We All Have Heroes
One of the things I love about my job is getting to spend so much time speaking with entrepreneurs from all over the world. As a group, they are the most positive and energetic group of people on the planet. They are passionate and creative to a fault, and it is impossible to be bored talking with them.
However, since I started my first real company twenty years ago, there has been a significant change in the way both Japanese and American entrepreneurs talk about their craft. It has been a change for the better in Japan, but a change for the worse in the US.
Let me explain.
When my friends and I were budding entrepreneurs, our heroes were people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson. These men had visionary ideas, worked insane hours for years on end, made their own luck, and eventually built empires. And although I read his biography much later, Akio Morita was exactly this kind of entrepreneur.
These men and their teams were passionate about their work. They undoubtedly had a lot of fun along the way, but their stories are always told as ones of innovation, competition and persistence.
Growing a company today is just as competitive as it has ever been, but today’s American entrepreneurs seem less inspired by the real lives of Gates and Morita than they do by the fictional tales in films like The Social Network.
Sweet Little Lies
In this fictional world of entrepreneurship, hard work and persistence are done by others somewhere off camera, while founders dream up and hammer down deals in minutes over drinks at five-star restaurants. Strategic alliances are made in loud nightclubs while surrounded by lingerie models. In reality, this does not happen. My God, I wish it did, but it does not.
In America, starting a company has somehow changed from something that is challenging and potentially rewarding into something that is supposed to be fun and entertaining. Entrepreneurship has morphed from a contact sport into a video game.
The full extent of this transformation struck me last year when I attended a prominent venture event in San Francisco. Over 3,000 people showed up, rock music blared and the crowd cheered. I had a fantastic time. It was tremendously entertaining and impossible not to get swept up in the fun.
Something was not quite right, however. The entrepreneurs in attendance spoke with eerie uniformity about their “unique” approach and market opportunity. Most founders used the same buzzwords and phrases to emphatically assert that theirs was incredibly disruptive technology that was going fundamentally change the world.
When I skeptically quizzed an individual over what exactly his task-management app was disrupting and how it was different from several similar established products, I received vague and vacuous (but incredibly enthusiastic) statements about the competitions’ supposed lack of strategic focus and the potential size of the market. Questions about number of users and development plans could only be answered under NDA. (Naturally)
A Walk Down the Red Carpet
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of clever ideas represented there, but on the whole the entrepreneurs seemed to be engaged in some kind role-playing game. One in which my simple questions represented a challenge to respond with the “correct” well-crafted answer. Amass enough correct answers and perhaps they could clear the level and receive their next round of funding.
The whole affair felt more like Hollywood than Silicon Valley. Angel inventors and venture capitalists were introduced and treated like movie stars. Actual movie stars were in attendance as well. Actress, and newly minted entrepreneur, Jessica Alba was interviewed about the challenges and rewards involved in running her new startup.
Ms. Alba seems to have a good heart and a reasonable business plan. To her credit, she managed to raise a laughably large amount of funding on the idea that her name will help launch a new e-commerce brand, and seems to be off to a good start. I wish her the greatest success, but she has almost no practical knowledge of the daily work involved in being an entrepreneur and building a business.
This interview was no isolated case. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher, MC Hammer, Lady Gaga and even Justin Bieber are not only investing in start-ups, but are frequently asked to give advice about starting and running them. For reasons that defy all logic, their opinions are taken seriously by the press and many of today’s young entrepreneurs.
Sadly, Hollywood’s make-over of entrepreneurship was only getting started with the success of “The Social Network.” A new TV show slated to come out later this year called “Silicon Vally” will further capitalize on the fun and excitement that is entrepreneurship.
Things will end badly for American founders and investors who confuse the Hollywood image of entrepreneurship with the real thing. Growing a company is not Hollywood. It is not entertaining. It is not sexy.
Land of the Underfunded
When I returned to Japan after the event, the change in mood was striking — and refreshing. People are interested in start-ups in Japan, but there is still a general understanding that they are risky and involve a tremendous amount of hard work. Few expect to be entertained by starting a company.
Start-up events in Japan are decidedly more down-to-earth than in San Francisco. Most are low-budget affairs in small venues, and they somehow manage to make do without rock-music and movie stars.
I truly enjoy the conversations I have with Japanese founders. People talk freely and (I assume) honestly about their user-base, their competition and their general go-to-market strategies. And, quite unlike their American counterparts, they are willing to admit there are problems that they have not figured out how to solve yet.
Fundraising is an important topic, but it’s rarely been the focus the conversation, and I’ve never had a Japanese entrepreneur rattle off the names of his investors in order to demonstrate the validity of his business. Thankfully, there is no breathless talk about how their new mobile game is going to fundamentally change the world.
The stark difference between the current crop of Japanese and American entrepreneurs was driven home by a conversation I had with a founder of a local start-up focused on funding and marketing new Japanese anime. They had done a lot of good work so far and had gathered a good team. Their business model seemed reasonably sound, but I admitted to the founder that I knew nothing about the anime market.
He was visibly taken aback. “You mean you don’t like anime?”
“No, no. It’s not that I don’t like it”, I explained “I know a few of the famous titles, but I just don’t really know anything about it.”
My ignorance of something so wonderful and important was clearly something this entrepreneur could not let stand. He ignored the other visitors and began excitedly quizzing me on the types of movies and books I enjoyed. There were no carefully crafted answers designed to demonstrate his passion and commitment. His passion and commitment were so obvious and overpowering that I had to take a step back to continue the conversation.
I left his booth ten minutes later with a list of anime titles that he guaranteed I would like and left a promise to watch them at my first opportunity.
Now, I can’t say whether this particular company will succeed or fail. However, they, and many Japanese start-ups like them, have something important that most of their American counterparts lack: genuine purpose and passion.
Starting and growing a company can be one of the most challenging, and rewarding things a person can do. There are mornings you wake up and realize you have the best job in the world. Sometimes it really is unbelievably fun, but it is never entertaining.
The people most likely succeed are those who clearly see the value they are creating for the world and are passionate about delivering it.
These are the people who, every once in great while, really do change the world.
This article was originally published in Japanese by IT Media.