Seeking Ideas on the Ground in Taiwan


The following commentary was originally posted on, the website of Motley Fool Asset Management, LLC, on May 8, 2013. With permission, we're reproducing it here in its original form

"To understand is difficult. To act is easy."
-- Attributed to Sun Yat-sen

It was just another day at the office. I took the subway downtown, bought a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and walked the remaining few blocks to work. The security guard greeted me from the front desk as I walked onto the elevator. It was just another day -- except I wasn't heading into Fool HQ in Alexandria, Va. -- I was heading to my temporary desk in Taipei, Taiwan.

I'm halfway through a 10-week stay in Taiwan, which is quite unusual for me. I feel like less of a Wandering Fool and more of a Lingering Fool. A typical business trip involves a few days at a hotel, meetings with high-interest companies, and perhaps a few minutes to enjoy the culture of a particular city. In the years since Motley Fool Asset Management first launched the Independence Fund, I have taken several trips, and written about a few of them here, but I've never had much time to experience the daily life in another city.

My not-so-glamorous job
Visiting companies is great. Talking to management adds value to our investment process. But it's not my entire job.

Most of what I do -- probably more than 95% of my time -- is sitting at a computer and reading. Then I think about what I've read, perhaps build an Excel spreadsheet -- and then read some more. On a daily basis, it may appear that all the hours I spend working are producing no tangible output. I really must thank Bill Mann and Motley Fool Asset Management for allowing me to behave in this manner. As Warren Buffett has said numerous times, knowledge is cumulative. The more threads I can pull, the more time I can spend learning, the better decisions I can make for shareholders now and in the years to come. But I really do spend countless hours staring at my computer screen.

And so now I am sitting in Taiwan. On a typical day, you will find me at a desk reading exactly the same materials I would have read back in Virginia. The Internet has made gathering information a bit too easy; there is no shortage of material available for my perusal, and I spend most of the day sifting through it.

And then I step outside.

I wander around the markets in Taipei, observing which goods are most popular, which selling techniques seem to be most effective. I sample the foods and talk to the vendors. I go out for coffee and listen to complaints about corporate bureaucracy. I go to the pub and listen to an American businessman pine for the multinational contract he is about to sign. I don't necessarily know what conclusions this information will help me reach, but I continue to store it away in my mind, collecting knowledge about various topics as an investor collects a diverse basket of stocks.

Enough of that; tell us about Taipei
Taipei is an efficient city. As you walk down the street, looking into shops that spill onto the sidewalks, it is difficult to find any wasted space. The city is home to more than 2 million people, but the metropolitan area is closer to 7 million. The subway linking everything is among the most efficient I have seen, and a high-speed train connects the entire country, enabling you to travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung in about two hours. And when you venture outside the city, you will be treated to natural surroundings whose splendor is difficult to overstate.

There are plenty of tourist activities in Taipei. There is the world's fourth tallest building, Taipei 101; a bevy of temples and parks; the Taipei Zoo; and a few of the world's most famous night markets.

Also, the food is pretty good.

As much as I enjoyed seeing those sites, I learned to appreciate the city after I settled in and experienced the daily life. Many office workers are at their desks from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; if their bosses work late, they will typically stay as well, whether there are tasks to complete or not. The freedom I am given to set my own hours is unheard of among Taiwanese workers -- to be fair, it is unusual even by American standards.

Learning as I go
One of the misperceptions I had a month ago is that America is a better place for fostering entrepreneurship. It turns out there are plenty of entrepreneurs in Taiwan. But instead of launching tech start-ups or seeking venture capital, they manage to open a restaurant, a food stall, or a boutique shop. The people I see at these stores work incredibly long hours and are dedicated to their craft. So entrepreneurs do exist, but it seems more difficult to go from moderate success to the exponential success that we have seen from companies like Google and Facebook in the U.S. Perhaps the opportunity is there, and I must keep searching.

Luckily, I have a few more weeks to explore.

A visitor's guide
Taipei is a fun city in which to wander aimlessly, letting serendipity be your guide. But if you want a few pointers, here's a start:

  • Best restaurant: Din Tai Fung. Most famous for its xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. There are now several locations in Taiwan, as well as in many other cities around the world.

  • Best foreign restaurant: Persian Heaven. Featuring Iranian cuisine. No. 6 Nanjing East Road Section 5, Songshan District.

  • Best snack: Bubble tea. This drink is now available worldwide, but it originated in Taiwan.

  • Best shopping: Shida Night Market. You'll also do well with the Shilin Night Market, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world, but Shida has plenty of recent college grads trying to create a niche for themselves. During the day, the Ximending neighborhood is also good for people-watching.

  • Best view of the city: Maokong Gondola. Yes, the observation deck at Taipei 101 is worth a visit, but if you take public transit out to the zoo, you can ride a glass-bottomed gondola up into the mountains for less than $2. At the top, you'll be treated to winding paths through tea plantations.

  • Best libations: This is difficult to find since there is no exterior signage, but if you like whiskey, then the MoD Public Bar is an absolute must. Amazing selection, and the prices can't be beat. No. 40, Alley 4, Lane 345, Ren'ai Road Section 4, Da'an District.

Editor's note: Tony Arsta is not able to engage in discussion on the boards or in the comments section below. Tony does not own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook, Google, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook, Google, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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