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INTERVIEW: Taiwanese firms should not rely on China: Lin

Jose Lin, founder of Taiwanese software company Awoo International, tells reporter Liao Chien-ying of the Liberty Times’ (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) why he refused investment offers from China’s Baidu and Alibaba in favor of Silicon Valley

Jose Lin, founder of software company Awoo International, gestures during an interview with the Liberty Times in Taipei on March 20.

Photo: Chang Chia-ming, Taipei Times

Liberty Times (LT): Why did you refuse Chinese capital the first time?

Jose Lin (林思吾): Back before [Alibaba Group Holding cofounder] Jack Ma (馬雲) spoke with me, I was approached by [the search engine company] Baidu. This was a major decision for me, and established my mindset on the issue of a Taiwanese consciousness.

In 2013, Baidu was looking to enter the Taiwanese market, and wanted to have the content from their question-and-answer Baidu Knows (百度知道) converted to traditional Chinese and made more accessible for the Taiwanese versions of Google and Yahoo.

At the time, the problem Baidu encountered was that of the roughly 1 million question-and-answer threads on their servers, Google only returned search results for 300,000 — they hoped all 1 million could be made retrievable.

My specialty is search engine optimization, so Baidu’s hope in seeking me out was that I could help them solve this impasse. After that, there would be a succession of projects aimed at entering Taiwan.

As a company that was focused on helping businesses get prioritized by Web searches, being sought out by Baidu was like a gift from the heavens, but after I thought about it, I decided I did not want to do it.

Why not? I was worried that having Chinese content show up in Web searches done in Taiwan would be detrimental to the competitiveness of Taiwanese businesses.

Think about it, if the whole first page of a Web search showed results from Baidu, then it would be just that much harder for a Taiwanese start-up to show up in search results. It would obliterate all of their hard work.

A search engine is also a kind of medium, and another way to win control of a market. This would be very harmful to Taiwan. Personally I could not accept that — having my successes in business be built on the foundation of harming Taiwan. Therefore, I resolutely refused the offer from Baidu.

LT: Why did you also refuse capital from Ma?

Lin: In 2014, a private equity fund headed by Ma made an offer worth NT$100 million [US$3.2 million at the current exchange rate], equivalent to a 15 to 20 percent stake in the company.

The day we discussed the deal I told them that I would not take it.

The reason is that China is not the company’s primary market. If I took that money, it would not be a huge help to the company and I hoped that my personal success would not have much to do with China.

Awoo is a consultancy firm that is focused on helping companies increase traffic to their Web sites. Primarily we research the search algorithms used by Google and Yahoo, looking for ways to prioritize our clients in their search results — it is very profitable.

Later, the Sunflower movement took place, which was a catalyst for us to transform Awoo into a software start-up.

During the Sunflower movement I was there meditating and I had a moment where a sense of oppression washed over me, and I felt like Taiwan might soon be lost.

As a young entrepreneur I had a deep understanding that China and Taiwan must be separate from each other, and that I must follow a path that does not include China.

If Taiwan is to march forward as an independent, democratic country, there are three issues that must be addressed: industrial structure, national land planning and the China element.

With regard to industrial structure, the software industry is very important for Taiwan, especially because software development pays well, consumes few resources and concentrates intellectual resources.

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