The content of this article first appeared on Disrupting Japan. It has been reproduced by The Bridge with the approval of Disrupting Japan and the article’s author Tim Romero.
Tim is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster and author who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 20 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast and is deeply involved in Japan’s startup community as an investor, founder and mentor.
Kaneto Kanemoto founded OKWave to address a problem that was unique to the Japanese internet in the mid-1990’s. Most of the country felt the situation was inevitable, even natural, but Kanemoto-san knew it had to change.
Although Japanese people are exceptionally polite in day-to-day interaction, due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, people behaved very differently online. In the early days, the mood was one of bullying, hostility and exclusion.
Kanemoto-san founded OKWave to address these problems on the Internet in particular and in society in general, and he has succeeded remarkably at both. The Internet is a far more helpful and much more welcoming place thanks to him and OKWave.
Tim: For those who don’t know, can you explain what OKWave does?
OKWave is Japan’s largest Q&A community. We have over 40 million active users who come to ask and answer questions about work and life, and even about love.
Tim: Really, people talk about their love life?
Sure. People ask “I’m in love with my boss. What should I do?” or “I’m having trouble getting pregnant, what can I do?” When we first started, we had a lot of IT-based questions, but as more and more non-technical people started using the Internet, there were more and more questions about everyday life.
Tim: OKWave is doing very well today, and you went from founding to IPO in only six years, but most people don’t realize what a hard time you had building the company.
I think my company built me as much as I built my company. I’m Japanese, but I was born in Japan with Korean nationality. No one knew or said anything about it until my parents changed my nationality in childhood. After that happened, my classmates leaned that I was not a natural-born Japanese, and I have a very hard time. I was bullied badly, even by kids that I thought were my good friends.
Tim: It must be hard for a child to understand what’s going in a situation like that.
Yes, I was 10-years-old then and I could not really image what prejudice was until I experienced it. My parents wanted the best for me, but no one knew about my nationality until after I become Japanese.
Tim: Many people say the being an outsider helps you think differently and can be an advantage as an entrepreneur. Was that the case?
I don’t think so. In my case I think it just made it hard to trust other people. I went to an Arts college and got a job as a designer at a good company, but I wasn’t happy there. I felt like they did not really appreciate or understand my design, so I left to find work in Tokyo. At the time I really wanted to work at Sofmap.
Tim: How did that work out?
Not well. My wife was very against the move and even threatened to divorce me. I left for Tokyo by myself, and due to my own mistakes in judgement, I ended up not getting the job, and I was actually living in a park for six months?
Tim: You were homeless for six months?
Yes. I was until I met a Chinese women who had moved to Japan and was trying to find work. I told her my story, but she didn’t feel sorry for me. In fact, she scolded me for being so weak. For not appreciating how easy I had things. For using little challenges and other people’s opinions as excuses for not trying. I was shocked at first, but I realized she was right. The next day I made some phone calls and got a very, very low-paying freelance job as a designer, but that was the start.
Tim: The start? How did that lead to OkWave?
I was soon designing web pages, but I didn’t really know how to do the job, so I went online to ask people basic questions. It’s seems natural today, but in the mid-1990s, people were upset. People told me to go away and said I had no right to waste their time with such basic questions.
Tim: That’s one thing that amazes me. Japanese people are very polite, but when they are anonymous on the Internet they can be pretty horrible.
That’s true, and it used to be worse. I decided then that I wanted to make a site where anyone could ask questions safely. At that time, no one thought it would work. Venture capitalists and private investors told me that there was no incentive for anyone to answer questions for free on the internet.
Tim: So you decided to use your own money?
Sort of. I went back to visit my wife who had stayed behind in Aichi for the past two years. I wanted to apologize and tell her all the details of my life in Tokyo, and maybe start over together. I told her about my plan. She thought about it, and gave me the money she had been saving those two years. It was enough to launch OKWave back in 2000.
Tim: Wow! That’s a lot of pressure. It’s one thing to lose investor’s money, but your wife’s savings?
Yes. [Laughs] Failure was not an option. Fortunately, the site grew quickly after we launched. People were attracted to a place where members were friendly and they could ask questions freely. After investors saw the model working, they understood it and Rakuten invested. Growth continued steadily and we were able to IPO. From outside it might look like we were able to IPO very quickly, but it was actually a very long road to get there.
It’s hard to believe that back in 1997 Japanese VCs could not even imagine the internet becoming an open and friendly place where people are willing to take the time to answer questions simply because they’ve been asked.
Most assumed the Internet would evolve to mirror Japanese business culture at that time, a collection of tightly-knit alliances and closed communities. The open internet is an obvious reality to us today, but Kanemoto-san deserves credit for not only seeing it before others did, but committing his life to making it happen.