Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ve brought you the stories of Japanese entrepreneurs who fight to change the world. But we introduce you to an investor who supports them for the first time. Tomo Akiyama, a Japanese venture capitalist/seed accelerator.
We met him for the first time in mid June, 2012. We attended a conference in Tokyo and was deeply inspired by words of the man wearing a polo shirt and jeans. He was tapping on a laptop, his name was called, stood up, grabbed a microphone and said;
“I think a rogue idea comes from a place where everything like specialty, nationality, race, age and gender is mixed. So why don’t you have a chance to talk to foreigners? If you don’t speak English, don’t worry. You don’t need to speak English, you can talk to them in Japanese.”
We heartily approved of him. We wondered why there’s no place where various kinds of people talk to each other even in Japanese in big cities like Tokyo. So we wanted to create such a place even though we lack the money to carry this out. But his words gave us a kick in the back. We have been thinking of creating a place where Japanese and foreigners have conversations and new ideas come up.
After his speech, we couldn’t help but do something and went running to him. We swapped business cards with him and asked him for an interview. We got interested in the reasons he attached more importance to the diversity.
For those who work all over the world, who started their businesses in an effort to reach out to the rest of the world, who are planning to found companies, his words would be long-awaited advice like water you wanted in a desert. Of course the same is true of ourselves. We’ve been waiting to hear his following messages!
– Tomo Akiyama –
Majored in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech University). While in school, he worked at “McKinsey & Company, Inc.”, the worldwide management strategy consulting firm, as a part-timer. He turned down an offer from a German company and went into the financial industry. Later he studied at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Sloan School of Management. After returning home, he gained experience at foreign investment banks such as Merrill Lynch and UBS and changed his professorship to a venture capitalist. The chief organizer of GTIC (Global Techno Innovation Cafe), Mentor at MIT Enterprise Forum Japan (MIT-EFJ).
A Japanese man whom I’ve known for a long time sold watermelons in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In Japan, about US$13 per a watermelon. How much did he sell for do you think? US$40? Many people may think like that.
But he sold one watermelon for up to US$440! Japanese watermelon turned into a brand in the Middle East. Watermelon is sold on a large scale with small profits in Japan, but it was sold at such a high figure overseas. If you make a marketing strategic plan and sell something in places where nobody has not been to, the value could be added on it much more than other branded products such as Miyazaki Mango, Yubari King, Seki-aji horse mackerel or Seki-saba mackerel.
I doubt this kind of idea comes up often from our daily conversations between homogeneous peoples – especially Japanese – because they tend to form barriers in their consciousness or think inside the box. But if you communicate with various kinds of people on a regular basis, your “box” would be broken by exchanging “preposterous” ideas. Sometimes we Japanese are said to lack the common sense possessed by people in the rest of the world, and vice versa.
That kind of communication doesn’t need to be a serious debate. Rather, a small talk is better because it can be a good ice breaker and you won’t hesitate to say something “ridiculous”. I believe that true globalization is a process to cast your variety of ideas which come from light-hearted chitchats with people from all over the world.
So I hold the event called GTIC (Global Techno Innovation Cafe) once a month in order to provide people that kind of opportunity. As you will see later, GTIC is a network event centering on startup presentations. Notification is written in English and Japanese, because we organizers aim at creating a “place” where people of any nationality/race/religion/gender/type of business can mingle.
Historically, trading centers tremendously attracted various cultures/races/products and progressed. And I discussed with other organizers who identify with my idea of providing environments for prompting talks with many different people, and we put the word “Cafe” in the name of the event in order to make it sound more relaxed. Letting go of your background, eating, drinking and talking with people of different types of job/posts/nationalities will generate many ideas – like watermelon can be sold at high prices in the Middle East – or they have such unique things to there. You come up with that kind of information while having a chat.
Speaking of the area, we serve halal food every time in order to make it easier for people from that area or Muslims to join us.
World-shaking ideas come from diversity
I began to think a great deal of “diversity” after studying at the business school of MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
On the first day of class, I saw many colors of skin and hair. Also there were people who wore religious head coverings such as jewish kippah. I’d never seen such a sight in my life up to that time. All of my classmates at elementary school, junior high and high school were Japanese. There were foreign students at my university and graduate school, but just a few.
On the other hand, the percentage of foreign students at MIT business school was 38% while in school, now its rate swells to 42% according to the Dean, Dr. David Schmittlein, who came to Japan the other day. It’s a high figure compared to other American universities, anyway it shows that MIT attracts businesspeople who are active or who were active in the business field until just before from around the world and they hold active discussions. A study group which I belonged to had 7 people including me, which consisted of people from America, Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa and Japan. They came up with fresh – or mind-boggling – ideas in flabbergasting timing. Things that were regarded as perfectly normal among Japanese were considered unnatural by non-Japanese. They happened so often.
Also when I was working at US/European investment banks, we had a conference call every single day. Around 4PM or 5PM JST when the Euro Market opens, we started engaging in give-and-take with foreign colleagues in each office all over the world. We assessed which kinds of transactions made profits in the world market in real time by doing it everyday. And I took overseas business trips as much as five times in a month.
Honestly I sometimes feel tired communicating with people from many different countries or in various age groups at events or meetings. It’s kind of hard to prepare Halal food for Muslims who attend GTIC. But I sometimes find astonishing ideas while communicating with a diversity of people.
Ideas that are reckless or lead to disruptive innovation rarely come up from homogeneous people who have the same background. “A and UN breathing” “If I say this, it’s considered rude” or “I’d be embarrassed to ask that now” – these words would interfere with a generation of the sensational ideas.
Little Silicon Valley – fusion of different background, nationality and age –
Japan seems to lack a diversity of age groups as well as nationalities and races. There are only students at a venue of student entrepreneurs’ meeting and they say they are tired of being lectured to by seniors. On the other hand, there’s no young guys at angel investors’ meetings and most of them are seniors. When I joined the foreign students’ business competition as a judge, there were only foreigners, no Japanese at all. When I went to the Japanese entrepreneurs’ business competition, there were no foreigners at all. Against those backdrops, people in their 20s to 60s from different countries/backgrounds join the GTIC, which I lead manage, and exchange opinions freely.
Anybody who has a unique background or career to him/her. Of course it’s the same with even students. Everybody shares his/her professional history or current study with each other. Participants share their knowledge and experience with each other. Then people who identify with each other actually start doing something. So GTIC is not a study session. It’s a space for prompting give-and-take of interactions. I want it to be like that.
I think one of the reasons why there’s just a few successful ventures in Japan is that we lack this kind of place. Many ventures have no money, no human resources and no marketing capability even though they have wonderful ideas. But if you come and join GTIC, you can ask someone for help and conversely you can help someone else. I would like it to be such a place. You can consult with people regardless of their specialty/nationality/age. You break the conventional rules and debate with them – I guess Silicon Valley is a place where those things were done spontaneously.
Silicon Valley attracts people from all over the world. For example, Google was established by Sergey Brin who has family roots in Russia and Larry Page who hails from America. Then they brought a new CEO, Eric Schmidt, who is much older than them. They established a multitalented team and Google has expanded greatly.
I want GTIC to be a place which is no less attractive for diverse human resources than Silicon Valley. That kind of place should be needed in order to make a disruptive innovation happen in Japan.
Chances can be found everywhere in the world
A criterion to decide to invest in a venture – as for me, a business manager’s “unshakable firm belief”, which is only one remove from a fixed idea is one of the important criteria.
Many factors are used for judging; entrepreneur’s credentials, business lineup, business model, revenue model, proforma financial statements, his/her vision… But in addition to those, I attach great importance to his/her personal magnetism and firm belief, like “a business which I engage in will absolutely succeed!”. In other words, his/her foursquare strong thoughts like “I’ll change the world through my business”. Of course it’s absolutely absurd not to take others’ advices at all or not to be flexible in their ways of thinking, but the spirit or courage like “I’ll follow the path I believed in even if I go on a different way from regular people” is important, too. In that sense, I see more potential in people who’ve learned things practically than in sound thinking people who’ve studied hard and garnered knowledge by reading books.
I never say that you should participate in the Olympics and win a medal or win the Nobel Prize. Each of us has a lot of potential, so if we’ll be able to achieve a high level as long as if you get started on something. I’ve interacted with many people from all over the world and reached certainty about it. All you need is a “just do it” spirit.
I believe that something that astonishes the world will come up from GTIC. I don’t mean the “world” is Silicon Valley. Originally there are many wonderful things in Japan. For example, Tokyo’s fashionable towns such as Shibuya, Harajuku and Aoyama are Meccas for people in other Asian countries. You may think the grass is always greener on the other side, but our grass is also green. And the products or services provided from Japan will win a big market in an unexpected place. So business opportunities can be found everywhere in the world.
About 150 years ago in Japan, Ryoma Sakamoto, a leader of a movement to overthrow the shogunate, escaped from his hometown and went to Edo (present day Tokyo). There used to be checking points (borderlines) throughout Japan and a certain document (like a passport) was a must when you went through a check point. He became a refugee and was going to do it without a passport. However now, there are no borderlines in Japan and you don’t need to bring any passport when you travel around Japan.
Someday there may be a time we’ll be able to travel around the world without passports. We might travel from Tokyo to San Francisco everyday as if we commute by train. If that happens, the categories such as “Japanese company” “Indian company” or even “Chinese” “American” would become all but meaningless. The words like “Made in Japan” “Global” would cease to matter. Your colleagues are Americans by chance, your working place is in China by chance – I imagine such a world.
I’ll go after the world market also as an entrepreneur
I believe “technology recognizes no national boundaries” because I majored in science, Electrical and Electronics Engineering. And the progress in science technology built civilization and cultures, and improved people’s livelihoods. On the other hand, the world of finance which I have been involved in for a long time must remain in the background and support the science technology.
I’ve engaged in international finance for over 20 years, mainly at the Wall Street investment banks. Then I switched to a venture capitalist because I had been investing in some ventures privately since I returned back to Japan. So I’ve found seed stage ventures which would blossom, invested in and given out advices to them, supported their marketing strategies, introduced them to ones who can be their CFOs and Japanese/foreign investors since then. However I’m only an “advisor” or “outsider” even if I’m a hands-on mentor for them.
So I’ll launch my own new ventures soon. Moving into action as an entrepreneur, in a parallel way as a venture capitalist – I think there are just a few precedents. But originally I’m a car/computer geek (I was a member of the automobile club when I was a university student, and I participated in the races even after graduation). Moreover I majored in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, so I’m really interested in certain fields such as ICT, Information-communication technology, and new energy technology, etc. Also I met many people who have wonderful ideas, abilities, and passion in advising various entrepreneurs as a VC and holding GTIC 8 times (as of July 1, 2012). So I decided to start new businesses by myself and do something with them, while continuing my VC activity.
You asked me; “Will ventures that can have a major impact on the world come up from Japan?”. Of course they will and I would like to astonish the world as an investor and entrepreneur.
And someday, I want to create a business which crosses borders and fields and develop a business model which you don’t need to think of “global” or “overseas market”.