Taiwan’s Blockchain Industry Proves Resilient As It Matches Global Trends (19H2 Edition)

Taiwan’s blockchain ecosystem is a clear stalwart in the Greater Southeast Asia market

Jun Wakabayashi, Analyst (若林純 / 分析師)

Jun is an Analyst covering both AppWorks Accelerator and Greater Southeast Asia. Born and bred in America, Jun brings a wealth of international experience to AppWorks. He spent the last several years before joining AppWorks working for Focus Reports, where he conducted sector-based market research and interviewed high-level government leaders and industry executives across the globe. He’s now lived in 7 countries outside US and Taiwan, while traveling to upwards of 50 for leisure, collectively highlighting his unique propensity for cross-cultural immersion and international business. Jun received his Bachelors in Finance from New York University’s Stern School of Business.

A strong and steady 2019

2019 has proven to be a constructive year for the blockchain industry. It started off with crypto volumes at an all-time low and skepticism at a record high. Many projects that failed to survive the winter were quickly dead on arrival, and feasible commercial applications seemed further away than ever.

While the mass media has moved on from the fervor of 2017’s ICO craze, industry players around the globe have been powering through the downturn, effectively adjusting to a new reality. Many projects are now focusing their efforts on either underlying technical development or finding stronger real-world applications.

In Taiwan, the situation is no different. Although the country has traditionally lagged behind its Western counterparts in terms of embracing the latest innovations, it seems Taiwan has punched well above its weight when it comes to the development and adoption of blockchain. Whether it’s trending applications in gaming or decentralized finance (DeFi), advancements in the underlying infrastructure, or clarity in regulatory frameworks, Taiwan has kept pace on all fronts.

Made in Taiwan

Photo by Tom Ritson on Unsplash

There haven’t been too many new additions to the ecosystem since our last update, but we’ve seen existing players solidify their positioning in the market, with some effectively embedding themselves within the global value chain, very much in line with Taiwan’s legacy as a leading hardware manufacturer.

FST Network (AW#17), for example, has created a modularized, blockchain-based platform enabling enterprises to manage and integrate their data with ease. Their turnkey solution has now been adopted by exchanges and insurance companies in both the UK and Japan.

In a similar vein, local cold wallet maker CoolBitX recently developed Synga Bridge, a messaging-based KYC/AML solution that is now being used by Japan-based VC Trade, a crypto exchanged owned by SBI Holdings.

Along the theme of solving real-world pain points, DeFi has seemingly become the most pervasive use case, and rightly so. Existing financial systems are plagued with inefficient legacy systems that centralize data storage and authority, in turn passing on greater levies to increasingly privacy-concerned citizens. DeFi offers to provide a more transparent and secure means of accessing, lending, and transferring wealth.

The total value of DeFi projects has nearly tripled this year to over US$650 million. Although the conversations are largely dominated by opinions and analysis of MakerDAO and its stablecoin Dai, there are many upcoming projects fueling the DeFi movement. Here in Taiwan, for example, EasyDai is a decentralized exchange and lending platform that enables users to earn high-yield interest on Dai via Ethereum deposits. Steaker on the other hand is a digital asset management platform that helps users invest in notable DeFi projects.  

Working on the rails

In terms of development under the hood, it’s clear there is still much to be done when it comes to the widespread implementation of blockchain technology—engineering teams are still grappling with solving usability, interoperability, security, scalability, just to name a few challenges. But there’s also been a lot of progress made in these areas. Layer 2 solutions such as Plasma and Optimistic Rollup have demonstrated promising results when it comes to increasing transaction throughput and the amount of datasets that protocols like Ethereum can handle. Advancements in foundational technologies like zero knowledge proofs may finally help corporates assimilate into an increasingly privacy sensitive world. Needless to say, it’s still early days of blockchain development, and it’s anyone’s game.  

In Taiwan, some may remember the dramatic dissolution of COBINHOOD and its associated protocol initiative DEXON earlier this year, where after a series of shareholder disputes all one hundred of its staff were ultimately let go. Although a major blow to the local ecosystem, their efforts on building an infinitely scalable and more secure public chain have not gone to waste. The company’s co-founder and CTO Wei-Ning Huang has picked up the reins and began a project of his own dubbed Tangerine Network, which incorporates many of the same core components from DEXON’s open source code.

Also rising from the ashes of COBINHOOD’s demise are a legion of experienced blockchain developers, many of whom are now pursuing their own founder dreams. Lee Hsuan and Edwin Yeh, the company’s former heads of engineering and business strategy respectively, established portto (AW#19), a startup focused on bringing blockchain usage to the masses through its seamless dApp browser Blocto.  

Guiding the way

Facebook made headlines in 2019 with the announcement of Libra, a stable coin meant to establish a frictionless, global payments network. The original consortium consisted of 28 founding members, but five, including Visa and Mastercard, have since dropped out due to the torrent of scrutiny from regulators and policy makers alike.

Facebook attempted to put skin in the crypto game with the announcement of Libra, a stable coin that immediately caused controversy. Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

Regulatory uncertainty and the associated legal ramifications have been the primary inhibitors of blockchain’s adoption. Different markets have embraced the technology to varying degrees, but Asia has arguably been a front runner in this area. Countries like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all delineated clear and definite guidelines on how blockchain companies should work and operate, some perhaps more conservative than others.

At the moment, startups in Taiwan are able to raise up to NT$30 million (US$1M) via STOs, and only from accredited investors with a cap of NT$100,000 per person. On the other hand, in Singapore, regulatory oversight only kicks in if an STO exceeds SG$5 million (US$3.7M) and caters to more than 50 investors or any number of non-accredited ones.

While limiting in some respects, these regulations at the very least clearly stipulate the rules of the game, equipping founders with peace of mind when it comes to planning their long-term operational roadmaps.

The march goes on

Believe it or not, blockchain is now a decade in the running. It’s been 10 years since the release of Satoshi’s whitepaper, and in this time alone, we’ve already gone through one major hype cycle, effectively catapulting the terms “bitcoin,” “crypto,” and “blockchain” from developer circles to front page news, and back again.

Last year’s crash likely confirmed the suspicions of many skeptical onlookers. But recent advancements in the underlying technology, uptick in adoption, and growing commercial implementations are surely driving some decision-makers to develop a more loving embrace. China’s regulators and its president Xi Jinping, for example, went from a hardened, outright ban to a recent endorsement of blockchain technology while announcing intentions to develop a state-backed digital currency.

For Taiwan, stakeholders are proceeding with cautious optimism. The private-public blockchain alliance created by the National Development Council (NDC) last June recently outlined a plan to explore the implementation of blockchain in five major areas: public services, finance/insurance, energy, healthcare, and agriculture.

Investors are also getting more savvy, no longer immediately jumping into the feeding frenzy of token sales but carefully prospecting the use of both traditional and non-traditional financial instruments when determining how to best support founders. And the community itself has maintained, if not gained in momentum, as demonstrated by the recent Asia Blockchain Summit (now second year in the running) which ultimately brought out over 4,000 participants and 135 speakers.

Whether it’s in terms of technical development, regulatory frameworks, or community activism, Taiwan’s blockchain industry has made steadfast progress in the second half of 2019, catering to both local and international founders alike. We’re also starting to see early instances of the ecosystem maturing, with more and more blockchain founders branching out and interacting with traditional industries, while also, perhaps more importantly, setting longer term goals and ambitions.

Every six months, AppWorks hosts an accelerator exclusively for founders who are working on blockchain startups and startups that are utilizing AI. Please visit our Accelerator page to learn more about the application process and to see if the equity-free AppWorks Accelerator is the right startup fit for you.

Taiwan AI Ecosystem Continues Its Expansion (19H2 edition)

Photo: Pexel from Pixabay

Natalie Lin, Analyst (林楓 / 分析師)


Natalie is an Analyst covering AppWorks Accelerator and Greater Southeast Asia. Before joining the team, she worked in the search engine marketing and email marketing teams at Zappos, America’s leading shoes and fashion online retailer, where she primarily focused on KPI management, campaign optimization, and project management. Born in Canada and raised in the Middle East, Natalie returned to Taiwan for high school before moving to the US for college and work. She received her Bachelors of Marketing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Outside of work she likes to read, travel, and play video games.

Increasingly, the term “artificial intelligence” or “AI” has dominated conversations around tech, and in Taiwan, the technology continues to grow in popularity and usage. This year, in celebration of its 30-year presence in Taiwan, Microsoft opened an AI R&D center in Taipei. Other notable technology giants such as Google and NVIDIA have also made plans to establish AI R&D centers in Taiwan.

To meet this rising demand in AI talents, the Taiwanese government announced this year that 10,000 AI engineers will be trained. While this sounds remarkable, given that only an estimated 22,000 people in the world are expert enough to initiate world-class AI projects on their own, as a leader in AI talent within Greater Southeast Asia (GSEA = ASEAN + Taiwan), Taiwan is already a hub for GSEA-based companies to build their tech teams.

Alongside the world’s giants, more and more startups in Southeast Asia have come to Taiwan to recruit talents. From Singapore, we have startups like Carousell, and Shopback, which was part of AppWorks Accelerator #13 (AW#13), setting up their R&D teams in Taiwan. As Taiwan continues to churn out top talent, the new push by the government to sponsor a culture of AI development, and private companies to develop their AI teams here, founders in GSEA can start to consider Taiwan as a launchpad to catalyse their efforts at regional expansion.

In AppWorks Accelerator’s semi-annual update of Taiwan’s AI Ecosystem Map, we found that in the past six months, a number of regulatory frameworks have been implemented to support the growing innovation in the field of AI and more startups and AI ecosystem builders are increasing in Taiwan. The following verticals have made significant strides in the development of AI:

The AI ecosystem in Taiwan rivals many markets, and is especially interesting for the exposure it has to Southeast Asia, and the prowess of its technologist community.

As Advertising Gains Ground in AI, We See a Rise in Video Marketing, Customer Relationship Management, and Re-marketing

As Facebook’s algorithm continues to change and we’ve witnessed an explosion in data and information, it has become increasingly difficult to reach consumers with limited budgets and digital advertising spend. Companies are beginning to manage relationships with consumers through a variety of AI-driven strategies and digital tools, such as remarketing, to retain their most loyal customers. The push to provide increasingly fragmented customer audiences, and distracted loyalists with personalized experiences and products, has opened up more business opportunities for AI startups to provide marketing solutions.

Founded in 2011, iKala, an online karaoke and live broadcasting platform, has transformed into a human-centered AI marketing technology company after 8 years. It is the largest partner of Google Cloud in Asia-Pacific and of Facebook for global marketing, and it is currently covering markets in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan. They also announced the completion of their Series A round of US$ 5M early last year. Judging from the services provided by iKala, we can see that there is a rise in audiovisual marketing, influencer marketing, and results-oriented advertising solutions (also known as “performance marketing”).

Other startups, such as Omnichat — formerly called Easychat — and Rosetta.ai, both AW#16 startups, are focused on providing brand remarketing services. Instead of traditional chatbot services and other communications methods, they help small-and-medium businesses as well as enterprises use an AI model to accurately target customers to create a win-win situation for both their clients and their clients’ consumers.

Security Monitoring and Smart Home Application Market Dominance Is Accelerating

Taiwan has world-class hardware and supply chain management, and coupled with the improvement of camera manufacturing infrastructure, we can see that in regards to AI applications there have been several achievements in security monitoring and smart home appliances.

By combining AI technology with security monitoring, enterprises can greatly reduce the waste of manpower and avoid human error, thereby improving the quality and safety of monitoring solutions, which they deem to be one of their most important verticals. In addition to AW#9 startup Umbo CV, which has successfully entered the European and North American markets, there is also AW#19 startup Beseye, founded in 2014. It introduced its AI computer vision solution as the human safety backbone of Japan’s Tokyu Railway. When the camera detects that someone has entered a dangerous section of track, the system will automatically notify the central control center or the station’s staff to deal with it immediately and reduce railroad crossing accidents. Beseye currently has over 2,000 corporate clients, including Chunghwa Telecom and other large enterprises. Other startups like ioNetworks and CyCarrier are also focused on providing related security monitoring services.

As modern-day working people continue to lead busy lives, there is a gradual emergence of home applications and smart home appliances that make it easier for users to care for elders, their children, and their pets. AW#10 startup NUWA Robotics launched the first generation of their companion robots called “Keibi” in 2018. They specialize in STEAM education, theater-style English learning, and sensory interactive education. Their robots are focused on education and can also be a smart home helper. After selling over 5,000 units, they recently launched the second generation of their companion robots called “Kebbi Air” on a crowdfunding platform. They were able to raise NT $1M within half an hour of launching. Other notable startups in this space include Aeolus , which is focused on elderly care, AW#16 startup Cubo which is focused on developing smart baby cameras, and Furbo,which is focused on smart pet care services.

AI Ecosystem Builders: Sandbox Trends, R&D, and Accelerators

With the developments in AI, machine learning, and big data trends, certain legal topics are widely discussed such as copyrights and intellectual property, legal liabilities, and the impact on the existing regulatory regime in Taiwan. Two laws have been passed in 2018 to tackle these new trends: the Financial Technology Development and Innovative Experimentation Act for a fintech regulatory sandbox and the Unmanned Vehicle Technology Innovation and Experiment Act for autonomous vehicles.

Due to the high degree of regulation, the use of AI in financial services is slower than other industries, but given the advantage of having large amounts of data and complete customer information, the potential business opportunities are at an all-time high. The Legislative Yuan for Taiwan has been hosting a regulatory sandbox for companies to experiment with new business models that currently don’t have a legal framework. So far, 11 applications for experimentation or testing of new forms of fintech have been filed since the sandbox was launched. Many fintech startups have also started to cooperate with large-scale financial companies. Instead of starting from the perspective of replacing the existing financial industry, they are able to create a win-win situation and reduce the anxiety of current financial players in the industry. For example, hiHedge and Fubon jointly launched the Fubon hiHedge AI Chip Strategy, which uses AI technology to calculate the chip flow of Taiwan’s daily listed stocks to provide consumers with more complete information. Other new ventures like Adenovo are focused on providing real-time smart financial solutions for financial institutions and enterprises, and have received investment from Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and Zhaofeng VC.

As for the law passed to promote the usage of autonomous vehicles, it is considered one that may provide a more friendly environment for testing the application of AI and IoT technology in transportation. Taiwan will be well-positioned in the autonomous vehicle industry due to its experience in supplying high-quality components for electronics as various high-profile domestic and international players have joined Taiwan’s autonomous vehicle market. The government is organizing a national team for the development of autonomous vehicles and has set out a plan to prepare for the advent of the autonomous vehicle era in Taiwan.

With more and more AI startups emerging, Taiwan is also booming with startup accelerators, education, and research. AppWorks Accelerator, established in 2010 and currently focused on serving AI and Blockchain founders, has so far helped SEA founders launch over 40 AI/IoT startups into the market and continues to inject new energy into Taiwan’s AI ecosystem.

Microsoft for Startups, Taiwan AI x Robotics Accelerator, and many others, are all startup accelerators focused on recruiting AI founders. Taiwan AI School and Taiwan AI Labs are Taiwan’s represented institutions in the field of AI education and research. From 2020 and beyond, more and more resources are expected to be injected into the development of the AI field, which should further solidify Taiwan’s position as an AI hub in the GSEA region.

Upcoming accelerator applications: Stay tuned this quarter as we open up the next application window for founders working in AI and Blockchain categories. You can follow founder news and application announcements on our AppWorks Accelerator page.


Economic and Innovation Developments in GSEA Should Be Tempting More Founders to Launch Startups in the Region by Leveraging Taiwan

This map tracks the quarterly economic and technological changes in a region that should be the dominant startup generating region throughout the next decade.

Douglas Crets, Communications Master
Douglas is the English Master in Communication. A passionate marketing strategist and content writer, he spent three years with Microsoft in Silicon Valley managing the global social media marketing strategy for BizSpark, Microsoft’s Azure and software program for entrepreneurs. Douglas has a deep love for technology, literature and travel. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. One day, he hopes to travel around the world for a year.

The latest Map of Greater Southeast Asia’s digital economies, which we develop at least once every quarter, is indicating to founders in Greater Southeast Asia that the rise of mobile broadband in economies where GDP growth is accelerating past 6 per cent is setting the stage for amazing improvisation in tech use and commercial problem-solving.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Taiwan can play a pivotal role in that innovation surge. I have written a few thoughts about this to show you what we mean.

As the supporter of the largest accelerator-born community in the region focused on tech founders, our team watches closely these developments. Our portfolio companies and the 1113 founders and 376 active startups of our Accelerator alumni network are living examples of the magnet that Taiwan has become for founders in this region. 

Starting small, in a huge region called GSEA

We refer to this region as Greater Southeast Asia (GSEA), positioning it as ASEAN + Taiwan, inclusive of such territories as Hong Kong and Macau, and East Timor. The nomenclature is driven by our observation of consumption habits and statistical data, as you can see in the map below, which hangs in our accelerator space. 

We include Taiwan in this grouping because its economic evolution has become something of a beacon for SEA founders who want to build beachheads around the region. Let’s start with a single statistic to understand why. 

The total e-commerce economy market size in Taiwan is USD$42 billion. This is almost 66 per cent of the size of the entire GSEA combined.

Founders who emerge in GSEA and come to Taiwan to grow stronger 

This unique attribute of Taiwan is a magnet. There is also a push factor in ASEAN nations. That mechanism is prompting SEA founders to seek out a tested, developed market for their ideas.

This movement is observable through growth statistics that suggest a plethora of pent up consumption demand driven by tech adoption and through example companies that have done it. Let’s start with the country data. 

Five countries in GSEA show growth in GDP per capita of over 6 per cent, as of last year. They are Cambodia at 6.83 per cent; Laos at 6.72 per cent; Vietnam at 6.5 per cent; the Philippines at 6.47 per cent; Myanmar at 6.45 per cent. Indonesia and East Timor show growth of 5.2 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively. 

In Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, many early-stage startups are rapidly developing — Sky Mavis; Axie Infinity; Triip.me (AW#18). Engineering talent that moved overseas and went to tough schools like Harvard have now come back and are starting new companies by the dozens. 

In Indonesia, we have seen the growth of five unicorns, including Gojek and Bukalapak. In other areas, it’s not so straightforward. 

Google recently released yearly results from a long-term study that looked at the potential for SEA’s growth. 

Useful data by Google shows that GSEA presents great opportunities for smart founders who want to leverage a glut of software to reach populations that exist outside of the mainstream marketplaces — from Google’s E-economy report, Swipe Up and to the Right

Today, seven urban centres drive over 50 per cent of the internet economy in the countries depicted in GSEA. The “beyond metros,” or rural areas of a few SEA countries, account for 85 per cent of the population, but only 48 per cent of the Internet economy, as you can see from the picture below. 

While use cases may exist for tech, and while consumer demand may be growing, it’s harder to really scale in some emerging markets without solid strategies and consistent talent.

Even though the creativity and innovation ideas are off the charts, many things like stagnant offline players, unavailability of engineering talent, government red tape and just pure infrastructure fragmentation stand in the way of “moving fast and breaking things,” so to speak. 

SEA founders are coming to Taiwan is because they see a microcosm of development opportunities in Taiwan that they can take back to the rest of Asia, after getting focused here.

“Taiwan was a great gateway to Chinese-speaking countries [in SEA],” says Triip.me founder Hai Ho (AW#18). “There are [also] 200,000 and growing Vietnamese living in Taiwan. There are more daily direct flights between Taiwan and Vietnam, too. It is a good market.” 

AppWorks startups are gaining momentum in Taiwan

Over 376 AppWorks startups have continued to scale and expand by staging in Taiwan through our Accelerator or by becoming one of the AppWorks portfolio companies. Over 1,113 founders in our network have helped the country become a focal point for this region’s growth. 

These companies demonstrate just how nimbly a company locating in Taiwan can grow, figure out e-commerce strategies, and even acquire other companies and engineering teams while nurturing a huge market inside and outside of Taiwan. 

Shopback (AW#13), the e-rebates payment platform founded by Henry Chan and Joel Leong in Singapore, came to Taiwan to scale up their e-commerce knowledge and market deployment. 

Shopback has reported annualized sales figures of USD$500 million a year. It has operations in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. 

Some other investments include 91APP (Taiwan’s Shopify); Carousell, which has localised to Taiwan by building an office here (it’s also localised in several other ASEAN markets). 

Taiwan is also the kind of place where you can build a company, or two, and IPO them, in a relatively quick time. For example, Jerry Kuo, one of the two siblings that started Kuobrothers, IPO’d in 2016. Jerry then IPO’d a second company that grew out of the original Kuobrothers Group, called MobiX, earlier this year. 

There’s also M17, started by Singaporean Joseph Phua. M17 started as a dating app company called Paktor and was based in Singapore. Joseph merged that company with a Taiwanese company called 17 Media to form what is fast becoming a massive social entertainment company that focuses on live-streaming. A recent acquisition of competitor MeMe Live has brought M17’s live stream market share to over 60 per cent in SEA’s developed markets. That wasn’t the only M17 procurement, though. 

M17 bought AppWorks Accelerator alum FBbuy, a company that developed an innovative way for people to buy items on Facebook. If someone simply typed in “+1,” in a comment, the scanning app would move the coveted item being discussed into a shopping cart. Joseph acquired that company and integrated it into a live-streaming commerce app called HandsUp

Early-stage is also heading to Taiwan

There are also a number of early-stage companies with inherent exposure to SEA who have heeded the call to come to Taiwan. 

At our upcoming Demo Day #19, over 65 per cent of the cohort will have originated or started their startup ideas in GSEA. Two female founders offer some examples.

Annie Zhang, from Hong Kong, will pitch Matters Lab as a decentralised platform for media and content sharing, which enables content providers to generate their own immutable content and get paid for it. They’ve generated about 25,000 customers in seven months. 

Telepod founder Jin-Ni Gan, a Malaysian living in Singapore, will also pitch. At a recent mentor day, she showed off her miniEV startup already operating in seven markets in the region. 

Telepod founder Jin-Ni Gan explains her product line and founder story to a room of Taiwan’s most successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives during Cohort #19’s Mentor Day, September 2019

Her last slide was a photo of kids without shoes walking down a dirt road that cut through what looked like smoke from a jungle fire at a rubber plantation.

“My childhood was similar to this one,” she said, and then ended her pitch with the message that tech and creativity have a strong potential to make this life better for billions of people. 

That’s a story that is familiar to many founders here in Taiwan, and it’s one that will only scale rapidly in time. As the region grows, the probability that mission-driven founders who are intent on building fast-moving scalable startups will see that Taiwan is a launchpad for the regional market.

Another quick look at the GSEA market landscape should give founders, and investors, something to think about. 

Out of the five countries mentioned earlier that have GDP growth north of 6 per cent, three of them — Cambodia, Laos, and East Timor — have mobile internet penetration rates under 40 per cent. 

Myanmar, which has 21 million Internet users, only provides Internet to 36 per cent of its population. Nearly all of those users — 99.8 per cent — get their Internet through mobile phones.

In emerging market economies, a glut of software and tech availability is enabling founders to test use cases for new technology and consumer products.  Often, these use cases employ leapfrog innovations that are further ahead than the traditional infrastructure or tech use cases in developed markets. 

After spending six months in Taiwan, XFers (#18) teamed up with Zilliqa in Singapore to launch a stablecoin. The lack of avenues for remittances makes the mobile form factor an attractive device for gaining access to capital and tapping into new virtual banks and blockchain technologies. Going forward , data seems to indicate that this innovation in SE Asia driven by a connection to Taiwan will be more prevalent. And it will continue to shape fintech and more.

If you are a founder working on AI and / or Blockchain, you can stay updated on our Accelerator application process and news by visiting our AppWorks Accelerator page. Our next application process starts very soon.

 


The Warlord In the Park: How x-Googler Andy Cheng Used Constant Problem-Solving to Deliver Better Products to the Market and Grow His Startup

foundi Founder Andy Cheng

Douglas Crets, Communications Master

Douglas is the English Master in Communication. A passionate marketing strategist and content writer, he spent three years with Microsoft in Silicon Valley managing the global social media marketing strategy for BizSpark, Microsoft’s Azure and software program for entrepreneurs. Douglas has a deep love for technology, literature and travel. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. One day, he hopes to travel around the world for a year.

First attempts at startup products usually fall short. This can be really frustrating, but early-stage founders don’t often realize that these false starts are real opportunities.

Why? When founders give this product to new users, they are trying to help a new customer fare better than those “normal” people who do things in what founders consider the “old way.”

Most people using a new feature or a product for the first time are used to doing business, or experiencing something in what they consider the normal way. They are not like the founder, who has dreamed up a vision of how things should be done. When a founder gives this new product to a potential customer, he or she is trying to do three things:

  1. Sell the product!
  2. Integrate this new vision into the customer’s reality.
  3. Solve a problem that often a potential customer didn’t even know they had.

This new approach takes time to understand and appreciate. It’s almost like taking someone and plopping them down in a new culture, or in a different era somewhere far into the future. By giving these potential customers something very new, they will approach it with some skepticism, some doubt, and some reasons why it won’t work.

As a result, it’s inevitable that a first trial will end in incremental data and not much customer acquisition.

But this new confrontation with tech is a chance to seek feedback. This feedback creates a cycle of improvement. This is why founders who struggle with their own problem first usually have a better chance of finding product-market fit.

I will tell you a story about a founder who went through the AppWorks Accelerator and launched his own product successfully to demonstrate this point.

The park

It was a spring day in Taipei around the year 2011 and then-Googler Andy Cheng was looking for a house to buy. Married and with a young son, Andy wanted a property his family could grow into. A real estate agent showed him a house in a desirable neighborhood. A stretch of park just behind the house meant this was exactly what he was looking for.

Andy nearly made an offer. Then he found out that the park was slated for school construction. Rushing to close, the broker hid this from Andy. The seed of an idea was planted in Andy’s mind.

“I thought, ‘Man, what else have you not told me,’” says Andy, as he looked back at how he developed foundi (AppWorks #8), a real estate listing platform.

The first thought Andy had had when he set to work was not: How could he solve the problem of a culture of manipulation and secrecy that seemed endemic to real estate brokers?

He only sees that his startup could make an impact in that area in retrospect. Like many founders, Andy’s MVP alone didn’t help the real end user — at the time, house buyers — but it started a process that eventually got him there. And this is really important for early founders to understand.

A new product alone is never enough to create scale and customer growth. You have to do a whole lot of digging to get there.

How it all started

From Andy’s perspective, there were so many houses to choose from, so wouldn’t trust and honesty be the winning factor for an agent closing a contract?

Andy learned that relatively low-paid real estate agents live off of commission, and in doing so, they often worked in ferocious competition against each other, even in the same agencies. In contract bidding — even before negotiations — the potential future sale of a home often goes to the agent that creates the most perfect too good to be true contract. House sellers want a good return, so agents will find ways to make their pitch of the future contract as lucrative as possible.

It doesn’t matter if the price is true, or if it accurately reflects the true conditions of the house. It’s every man for himself.

It gets worse!

Since every agent is motivated by commission, agents who are first to find the listing will also try to hide the listing info from other agents, making it nearly impossible for other agents to pitch a contract.

This unethical weirdness became more than an engineering puzzle for Andy, who was quite proficient with software programming and maps. Previously, he had worked as one of Google’s first hires in Taiwan, managing a team of engineers in the maps division. Code and problem-solving are in his wheelhouse. “I always go to the computer to code, to figure things out,” he says. But to tackle this problem, he had to go beyond the screen.

He created an early version of foundi. House sellers and buyers would use that version to find information about listings. But they took this info back to agents and used it to try to haggle better deals. This put burdens on the buyers of houses, though; this was exactly the position Andy was in before and didn’t want.

The founder becomes the warlord

He booked meetings with influential agencies and set up face-to-face consultations. He discovered that real estate agents were typically not the best performers in school. They are also technology-averse. It explained a lot.

With the right technology, they wouldn’t have had to be dishonest to compete. By sitting down and walking through foundi features with early adopter agents, Andy finally got to a point where he was able to convince more of them to use the product.

Like an arms dealer selling his weapons to different cartels, Andy started to spread his tool to different agencies. Whereas previously agents in the same agencies would be pitted against each other, teams began to perform at a higher level. Other agencies saw agencies doing better, and wanted the same tool.

“I felt like I was a warlord,” Andy jokes.

Has he made the market more transparent? It’s hard to say this early in the game. But according to Andy, this counterintuitive outcome holds promise.

By taking away the old things that made agents competitive — their secrecy and manipulation — he has actually made real estate agents more competitive. Therein lies a fundamental concept of startup building, and the core reason why data drives product development. Early-stage founders might take note of this technique.

Now, Andy’s customers number about 12,000 agents of the total 40,000 in Taiwan, who rely on foundi to serve their customers better and in turn maximize their income. Andy takes a long-term approach to this door-to-door sales effort.

Creating new tech to solve real problems is really the experience of giving people new mental models to live a better life. If a founder has a good head on his shoulders, and is passionate about what he’s doing, he will eventually build something that people need, in a market people didn’t know could exist. No newly launched product can do this immediately. It’s always a process, and it involves founders stepping away from the computer and even leaving the building, to get it right.

Answers, and your product, exist in people’s heads and hearts, whether they know it or not. As a founder, you are quite simply the enabler that will help them experience that by delivering a tangible good that unlocks a mental model. Think of it as a game, with a constant state of going on side quests. Without those quests, you cannot complete the journey.

2019H2 台灣 Blockchain 生態地圖,寒冬後的曙光

Ching Tseng, Associate (曾意晴 / 投資經理)

負責區塊鏈投資,尤其專注東南亞市場。學生時期曾於 AppWorks 實習一年半,2015 年政大企管系畢業後正式加入擔任分析師,主要參與投資案相關業務,最得意的案例是協助 CHOCO TV 從 A 輪一路到被 LINE 併入。是我們的年輕人趨勢專家,2019 正式升任經理。平常熱愛嚐鮮、美食以及旅遊。

過去兩年,Blockchain 與 Cryptocurrency 的發展變化十分劇烈。歷經 ICO 熱潮、雨後春筍般的公鏈誕生、長達數年的牛市,在 2018 年,隨著 Cryptocurrency 幣價下跌,Blockchain 進入長達一年的熊市,而在 2019 年下半,隨著幣價回穩,Bitcoin 價格在年中一度逼近 13,000 美元,市場漸漸再度熱絡起來。綜觀整個 Blockchain 鏈圈,現今留下一群體會一番激情,又見證了海水退去的倖存者,也因著如此,許多 Blochchain 的新創團隊,朝著更落地的應用走去,亦有團隊朝更純粹的技術提供方發展而去。

AppWorks Accelerator 每半年更新一次「2019 H2 台灣 Blockchain 生態系地圖」(The Taiwan’s Blockchain Ecosystem Map 19H2) 的過程中,我們發現,在過去半年中,台灣的 Blockchain 生態系,正在逐漸展現幾項值得關注的新面貌:

(原始檔案下載:Taiwan’s Blockchain Ecosystem 19H2)

帶著台灣 DNA 與國際齊頭前進

走過硬體代工製造的盛世後,台灣在軟體的發展即便日趨成熟,卻仍缺少了一些國際發光的色彩。即便陸續有一些軟體、Internet 服務相關的新創,逐漸在亞洲嶄露頭角,但相較於歐美業者,總會有些許時間差上的進度落後。然而,或許是因為 Blockchain 本身的技術特性,新創從成立 Day 1,就必須以做出區域級、甚至於全球的服務為目標,所以,台灣的 Blockchain 新創團隊,在跟上全球最新發展上,並沒有絲毫落後,在遊戲、DeFi 等垂直項目中,都可以看到台灣新創的身影。

過去半年,即便台灣的 Blockchain 新創業團隊增加速度減緩,但整體生態系的深度與質量,卻有顯著提升。例如,在這之中,我們發現不少創業已有一段時日的團隊,所打造的 Module 開始外銷,在全球各類 Blockchain 服務商所打造的服務體系中,這些台灣新創所打造的 Module,成為其中重要的一環,頗類似台積電的晶圓代工模式,讓台灣製造的 IC 成為全球科技產業不可或缺的關鍵零件。以 AppWorks Accelerator 第 17 屆 (AW#17) FundersToken (現名為 FST Network) 為例,所開發的 Module,便被多家保險、物流以及交易所所採納,成為其他 Blockchain 服務的關鍵技術提供商。Softbank 旗下的虛擬資產交易所,亦採用 CoolBitX 冷錢包團隊所開發的 SYGNA KYC 系統

低潮之下脫胎換骨的新局

2019 上半年,Blockchain 新創圈頗負盛名的 Cobinhood / DEXON 宣告解散,對台灣 Blockchain 發展無非是一大打擊。然而,在低潮之下,卻也釋放出大量優秀的人才,產生了至少四組的 Blockchain 新創團隊。例如,曾擔任 DEXON 工程團隊主管的 Hsuan 李玄以及 BD 團隊主管的 Edwin 顏維佐,就共同創辦 portto (AW#19),組建了七人團隊,一起開始了另一段旅程,嘗試以透過開發更優質的 Blockchain 瀏覽器,降低用戶使用 DApp 的進入門檻,目前也已經與同為 DEXON 出身的前技術長黃偉寧打造的 Tangerine,以及區塊鏈工程團隊沛理科技,一起推出去中心化版本 BBS。

台灣 Blockchain 社群活絡

過去一年,全球各地不少的 Blockchain 產業論壇、社群活動的規模皆相對縮減,然而,台灣 Blockchain 相關的論壇與社群活動,參與度依舊相當熱絡,同時技術含金量高。無論是由 Taipei Ethereum Meetup 所主辦的 Crosslink 或者是由 AW#16 BlockTempo 所舉辦的 Asia Blockchain Summit 都依舊盛大舉行。以 Asia Blockchain Summit 為例,講者多達 135 位,參與者亦有 4,000 位。此外,知名團隊 Maicoin 也推出了 MAX 實體店,強化社群活動以及提供線下 KYC 服務,降低一般用戶進入加密貨幣市場的門檻。

機構投資人投資力道未減,但形式更多元

隨著產業的發展,以及市場不再追捧,無論是創業者或者是投資人,對於 Token 是否為 Blockchain 商業模式中的必要元素,都有了更深的反思與了解。即便是以投資 Token 起家的 Crypto Fund,都已逐漸不再純以 Token 經濟為單一投資工具,而是加上可轉債、或是傳統投資股權來支持新創團隊。

Blockchain 政策有進度

過去半年,台灣Blockchain 生態系除了團隊持續發展外,政府的對應政策也比半年前更有進展。討論以久的 Security Token (證券型代幣),台灣證券櫃買中心於 9 月公布相關細節,或許考量在產業發展初期避免重大缺失,設計上相對略為保守,新創團隊能透過 STO 募資最高上限為新台幣 3,000 萬,同時募資平台亦有資本額限制,投資方對於個體戶限制多,若非專業法人或基金,自然人每案認購金額的上限為 10 萬元。

由國家發展委員會推動成立的台灣區塊鏈大聯盟,在 2019 年 7 月成立後,也在 9 月會員大會中,推出 Blockchain 服務運用計畫。包含公共服務、金融保險、能源、醫療、農業五大領域共 12 項計畫,負責機構也涵蓋了包括中央銀行、金管會、內政部等多個政府單位。除此之外,國發會亦直接投資鏈科科技、思偉達創新科技兩支 Blockchain 新創團隊

2019 下半年,台灣 Blockchain 生態系無論在新創團隊的產品開發、社群成熟度,以及政府的產業發展計畫上仍然有不少進度。我們期待看到越來越多 Blockchain 新創團隊,開始跳脫 Blockchain 的同業社群,與更多不同領域的創業者互動,將目標設得更加長遠,學習如何建立一個長青的事業。

The Taiwan’s Blockchain Ecosystem Map 19H2 由 AppWorks,以及 Blockchain 媒體 Blockcast 區塊客 (AW#14)、BlockTempo 動區 (AW#16) 聯合製作,每半年更新一次,有任何指教與建議,請 email 至 a@appworks.tw

【歡迎所有 AI / IoT、Blockchain 的創業者,加入專為你們服務的 AppWorks Accelerator

Photo by shutterbean on Pixabay