But only 1% of the Taiwanese-backed startups in China succeed, according to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. “They’ve run into some difficulties,” says the council’s spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng. “We’ve reminded our youth to beware of the risks.”
Startups tend to fail due to a lack of savvy about China’s business environment, not the level of incentives, people close to the market say, and they tend to find success by localizing their businesses.
Language fluency, office space, rent breaks and cash
Localizing might come easier to Taiwanese founders compared to peers further afield. They speak China’s official language and get the culture, says Lin Ta-han, CEO of the crowd-funding consultancy Backer-Founder in Taipei.
To help, government agencies in China are said to be offering tax breaks, fast-track permits to set up offices and subsidies for startups in sectors such as healthcare. “For truly small enterprises or for first-time startup founders, these are definitely incentives,” Lin says.
A startup incubator near Shanghai, for example, is offering free office space, subsidized rent for housing and tax breaks, according to a report in the Japan Times. Some entrepreneurs can qualify for up to $31,000 in cash. About 50 other hubs like this one are spread around China. These measures complement 31 broader incentives that China introduced in February 2018 to bring Taiwanese investors and workers over. Those measures cover breaks on taxes and land use. Taiwan’s government responded with its own rack of incentives to keep business people onshore.
Among the more successful Taiwanese-operated startups, MIT Media Lab graduate Edward Shen sold his Taipei-based startup StorySense Computing in 2015 to a firm in Beijing, according to a report from Tech in Asia. His company’s flagship product was a phone number search app called WhatsTheNumber.
Incentives alone won’t be enough to ensure success in China, says Steven Ho, a former Yahoo employee in Taiwan who moved to the mainland in 2012 and started a company that helps new brands enter the market. Internet startups must understand that “there’s the internet and the China internet, two different worlds,” says Ho, 51, and back in Taipei running a company with 400 employees. China’s internet is dominated by local firms and government controls. Startups from anywhere, incentivized or otherwise, need to adapt their businesses to the local conditions rather than continue operating as did at home, he says.
“The absolute number of people in China is big, but that doesn’t correlate to the number of startup successes,” Ho says.
Taiwan government warns of failures
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reiterates the message by reminding entrepreneurs that the competition in China is “stiff” and some founders may not adapt well to a different set of laws, customs and societal norms there. And perhaps most important of all–a different financial system.
To get paid online in China normally requires a deal with the domestic payment services Alipay or Wechat, which “tend to be stricter on the services that can be sold” compared to overseas peers, says Danny Levinson, past chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai’s IT committee.