In 1989, while working for a small design company in the UK, Mark Lintott received a fax from Taiwan. It was to change his working life forever
The fax was from a guy in Taipei saying… we want you to work in Taiwan – give your bank account details, we can send you money," recalls Mark Lintott. "We laughed and threw it away, thinking it was a joke, but he persisted – it turned out he had seen a picture of an interior we'd done for World's End, Vivienne Westwood's shop on the King's Road, in a Japanese coffee-table book."
Lintott travelled to east Asia to do the work – a refit for a fashion company – and the mysterious fax-sender quickly became a close friend. "He started introducing the company to a whole bunch of clients, gave us office space to start out with and so on," says Lintott. "Before long we were doing shops and department stores here. There was never any formal financial framework to it – just a pure gentlemen's agreement."
Lintott had long held ambitions to become an entrepreneur. "I'd always been very ambitious, in terms of not wanting to answer to anyone else," he explains. Did he have any idea, on arrival, that this distant island might be the place to do it? "About five minutes after I got off the plane," he says. "The energy of the place was astonishing."
The big difference in Taiwan was the lack of bureaucracy. "At that time, I'd spent eight years dealing with historic building departments and planning authorities, and it was tediously, mind-numbingly frustrating," he says. "Here, everything happens so quickly – it was hard to keep up at first."
Lintott had spent around two years travelling back and forth between London and Taipei when the partnership he worked at in the UK split up. "Luckily, it was just as I decided to stay here and set up alone that everything went pear-shaped at home," he explains. "I rented a small ground-floor shop unit – it looked a bit like a gallery – and passers-by would drop in at lunchtime, gaze at the pictures on the walls and walk out again. I then recruited a small team and started tapping into the contacts I'd built up.
"It was a slow, tough start. One day, I went out to lunch with some local designers and architects and I explained to them that I was thinking of giving up and going home. The following Monday, two of them passed on some clients to me, just to keep me going. The people here are pure gold."
He seized the opportunity, and eventually the work snowballed. Today, Mark Lintott Design services a burgeoning portfolio of clients from quirky but smart premises in Taipei's buzzing Da'an district. He's involved with projects extending from California to Shanghai while locally he's designed a string of bars, clubs, restaurants and recording studios. "As far as I'm aware I'm the only foreign designer working here independently," he says.
Lintott says that labour laws in Taiwan are not dissimilar to those in the UK ("although perhaps not quite so onerous for the employer," he says). Employing foreign staff, though, is a knotty area. "The simplest way to establish a legitimate business presence here was to establish a head office in Hong Kong, then set up a branch in Taiwan off the back of that – this meant that I and any other non- Taiwanese nationals could work for the branch office." Even then, there was red tape to cut through. "There are minimum levels of capital that the branch must prove in order to register here. Obviously, loans [from local banks] were out of the question, so I had money remitted into Taiwan to a designated local bank account."
Other difficulties in the early years included shipping materials – "next to impossible, unless your core business relies on specialist equipment" – but elsewhere conditions were favourable. "Tax is lower than in Europe – there's a five per cent VAT rate on all formally invoiced bills, personal income tax is around 20 per cent and company tax is also relatively low, and paid quarterly."
There are local considerations Lintott has had to accommodate in order to succeed in Taiwan – not least the ancient art of aesthetics and placement. "Luckily, the core roots of feng shui are based on practical reason," he says. "You put the kitchen on the north side of a house because it's cooler; you sleep with your back against a mountain because it feels safer."
Other local beliefs are less rooted in practicality, says Lintott. "You must be careful about colours – white or blue are connected with funerals," he says. "Another thing that is substantially different is the work ethic. People work extremely hard, and put in long hours to meet responsibilities and deadlines. There's a 'can-do, will-do' attitude to everything that underpins the economic success of the country."
Lintott's advice to any UK companies thinking of setting up shop in Taiwan stems from his father-in-law – an American who was posted here with the military in 1959 and never left. "He told me, 'If you stick to the three Ps, you'll be all right here'," he says. "Perseverance, politeness and patience.
"You also need to be flexible. Many people come through here not amenable to other people's ideas, customs and ways of doing things. You have to consider the individual's character, and work out how to relate to people."
With about 10 to 12 projects on the go at any given time, Mark Lintott Design is in rude health. He's working on a boutique
hotel in the Italian quarter of Tianjin, northern China, and an "interactive info-tainment tree" to stand outside a new shopping mall ("It will grow during the day and change with the seasons" he explains). The key to Lintott's success – and something anyone setting up in Taipei should embrace, he says – is the willingness to be speculative. "You have to invest time in people, throw ideas around. You may be contributing ideas for no obvious reward, but people here get it, and will come back to you. It's about patience."
Taiwan fact file
Population An estimated 23m people
Economy Taiwan is export-dependent, thanks to a western appetite for hi-tech gadgets
Currency The New Taiwan dollar
Language "My Mandarin is basic, but I can get by in a business environment," says Lintott. "All my office staff are bilingual, and most of my non-English speaking clients are very amenable to trying to understand. Luckily, I work in a visual business, so drawing stuff helps a lot."
Sights "The National Palace Museum has one of the largest collections of Chinese art. Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial is impressive too," he adds.
Food "My favourite place is Din Tai Fung, a dumpling restaurant on Xin Yi Road," says Lintott.
Where to stay "On business, you're better off in international, branded hotels such as The W or the Shangri-La," he says. "There are many spa and hot spring hotels. A good spa place is Villa 32, north-west of Taipei."
Getting there China Airlines flies to Taipei from Heathrow every Thursday; Eva Air offers a one-stop flight from Heathrow to Taipei. Useful numbers The British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, +886 (2) 2720 1919; The British Trade & Cultural Office, +886 (2) 8758 2088