Terra Motors & PocketVenture Live! Tokyo: Is Japan Finally Getting Hip to Startup Culture?
Japan is world-renowned for a dearth of startup and venture capital in business culture, but change might be coming; while the top-down innovation efforts of Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, etc. have flailed and failed, long-underappreciated or outright ignored entrepreneurs are preparing to strike back.
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This Week in Tokyo Startups!
It’s exceedingly easy to point at the complex socio-economical-cultural reasons for Japan’s tech industry stagnation, and we’ll get to that below, but first, a preview of this week’s tech startup activity here in Tokyo:
Terra Motors - Site Visit Today:
Comprised of a number of big-corporate refugees who just couldn’t take it anymore or just didn't wanna start (“it” is detailed below), and with a curious group of non-Japanese shareholders, Terra Motors is looking to innovate from the bottom up and overtake the gas-powered, small-scale Asian transportation market from the inside out. The soon to be available e-Scooter A4000i, a follow-up to their SEED60R, is set to take over as the relatively fledgling company’s flagship product. The next-gen electric scooter is iPhone app-enabled, has a very respectable urban range, solid engineering, and a unique removable battery.
AkihabaraNews.com is visiting Terra Motors today, and later this week we’ll have more detailed information about the company’s history, why several of the company's rank and file left or turned down positions with the Mitsubishis, Sonys, and Nissans, Terra's intended corporate trajectory, and the upcoming launch of the e-Tricycle along with a few exclusive photos.
PocketVenture Live! Tokyo - Covering Tomorrow:
There are any number of such organizations and meetups in the U.S. and Europe, but here in Japan, show-up-and-show-off events organized to bring new ideas to a forum comprised of both startup entrepreneurs and prospective investors are indeed a rare animal. But the times have to change, and a sign thereof is a spacious pub in Tokyo’s Minato Ward hosting a PocketVenture Live! event tomorrow evening. We’ll be on hand to see what Japan has to pitch, and who might be interested.
Near as we can tell, PocketVenture is a kind of incubator, a hybrid venture capital finder, crowdfunder, and investor resource working to herd those parties together. Not surprisingly, Softbank, Inc., the really smart and/or lucky telecomm that brought the first iPhones to Japan - and is one of the few risk-taking, truly innovative domestic tech firms - is totally onboard with this event and supporting startup and venture capital culture in general.
AkihabaraNews will be at PocketVenture Live! Tokyo tomorrow evening, and we’ll let you know what sort of innovative ideas make it to the fore, and whether or not the cash holders are interested.
We'll be back in a few days for an update on startups and venture capital in Japan. In the meantime, enjoy a semi-rant below on why Japan so desperately needs said startup and venture capital culture.
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Long Addendum: Starting Up is Hard to Do (really hard in Japan)
Japan’s is an unprecedented, massively tech-heavy economy. And Sony’s losing billions each year. So is Panasonic. Sharp’s been forced into layoffs for the first time in 62 years. Olympus hid millions in losses. Japan still doesn’t have a competitive smartphone on the market. The rest of the world has matched Japanese tech prowess, and in many cases exceeded it in purchase value. Uh-oh.
Years, and years of uhhh-ohhh.
The response has been no small amount of pontification, overly complex analyses, and an endless supply of egghead advice for fixing contemporary Japan’s technological stagnation and thereby reversing economic woes; doing this has basically become a cottage industry. Learned economists and market analysts drone on about failed national economic policy, rampant and entrenched corporate corruption, scandalous and/or inept financial management, and although Japan’s economy has probably never been as bad off as is claimed, the talking and/or typing heads are taken seriously because they’re so smart and they know all the keywords from their econ textbooks and blah, blahhh, blah - they fix nothing.
Because it’s easy to call the game from the sofa. Few, if any, of the esteemed economic analysts, domestic or international, have ever solicited feedback from or understand the perspectives of young corporate workers. Few realize that Japan’s best and brightest are wasted and jaded from early on, and despite all their hand wringing and/or dispensation of grand advice - even when implemented in some cases - little to nothing changes. When it comes to market competitiveness and bottom lines, J-tech is just stuck.
And that's because Japan doesn't need another economist, Japan needs a team of social psychologists to undress and address the real economic demon: a institutionalized, paternalistic, self-defeating cultural cocktail that (mis)informs Japanese business practices and strangles tech innovation and competitiveness in a global market - particularly when the competitors aren't so hindered.
- Japan’s brightest young minds, those who would innovate from the bottom up, are led to believe that a job - any job - at a large, stable corporation is where the path to broader life success begins.
- As a result of the above, the brightest young minds will often accept work not even remotely related to their field of study (this is where new ideas go to die).
- The brightest young female minds are woefully underrepresented, and, should they actually arrive in a non-secretarial corporate gig, woefully under-respected; Japan’s pretty far from a gender equality utopia.
- Once accepted into a corporate job, even among some of the largest and most profitable companies (ever in history!), salaries for bright young minds are laughably low. Seriously, it’s shocking.
- Promotion and career advancement are based on time spent at a company, not skill or ingenuity, and as such, there is very little incentive to innovate; in the case that a single cog is able to demonstrate an innovation, they will receive little to no personal accolades or reward beyond a patronizing pat on the head from a supervisor who’ll likely present the idea as a team effort. So like, why even try, right?
- Extremely top-down and top-heavy patterns of authoritarian, Confucian management schemes that proactively squash innovation or original thought, i.e., “Shut up kid, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
- One crook, a single individual, more than 10 years ago, scammed a bunch of investors with a bogus startup. This one case has infected the hive mind and is proving very difficult to purge. Because it's a hive mind.
- The seemingly unkillable misperception of looming economic disaster in Japan, at least half-based on unfounded, sensationalist economic drama queening, is like memetic sterioids for unreasonable economic risk-aversion, i.e., don't try to make anything too new or too revolutionary. Ever! Because like, our super rich country will break... or something.
- And lastly, it’s not all on the dinosaurs of J-tech and the greyhairs unwilling to change; when the brightest young minds blithely and passively accept all of the above without significant and effective demand for change, well then the brightest young minds aren’t using their bright young minds very well.
So here’s the thing, think about it this way:
If Page, Brin, Bezos, Musk and friends, with their radical, risky, unproven, and from the myopic perspective of the greying leash holders at the top of J-tech, quite incomprehensible startup ideas about this new “internet” or “world-wide web” nonsense - if those guys had been Japanese, we’d all be searching with Baidu and the Space Shuttle would still be flying... or whatever, something like that.
If Ignored Long Enough, They Will Leave You
Japan’s innovation stagnation situation should be a national priority, and it should be addressed from a social perspective. And just to be clear, presenting our arguments above against Japanese-style corporate management, deincentivizing innovation, and staunchly standing by overly conservative risk aversion policies are not intended to suggest the adoption of a Western model - something appropriately Japanesey is essential - but it’s gotta be something different than the status quo, something based on nuanced social analysis, and something soon.
Startups like Terra Motors, our recently profiled OPENCUBE and their SCOOVO 3D printer, along with incubators like PocketView Live! and supporters like Softbank, Inc., they just might pave the way toward a revitalization of J-tech. And if their efforts fail, if people don't get on board, if they can’t jumpstart the movement, well then more and more innovative Japanese companies will be forced to go the way of Telepathy, the tech startup building Japan’s lone Google Glass competitor.
Telepathy’s doing really well. They recently secured a $5 million dollar venture capital infusion.
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