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3 Things Startups Can Learn From Reading ‘One Piece’ Manga

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These days there are so many theories of how to do a startup. There’s the Rocket Internet MBA-style, and then there’s the Lean Startup movement, and then there are those that think Lean is too trendy and all hype, and then there’s the Steve Jobs followers, the list goes on. There’s no perfect formula set in stone, so I’d like to add a fun one to the mix. And this one’s for all you manga fans out there.

The Idea? Running a successful startup is like running a pirate ship in One Piece.

Now bear with me for a second, but this idea is not a new one. Famous Japanese CEO, entrepreneur and author, Soichiro Minami, who currently runs an HR startup in Southeast Asia, wrote this book. Some of my Japanese friends mentioned to me that in the Japanese blogosphere, many have described this book as a One Piece for startups. So as a big fan of One Piece and of startups, I decided to explore this idea much further.

One Piece, as you may or may not know, is a manga that revolves around the adventures of a group of people called the Straw Hat Pirates (they’re “good” pirates). Monkey D. Luffy, the seemingly childish and impulsive captain, travels from island to island recruiting new members to his pirate crew and eventually sets off with them to a new land called The Grand Line, where they have further adventures. Sounds like kid’s stuff that has nothing to do with startup, right? But One Piece is by far the most popular manga in Japan and possibly worldwide. And there’s a reason why: it’s got deep elements that resonate with kids and adults. Folks across the net have analyzed it to death.

So, three key ideas/themes you can take from One Piece for your startup: a compelling dream, specialists, and focusing on character development.

Have a brilliant dream that your team would die for

Monkey D. Luffy (pictured with the straw hat), like most Shounen manga, is the main character who has an undying dream to be the pirate king (a part of that is finding the treasure known as the ‘One Piece’). It’s audacious, it’s arrogant, it’s naive, it’s flabbergasting, and it’s exactly what makes little schoolboys and nerds read about him every week. But it’s also what brings his team together. Nobody wants to follow someone without a dream.

And the real lesson to be learned from Luffy is he’s willing to die for his dream. He battles the military, the government, other evil pirates, and more, all for that dream. He’s resilient. How many startup founders and CEO’s out there do you really meet who have this kind of conviction and audacity? It’s a rare trait. But if you’ve got the real love and conviction for that dream of your product and company will be, your team will work to the ends of the earth for you. Luffy believes in the dream so much that he’s almost always the ones working the hardest on it. It’s the only way to inspire your team. That’s leadership. How big and inspiring is your dream?

Gather specialists around you

The first person to join Luffy on his travels is a first mate named Zoro. The guy is a trusted fighter like him, and the next person is Nami, a navigator. The next is a sharpshooter/liar. The next is an excellent cook. The list goes on. But you get the idea. Each new person added to the team is a specialist in some sort of skill, and each one wants to be the best in that skill. This is one of the key points made in Minami’s book on human resources that many characterized as alluding to One Piece.

In the real world, this is still true for a starting founding team, and for executing later on. Finding all the specialists in different sectors that can take care of various important and potential sectors of your startup. If you’ve read Inside Apple, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Steve Jobs set up Apple with the principle of “DRI”, which means Directly Responsible Individual, wherein each member of the core executive team is solely responsible for key elements of Apple. Google also stole this idea when Larry Page took over.

In One Piece, the Straw Hat Pirates are usually the smallest team but by and large the most effective and well working team. They may lose, but they always rebound because they know to rely on each other. They trust each other. Do you trust your team?

Your team has to want to improve themselves

One of the coolest things about reading One Piece (and a lot of other famous mangas like Naruto and Dragonball) is watching how the characters develop. The most interesting characters are always the one that change, and remake themselves into better versions. It also allows them to defeat other teams and overcome adversity as time goes on. Characters have periods in which they train, approach events in their lives and their adventures with the thought that they will grow from it, and celebrate their growth. As Luffy has said on more than one occasion “I feel so much stronger now!” and ”I’ve got a new technique I want to show off!”. This kind of mentality needs to be brought into startup.

Which version of yourself are you? 2.0? 4.3? 10.0?! If you’re the same as you were to begin with, I bet your startup is in the same place it was too.

Get on your pirate ship

Of course, startup founders and such are so busy that they don’t have much time to enjoy manga. Although maybe they should – take a break from the trials of the day, and give some time to let your mind rest and get creative before you head back onto your pirate ship.


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