In this article, LCB’s managing editor, Aaron Posehn, sits down with Elias Ek, founder of Enspyre, to discuss his experience building a B2B telemarketing company in Taiwan.
This post is the second in a series of interviews on entrepreneurship in Greater China. A listing of all interviews are currently listed here.
LCB: You have been in Taiwan for almost 15 years, and you lived in the United States and Japan before that. What first brought you here? Did you come with the intention to start your own business, or did you have other motives at the time?
EE: I didn’t come here with the purpose of starting a specific company, but since I had already done several small start-ups in Sweden and the US, it was a high probability that I would soon start something. I think I had been in Taiwan for a few months when we first started a company. For the first 2.5 years, I kept a day job and worked on my own business during evenings and weekends.
LCB: Can you give us an overview of what Enspyre does, as well as what customers can expect when they use your services?
EE: Enspyre does several things:
- We are Taiwan’s largest B2B telemarketing provider. We help mainly large IT companies (other industries very welcome) to find more customers in Taiwan. Our calls usually have one of three purposes: doing a survey, getting the right people to attend events, or setting appointments for our customer’s sales people to go and see a customer.
- We answer phone calls on behalf of hundreds of SMEs. Customers enter information through our online database about how we should answer and handle their calls, and we take care of the calls so they can concentrate on running their business.
- We represent several Swedish universities in Taiwanese, such as www.studyinsweden.tw.
- We help foreign entrepreneurs and companies who want to get started in Taiwan via consulting services, and with our recent book How to Start a Business in Taiwan.
LCB: Originally from Sweden, your background is in marketing, and you have held positions such as Marketing Manager for TRICOR, the business arm of the State of Tennessee, and Director of International Marketing for tablet PC maker, PaceBlade. What compelled you to make the transition to establishing your own company in Taiwan? Did you see a gap in the market?
EE: I have been an entrepreneur since I was a teenager, at least in spirit, and I tried to start several companies in Sweden. I also cofounded several companies in the United States. When I arrived in Taiwan I was quite clear the goal was to start a company and be my own boss. I fully enjoyed the jobs I had, but eventually I wanted to start my own business. But what kind of business, I did not know.
Exactly what drives my entrepreneurial urge is hard to say, but I think it is the challenge of solving a problem and fulfilling a need. Can I put together the system of people, software, service providers, etc. that together solves a problem in such a way that someone is willing to pay for it? How can we positively impact our customers work or life? That is exciting!
Enspyre started out providing phone answering services for SMEs. We settled on this service because the previous company we started needed this service and we found that there were no good providers in Taiwan.
The B2B telemarketing came from our customers asking us if we could provide that service and it turned out there was a big need for it.
LCB: What are the key assets that helped you to build your business?
EE: If you mean intangibles, I would say:
Tenacity. Loads of sticking-to-it-ness.
Finding some really great people who helps me make it happen.
Being a bit of jack-of-all-trades who can understand or do a little about a lot, for example, design, technology, marketing, etc.
LCB: What were the main difficulties you encountered when first establishing your company in Taiwan and how did you manage these? What types of challenges do you encounter now that the business is well established?
EE: Upon getting started: Getting funding, settling SOPs, finding the right people.
Now: Finding the right people.
LCB: How has culture determined how you run your business? More specifically, have you had to tailor your business and its operations to meet Taiwanese cultural preferences in certain ways?
EE: When we launched our phone answering services, we thought we would have a great success on our hands. We knew there were no good competitors, we knew the industry was big in other countries. But things didn’t turn out that way. It turned out that Taiwanese bosses are much less likely to outsource than other countries. I would attribute this to culture. In response to this we added the telemarketing services, which mostly service large foreign companies.
There are other cultural aspects like employee gifts, annual bonuses, the occasional prayer sessions, year-of-end parties that you have to accept. No weirder than that a Taiwanese company operating in Sweden would need to give people Midsummer’s Eve off.
LCB: Last year, you published a well-received book, How to Start a Business in Taiwan, with the first copy even going to Taiwan’s president. What made you want to write this book and what did you hope it would accomplish?
EE: Since 2006, I have organized many events and have been involved with several organizations that offer information and support for foreign-born entrepreneurs in Taiwan. In December 2010, I walked into a bookstore at the Bangkok airport and saw a shelf with a book about how to start a business in Thailand. I thought, “someone should write this book for Taiwan.” So when I came back to Taiwan, I started working on it. It took me and others two years to finish.
I would distill my purpose into three points:
- I hope it will make it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs to start a business in Taiwan.
- I hope it will attract more foreign entrepreneurs and SMEs to Taiwan.
- I would like to let the Taiwan society be more aware of all the foreign-born entrepreneurs here.
Around the world, immigrants are proving to be great assets to their new home countries. Look at Yahoo, YouTube, and Zappos, all cofounded by Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. In Taiwan, foreign-born entrepreneurs have started companies like SHL, with thousands of employees, down to the guys selling fried Oreos at the night market. I personally have a list of about 400 foreign-born entrepreneurs in Taiwan.
LCB: From some preliminary research, it seems that Enspyre takes on and has a very successful internship program. How do you select these individuals and what do you typically have them do while interning with you?
EE: It took a few years to build up the reputation, but these days we get about 80 applications every time we announce an intake. We first sort out the ones who can’t follow instructions or submit the right kind of resume. Then we call everyone else for a five-minute conversation. We demand that everyone speaks at least moderate English, so a quick telephone call tends to sort this out. We then invite about 20 people in for one or two days of interviews for group and individual interviews, and also some work tasks, especially to test their writing skills.
Over the years we have had them work on many different tasks, usually related to web marketing for some of our many websites.
We now have about 120 former interns, many of whom are working for great companies, and some who have started their own businesses. I am looking forward to organizing an alumni party soon to have a chance to meet them all again.
LCB: You have previously held other positions like the Chairman of the Swedish School Association in Taiwan, as well as Co-Chairman at the SME Centre of the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Did these roles assist in any way to advance the interests of Enspyre? Similarly, were you able to assist other companies owned by foreigners in Taiwan?
EE: The Swedish school association had nothing to do with business. It was pure community service.
The SME Centre of course allowed me to reach customers, and I sure would like to think we were helpful. We organized quite a few events during those years and brought together foreign entrepreneurs and local business owners as well.
LCB: What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a business in Taiwan? Is there anything that they should particularly be aware of?
EE: Do it! Plan and execute. Some people just walk around for years talking about wanting to do something.
Talk to as many people as possible. The more feedback you get, the better it gets. Maybe there are details you don’t want to share publicly, but in most cases you only hurt yourself by keeping your ideas secret.
Many foreign entrepreneurs tend to leave all the company set-up and financial issues to their local partners or spouses. I think this is a mistake. All partners need to understand the legal set-up of a company.
Think bigger. There are a lot of resources available to help you grow your company.
Taiwan is great for many things, but Taiwan is especially still a wonderland for people who want to develop hardware products.
LCB: What’s next for Enspyre? Have you ever thought about expanding outside of Taiwan?
EE: I have been to China several times to see potential partners with the intention to set up operations there. Each time it has ended with nothing but disappointment. At this point I am concentrating on building Enspyre into the best and largest it can be in Taiwan. We still have space to grow many times bigger. That could of course change in the future when the right opportunity comes up.
Next up for us is to expand the B2B marketing beyond just telemarketing. We have already added some internet-related marketing to the service package for a few customers, but we are preparing to do a lot more. We think we can do much more for our customers than we are today in terms of finding out where their customers are and when they are ready to purchase.
To learn more about Enspyre, you can visit their English version website here, and their Chinese version website here. You can also read another interview here that LCB did last year specifically regarding Elias’ book, How to Start a Business in Taiwan.
Aaron Posehn is currently the managing editor of LearnChineseBusiness.com and is a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he also currently works as an academic editor in Taipei. Endlessly interested in the cross between business and culture, he has written a free guidebook on how to learn Chinese characters for business and travel purposes.
Find Aaron on LinkedIn here.