining about things most normal people either ignore or don’t notice. Poorly signposted destinations, tardy buses, potholes, gum on the floor, graffiti, miserable public buildings, litter and faded road markings are common problems almost everywhere, and Taiwan is no exception. Xiao Min Zhan Chu Lai (小民站出來) loosely translated as ‘Small Citizen Stand Out!’ and aims to draw people’s attention to these daily irritants. Using the iPhone app, users can take photos of offending articles, leave comments and discuss issues as they move about the city. The service utilizes GPS technology to place the user on a map, where posted offences are also shown. A typical message might alert users to a faulty traffic light at so-and-so junction, or a general comment about the state of the international airport. Issues are listed in categories such as public safety and transport for ease of use. Users can also follow the more prolific users and get updates on any changes made. It would be extremely worthwhile if local governments here in Taiwan got involved and used the app to solve some of the issues raised, though I am not entirely confident that this would happen.
The seven services here are just the tip of a very large iceberg of talent among web and mobile services in Taiwan. It would be impossible to cover them all, so I won’t even try! But if you have any suggestions of other services I should watch out for, please leave me a note in the comments section.
Many thanks to James Hill for supplying this insightful article.