Written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Keith Perhac (USA)
On February 15th, we held the 4th “MET Morning Interview”, where we conduct public interviews with cutting-edge business leaders in English. The guest speaker for this Interview was Keith Perhac, who’s been working in Gifu as an IT consultant.
We met Keith at a meetup for entrepreneurs called “GTIC” which was held in Tokyo in the spring of 2013. He often raised his hand and showered questions on presenters in Japanese. That was so impressive for us. Then he joined our presentation event called “Mechakucha Night” in May 2013 and his presentation (in Japanese!) left the whole room in stitches.
*Click here to listen to his presentation!
Some of you may think “Why Gifu?” or even “Where is Gifu?” Gifu is located in the center of Japan and outside of Nagoya, the third-largest city in Japan. Instead of setting up his company in Nagoya, he started a business in a town with a population of 160,000.
In his interview, he shared his life history, perspective of Nagoya and Japan through eyes of a small town resident from the US, and how he loves Japan — all through a Steve Jobs-like presentation! He loves talking about business, so the Q&A section of the interview stretched to almost 3 hours. We will present a digest of it.
A second-generation Hungarian-American, Keith first came to Japan in 1996, and settled permanently in 2003. After six years working as head of development in the Japanese IT sector, he started his own IT and development consultancy. Since then he has worked as a consultant in both Japan and abroad, for a number of companies ranging from Fortune 100s to 3-person startups. His company, DelfiNet (*See delfi-net.com/), focuses on the promotion of IT solutions to solve business needs, and believes that technology should be intuitive, applicable and beautiful.
I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, US. I came to Japan from the home of Jack Daniel and “Memphis Style BBQ” for the first time in 1996. The most common question I get, both from people in Japan and abroad is: “Why Japan?”
… No idea.
I have liked Japan since I was a kid even though I didn’t know where Japan was. I grew up in 80’s in the US, so I didn’t recognize Japan. All I knew about was “Asia”.
I studied Chinese characters from books I got from the library, and I learned Taekwondo and Tai-chi. As I learned more and more and I got older, I started realizing that I was interested in Japan, not China or other Asian countries. (I joke that Sailor Moon was the biggest reason. And I wouldn’t 100% discount that)
Probably Sailor Moon is the No.1 reason why so many people in America started liking Japan. It was so popular among us. I woke up at 6am to watch it on broadcast TV. Back then, there was no Anime when Sailor Moon came out in the US. If you liked Japan and if you wanted to watch anime, there was no choice but Sailor Moon.
Also I loved a comic series called “Ranma 1/2“. When I was a high school student, a 16-page comic book of Ranma was sold at US$2.95 (approx ¥300). I bought them every month all through high school. When I moved to Japan, threw out boxes and boxes of Anime comics. I calculated how much I spent on the series and it was around US$1,500 (approx ¥150,000)! And I went to Book Off, a Japanese huge used book chain, and got the entire set of Ranma for ¥1,000 (US$10)!
Just study it
The next question; Why can you speak Japanese? … Just study it!
I’ve been speaking the language and for 20 years. In high school, I studied Japanese very hard. I could write about 1,500 Chinese characters. But I forgot it all because we didn’t have a Japanese class at college.
Then after I came to Japan to study abroad, I learned it back. And I forgot it again after I went back home… Then I came here again as an English teacher. While I didn’t major in English, or language study, being an English teacher is the easiest way to get to Japan to work.
I came home from work at 4:30pm and then I studied Japanese until about 10:30pm. I took 10 minutes for dinner. Approximately I spent 6 hours a day every single day and I did it for 3 years. I ALWAYS had 2 flashcards in my pockets and just went through them, over and over again. If I missed a single word, I started over from the beginning. I used my flashcards anywhere — anytime I was in line, or bored, or when I was talking to someone who was really boring.
And I studied with my other American friends at a local restaurant because it was open until 4am. Without talking, we just studied together.
“Studying together” is important. If you work alone, you go to Facebook, right? I’ve studied 8 languages. French, English, Japanese, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Latin and Spanish. But I quit all but Japanese.
Japan – the world’s most innovative country
I’ve been programming for about 24 years. I’ve worked in the web/IT field for about 16 years since I was 18, and I’ve worked for Japanese companies for almost 9 years since I was 24. I got married with a woman in Gifu Prefecture in Japan, I had kids and bought a house and started an IT consulting company there.
My company’s mission statement is “日本の技術を咲かす (Nippon no gijutsu o sakasu)”, which means “Help Japanese technology to Bloom”. I believe that Japan is one of the most innovative, and industrious countries in the world. There is a man in Gifu who developed a battery that is used in every cell phone in the world. Cell phone makers tried to make their products smaller and smaller. He talked to cell phone makers in the world and they had his battery 2 months later.
But he doesn’t own those patents. He doesn’t own anything on it. So one asked him; “Why didn’t you have patents? You can be rich”. Because every single cell phone used his battery design. He said; “I solved a problem. I gave it to the world. So I’m onto the next problem. I don’t care about that”. That’s my favorite story about Japanese innovation. Because it’s absolutely beautiful.
Do you know that the CD, Compact Disc, was actually built by one guy working in secret at Sony? They thought this would never work, no one ever used it. They had another project and it was “Walkman”. So this guy sat in a basement after work every day at Sony and built CD. It revolutionized the entire industry. That’s why I love Japan.
Falling behind in software
But Japan as a whole has NEVER been good at software.
Japan has a reputation for being very good at electronics. When I tell people in the West that Japan has really horrible software, they don’t believe me.
But think about the types of electronics that Japan is good at: circuit boards, word processors, CDs, Walkman, TVs… But do you see any software?
It’s all HARDWARE. Japan is amazing at designing and building hardware. But we’ve never focused on Software.
The problem with that is that the world is becoming software-oriented, not hardware-oriented. Today Sony just sold their VAIO division, and their loss for this quarter is US$1 billion. Because they were focusing on hardware. And you need to have other Sony products if you want to enjoy VAIO more or use VAIO more effectively. It’s all about brand lock-in — not helping support the customer.
On the other hand, iPhone can connect to macbook or Windows, whichever. And the iPhone does whatever the software tells it to. It is a connection between computer and the world because the GPS knows where it is. Because internet connects to every other devices in the world. It has a phone, it has an accelerometer, which knows where it’s at. I can touch it, I don’t need any keyboard. I can talk to it by Siri. It has maps, it has video, and it can be a wallet. Why do we need another piece of hardware?
I’m not saying iPhone is uniquely amazing — there are lots of other smart devices — but it shows that the hardware is becoming a conduit between the user and the software.
I used to carry around many devices with me all the time — such as my cell phone, PDA, e-book, wallet, calendar and electronic dictionary. Now? Only the iPhone. The iPhone is a box and the only thing that limits what you can do with it is what software you put on it.. That’s why new applications are coming out all the time. Applications increase the value of the phone.
We had to buy the latest feature phone if we wanted a new feature. My last feature phone was ¥50,000 (Approx US$500), so expensive! But now you don’t need to do it. Just download apps, that’s it. And it cost much, much cheaper or you can do that even for free.
If you succeed in Nagoya, you can do business anywhere
As for business, now it’s really easy to have your own company in Japan. But my friend said, “If you can do business in Nagoya, you can do it anywhere”. It is probably the hardest place to do business in Japan. There is a couple of reasons;
1. It’s all connection-based. Because everyone knows each other.
2. They don’t want to spend their money. For example, if you open a new store, you have a big bouquet with compliments from other companies. Within one hour after the opening ceremony for the store, all the elderly women come and take the flowers and go home LOL.
3. When you take an invoice, you have to take two copies. First one is expensive. And second one is like “How about this price?”. It’s not an estimate, it’s INVOICE! It’s never seen in Tokyo.
Then let me tell you “Why is IT business in Nagoya difficult?” Because we are an automotive city. We are owned by Toyota. Everyone works for Toyota. If you are not working at Toyota, you probably work for a subsidiary, or you’ll be working there soon.
As a software person, I respect hardware and electrical engineers. I doubt I could do the amazing job they do. But it is a much more slow-moving industry than mine, and I prefer the fast pace of software development. They move slowly because automotive cycle for technology is about 10 years.
Imagine that, any technology coming out in car right now started about 10 years ago. On the other hand in IT industry, what did we have 10 years ago? We had no Facebook, we had no iPhone. iPhone apps first came out in 2008.
One thing that does bother me about the automotive industry is that developers do NOT make the decisions. Their managers make decisions. There is a culture that managers make a decision — the people who are implementing and developing the software doesn’t make any decisions. It turns developers, who should be masters of their domain, into mere cogs in the system. It’s completely the opposite of Silicon Valley startups.
But I’m so glad that I would able to learn Japanese business in Nagoya. Because like a friend of mine said, If you can make business in Nagoya, you can do it anywhere!
I’m in Japan because I want to help it
Let’s go back to “日本の技術を咲かす (Nippon no gijutsu o sakasu)”, Helping Japanese technology bloom. I could also say “日本の社会を咲かす (Nippon no shakai o sakasu)”, Helping Japanese society bloom.
Japan has so much un-tapped potential in its society and workforce. The number of homemakers in Japan is huge. There is a huge amount of untapped resources, especially now with our declining birth rate. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Japan will experience an 18% decrease in its workforce and 8% decrease in its consumer population by 2030. Society has to change in a way that we can bring more talented and available people into the workforce and we have a huge untapped resource that we are not using – homemakers.
I have a lot of people who work with me in America. They are homemakers who had careers that wanted to take time off to take care of their children and then go back to their careers.
One of the people who I work with used to work as Vice President of Marketing at a State Bank, and now she is doing marketing for me — but at the same time, she is a homemaker right now.
Going back to improving technology, and society as a whole — how can we make things better? The basis of this is “Taking care in what you do”.
Don’t do it 5%, don’t do it 80%. Don’t take anything for granted. If you wonder if it’s the right way to do and if not, just find a better way. For anything what you do, you always should re-evaluate and spending extra effort to make something amazing. That’s the No.1 way to succeed, and the No.1 way to make your life better.
Remember just 3 words; “Don’t half-ass it”. It’s hard to do. But that’s how we make things beautiful. However since the world is always changes, you always have a chance to improve over what you have done in the past. You shouldn’t believe things just because they feel right — especially in business.You need to test and confirm your assumptions, and prove the cause and effect of your action.
Today we test something here, and then we test it again over there. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, but we are always moving forward, and learning the entire time. This is what we like to call “Falling Forward.”
I feel Japan will succeed – It needs to get a little jobs and it needs to move forward, though – I want to help Japan. That’s why I’m here.
What is Japan to you?
I talk to a lot of my friends, people in Japan, people in the US, and they say, “Keith, you’re working in Japan and you get paid one-tenth of what you do in the US”. It’s true. But why the hell I work in Japan? It’s because I love Japan.
Japan is my home.