Founder Stories: Taiwan’s E-Commerce King Steven Ho


91APP Founder and Taiwan Startup Stadium mentor Steven Ho

91APP Founder and Taiwan Startup Stadium mentor Steven Ho

“Startups are the inspiration of people who are motivated by the chance to create something that is otherwise seen as impossible in the eyes of the others,” says Steven Ho, founder and chairman of 91APP.

A well known pioneer in the field of e-commerce in Asia, Ho is no stranger to the startup industry. As one the first generation of entrepreneurs during the dawn of the internet, the company founder banded together with his fellow classmates to establish their first startup after witnessing the potential demonstrated by North American e-commerce companies such as Amazon.

“Internet shopping first came to be between ‘95 and ‘97,” Ho said. “One of my classmates saw the opportunities the new form of shopping had for Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, the first shopping module was written by one of our engineers in only a month.”

Following his initiation into the field, it did not take long for the entrepreneur to become one of the authoritative figures of Taiwan e-commerce, when he sold not one but two companies to international conglomerates, namely eBay and Yahoo! Inc. Ho’s credentials as an e-commerce leader were further cemented when Yahoo! Kimo invited him to serve as the General Manager of the company’s online shopping division. Under Ho’s leadership, e-commerce grew to be a lucrative part of the search giant’s business.

Starting up again

A successful stint with a top corporation could not diminish Ho’s entrepreneurial spirit, however, and his years of experience and continued success have spurred him on to found his latest venture, 91APP. The new mobile app and web service allows retailers to create their own online stores, and the company has already raised USD $9 million in Series A funding in early 2015. The success of the company can be credited to Ho’s belief that adapting to the market is one of the keys to victory for any startup.

“I remember walking out of my office one day early in my career,” Ho said.  “As I walked down the street, the neon lights that came into view made me emotional, because I started to lament at the possibility that e-commerce might take over the beauty that is traditional shopping. However, that did not happen, and instead, what we see is a change in consumer habits, with e-commerce becoming an agent which supports and strengthens traditional businesses.”

According to Ho, the App as a Service model of 91APP cuts costs for both the company itself and, ultimately, small retailers who want to extend their brands online. Using the platform, retail apps and websites can be built in minutes for under NT $100,000 (around USD $3,000) when it would normally cost a retailer up to NT $2 million to develop an app from scratch.

Words of advice to new startup founders

Having successfully built numerous companies over the years, Steven Ho is an insightful individual when it comes to startups. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Taiwan startups, and this year has signed on as a Founders League mentor at Taiwan Startup Stadium (TSS). For founders just starting out, he has a lot to say:

Be careful when taking advice from those who have succeeded

According to Ho, founders should think critically about whether advice from people running successful companies can actually apply to their new startups. “Because you see, the methods of running a big company and a small company are different, are not compatible; so the challenge is for a founder to know how to transition from running a startup to becoming the manager of a large corporation. Input from successful businesses tend to come from a position of achievement, and might not be right for those who are just taking the first steps in their journey.”

Don’t rely only on what you’ve been taught -- adapt!

The startup expert feels the biggest challenge for any startup is adaptation. New business owners are usually taught how to run an operation with the knowledge and expectations gained in college classes. However, Ho believes very few are taught how to actually establish a company, which is in itself a craft that demands more than knowledge and intellect alone. Simply put, education can only take you so far, and it is essential to adapt what you’ve learned as the world changes around you.

Entrepreneurship requires a leap of faith for both founders and the people who love them

In Ho’s point of view, the first big step towards building a successful company is taking that initial leap of faith. This can sometimes mean facing the worries of those not yet ready to make that leap. “My parents did not support me starting my own company initially. Like all parents, they didn’t wish to see their child waste his life,” says Ho. “But eventually, not only were they reassured after seeing media coverage of our first company, but they’ve even remarked to me that online shopping is so convenient for folks their age.”

No matter what, Ho encourages first-time founders to set aside their hesitation and go all in when starting up. “I am encouraged to help out other startups as a mentor not to showcase my own success, but simply with the goal of wanting to help them grow and blossom into successful businesses.” says Ho. “I hope to help them take a big leap.”