Meet Jamie Lin of Taiwan Mobile

At only 42 years old, Taiwan Mobile President Jamie Lin is a young face in an industry still dominated by the previous generation. Not one to be discouraged, Lin has brought his world-class business education and extensive experience in the startup world to Taiwan’s fiercely competitive telecommunications industry. He is now working with his team at Taiwan Mobile to push the bounds of what a traditional telecom operator can do.

Lin sat down with TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier in October to discuss his reasons for returning to Taiwan from the U.S., the unique nature of Taiwan’s telecoms industry, and how he finds inspiration and energy in his passion for creating a lasting impact with his work.

You have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA from NYU. How did your education influence your eventual career? How have you applied the knowledge and skills gained from living and working in the U.S. to your career in Taiwan?

Before I even went to NYU’s Stern School of Business, I had already started my first company and put five years of work into it. I had also held a general manager role at my previous company’s China operation, so I had accrued some leadership experience as well.

However, at that time, so much about doing business was still a mystery to me, and going to Stern really helped me open up that black box. I went there with all of these questions that I wanted answered, and I ended up taking more credits than were required for the MBA. In the end, it made me a much better businessperson.

After graduating, I spent the next four years launching a new startup with friends I’d met in my MBA program, which also made a huge impact on me. During that time, I saw the resurgence of internet companies and witnessed how the campaign for Barack Obama leveraged the internet to vault him from a one-term senator to being President of the U.S.

On top of that, I was there when Apple and Google introduced smart phones to the global market with the iPhone and Android. I realized that the internet was going to become this thing that you carry with you all day and that you use essentially every waking minute. I saw these big shifts taking place and I understood that although my original plan was to settle down in the U.S. permanently, I needed to bring some of this excitement and innovation back to Taiwan.

You’ve had a lot of experience in the startup community over the past two decades, including in your concurrent role as chairman and partner at AppWorks. Have you brought a similar startup-style approach to heading one of Taiwan’s largest telecom operators? Have you changed anything about the management structure or style of the company?

We have definitely been acting more like a startup. For example, we have been engaging in several new ventures, such as our recent partnerships with Google, NVIDIA, and Riot Games. These are all new, unproven business models, and like a startup we are throwing them out there and seeing what sticks.

I’ve been encouraging my team to understand that a certain percentage of these endeavors will pan out and if they do, the outsized return will more than compensate for any failed ones. And I’m happy to say that the company has been very receptive to this strategy. One of the reasons why I think that’s the case is that Taiwan’s telecom industry is super-competitive, and the companies here are therefore very used to change. It’s in our DNA.

In terms of management structure, I didn’t change much. However, I did introduce two new organizations or small teams. One of them was the corporate development team, which is responsible for sourcing strategic investment and M&A opportunities and making recommendations on how we take advantage of them.

The other team I put together is a full-stack growth hacking organization, tasked with finding areas of the company that require growth. Both teams were formed around six months ago, but have hit the ground running and have already made some major progress.

You mentioned that the telecommunications industry in Taiwan is very competitive. What are some of the other major characteristics of this sector? What sets it apart from those of other countries in the region?

Taiwan is a unique market for telecommunications. Thanks to low-cost unlimited data plans, our industry has some of the lowest average revenue per capita globally coupled with the second highest per capita data consumption. In addition, Taiwan has the most network operators of anywhere else in the region – five companies compared to the three or four of most other countries – and the highest 5G spectrum costs in the world.

Adding to that situation, we have a regulator that is really keen on making sure that things go exactly as they planned. We must apply for prior regulatory approval for many of the activities we do – even merely adjusting our rate plans – and some things take longer than we would like. These factors make telecoms a very challenging yet exciting and dynamic industry.

What are some of the unique advantages of leading a company as large and established as Taiwan Mobile? What are some of the challenges? How have you approached these challenges since starting in your role?

I think the biggest advantage is that we can get the attention of top global companies, whereas when I was working with startups, it was almost impossible to get them to work with us. But at Taiwan Mobile, companies like Google will seriously consider the opportunities you’re offering and the potential to collaborate with you. This makes my job easier as I aim to transform the company through these new endeavors.

And as I said earlier, Taiwan Mobile is very nimble in that it’s so used to competition and change. It has the 300-pound weight of a gorilla, but it moves as fast as a gazelle. So, as long as you can point it in the right direction, it can make a big difference.

The challenge then is how to pick the right direction for the company to follow. At any moment, there are countless opportunities for a company like Taiwan Mobile to choose from. This is where my experience as a venture capitalist comes in handy. As a VC, you’re always looking to choose the startups that could really go big. So, in the case of our recent ventures, I had to first decide which areas we wanted to go into, then determine who would be the best partner to go into them with.

Do you have a particular philosophy as a manager? What do you see as your strengths? Any weaknesses?

My training as an engineer really imbued me with a desire to solve problems and create win-win scenarios. Within a company, there are sometimes conflicting objectives between different departments, and I’ll have situations where two department heads will come to me and accuse the other of standing in their way. Rather than taking sides, I am usually able to think outside of the box and find a new way for them to work together and achieve their objectives without sacrificing one party’s interests over the other’s. I see this kind of problem-solving as an engineering task, and I really enjoy doing it.

On the other hand, my background in engineering may also present some obstacles. Since I approach issues logically and pragmatically, I don’t bring a lot of emotions into my work as a manager. However, people are people, and they do have feelings that I need to be aware of, so I try very hard to empathize with them and put myself in their shoes. I also have to remember to choose my words carefully when addressing conflicts or workplace issues and make sure that I’m not exacerbating tense situations. Focusing so much time and energy on this aspect of my job takes away from other areas and makes me that much less productive during the day.

What kinds of activities get you feeling “recharged?”

To be honest, my work with AppWorks and Taiwan Mobile is what really gets me recharged. I didn’t choose to take on these roles because I needed the income or wanted any of the peripheral benefits that they would afford me. I chose them because I’m really passionate about seeing the impact these organizations can make. I feel that this is both my work and my purpose, and all of the progress I make running AppWorks and Taiwan Mobile recharges me.

The activities I do in my off-hours are thus more about staying in good enough shape to keep improving and making progress at work. I exercise not so much because I like it or it makes me feel happy, but rather because I want to make sure my body is in the best condition to be more productive during working hours.

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