This is part of our coverage of the Infinity Ventures Summit 2013 in Sapporo, Japan. You can read more of our reports from this event here.
In this panel, CyberAgent CEO Susumu Fujita spoke with five young Japanese entrepreneurs to find out more about how they got to where they are today. Participants in the discussion included:
- Riki Kojima, CEO of Willgate (an SEO solution provider)
- Nobuhiro Ariyasu, CEO of Coach United (a private lesson provider)
- Shintaro Otake, the CEO of Tri-fort (social app and smartphone app developer)
- Kensuke Furukawa, the CEO of Nanapi (an archive of how-to and daily tips)
- Natsuko Shiraki, the CEO of Hasuna (jeweler)
Startup strategies in the face of hardships
Otake: I intended to take a radical approach in order to make it successful. I set a target that we surpass Facebook, and I learned that we need radical and rapid growth to reach that goal.
Kojima: At the age of 20, my company was still two years old but employed too many people, even though I didn’t have much business experience at that time. With our 100 million yen funding ($1 million), I hired 30 people but the company unexpectedly collapsed too soon. Subsequently I found a colleague’s chat post that mentioned ‘I shouldn’t work with this company.”
Fujita: What are the advantages and disadvantages of launching your business when attending school?
Kojima: I had no business experience, so that I couldn’t figure out what was the best approach. I was forced to take a roundabout route and fail repeatedly. I’m still young, so people tend to see me as an immature business person, but in fact this makes me better at feeling people’s pains.
Monetization and business strategies
Fujita to Furukawa: I frequently visit your blog, and I know you’re quite good at writing stories. You, the company’s president, often show up on the web. What is there to gain from that?
Furukawa: If you’re running an internet service, you should be familiar with the space. But on the other hand, it was once pointed out at an important business appointment that I might have too much time to spare. Many employee applicants come to us through my blog. Compared to applicants we find through talent search services, they are highly motivated and bring much benefit to our business.
Fujita: For today’s business owners, your blogging strategy makes sense. Not only to help your hiring efforts, but it may also help you bring your vision and message to employees as well. But what’s your overall strategy behind Nanapi? Are you just focused on growing it without considering monetization? Do you plan to sell it off to other companies?
Furukawa: In order to monetize the service, we need to make it grow. We have 20 million monthly unique users, not yet sufficient for the monetization. In Japan, if you monetize an internet service, it should be among the top 50 sites in the country in terms of internet traffic. Some web media companies have succeeded to monetize, but my interest is in making big stuff.
Fujita: In my view, Cyta.jp (Coach United’s private lessons portal) is not very ‘Internettish’. How do you feel about it?
Ariyasu: No, our operations are not ‘Internettish’, as you say. For many online service providers, you typically send inquires to consumers to find out if they are satisfied with the customer experience. We actually use mystery shoppers to conduct surveys. In case that we can’t acquire users by e-mail marketing, sometimes even use telephone marketing.
Entrepreneurial culture in Japan
Fujita to Furukawa: Gradually we’re getting a culture where people admire exits. Do you plan to run your business independently without funding? Or are you interested in selling off?
Furukawa: We actually fundraised from Globis Venture Partners. In terms of our business model, our focus is on enlarging our media business. Selling off is a good option. But for now, we’d like to look at buying someone else’s service in order to enlarge our business.
I developed the Nanapi service because I couldn’t find any similar one. In our four-year experience since the launch, I eventually learned that it’s not so promising. Everyone wanted to have it but nobody actually did it, since it’s a bother.
Fujita: In Japan, entrepreneurs are generally not admired much. What do you think about this?
Furukawa: In my understanding, Japan is a country where we can easily launch a startup. We can also receive orders from big companies regardless of the size or maturity of the business. Compared to foreign countries, startup founders in Japan are relatively older, probably because we (generally) prefer to launch a business after getting work experience at a big company. For me, I’ve worked at Recruit for three years, which I think helps me do business more easily. If you are a student, people typically look down on you.
Kojima: When I failed in my business, I was bothered by the issues surrounding capitalization strategy and employment. I wanted more details about this information. I failed once but I bounced back even though I was immature. I hope our society can be tolerant of people who fail.
Ariyasu: Japan is heaven for entrepreneurs. Considering the huge amount of cash flow available in the market, the population of entrepreneurs going after that cash is extremely low. We need more success stories than we need government efforts to help entrepreneurship. If we get more billionaires, more people will get excited about entrepreneurship.
Fujita: Absolutely. If we have more success stories, that will certainly have an impact on people’s mindsets.
Otake finishes by asking Fujita a question: When are you planning to retire? What kind of people would you want to hand the company over to?
Fujita: To be honest, I’ve been always thinking [about] stepping down — when our business became profitable, when we completed the launch of Ameba (CyberAgent’s blog service). But the fact is, every time that we make an achievement, another new goal comes up.
For our media business especially, I was heavily involved in building it up. I did too much, and now I can’t really hand it over to someone else. (big laugh from the audience.)