We in Japan are living in “interesting times”.
The country’s political and economic leaders are in agreement that new companies, small start-ups in particular, are the key to revitalizing Japan’s economy. While there are small and growing startup ecosystems in a few key Japanese cities, when we listen to the politicians, the academics and the business leaders, the message is overwhelmingly pessimistic.
This is not really the contradiction it seems to be.
You see, Japan’s government and big business are all in favor of disruption — as long as they can control it. And disruption, almost by definition cannot happen that way. Politicians and bureaucrats establish ambitious and well-meaning large, multi-year initiatives and feel disappointed when founders don’t flock to sign up for these government programs. The ex-bankers who dominate Japanese venture capital firms most often try to model their portfolios after successful Silicon Vally firms and then complain that Japanese founders are not creating enough of the “right kind of companies” for them to invest in — as if that were the founder’s responsibility.
It’s true. Most top-down attempts to directly foster entrepreneurship in Japan have failed, and to many at the top, that’s the end of the story.
Despite the top-down grumbling, however, Japan’s startup ecosystems are already emerging from the bottom up. All over Japan innovative, rapidly-growing companies are appearing, and traditional venture capital is being disrupted by a new generation of successful entrepreneurs who have become angel investors.
Disrupting Japan is a way to bypass the persistent proclamations of pessimism and hear directly from Japanese founders who are growing their ventures and succeeding in disrupting Japan. Listening to those who are actually making the needed changes, one can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of Japan.
Disruption can never be implemented top-down. It is always a chaotic bottom-up process. It’s understandable that the old guard is not completely comfortable with the changes underway, but I think eventually the Japanese national and local governments will realize their proper role is one of support and encouragement rather than leadership and direction.
Until that day comes, however, please join me as we sit down and talk to the people who are actually Disrupting Japan.