Taiwan's Young Niche Entrepreneurs
Pinzaan: Designer Chair Makes Web Buzz
Pinzaan: Designer Chair Makes Web BuzzBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 415 )
If you type in the words "flexible love" in your Internet search engine, one of the first links you will find is a Youtube video clip featuring the versatile designer chair of that name. Invented by Chishen Chiu, a young designer from Miaoli in central Taiwan, the environmentally friendly seat is made from recycled paper and wood products. Thanks to its sturdy honeycomb structure, it can be extended from a single seat into a bench, seating up to 16 people, and be molded into different shapes – straight or curved.
Websurfers around the world who saw the video have praised Flexible Love as the coolest chair in the world and as an avant-garde furniture experiment.
This now hugely popular product had originally been relegated to a dark corner at a student dormitory at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, where Chiu was studying industrial and commercial design. Lacking confidence in his creation, Chiu told his friend and fellow student Vito Lin, "I guess maybe this is the end of the line – let's put it in the dormitory and let it rot!"
But Lin thought that Chiu's chair was too special to be discarded just like that. He thought that it easily stood its ground in comparison with other innovative furniture that he had seen in international design magazines.
More than 2,000 Taiwanese graduate from college design departments every year. The island produces more than twice as many designers as Germany, which has a population four times larger. Lin thinks that Taiwan needs to sell its creative potential overseas, or else its talented designers will be doomed to settle for meager salaries of less than NT$30,000 per month.
"Designers are not familiar with marketing, finance, patents and markets. If you compare them with pop singers, then I am a manager," says Lin in explaining his role in promoting Chiu's creative work. As the son of an entrepreneur father, Lin began to think about creating a platform for selling products designed in Taiwan around the world. Eventually, he joined forces with Taiwan-based brand strategist Mark Stocker and founded Pinzaan Inc. as a distributor of design products.
And he chose Chiu's experimental seat for his first attempt at commercializing a design product.
Patenting Products, Targeting Markets
Deciding to go for the lifestyle-conscious European and American markets, Lin also applied for patents for Flexible Love furniture there to prevent product piracy.
Then he presented the seat at various design exhibitions such as the Young Designers' Exhibition and the Urban Simple Life festival in Taipei knowing that it would create a strong buzz among the design-loving urbanite audience.
Aware that he couldn't afford a conventional branding campaign, Lin decided to market the chair via the Internet.
Thanks to its "fun factor" and flexible shape, Flexible Love was much more suited for an online campaign than traditional rigid furniture.
Pulling the seat into different lengths and shapes, Lin praises its eye-catching features: "It has a strong performing character. Because it's not static, it's very easy to promote."
Lin shot a video clip in which he demonstrates the seat's versatility and posted it on Youtube. He also asked the European distributor to promote the chair with a photograph of an entire soccer team sitting on one. An American customer uploaded a picture of Flexible Love at a barbecue party. In time, photos and videos of Flexible Love spread across the Internet like a virus, boosting orders.
Dai Chang-chi, chairman of Taipei Hotel Management Consulting Company, which has made budget boutique hotels popular in Taipei in recent years, put a Flexible Love chair in the lobby of the Dandy Hotel on Xinyi Road. Dai says he was struck by the chair's design at first sight and thought it would be a good idea to use it to promote Taiwanese design among the hotel's Japanese and South Korean guests to attract potential buyers.
So far Pinzaan gets the lion's share of orders for Flexible Love via the Internet. Presently, the chair is being sold in 15 countries. Distributors in France and Spain regularly order the chair per 20-foot and 40-foot container.
Older people generally feel that those born in the 1980s are "big hat, no cattle" and lack management ability. But Lin is making great efforts to shore up his weak points.
He is aware that aside from being beautiful, a product must eventually also pass the test of daily use.
Listening to the Market, Constantly Improving
After the Flexible Love chair hit the market, Lin kept working on product quality. He would often ask consumers how they felt about using the chair and would even go to Taipei's Breeze Mall and other upscale shopping areas to conduct market research on the chair's pricing.
Since Taiwanese consumers prize durability, he changed the corrugated paper used in the original design to sturdier kraft paper. He also had the chair tested by SGS for allowable weight to assure his overseas agents of its resilience and stability.
Lin customarily asks his father for advice and also frequently participates in creativity contests to hone his skills and make up for his lack of business experience. Meanwhile, he has also learned that goods that are shipped to Russia or Malaysia by sea need to be better insured, because shipments on these routes are easily hijacked by pirates.
Lin, who started out with zero background in production, legal affairs or marketing, keeps learning day by day. He is aware that building a brand is not an easy undertaking.
"The manufacturers keep brainwashing me every day. They want me to switch to mass production for small profit and quick return. The factories want us to diversify and sell each product for only one or two years," says Lin lamenting the typical contract manufacturer mindset in Taiwan. Lin is convinced that Taiwan has more to offer than contract manufacturing, that it should bank on projecting its design prowess and aesthetic creativity, and make money from their intangible value.
Prof. Chao-Tung Wen, director of the Center for Creativity and Innovation Studies at National Chengchi University, predicts that Pinzaan will face a challenge finding other innovative products to market. "If customers surf their website every week expecting to see something new, but then can't find anything, the company will find it very difficult to keep growing," Wen cautions.
Lin is presently on the hunt for novelties, hoping to find products by Taiwanese designers that suit his company's profile. It remains to be seen whether Pinzaan can repeat the extraordinary success of the Flexible Love chair in the future.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 品展 一把椅子拿下十五國訂單