Those of us who spend our lives working with startups live in a bubble. Whether you spend your days programming at a startup or investing in new ventures, you and I see things differently than “normal” people.
It happens to everyone to some extent. We all tend to interact with people who are like us, who care about similar things and who work in similar industries, so of course, we frequently hear the same ideas and opinions. The startup bubble, however, is particularly strong and particularly opaque.
We founders have a bad habit of believing our own bullshit.
Well today, we step outside our bubble and sit down with Mone Kamishiraishi, the star of the new film Startup Girls. We talk about what she learned as an outsider interviewing startup founders to get ready for her role, what most Japanese find surprising about founders and startup culture, and what Japan can do to to make starting a company more mainstream and accepted.
It’s a great conversation, and I think you will really enjoy it.
- What most Japanese people think about startup founders
- The similarities between startups and acting
- Why family support and role models are so important in Japan right now
- What’s holding entrepreneurship back in Japan
- What we need to do to create a broader acceptance of startups in Japan
Links from the Founder
- Check out Mone’s official homepage
- Follow her on Instagram
- The Startup Girls official site
Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
Today, I’ve got a very different kind of interview for you. It’s shorter than most but it’s going to be an interesting one. You and I talk a lot about innovation in Japan and how things are changing for the better here. But as many of my friends point out, I live in kind of a bubble. Not in an economic bubble but with all the startup unicorns we see prancing around these days, we’re probably living in an economic bubble too. But no, no, I mean more of a filter bubble.
Disrupting Japan is a podcast about innovation in Japan so naturally, we talk a lot of Japanese innovators. Most of my friends are startup founders and venture capitalists. So, while we are seeing all kinds of innovation and increased risk-taking in this group, maybe that’s not really reflective of Japanese society as a whole. Well, today, we’re going to step outside our bubble and see what’s there. We’ll still be talking about startups, of course, and we’ll be doing it with Mone Kamishiraishi.
Now, Mone was the star of the megahit anime, Your Name, and she is co-starring in the new film Startup Girls which focuses on startups in Japan. So, when Mone accepted the role of playing a startup founder, she had to figure out exactly what they were and how they were different from, well, let’s just say how they were different from normal people.
It’s a great discussion about how people outside of our bubble see us and Mone and I also talk about the similarities between startups and acting, the general attitude towards creativity in Japan and how to foster a greater acceptance of startups and innovation in Japan. But you know, Mone tells that story much better than I can, so let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: You know, the idea of startups is kind of new in Japan, right?
Tim: So, before you started this project, before you started working on Startup Girls, what was your image of startup founders?
Mone: To be honest, I didn’t even know what the word “startup” stands for.
Mone: Yes, I could imagine very, very vaguely but, yeah, start something, I thought. But yeah, I didn’t know and also, my image for the founding businesses are quite far from me and only genius can do that.
Tim: You know, I think a lot of Japanese think the same way about starting companies.
Mone: I think so too.
Tim: So, you thought it was kind of like only a special kind of person in a startup company?
Mone: Yes, and I will never do that in my future. Yeah, I thought it before I started shooting this film.
Tim: Okay. And so when the role was proposed to you, how did you get ready for it if you’ve never heard about startup founders before?
Mone: Yeah, first I Googled the meaning of startup. That was the beginning.
Tim: Really? What’s a startup?
Mone: Yeah, yeah, yeah, startup. Search. That was the beginning, very low level. But after that, I began to interview to the real founders of businesses, especially the people who founded their business when they are young like university students. I could find the similarity between us and that was they had to manage both study and business at the same time, right? And actually, I go to university at the same time I work as an actress, so I understood how hard it is to cope with both things at the same time. We don’t have to do reports. We cannot go to school enough and there are many difficulties, so I could feel sympathy.
Tim: You know, I guess when you think about it, this startup life, the life of a startup founder and the experience of being an actor or a singer is actually kind of similar in a lot of ways.
Mone: Yeah, we have to create new things always. Yeah, I thought it is the same too. But yes, the thing is that we need to change our minds right away. For example, if director said no, we have to change our plans for the acting no matter how hard I prepared for that.
Tim: Okay, in the same way like in the marketplace if the customers don’t react the way you think they’re going to, even if you think you’ve got the right idea.
Mone: Yeah, you need to change it immediately, right?
Mone: Yeah, it can be said for any other jobs in the world but I found it too.
Tim: So, when you were interviewing these startup founders, particularly founders around your own age, did you end up making friends with them and are you still in touch?
Mone: Yes, one of them, Miku Hirono. She is actually a model of Hikari, the role I played in the movie.
Tim: Oh okay, Miku has been on the show.
Mone: Yes, yes, yes. I hope she were here. But yeah, after finished shooting the film, I went to her home and played with their children. Yeah, that was a very happy time for me. She was pregnant before we started shooting and after that, the baby was born so I felt, “Oh, the life, amazing.”
Tim: And so many responsibilities.
Tim: Getting back to the similarities between acting and startups, one of the most common things that startup founders who come on the show mention, one of the hardest things about starting a company is often what your family thinks.
Mone: Yeah, I think it’s hard for them.
Tim: Japanese families are so conservative. Did you have a similar experience? Did your family want you to do more traditional things or were they very supportive when you decided to become an actor?
Mone: Yeah, they really support me. I really appreciate them. They say yes for everything I do and they watch everything, my movie or a TV drama or my musicals or so on.
Tim: That’s fantastic. I think that’s so important and I think with startup founders as well, most of the successful ones have at least one parent or one family member who was a role model or who is really supportive and helped them.
Mone: Yeah, yeah, I think so too. And I really respect my mother.
Tim: Was she also kind of creative?
Mone: She was a teacher of music in junior high school and so I began to sing when I was 2 years old.
Tim: Oh wow.
Mone: I was taught by my mother.
Tim: You were singing basically at the same time you were talking.
Mone: Yes, right like ABBA song. Do you know?
Tim: Of course.
Mone: Yeah, and even now, I ask my mum to give me advice and she really supports me for everything.
Tim: That’s fantastic. I mean, I think that’s so important for longterm success, at least in the startup world but probably in entertainment too.
Mone: Yeah, yes, yes. I think so too.
Tim: Well, you mentioned that Miku is one of your inspirations for Hikari. So, do you think Hikari is kind of a typical startup founder or did you want to focus on one particular aspect of startup founders personalities?
Mone: She is likely to be seen as a unique girl because of her characteristic but basically, I think she is very typical. She has what she wants to do and she does what she thinks right, and she has a difficulty in communicating with others, so maybe she’s likely to be misunderstood. But basically, she’s a very pure girl and she really wants to help others by founding businesses. So, I think she is very nice girl and working so purely.
Tim: Just really focused on a girl with a vision and a dream.
Mone: Yes, yes, yes, that’s right.
Tim: In your research in getting ready and talking to startup founders and comparing them to the rest of the people you know, what did you notice that was really different, both good and bad, but different about startup founders that you had to model?
Mone: I thought their vitality and energy is so big, maybe bigger than us. If they find anything they can do, then immediately, they move and do what they want to do. It’s a very difficult thing, isn’t it?
Tim: Yeah, well I think that is difficult to do anywhere.
Tim: But I think it’s especially difficult in Japan.
Mone: Yeah, do you think so?
Mone: In your country?
Tim: Well, I think anywhere. I mean, it’s start difficult to be the one person who steps forward and says, “I’m going to do this” or “I think all of you are wrong, this is the right way to do things”. I think that’s hard for anybody but in Japan.
Mone: Yeah, we have strict rules and everybody has to deal with it. So, if people in office, if they think they want to found or start something, they need to quit their job and start from zero. That is very hard for them but I hope many companies allow them to found new businesses with doing their job too in that company. That will help to increase startup people in Japan.
Tim: I think so, yeah. So, what did you learn from the research? Not for the role for, you know, you were saying startup founders are kind of, let’s say unique people and there’s good parts of that, there’s bad parts of that.
Tim: But I think we can say they tend to be unique. But is there anything you learned like by talking to all these people where you said not necessarily for the role of Hikari but for yourself, say, “You know, I should be more like this” or “I really don’t want to be like this”?
Mone: Nothing. They really respect the partner they work with. They help each other so much and they communicate so much. That is very important for all of us.
Tim: I think so. Actually, I think you’re right. This is actually something that’s kind of new in Japanese startups, where more and more startups are being founded by teams, by partners or two or three people, who are equal.
Mone: Yeah, that’s right. No one is higher level. There’s no difference.
Tim: It’s not a hierarchy.
Mone: Yeah, yeah, yes, that I was going to say.
Tim: But I think that is unusual in Japan and I think startups were seeing kind of this almost social experiment.
Mone: Yeah, they cooperate with each other so much and I liked the style of working.
Tim: Right. So, everyone like from government officials to startups themselves, of course, everyone is saying we need to have more startups and more innovation in Japan. Do you think movies like Startup Girls have a role to play in making people more aware and making more people start companies?
Mone: I hope so. Maybe people who watch movie will think of startup as very familiar. We all have chance to start something, not only for special people, only for genius but we all have opportunity and it would be very glad if the number of startup people will increase after this movie. And even if they don’t be the founders, it is important to think about it once.
Tim: Yeah, I mean, just to make people aware that’s what startups are. You were saying when you started this role, you never heard of startups really.
Mone: Yes, yes.
Tim: And I think that’s still very typical in Japan. In fact, thinking back, probably the very first time people – I mean, people have been starting companies in Japan for hundreds of years.
Mone: Yeah, yeah, right.
Tim: But I think the first time people started talking about startups and using the word was actually after the movie The Social Network.
Mone: Yeah, like SNS.
Mone: We can share our feelings and we can gather the people who has the same ideas or something, so it is easier to get together and work with people all around in Japan, so yeah, SNS will help.
Tim: So, I’m always talking to people who are inside the startup world, so the opinions I hear are kind of biased, right? It’s sort of a bubble, so it’s really interesting to hear from someone who is outside of that and you sort of had to learn everything and research it. It’s really interesting for me to see it with new eyes. So when you were talking with startup founders and talking with everyone else, the biggest challenge for startups to be accepted in Japan, do you think it’s that just people have never heard of them or do you think it’s more of the thing you mentioned before about people being afraid to be the one to step forward?
Mone: Maybe many people has the idea and many of them want to do something but I think they are only afraid of that.
Tim: What do you think stops people from taking that step? What stops them if they’ve got a great idea? And I think this is true the same thing in acting and singing. Lots of people have big dreams of being an actor or starting a company but most never do.
Mone: Maybe it’s about confidence, I think, for me too. But every time I feel nervous, I say to myself that I love this work and I really want to do this, and that becomes my energy to do that. So, if people really wants to do it and really loves to do that work, I think they should do it.
Tim: So, it’s the passion.
Tim: The love of creating something.
Mone: I think that is all we need.
Tim: I think so. Do you think we’ll be seeing more of that? Do you think we’ll see more startups and more startup founders kind of going after their dreams?
Mone: I hope so. And really, I also have a chance to start up something, whether I won’t do or not. Go for it, I think.
Tim: Well, in America in particular, there are so many actors that are starting companies.
Mone: In Japan, there are few actors too.
Tim: Very few?
Mone: Very few.
Tim: So after this experience, is that something you see yourself maybe doing in the future?
Mone: Maybe I’m not people kind of being boss or something but I’m interested in it, yeah, after I shooted this film.
Tim: Like you’re saying, everyone should be thinking about it and pursuing it as an option if that’s your dream.
Tim: Okay, Mone, thanks so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.
Mone: Thank you. Thank you so much.
And, we’re back.
I think that Mone’s points about the similarities between being an actor and being a founder are interesting, and there clearly are some strong similarities. I used to be a professional musician and I’ve spent almost my entire adult life either playing music or starting companies. What Mone talked about is real.
There is definitely a link in the simple love of creation, of starting from zero and building something that was not there before, whether that something is a power ballad, a monologue, or a SaaS startup. That love for creation is what attracts most people to music or art or acting, and what attracts many to startups. In fact, the average startup founder spends a much greater percentage of their time in the process of creation than the average musician or actor spends on their craft.
When I was a professional musician, I spent maybe 10% of my working hours doing anything that was remotely musical. The rest of the time was spent in promotion, booking, and a truly insane amount of administrative details. It was the hardest job I ever had. And looking back, what modest success I did achieve was more due to my skill as a businessman than as a musician.
And yeah, for all of my friends out there who are about to shoot me an email, yes, yes, I am self-aware enough to know that the Disrupting Japan podcast is very much a result of the same creative drive, the same personal need, really, that fueled my music career.
But back to Mone.
There’s one area that I think artists and founders used to share but where they’re now drifting apart, and in a way, Mone is at the center of that. Starting a startup used to mean choosing your own path and going against convention especially in Japan, your parents and family and society as a whole would fight that decision but that’s changing.
Startups are becoming an acceptable career path. MBAs from Harvard and Yale and PhDs from Todai are rushing to the stability and high salaries that startups promise, and that’s great. Startups are becoming more acceptable and more mainstream. As Mone and I discussed, in Japan, it has always been assumed that normal people just don’t start companies. Founding a company was something that was only done by great men and yes, they were always men. But that’s changing and movies like Startup Girls and The Social Network and TV shows like Silicon Valley, and I like to think that podcasts like Disrupting Japan are all showing the world that starting a startup is normal and these movies and TV shows and podcasts are important because art imitates life and then life imitates art.
Society determines what is possible and what is normal largely by what we see in the media. The fact that so many people are making art about startups and that so many people are enjoying that art shows us that startups are the new normal. Innovation is now mainstream.
Innovation is no longer counter-culture. Now, it’s just plain culture.
If you want to talk about Startup Girls, Mone and I would love to hear from you, so come by DisruptingJapan.com/show148 and let’s talk about it. And if you get the chance, check us out on LinkedIn or Facebook. But you know, even better, if you like this show, tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is grown not by social media marketing or by advertising but because listeners like you enjoy the show and they tell their friends about it.
But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups and innovation know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.