A typical startup investorI’ve written about this before, but the problem persists.

Japanese society is unquestionably hierarchical. True peer relationships, either social or business, are rare. Advice and instruction from higher up is to be respected and trusted. To be successful, Japanese entrepreneurs need to reject this pattern of thinking, but it’s hard. It is so pervasive in Japanese society that it is almost invisible.

This attitude frequently hurts startup founders in their relationship with VCs. Since the money is coming from the VC, the VC is more senior in the relationship, and Japanese entrepreneurs defer to the opinions of VCs far too quickly and far too often.

Of course, some individuals in Japanese venture capital firms have real world experience, industry knowledge, domain expertise, and mentor new founders. However, such people are rare ― and extremely busy. Ironically, the VCs with the least real-world experience seem to be the most confident and prolific in their advice.

If you, as a founder, need advice on raising funds, listen to everything VCs have to say. In this area they are truly domain experts. If you need advice about market direction or growth strategy, listen politely and attentively. Thank them, then get three more opinions from other entrepreneurs or someone in the industry. Then make up your own mind.

A fellow entrepreneur who had some successes or even failed completely in the market will probably provide you with far more valuable insight.

Facepalm_thumbMy Japanese is good, but far from what I consider fluent. Even so, I accept almost all opportunities to speak to an audience in Japanese – provided I have time to prepare. Things usually go well, but sometimes I go down in flames.

However, it turns out that even when I crash and burn, l come out way ahead.

Last year, I was invited to give a 20-minute presentation about PaaS and Engine Yard to a Japanese audience of about 1,000. I bombed about as badly as was possible. The wrong version of the slide deck was projected behind me, I stumbled through my talk never quite finding my rhythm, and my jokes were met with a dead silence. (The audience got them. They just weren’t funny.) Ouch!

After the presentation, a lot of people approached me and opened conversations with something like  “That took a lot of guts. I don’t think I could have done that in English.”  I ended up with over a dozen promising business leads and met a lot of interesting people I would not have met otherwise.

In Japan, a terrible speech in Japanese is far more effective than a brilliant one in English.