Project Mistletoe launched – Taizo Son becomes mainstay for young entrepreneurs



See the original story in Japanese.

There will be a new hub being set up within Tokyo’s startup scene. The hub is named Mistletoe and offered by Taizo Son, the remarkable Japanese serial entrepreneur who has survived the chaotic dawn of Japan’s internet industry.

Son explained the reason why he has named it so.

A mistletoe tree produces a lot of berries, which is an ideal food for birds during winter. Birds eat mistletoe berries and deface the forest, but then new trees will sprout from the ground and expand the forest.

It is better not to position the Mistletoe program as an incubation initiative. It’s neither the pure investment efforts we often saw a few decades ago on Japan’s emerging company market nor a seed accelerator inspired by Y Combinator. Son described the project as a vehicle for co-founding businesses but the fact is that it is not so easy to express in simple terms.

I recently had a chance to hear more about the new project from Son.

Mistletoe program concept

Taizo Son in the Mistletoe office
Photo by Takeshi Hirano, The Bridge

The Mistletoe project is not a so-called incubation program for entrepreneurs but operated in the form of co-founding a business with the business founders having a core idea or technology. Unlike conventional acceleration programs that typically have a specified time-period or an investment ratio, every project participating in the program will be handled under different case by case criteria.

Son explained:

Under the concept of this program, we will launch a business with its founders together. They need to bring a core technology and idea, but we will found a business with them, set a valuation for it, then work together on product development, fundraising and business development. That’s why we can’t just deal with a few projects per year. If we continue for five years, we would be able to work with more or less around 20 projects at most. […]

We’ll be doing a startup studio business. There’s a startup studio company called Expa in Silicon Valley, which we see as our role model. The company’s founder Garrett Camp is famous for having invested in Uber, and he has curated powerful people leveraging his network to propose the concept: a company which creates new companies.

This method may be close to EIR (entrepreneur-in-residence), intrapreneurship or other similar styles that Japanese tech incubator Beenos (TSE:3328) has adopted, where startups are based in an incubator’s venue and nourished upon receiving mentorship from designers and programmers at the incubator.

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Son and his team has rented a 1,300 square meters venue to make the studio possible. He said:

Many of the topics we’re dealing with are still in stealth mode so we can’t disclose them. When launching a business, many of us will do something a half step ahead from now, right? VC firms carry things out one step ahead.

However, our Startup Studio wants to work on things 1.5 to 2 steps ahead. For example, Fintech or Adtech businesses are a half step ahead business. Artificial intelligence and robotics are one step ahead. That’s why we must go beyond these.

The Mistletoe office’s floor plan (upper floor)
Image credit: Mistletoe
The Mistletoe office’s floor plan (lower floor)
Image credit: Mistletoe

While Son says the program will be processed on an issue-driven basis, I was told that it will address people’s bottom line problems such as global food-supply issues, low birthrate and aging society, in addition to logistics issues.

He continued:

We will support novel ideas and entrepreneurs aiming to solve problems from an oblique angle over a mid- or long-range period. That’s why our main focus will be on the research and development businesses. I think an investment amount per project will be larger here than other typical cases.

These are description in text about the Mistletoe program. It’s obviously interesting as content. However, what’s more important here is that the program is conducted by Taizo Son himself.

How on earth can the team change the world gradually? In order to better understand the core context of their strategies, let’s look back at the roots of the project before it was born.

Indigo and Taizo Son

Taizo Son and his team at Indigo (From Newsweek’s coverage of Indigo via Taizo Son’s Blog)

Many of our readers may recall how Son started being involved in the startup community. Son encountered Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang when attending the University of Tokyo, which led him to get involved in a project to launch Yahoo Japan. To prepare for it, Son launched a company called Indigo (currently known as Asian Groove) with ten of his classmates in 1996.

Regarding Indigo, Son was quoted in a book covering the early days of Japan’s internet industry back in 1990s to 2000s. He was as young as 27 years old when this book (Bit Valley Beat) was published.

In 2000, Son says “I’ll launch at least 10 companies this year”. Launching venture businesses in a systematic approach is Indigo’s primary business. Not only big companies but also individuals can bring their ideas to the company. Indigo invests their know-how and funds in prominent ideas.

What do you say? Yes, you see that Son started working on somewhat the original form of the Mistletoe program more than ten years ago.

One companies born out of Indigo is Onsale, currently known as Gungho Online Entertainment (TSE:3765). Having experienced the collapse of the dotcom bubble in early 2000s, he revived the business and IPO-ed the company with hugely popular titles like Puzzle & Dragons and Ragnarok Online by uniting efforts with Kazuki Morishita, the current president and CEO of Gungho.

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In my previous interview with Son, he raised Andreessen Horowitz and Alphabet as rivals to Mistletoe. These two companies have a different approach from Mistletoe because they are focused on investment but the three companies have many points in common in terms of illuminating the global community as a new business breeder.

Many of our readers are also familiar with Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, the founders of Andreessen Horowitz, through Ben’s authored book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” Netscape and Loudcloud are symbolic entities from the dot-com bubble in the US while Marc and Ben had overcome hardships; meanwhile there is Son in Japan. I can’t help feeling an indescribable charm of life in the fact that these entrepreneurs are working on the same topic at the same period after experiencing the same hardships.

Movida Japan and Taizo Son

An event of Movida Japan in its early days
An event of Movida Japan in its early days
Photo by Takeshi Hirano, The Bridge

Let’s get back to the original topic. Several years have been passed since the launch of Indigo Project where Son and his team were aiming of launching venture businesses successively in a systematic approach. Then he joined his brother’s company Softbank Group, and subsequently got back into the limelight with the launch of Movida Japan in 2011.

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Looking back at the time, Japanese internet giant Digital Garage (TSE:4819) and its affiliate companies launched Open Network Lab advocating the creation of Y Combinator in Japan while several other VC firms were starting similar acceleration programs. Movida Japan was among these and had been providing a several-month intensive incubation program in cohort batches. In an interview with Japanese business magazine Nikkei Business, Son described how he had launched Movida Japan.

I’ve been dashing forward to gain results while looking at my brother Masayoshi and at the people’s sense of values. […] However I suddenly realized I’m already just before 40 years old. Confucius says one has no doubts at forty. However, I had been always puzzled in my busy minute-by-minute schedule. […] What the heck I should do?

Spending two years, my conclusion was transferring my experience to young entrepreneurs. In addition, I decided to form a startup ecosystem surpassing Silicon Valley in East Asia by 2030.

I asked Son what on earth Movida Japan was. He responded:

What’s the most we have learned through it was having a place rather than us just providing mentoring or support young entrepreneurs. That was where people were polishing each others, aiming to go forward and higher. It was big for us to experience something small from the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem. I was working for Softbank Group during the same period where I could gain much experience and build my network.

When we speak with Son, he often uses this diagram (see below). That was so when I interviewed him at the launch of Movida Japan.

Image credit: Mistoetoe

I’ve been using this diagram before launching Movida Japan. Yet I was wondering what we should start with. But I thought it would sprout out from seeds here (Movida Japan). On the side, in discussions with Fumihara-kun (CEO of Nana Music) over an offline fan meeting, I was conducting billion dollar M&A deals. Such a major gap gave me a great input.

I spent almost three years doing various things from scratch, and could finally organize my thoughts. That’s Mistletoe.

Mistletoe orchestrates innovations

Image credit: Mistletoe

Looking back at what he had been doing at Indigo and Movida Japan, what he’s trying to do won’t change a lot at Mistletoe neither. That’s to create new power and solve social issues. As he mentioned, his thoughts were well organized and his activities slightly upgraded at Mistletoe, where they will ‘integrate’ entrepreneurs with each others.

Son explained:

Every entrepreneur really needs his or her focus to gain success. But solving a big problem is difficult for a single entrepreneur. That’s why we are planning to integrate their skills in solving problems with each others.

Meta Entrepreneur, a superordinate concept that Son addresses, is called “Orchestrates Innovations” at the Mistletoe program. They aim to solve big problems through “chemical reactions” resulting from combining various technologies and expertise. To make these possible, Mistletoe is to provide human resources, goods and capital.

He continued:

Finally we have fixed onto what we want to do. Two missions, orchestrating innovations and forming an ecosystem to accelerate them — that’s just what we should do.

I believe this approach is now possible because the Japanese startup scene has a deeper talent pool of entrepreneurs and investors who have been nourished by Son and the Japanese market these days.

Photo by Takeshi Hirano, The Bridge

Son will celebrate his 20th anniversary this year since launching his first company while attending university. Concluding the interview, I asked him if he has anything unchanged since then. He replied:

I’ve been often expressing a “metaball” company. Appears to be like a globular cluster nebula. They are several objects, they look like one cluster when seen from a distance. At my company Indigo, there was no boundary defining inside or outside the team but everyone was located randomly around me and continued working.

Some people have come to us and then sped away like Halley’s Comet, others are still revolving around us. I’m told that’s the form of a company I had beem aiming for. It may not have changed a lot since my early days.

Translated by Masaru Ikeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy