Since helping to establish the now-giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company in 1987, Bill Tai has kept busy putting millions of dollars into early-stage technology start-ups around the world.
Tai told Business Insider he had invested in some 110 companies in the past 22 years, of which 19 went public, 20 were acquired, and “about five or six” shut down.
He now has a stake in about 30 companies around the world, including two in China, two in Japan, five in Australia, one in Brazil, and others in the US and Europe.
Of those, he is a board member of only 10, but keeps a close eye on his other investments as the founders tend to actively seek his advice, or run in the same social circles.
Tai is a sponsored kiteboarder; he says 70% of his investments have founders that share his passion for the sport.
Globally, Tai says he looks for entrepreneurs who are “driven, willing to fail-fast and learn from their mistakes and keep going”.
“I’d look for a world-class entrepreneur looking for a big market, and wanting to grow a company that could be a hit,” he adds.
“Mike [Cannon-Brookes] is a great role model, and as soon as Atlassian goes public he will be even more iconic than he already is.”
There are also certain ingredients that he looks for in each region. Here are the benefits and drawbacks that he sees:
In the USA, I tend to bet on people because it’s such a competitive market because if you have traction and a B team, the A team is going to beat you anyway.
I’d say the average level of talent in the Valley is stronger [than in Australia] because people tend to be more experienced.
But great entrepreneurs are great entrepreneurs; they just need access to the right resources. If Steve Jobs grew up in Australia, he’d still be Steve Jobs.
I definitely won’t do hardware companies in China. I won’t invest in companies that have heavy assets in China because the government can take it away.
The reason I invested in [web browser company] Maxthon is because it’s defensible. They have an open source community of developers – no one can take that away.
I funded TweetDeck out of the UK; that had a lot of traction. Luluvise is another app that was in the top 20 of the iPhone [App] Store for awhile.
Those companies had inexperienced entrepreneurs but great traction, and just needed help steering it.
Freelancer.com and 99designs probably found their footing here a little more easily than [in the US]; I think that’s because they had access to highly skilled labour in other countries.
Those companies are in effect an English-language bridge to skilled design and coding labour in third-world markets.
A lot of design talent on 99designs for example comes from Indonesia and the Philippines so I think the proximity to those regions puts them in a better competitive condition.
Shoes of Prey is in a similar timezone as China and has people in factories in China. if they have issues, they just call them [from Australia].
So even though the vast majority of their customers are from the UK or US for example, it would have been harder to set up a company there. It’s subtle and it’s not a huge thing but it matters.
Tai was in Sydney last week for the Startup Spring Festival and annual OZapp pitching contest, which runs alongside his “Mai Tai” kiteboarding event for entrepreneurs in Perth.
Australians can thank kiteboarding for bringing Tai to the country in the first place: he became involved with local start-ups about four years ago when he was invited to speak at a university event, but admits it was that the opportunity to kiteboard in Perth that pushed him over the line.
And just in case you think Tai’s overegging the kiteboarding reference, here’s Kym McNicholas over at Pandodaily on the high-flying phenomenon:
I can’t tell you how many times entrepreneurs have asked me to introduce them to Sir Richard Branson, who I’ve interviewed a number of times. “Learn to kiteboard,” I tell them, “and I’m certain you’ll run across him on the water at some point.”
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