What good is Silicon Valley to Japanese entrepreneurs? [NES 2014 panel]

From the left: Hitoshi Hokamura (Evernote Japan), Hironobu Yoshikawa (Treasure Data),
Noriyuki Matsuda (Sourcenext), Satoshi Sugie (Whill)

This is a part of our coverage of the Japan New Economy Summit 2014. You can follow our updates on Twitter as well at @thebridge_e.

On day two of the New Economy Summit here in Tokyo last week, we had a chance hear a panel discuss the benefits that Silicon Valley can have for Japanese entrepreneurs. This session was moderated by Gen Isayama, co-founder and CEO of WIL (World Innovation Lab), and the participating speakers included:

  • Noriyuki Matsuda, CEO of Sourcenext
  • Hironobu Yoshikawa, CEO and co-founder of Treasure Data
  • Hitoshi Hokamura, chairman of Evernote Japan
  • Satoshi Sugie, CEO and co-founder of Whill [1]

Recently more Japanese investors and entrepreneurs have been moving to Silicon Valley. In order to get to the bottom of this trend, Isayama asked the panelists why they set up bases in Silicon Valley.

Japanese software distribution company Sourcenext established a local subsidiary in Silicon Valley back in 2012, and has partnered with notable companies to distribute packaged editions of their software products. Since that office opened, Matsuda has spent more than a half of his time in Silicon Valley. He explained:

I had no option but to come to Silicon Valley by myself. I used to make having short trips there, but I subsequently figured out that it’s difficult to arrange appointments with locals unless I have a base there. During the several months that I’ve been there, we made a lot of good partnerships. So finally I decided to hand my previous role at headquarters over to some reliable people and I started living in Silicon Valley.

Sourcenext's Matsuda
Sourcenext’s Noriyuki Matsuda

The discussion moved on to Hokamura-san, who is known to have worked at Apple as director of marketing in the early 1990s when it was far less common for Japanese businessmen to work in Silicon Valley. He looks back at that time, explaining:

I had no intention to launch a business during the time. Why do I still stay there? Maybe because I can meet many exciting people. In Japan, I think we need to consume more of our energy on trivial tasks.

Evennote Japan's Hitoshi Hokamura
Evernote Japan’s Hitoshi Hokamura

Prior to launching his next-gen wheelchair startup, Sugie previously worked at Nissan, and also as a Japanese teacher for non-Japanese speakers. He explained his relocation:

Compared to the electric vehicle industry, the US market is 15 times larger than that of Japan. If you look at the number of vehicles sold annually, it’s 300,000 in the US versus 20,000 in Japan. So we decided to launch our first prototype in Silicon Valley. The area has a larger base of early adopters and it’s easier to arrange interviews with people, including investors and consumers.

Whill’s Satoshi Sugie

Yoshikawa previously worked with the investment arm of Japanese trading company Mitsui & Co. Isayama asked him why he abandoned such a good position to launch a startup. Yoshikawa explained:

Since I was investing in tech companies, it was natural for me to be in Silicon Valley. But I subsequently found huge potential in big data, so I launched a startup doing that business by myself.

Treasure Data's Yoshikawa
Treasure Data’s Hironobu Yoshikawa

Isayama also asked about the challenges of doing business in Silicon Valley. Wheel’s Sugie confessed he had many difficulties hiring local talent.

Hiring is so hard in the US. When we interview potential employees, they try to sell themselves saying “I’m very confident I can fill a role at your company” or “My skills are a great fit for your company.” It’s not like Japan where employers can believe in a resumé from an interviewee. We definitely need to speak to at least three people that they have worked with before prior to hiring. I think there’s a huge cultural gap around hiring.

Sugie wrapped up the session by speaking about the attraction of Silicon Valley and encouraged audience members to launch their business there:

Silicon Valley is obviously awesome. But the geography doesn’t matter so much. Europe is great. China is also great. I think the mindset that entrepreneurs have in Silicon Valley is pretty important. Once you have it, you can go anywhere and launch your business anywhere in the world.

WIL’s Gen Isayama moderates the panel

  1. You can check out our exclusive interview with Sugie in this article.