Disrupting Japan turns seven years old this week!
Unfortunately, because of current conditions in Japan, we won’t be able to sit down over a beer and talk about startups live as we usually do.
Today, I’d like to share a story in three acts. We’ll talk about the podcasting industry, what Disrupting Japan really is, and the likely future of Japanese startup founders.
Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
This week is Disrupting Japan’s seventh anniversary. Normally we mark each anniversary with the Disrupting Japan live show. We invite a few guests on stage. We gather a few hundred of our biggest fans and our closest friends. And we spend the evening talking about Japanese startups and innovation over a few beers.
Well, because of the pandemic, like so many other things, that’s not happening this year. I was hoping to do something creative, and I talked with some friends about maybe doing some kind of online gathering, but it just would not have been the same. So next year. Next year for sure.
It’s hard to believe how much things have changed in the past seven years. This podcast, Japanese startups, the podcasting industry, and, well, even me as a person, have all gone through some pretty radical changes in recent years. And a strong case can be made that these have all been changes for the better.
Every episode of Disrupting Japan is focused on a new aspect of Japanese startups and innovation, but today we are going to talk about Disrupting Japan itself and how it fits into the future of podcasting and Japan. Because, well, it’s our birthday, and we get to do that on our birthday.
And I promise, that by the end, you’ll see how this all gives you a unique insight into the future of Japanese founders themselves.
1. The Future of Podcasting
So first, let’s talk about podcasting.
Podcasting has changed a lot in the past few years. And from the perspective of a startup founder, it’s been amazing to be a part of it and the future looks incredibly bright.
Podcasting is growing up. Podcasting is becoming a real media business with large buyers and big rewards for the creators of the most popular shows. Of course, this rocket-like growth is enabled by the fact that the podcast industry is streamlining. It’s consolidating. And that brings other changes as well.
Long-time listeners know that Disrupting Japan has had several monetization strategies over the years. At one point we were in negotiations to become an official Nikki podcast. We didn’t quite come to terms, but we’re still good friends with the Nikki’s podcast team. For about a year, Disrupting Japan was independent, ad-supported and my primary source of income, and about four years ago I was putting together a podcast advertising network startup, which I then decided to spin down in order to join TEPCO and then Google.
So as you see, as a startup founder, I’m a big fan of monetizing podcasts.
Now, it was right after I shut down my podcast advertising project and returned Disrupting Japan to being ad-free that the podcasting industry really began its explosive growth phase.
Because of this, a number of my startup and podcasting friends have told me “Tim, you got out too early! You missed your big chance!” Well, no. I mean, I understand why it might look that way, but I knew what I was doing.
Let me explain.
It was clear back then that podcasting was becoming a serious media business, but I knew enough about the media business to know that’s not what I wanted to do — at least not as talent — at least not for this show. Disrupting Japan is something special.
I don’t particularly want to attend meetings to see if the show is hitting this quarter’s growth objectives. I never want to be put in a situation where I’m being told “Interest in robotics is down now. You need to do more gaming content.” Or “Corporate decided to go in a new direction this year.” Or “You need to make sure the guests on your show have at least 10,000 Twitter followers.”
And, none of that is necessarily bad advice. In fact, that’s how you scale a podcast.
Butt even in my podcast network, I was not planning on telling podcasters what kind of show they should run. I would simply provide the hard data on what advertisers are willing to pay for and which of their topics get the most traction. But if you are relying on advertising dollars to run your show, you are almost certainly going to follow that data.
It’s the nature of the business. It’s the nature of any business.
It is awesome that some talented creators and savvy entrepreneurs are making serious money podcasting, and I think smaller creators can still make good money using the same strategy I used for Disrupting Japan — and I’ll put a link in the show-notes that explains that strategy in detail.
But that kind of mass-market scale has never been what Disrupting Japan has been about, and I think there is plenty of room for both approaches to podcasting.
2. So What Exactly is Disrupting Japan?
OK. So what exactly is Disrupting Japan – at least as I see it? Well, the answer may seem a bit off-the-wall, a bit strange, but stick with me. It’s different than you think, and you’ll see how you personally fit into the picture as well.
Disrupting Japan is a podcast, obviously, and a reasonably successful one. We’ve spent a bit of time at #1 on Japan’s entrepreneur podcast chart and ranked as high as #3 in the general business category. Disrupting Japan has a loyal audience of around 9,000 people in over 120 different countries.
Including one listener in Vatican City. Now, I have no way of knowing for sure who that listener is. I mean, you know, it could be anybody. But I believe, I choose to believe that Disrupting Japan has fans in very high places.
So OK, podcasting is the medium that Disrupting Japan uses, but what is it? It’s certainly not journalism. I don’t even pretend to be objective and I clearly don’t report the news. Although, I do have to admit that it is pretty cool to be able to get into some of these large events and conventions on a media pass.
And, as you know, and hopefully you appreciate, I’m careful not to let Disrupting Japan be used as a promotional channel. I push back and challenge statements that seem questionable or don’t make sense to me. Of course, I do sometimes have guests who will launch into their standard five-minute startup pitch. And that’s fine, I let them get it out of their system, and just edit it right out in post-production.
In the end, a lot of my guests tell me that they’ve really enjoyed the conversion. A lot of times we become friends and continue to meet up and bounce ideas off each other for years to come.
But Disrupting Japan is definitely not just me having a series of great conversations for an audience. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that (at least in one very significant way) I’m actually the least important part of this whole process.
You see, my guests, at least at first, they don’t really want to talk to me. They want to talk to you. They come on the show because they want to reach an audience of fellow founders and innovators. And the reverse is true as well, most of my listeners, at least at first, they don’t really want to hear from me. They want to hear from Japan’s founders and innovators. You want to know what is important to them and how they think.
I’m just kind of a proxy that sets that up and makes that happen.
But what’s really amazing is that this dynamic changes over time. I’ve become good friends with a lot of my guests, and it turns out that some of my most popular episodes are my solo shows where I pick a topic, dive deep to share my thoughts about Uber, or the Seven Minute Miracle, or Japanese SMB innovation.
And you are an amazing group of people to create content for. My guests frequently tell me that after their episode airs they get a lot of very high-quality emails and contacts from Disrupting Japan listeners. Funds have been raised, people have been hired, partnerships have been launched, and friendships have been formed.
And what’s more, five different Japanese founders have told me that listening to the guests on Disrupting Japan tell their stories helped give them the courage to launch their own startup. And that’s just, incredible.
So Disrupting Japan is most definitely not the Tim Romero show. It’s a way of connecting founders and members of Japan’s startup community with each other and to get them talking.
And, in my humble opinion, that’s pretty awesome. It’s what makes this podcast worth producing.
And It’s why I’m really looking forward to restarting our live shows.
You know new podcasters often ask me for advice, and I would love to be able to explain to them what I’ve just explained to you, but that’s a lot to dump on someone who’s just walked up to you with a simple question, right? And so we usually end up talking about microphones and editing software and marketing.
That’s all interesting enough I suppose, but those things are not really that important. It’s not what podcasting is about.
3. The Future of Japanese Founders
So, what does this tell us about the future of Japanese startups and the founders who start them?
Well, you see, the world of Japanese startups is experiencing exactly the same kind of transformation that podcasting is, and pretty much along the same timeframe.
In fact, the startup community, by which I mean the people; the founders the investors, the early employees, Japan’s startup community today reminds me a lot of the community in San Francisco 20 years ago, just as things were starting to recover from the dot-com shakeout. It feels like we are in a real sweet spot.
On one hand, it has never been easier to start a startup in Japan. Capital requirements are low, funds are easy to raise, and entrepreneurship is becoming a more and more acceptable career path. I mean don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of progress that can and should be made, but we’ve reached a point in Japan where anyone who has a good idea and a strong drive to start a startup really can start a startup.
And this opportunity is attracting a truly amazing group of people into entrepreneurship here. Most founders are still motivated by a genuine passion to make the world a better place. From my experience, even the founders who are selling B2B SaaS sincerely believe that they are making their customer’s lives better and are sincerely committed to that.
But that sincere commitment can have some surprising side effects.
And as long-time fans know, sometimes I will ask my guest some variation of “OK, this is an interesting idea, but can it scale?” and have the founder basically respond “Well, I don’t know, but it seems like a good idea. Our customers love it, and it seems like it’s worth doing.” And yeah. Yes, it is.
Scale is good, of course. If your goal is not to reach a massive scale, then you are fundamentally misaligned with investors and the economics that keep the startup ecosystem in motion. But on an individual level, I deeply respect founders who decide to double-down on the genuine benefit they provide to their customers rather than pivoting to something of lesser value in hopes to achieve scale.
There is a real sense of idealism in Japan that used to be common in the US, and US founders might do well to re-learn.
The money has always been important, of course, but in recent years, the world has gotten really good at streamlining and optimizing the startup game. Sure, we can debate whether a particular startup is actually innovative, or actually useful, but there is no denying that today we have a system, a body of best practices, a whole pipeline. We can grow startups bigger, faster, and much more predictably than ever before.
Just like podcasting, startups have grown up.
So will the existence of this startup pipeline, these streamlined, optimized processes we have for starting and growing startups, will this change Japanese founders? Well sure. It already has. Startups are mainstream in Japan.
Today we have a steady stream of graduates from Japan’s top universities, whereas only ten years ago talking with founders in Japan was kind of like exploring the Island of Misfit Toys. We all had ambition and big dreams, but we were also all clearly broken in one way or another.
So even though startups and their founders have become socially acceptable, even though Japan’s startup ecosystem is growing at a tremendous rate, things are developing very differently than in Silicon Valley. And that’s a good thing. Even if Japan manages to reach the same kind of scale as the US, Japan is taking a very different path to get there.
And Japanese founders? Well, even if they are not Misfit Toys anymore, Japan remains a pretty conservative society, and those people who are able to step out of that conformity to explain their own vision and bring a team together. Well, they tend to be pretty interesting people.
And I am grateful that I have a chance to sit down and talk with so many of them, and I’m deeply grateful to my audience as well, because, as I hope you understand by now, you are not just along for the ride. You are a part of the show. We are in this together.
So on our seventh anniversary, thanks for listening to a bit of self-reflection.
In our next episode, we’ll be back talking with the people driving Japan’s startup ecosystem and watching this amazing outpouring of creativity and innovation unique in Japanese history.
Thank you for being part of the Disrupting Japan project. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to create my art for people who appreciate it, and to do so on my own terms.
Not many people get to do that, and I suppose, that whether we are talking about my music, my startups, or this podcast, that has always been my real goal.
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.