Everything about employment in Japan is changing.

Lifetime employment is gone.  Skilled workers are discovering that they have job mobility and large Japanese companies are increasingly confused by the fact that many new graduates don’t want to work for them.

Wantedly has been one of the companies that has changed the way corporate recruiting works in Japan, and today we sit down and talk with the founder and CEO Akiko Naka.

We first talked with Akiko a few years ago when Wantedly was starting to gain traction, but since then Wantedly has grown, IPOed and become of the most highly valued public companies in Japan.

We talk about her journey, of course, but we also dive into how the nature of work is changing in Japan, the best way to promote yourself and your company in Japan, and the one terrible piece of advice that women founders need to stop listening to.

It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • Why Japanese companies can’t hire creative employees
  • How to deal with startup copycats
  • The advantages and dangers of diversification
  • The secret to making change happen in Japan
  •  How to brag about yourself in Japan
  • The best advice for companies wanting to expand outside Japan
  • Unconventional advice for women entrepreneurs
  • Why Japanese millennials really are different

Links from the Founder

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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Today, we’re going to sit down with an old friend. Well, I mean, actually, she still a very young friend, but we’ve known her for years, so she’s – anyway, she’s Akiko: Today, we will be sitting down and catching up with Akiko Naka, CEO and founder of Wantedly.

Of course, we will talk about Wantedly’s amazing growth and the IPO that has happened since the last time Akiko came on the show, but there is a much more important story here, and before we get to that, I should let you know at other than a brief overview of Wantedly’s business model, this show is all new content and conversations.

If you want to understand the crazy ideas and questionable positions that led to Akiko creating Wantedly, and believe me, that’s a story you want to hear, I urge you to listen to the original episode at disruptingJapan.com/show008. I’ll have a link up at the site as well.

But today, ah, today, we will be talking about the best way to sell genuinely new product to large Japanese companies, some practical advice for anyone trying to take their company into overseas markets, including into Japan, and why the most common advice given to aspiring female founders is actually terrible, terrible advice, but you know, Akiko tells that story much better than I, so let’s get right to the interview.


Tim: So, I’m sitting here with Akiko Naka, the fearless founder of Wantedly, so thanks for sitting down with me again.

Akiko Naka: Thank you so much for coming.

Tim: You know, it’s really great to have you back on again. So much has changed since we sat down over three years ago.

Akiko: Yeah, I can’t believe it has been three years already.

Tim: Well, listen, we have a lot to catch up on, but for my listeners who did not follow my advice during the intro and go back and listen to our old interview, why don’t you explain what Wantedly does.

Akiko: Wantedly is a platform where we match users and companies based on vision and values, not only salary and benefits. When we compare our platform with traditional media, traditional job matching platform, traditional ones values more salary and benefits, but our platform focus on why the company do what they do, so more value and culture of each company. So, that way, we believe users and company can meet people casually, and that way, they can get to know each other better, and then eventually, those people can have a long-lasting relationship.

Tim: That’s a really radical concept in Japanese HR.

Akiko: Yeah, thank you for saying that.

Tim: The whole industry, the whole process is built around very rigid job descriptions and salary scales, and even the resume format is pre-decided.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m really glad you said that we are very drastic because every time I explain our platform to foreign writers or reporters, their reaction is like, that’s only applicable to Japanese markets because Japan is very unique, but actually, the Japanese market is very conservative, like you said now. So, yeah.

Tim: Well, does there continue to be like, pushback from HR people or from the big companies or saying like, we don’t want to do it this way, or…?

Akiko: In early days, I would say nine out of 10 pitches we did to HR people was turned down, and most of pushback we had was HR people would say, “Akiko, you don’t understand anything about our job. We are so busy. We have to go through so many resumes a day and we have to do so many interviews. We don’t have time to sit down and have a chat with people just checking in and dropping by the office.”

Tim: It doesn’t surprise me that 90% of the prospective customers said no, but the 10% who said yes, we want to try this, why did they say yes?

Akiko: Well, I think the only reason is they trusted me, so yeah. So, early users, CEO or people in charge of HR, those people were my friends, and I was like, I was begging them to use Wantedly. So, yeah, they probably would try out anything even if it wasn’t Wantedly.

Tim: Okay. Well, you guys have scaled tremendously since event, so last I read, you had over 2.5 million active users a month, and how many employers?

Akiko: Right now, we have around 30,000 clients.

Tim: So, pitching to your friends is a great first step, but what has driven the rest of the enterprise, is it just from successful case studies where they have seen other companies succeed, what has driven it?

Akiko: Right, so it’s mostly word-of-mouth. I mean, even these days, we don’t do any outbound. So, it’s mostly inbound.

Tim: Well, have you had to change the image? So, when you first started out and during your growth face, It was always this kind of quirky outsider startup company, that was the whole image, but as you grow and you scale, can you still keep that as a post-IPO company?

Akiko: I mean, I guess a lot of people don’t really know that we are probably because we are still small. Yeah, I believe that we still have this image of very innovative and providing really cutting-edge technology over into products, but yeah, having changes were made as an organization wise, so in early age, we didn’t have any salesperson to chase up clients. We only had people to close the deal, but now, so in the past year, we doubled the headcount of salespeople. So, I think that’s a big change. We have more organized way of selling or closing the deals.

Tim: So, branding and image-wise, it’s still the same. You have just become much more efficient and organized, and scalable inside?

Akiko: Yeah, yeah. So, early age, I didn’t really believe in having a proper sales team because I really thought building really cool product will bring all the customers, but reality was, there is a chasm and to come over the chasm and going to the main market, we have to have a really strong human touch.

Tim: Enterprise sales in Japan, it’s time-consuming.

Akiko: That’s very true, yeah. Yeah, these days, there are a few other SaaS products like MoneyForward or SmartHR, so there are lots of foreign products like Slack, Evernote, and Dropbox. So, enterprises are getting used to interesting things without consuming so much time, but yeah, still.

Tim: Yeah, but HR is one of the most conservative parts of Japanese organizations. As you got bigger and more established, did you find other companies trying to copy the Wantedly formula?

Akiko: Right, right, so I think we saw more copycats in the early days. So, we started back in 2012 and I think around – by 2015, we had more than like, 20 or 30 copycats, not only in Japan but over Asia, but none of them succeeded, yeah.

Tim: Were the copycats other startup or are they large recruiting companies trying side projects?

Akiko: They’re both.

Tim: Yeah?

Akiko: Yeah, so there are many startups and also large enterprises, but none of those succeeded. I think the reason is for startups, I think people just saw the facts until it’s very successful, and they just wanted to copy the superficial essence and they just thought they could copy Wantedly, but they did not really truly understand what the true essence of Wantedly, so.

Tim: So, I want to dig down into this, so the true essence, so were they just copying the business model? What did they miss, was it a community that they missed? What was missing from most of these copycats?

Akiko: So, I never have really done an in-depth study of those copycats. I didn’t really pay much attention, but I guess, so we really value how users of visited offices, like casual visits, and I think a lot of startups weren’t that persistent in terms of keeping the user experience. So, most of the HR people will say, we’d rather want to have regular job interview. We don’t have to stick to Wantedly’s way, if you don’t have strong philosophy, you’re going to just let those HR play by their rules.

Tim: Yeah. Well, you know that’s interesting because I always find that is the critical balance in all startups. So, you have to believe in your vision strong enough to tell your potential customers no, but you also have to listen to your customers to make sure you are building something they actually want.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, that’s true, that’s true. So, we didn’t really follow the metrics of revenue or sales in the early days; we just focused on number of users in the early days, so we didn’t really have to listen to clients, you know what I mean?

Tim: I do, but I think Wantedly existed. It launched a very unique time in sort of Japanese economic history. It was this time where there was this tremendous – and it still with us, there is a tremendous shortage of engineers, a tremendous shortage of creative professionals, and the big companies simply could not hire them. They were kind of panicking about it, and Wantedly just fit that niche beautifully.

Akiko: Maybe.

Tim: But I’m curious, so, I mean, obviously, a lot of companies have changed their mind lease a little bit in terms of the job interview process. Do you think that’s like, a permanent shift in culture, or do you think that’s just a holdover of wow, we really need to hire these engineers, so if we have to use of this strange process, we will do it? Do you know what I mean?

Akiko: Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure if it’s permanent. I think yeah, I think HR people adopted to the fact that shortage is really tight. The problem those HR people are having is even if they pay money to list their postings to many other platforms, they can’t even meet engineers.

Tim: Yeah. Have you seen this kind of softer approach being applied to other jobs, nonengineering, noncreative?

Akiko: So, right now, I think a lot of people are some people misunderstand us that we only focus on startups, but these days, so we have hospitals, restaurants, clinics, and small government offices in rural areas. So, there are many success cases where people are able to our doctors or chefs.

Tim: Okay, so it is not just – so, that was my mistake too. My image has always been engineers and creatives.

Akiko: Exactly.

Tim: But doctors and chefs.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, so it’s really changed since we talked. I dove, I think, 30,000, 3000 to 4000 are startups, but the rest of it are all other SMBs and large enterprises.

Tim: I find that really encouraging. I really do, just any time that you see that big behavioral shift in companies or in people, it’s something important that is going on, do you know what I mean?

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think so. Let me answer your question again. I think I have a better answer like, why we are able to conquer their copycats is because I think we focus more on users rather than short-term monetization. Yeah, I think especially large enterprises, they do it as an R&D new project, so they want to monetize within a short period of time, maybe like when year or two years, and the other startups also started Wantedly copycats because it looked like easy money, but instead, we really focused on users growth and really didn’t pay much attention to revenue.

Tim: Well, I’ve been really impressed of how Wantedly focuses on the community. Almost every single job site in the world, it’s sort of the atomic unit, the basic unit is the resume, and you are not just substituting the idea of a user for a resume. Actually, people interact with the site, they follow each other, they recommend friends, it really is a community.

Akiko: Thanks.

Tim: But I think that’s unique. I haven’t seen that anywhere else certainly in Japan.

Akiko: Right, yeah, yeah, thank you. Yeah.

Tim: Another thing, as you have scaled up, you have launched some new products as well, right? You launched Wantedly People which is the business card scanning.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah. So, we have like, the two biggest pillars, and I think Wantedly People is now another pillar that we really focus and invest in right now. It’s an automated AI-supported business card scanning app because business card is huge in Japan and people always exchange cards before the meeting starts, and since the launch two years ago, we already have 3 million users, so that the biggest growth we saw in Wantedly’s history, so it’s surpassing Wantedly Visit which is a platform to match user and a company.

Tim: And you also launched Wantedly Chat?

Akiko: Yeah, Chat has been out for some time, but we are not putting much energy in it right now because Slack is really big.

Tim: Yeah, they are both really useful products, but it doesn’t seem obvious from a strategic point of view.

Akiko: Why we are doing it?

Tim: Yeah, why you would certainly want to be competing with like, San San on the business card scanning and Slack on the chat, are you worried it’s like a distraction or is there some really deep synergies that is not obvious?

Akiko: We always wanted to become an infrastructure for people working, and so we don’t really consider ourselves as an HR tech company. We’ve always considered ourselves as a tech company that provides solution to make people happier, excited about their work. Even from like, year one, we kept building and now, there are R&D products. Yeah, we kept building every year and we have failed, and eventually, we were able to succeed with Wantedly People. So, yeah, it wasn’t out of the blue. We have been trying for three, four years.

Tim: So, is this something sort of like the Google Labs philosophy where we might see some new products in the future?

Akiko: Yeah, I think we’re going to work on new products, maybe every three years or so.

Tim: Alright. Yeah, there’s a couple of things I want to sort of follow up on from our conversation three years ago. You were saying that the secret to making change happen in Japan was to do it indirectly, to be kind of sneaky about it.

Akiko: Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah, maybe I might have mentioned that, like not too much outspoken about it.

Tim: Exactly.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: Do you find that is still the case, does that scale up as he get bigger and as you get more attention? Can you still be indirect about your goals, or do you find you have to be more clear this is what we’re trying to do, this is our vision for five years from now on?

Akiko: I think the reason why I talked about it was that I think some of these people are really too aggressive, could be sometimes attacking or sound offensive to people.

Tim: Let’s drill down on that because aggressive means really different things to different people. So, you’ve certainly been very aggressive in how you have grown Wantedly.

Akiko: Right. Maybe not aggressive, maybe like, offensive?

Tim: So, what is the best way to split that up?

Akiko: All, I have a better word, it’s like a big mouth. Yeah, yeah, so I don’t think Japanese society has a big tolerance towards big mouth.

Tim: So, people bragging about themselves?

Akiko: Right, so those people tend to create more enemies, and maybe probably the same thing in the US to some extent, but in Japan, Japanese society has more stronger nature to be offended by people who has big mouth.

Tim: Yeah, I think you are right, and it’s not necessarily, even if you are not attacking anyone directly, if you are praising yourself too strongly, some people in Japan will get offended by that, but I think that actually works against a lot of Japanese companies are trying to expand overseas.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

Tim: They should brag about themselves a little more.

Akiko: Exactly, yeah, yeah, I really truly agree to that as well. So, once you step outside of Japan and when you are speaking to like, foreign media, I think you should change your mode.

Tim: Actually, I’m going to tease you a little bit because I remember this wonderful presentation you gave in Okinawa.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, I think I know what you’re going to say, yeah. Yeah, you emailed me about it.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. No, it was a great presentation talking about your whole journey from starting to IPO in Wantedly and it was all in Japanese except for one, one little phrase in English where you said, “Oh, yeah, and I was the youngest woman to IPO in Japan, and I’m kind of proud of that,” and then you went right back into Japanese.

Akiko: That’s funny.

Tim: So, was that that instinct, you’re just kind of afraid to brag about your own achievements?

Akiko: Yeah, maybe. You wouldn’t say that in Japanese. You are sounding like a big mouth if you say that in Japanese, and probably would not feel right, but in English, totally makes sense because people talk about it all the time and you have to, yeah, you have to express your accomplishments, right? So, yeah, I don’t know what I thought. Since given the majority of the audience was foreigners, I thought I’d just drop that in English.

Tim: Yeah, I thought that was great. I thought I was just perfect.

Akiko: Yeah.

Tim: To be honest, I wasn’t sure that it actually happened until afterwards. I was like, wait, she just changed in English, didn’t she?

Akiko: Yeah, that’s funny, yeah.

Tim: So, what would your advice be, what’s the best way to strike the right balance because startup founders have to brag about themselves, they have to let people know about their company and what they are doing, so how do you get the word out in Japan without seeming like you are bragging about yourself?

Akiko: That’s an interesting question. So, I think you have to have a record or the facts to back up why you are saying that. If you have not accomplished anything and you just keep bragging about yourself or being a big mouth, I think people are going to start to feel offended, so you have to have like a certain track record.

Tim: Okay, so you can brag a little bit, but just not too much.

Akiko: Yeah, I think so. Some Japanese people, sport players, maybe not entrepreneur, but some people are really big mouths, and those people get offended. Plus, at the same time, they get praised by fans as well, but they have – they get lots of attention and they also get lots of, I don’t know, attacks at the same time, so they have to have thick skin.

Tim: Yeah, I guess it comes down to strategy, I suppose. So, bragging about yourself in Japan will get you that attention, but when things start to go bad, everyone jumps on top of you.

Akiko: Right, yeah, that’s – maybe, yeah. Maybe that’s true, yeah, maybe, yeah.

Tim: When you brag like that, you’re definitely taking a risk in Japan.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, that’s a very interesting point.

Tim: Well, hop on like, kind of a personal level, what did you really have to change about yourself or your way of thinking in growing a company from a tiny little project with a couple of friends into what it is today?

Akiko: You know, things I think sometimes that if I could have done better, start over again, one of the things is I could have burned more cash in early days. We were focusing on users, so we weren’t really aggressive about acquiring clients, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. So, good thing is like, what we talked about earlier, that we were able to educate clients and we were only focused on clients that were really doing work with us, so we could break this culture or atmosphere on the platform, and they were able to scale later on, but at the same time, I feel like if you are a bit more aggressive about burning cash, maybe do more marketing or hire more people faster. At this moment, I could’ve doubled the size of revenue or headcount. So, time is a very precious thing.

Tim: What held you back?

Akiko: So, I didn’t know anything about startups back then. Back then, I had this weird idea that the sales is not good, like salespeople, when you have too many salespeople, that will affect really badly to organization, and having only engineers are cool culture, and also, I had this idea that marketing, like paid marketing is vicious, and you should focus on just acquiring users organically, and I felt like acquiring users, even if you pay and if you are users, those users are not loyal so they will go away anyway. So, I don’t know, I have this preconception that marketing is bad or having sales-oriented organization is bad and I don’t know why.

Tim: Well, no, actually, that’s not that surprising. A lot of startup founders, maybe most startup founders that come from either an engineering or creative background have that same preconception about sales and marketing.

Akiko: Yeah, exactly, yeah.

Tim: It’s probably because most of the experiences they’ve had with salesman and marketing have not been pleasant ones.

Akiko: Yeah, maybe that’s true, yeah. So, that something that I learned. Yeah.

Tim: You know, when we talked before, you talked about the two types of growth, the 0 to 1 growth and the 1 to 10 growth. So, 0 to 1 being creating something from nothing and 1 to 10 being taking that something and growing it tenfold, and before, you were saying that you were always really attracted to the 0 to 1 and that’s why you left Goldman and that’s where you were excited about Wantedly in your previous attempts as well, but now, you were sort of in a 1 to 10 phase, so how is it different and how have you adapted?

Akiko: So, it’s very different. So, I spend my time most of the time thinking about organization, our team, and thinking about another project that we might invest in down the road. So, things that has changed from since we last talked, and I think that was 2015, was it?

Tim: Sounds right, yeah.

Akiko: So, that was like, in between being a very small startup and starting to scale. So, back then, I really had to focus on organization, hire the right person, making sure people understand our culture, but now, because we have more leadership, I can spend some time or on thinking about new products. Actually, Wantedly People, the new product, I am the product owner, so I have weekly meeting with the team, and I have biweekly meeting, a product review, and I checked all the products which is rolling out. I don’t do that for Visit. Right now, it’s like a mixture of starting and also scaling the team. It’s becoming more fun, I think, compared to 2015.

Tim: Okay, so it is that balance, that’s Wantedly as a corporation is in a 1 to 10 phase, but you still have the Wantedly People and perhaps future projects as well going from 0 to 1 at the same time.

Akiko: Right, right, right, so that has probably changed, yeah.

Tim: Let’s see, last time we spoke, you were just getting ready to enter the Singapore market. How has it gone?

Akiko: It’s been great, so Singapore team is making revenue and we have over 1000 customers.

Tim: Did you follow the same basic strategy and plan you did in Japan?

Akiko: That’s what we are trying to do, ]and I think we failed so many times in terms of global expansion in the past, and I think the biggest mistake I made was to hire someone in Japan and then send that person to those local areas. It was the biggest mistake. The local things like customs, cultures, people’s taste, only local people know.

Tim: Yeah, I can imagine, especially a company of Wantedly where the community is so important, if someone is moving to a new country, it’s going to be that much harder for him to – I mean, he would be building something from scratch.

Akiko: That’s true.

Tim: Now, did the clients in Singapore and Hong Kong, and Berlin, did they have the same reaction as the Japanese clients did?

Akiko: Exactly, yeah.

Tim: Saying like, “What is this? Why are we going to –“

Akiko: Yeah, yeah. I think we are getting the same pushback as we had in Japan, and the funny thing is, people in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Berlin thing it only worked in Japan because Japan is very unique and Japan is very different, but that is not the case, and you only understand that. I’m really glad that you know that. It’s not because it worked and began because Japan is unique; it is because we pursued really hard. Yeah, so I think we have to be persistent in other countries as well.

Tim: That’s great. Let’s talk a bit about Japan. You get profiled endlessly as like a woman entrepreneur.

Akiko: That’s funny.

Tim: And, what would you do? And, I promise I’m not going to ask you questions about what it is like to be a woman entrepreneur, but I am going to ask you, why do you think the media is so fascinated with it, because there are a lot of women entrepreneurs in Japan?

Akiko: Yeah. But the thing is, I still get the same questions from Western reporters as well.

Tim: Yeah? So, it’s not just a Japan thing?

Akiko: Yeah. It’s not only a Japan thing, I think.

Tim: When you talk to the reporters, are they holding you up like a role model for younger girls, or are they holding you up as like a strange creature or some kind of panda?

Akiko: I don’t know. I think the physical features are really easily distinguished, like the color of your skin or how your phase structure is. That makes people ask questions easy, I guess. Yeah, my guess is people are not really thinking much about the background of the question.

Tim: Just lack of research on the reporter’s part.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, I think everybody has this question like a person gets asked like 1000 times throughout their lives, like for example, if the person has, I don’t know, twin sister, then that person gets asked about the twin, all the time, or if the person looked mixed, like hafu, and then the person gets asked every time, like “Oh, who’s your parents?” and so on. So, probably the same thing, like the person asking the question isn’t really thinking in depth.

Tim: They are just jumping on an obvious question?

Akiko: Yeah, it’s just like – yeah, exactly, it’s like reactionable kind of easy, the first in your mind kind of question.

Tim: Do you think it’s because – I noticed, there’s a lot of media attention around women entrepreneurs in Japan, but there’s also a lot of seminars specifically targeted at women startup founders, and do you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing, a neutral, doesn’t really matter thing?

Akiko: In general, I think that it’s a bad thing.

Tim: Oh, yeah?

Akiko: Yeah. I mean, like women gathering together and inventing a product that only focuses on women is narrowing their potential down, and yeah, in my opinion, I think people should focus more on what they build instead of who they are, yeah.

Tim: No, that’s a really interesting perspective, I haven’t quite thought of it that way. So, in one hand, it might seem like it’s a supportive environment, but on the other hand, you are sort of limiting yourself by accepting that.

Akiko: Yeah, but branding yourself as a female entrepreneur and, I don’t know, and most of the cases, when you go to those seminars, people tell you that you should create a product that focuses on women because you are a woman and you have a better understanding of those people, and yeah.

Tim: Yeah, that sounds like bad advice. Off the top of my head, that does sound like bad advice.

Akiko: Yeah, I agree, or even if those people don’t get that kind of advice, they tend to end up providing services that only focuses on women because that’s the only sale that they can do, the fact that they are women.

Tim: Yeah, and that is going to be extremely limiting.

Akiko: I know, yeah. So, I always wanted to make Wantedly known as a tech company. They don’t want to be known as a company that is founded by a female entrepreneur.

Tim: Well, listen, Aki, before we wrap up, I want to ask you my “magic wand” question. That is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all – of the education system, the legal system, the way people think about risk – anything at all to make things better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Akiko: Okay, so my theory of why Japanese startups are not as vibrant as US or China is because the regulation is too strong, especially around labor because the regulation that was made 100 years ago, the Japanese workers is protected. It’s a good thing, but at the same time, it’s I think walking people to move from industry to industry.

Tim: So, do you mean like specifically the ability to fire unproductive employees, or what specifically is –?

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, yeah, termination of contract. That really prohibits companies from starting up really fast. I think in the US, the concept of quitting are being let go is not a really bad thing. It’s not like the end of the world. You can still look for another opportunity, and that way –

Tim: Well, the US, you sort of expect it.

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Also, always, there’s pros and cons and having that liquidity of labor market maybe makes more stressful disparity. It becomes big in the US, but at the same time, the pros are that allows companies to start up really fast.

Tim: So, you would use your magic wand to rewrite that part of Japanese labor law? But what’s interesting is if I’m hearing you correctly, you are seeing the advantage is not just the ability to get rid of unproductive employees. The advantage is that would create a more mobile workforce for everybody.

Akiko: Right, right, so I think labor liquidity is a saying that I want to create more, and people who want to stay at one company and choose to stay, but I think there is tremendous pressure in the society of people who have family or house loan, they cannot make decisions to take risks and join small startups.

Tim: You know, I’m curious because there has been a shift in that the millennial generation, and I’m not sure if it’s a shift in attitude or just a shift the reality of the economic environment. So, right now, if you are in your 20s, early 30s, and you are creative, you are an engineer, it’s very easy to change jobs.

Akiko: Yeah, true, maybe easy for engineers, yeah, but I think the majority of people, like not engineer jobs people, like sales or I don’t know, those talented people don’t have this strong peer pressure or social pressure, they cannot move from where they are.

Tim: Yeah, so I guess it is maybe the real career track employees still don’t have that job mobility. It’s the engineers, the creative, the kind of the workers in the company have the mobility, but it hasn’t filtered up yet, has it?

Akiko: No, yeah, that is my opinion as well, and I think if labor liquidity gets high, it gets easier for our talented people to make their salary go up.

Tim: Do you see that possibly changing? Do you see some time in the near future, a 50-year-old VP of Sales using Wantedly to look for a new job? We don’t have those people on the platform today, but do you see that changing Japan, could that happen?

Akiko: Yeah, yeah, I hope to see, but I think having more liquidity in the labor market solves many main problems. I think one of the reasons why Japan is not really attracting market for foreign workers is because the salary is very low and that is because it’s not really easy to terminate the contract, so that way, the company has to burden the risk of hiring the person eternally.

Tim: But also, it doesn’t incentivize the employees improve their skills.

Akiko: Exactly, yeah, I agree.

Tim: Even if you become an absolute brilliant programmer, you are not necessarily going to advance in the company any faster that a kind of okay programmer.

Akiko: Yeah, I agree. So, the structure we have in Japan right now these days is not really fit to what we have today. The structure was built many, many years ago.

Tim: But certainly, it has changed for the millennial, the early 30s, 20s age seems to be pretty mobile.

Akiko: Right, right, like engineers and designers, those people that you just mentioned. Yeah, yeah, that’s true, yeah.

Tim: So, maybe we will see it spread.

Akiko: Hopefully. Yeah, that is maybe one thing if I can change, yeah.

Tim: Well, Aki, listen, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.

Akiko: Thank you so much, it was fun chatting with you again.

Tim: I’ll have to do it again soon.


And, we are back.

One of the most interesting things that Akiko brought up was the difference between being aggressive and being offensive. Now, this is a very fine line that all startups need to walk. On what hand, you need to have confidence in yourself in your product, but on the other, bragging about yourself is it usually when you friends or business in Japan.

This is something that so many foreign startups coming into Japan get wrong, especially American startups. I don’t know how many times I have seen people fly into a week of meetings which they brag and bluster their way through, and then they wonder why no business materializes.

The best of the most effective way, of course, is to get other people talking about how great you are, particularly of those people are existing customers.

As Akiko’s experience shows, even for high-tech, new economy startups, word-of-mouth and personal trust still count for a lot in Japan. Akiko’s advice to female founders seems like good advice, but hey, I’m in no position to give or receive advice about how to navigate the world of startups as a female founder, so I won’t add anything to Aki’s thoughts on that particular point, but I will extrapolate or comment, so I could say something to founders in general.

Male or female, don’t focus on who you are, focus on your customers and their problems. You might be able to get some attention based on who you are and that is great, but never forget that everything you do needs to be focused not on you but on the people and the companies that use your product and service and who believe in your vision.

In the end, it is never about you; it’s about your customers.

If you want to talk about finding a job in Japan or creating a startup that really fits your vision, Akiko and I would love to hear from you, so come by disruptingJapan.com/show137 and tell us about it.

And by the way, after every show, I get a ton of emails asking for introductions or the guests’ contact info. Now, obviously, other than the info our guests share at the site, I can’t do that. However, most of our guests have been really good about answering questions asked to them in the comments section, so if you want to know more or dig deeper, drop by disruptingJapan.com and leave a comment, and we will talk again there.

But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.