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5 entrepreneurial inspirations from Japanese anime

Matthew Romaine is the co-founder and CTO of Gengo, a web-based human translation platform. You can connect with him via Twitter and Linkedin.

anime-manga

Last month I was asked by Sunbridge Global Ventures to kick off their Innovation Weekend global rollout as their inaugural speaker. The request included that I address the following two questions:

  • What kind of Japanese entrepreneurs can be successful in Silicon Valley?
  • How can Japanese entrepreneurs globalize their business from Tokyo?

Achieving success as an entrepreneur anywhere is a challenge, so while I could understand the appeal of targeting Silicon Valley, there are enough factors to consider that are agnostic to location. Rather than suggest that I have solutions to these broad, abstract questions, I decided to have a bit of fun. I chose five qualities I felt were important as an entrepreneur, then reached back into my childhood era living in Japan and tied each quality with a bit of Japanese culture.

First, the five qualities — which are important together; see if you can spot why without scrolling down!

Ambitious /am’biSHəs/, adjective
Having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed.

Nimble /’nimbəl/, adjective
Quick and light in movement or action; agile.

International /,inter’naSHəәnl/, adjective
Existing, occurring, or carried on between two or more nations.

Mature /məә’Choor,-’t(y)oor/, adjective
Fully developed physically; full-grown.

Experimental /ik,sperəә’men(t)l/, adjective
Based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalized.

Now, why these five? Well, if you take the first letter of each one, you get ANIME.

For each quality, I reflected back on my time in Japan as a kid attending international school and selected one well-known anime or manga character who I felt exhibited the selected quality, and related a story about Gengo and how we, too, exhibited that quality. Now, as this was more a fun rather than academic exercise, you may need to use your imagination and stretch it a bit at times. Here goes!

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

ambitious

For ambition, I chose Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsu-jo — otherwise known as Kochikame. This manga from 1976 is about neighborhood policeman Ryo-san and his entrepreneurial, often scheming ways. In each episode, Ryo-san is attempting some new money-making scheme with which he usually achieves some level of success. But as his key motivations are money and power, each episode inevitably ends with his downfall; he gets greedy and fails, and becomes an example of caution for his readership. (Bear in mind particularly for this generation of Japanese, manga was used either as an escape or to educate on do’s and don’ts).

The important point though is that Ryo-san never ceased seizing opportunities — he always had the courage to try something new, and this ambition is important in every entrepreneur. If Ryo-san had exhibited the other qualities I’ll share below — especially maturity — he could very well have been successful.

Let me share a story from a very early part of Gengo, when we were very ambitious. Back in 2009 we were finding it a challenge to raise capital in Japan for a seed round. I learned that Dave McClure was coming to Tokyo with his family for the winter holidays, and he graciously agreed to hear our pitch.

By the end of the meeting, he wired us funds with the stipulation that we fly to the Bay Area the following month to meet with angels and VCs he would introduce. Despite never having pitched to anyone in the Bay Area nor having any idea whether we would leave with seed funding, we jumped at the opportunity and packed over 30 meetings with angels and VCs into a 10-day trip. There was hardly a moment we weren’t discussing a prior pitch meeting or planning for the next; oftentimes my co-founder Rob would be updating the pitch-deck while I drove to the next meeting.

Fortunately the trip was a success, and I’ll get into more details shortly. The lesson on ambition here is that sometimes there are moments where you just have to go and try something out or you’ll never know the outcome. Which leads me to the next quality…

nimble

For nimbleness, I chose Lupin III, a manga character from 1967. The backstory is that Lupin III is the grandson of the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin from Maurice Leblanc’s novels. (Incidentally, the entire Lupin ecosystem is a good example of how Japan tweaks, perfects, and capitalizes on a foreign asset). Lupin III is a master thief, and in cahoots with him are an expert marksman named Jigen and a master swordsman named Goemon. Lupin’s love interest is Fujiko, who sometimes helps or distracts him from his mission. Lupin and his gang are always chased by Inspector Zenigata, who has made it his life’s work to arrest Lupin.

Throughout the manga and anime series, Lupin III appears very agile — he moves quickly, albeit often clumsily, putting himself in difficult situations (like in jail). But his friends always come to his rescue, and after they free him he immediately resumes his original mission, never ceasing to pursue his goal (usually some treasure). Lupin III is a very clever character, and in many episodes he deftly uses his nemesis Zenigata to his advantage, usually as a distraction.

Incidentally, in doing this research I discovered that Lupin’s author Monkey Punch (aka Kazuhiko Kato) did not originally seek permission to use the Lupin name. So in a way, even the author was “nimble”. Of course, by no means am I condoning theft. The focus is on being resourceful and clever!

Let me share two stories from Gengo’s early days where we had to be nimble. The original version of Gengo was launched from Rob’s apartment, where there was enough room for the three of us to work. We eventually wanted to hire an intern to handle community and support, which triggered the search for a larger working area. We managed to find a shared-office space called Co-lab near (the controversial) Yasukuni shrine. Co-lab had two seating options — a fixed cubicle that could fit two bodies, and a “roaming desk” area. We signed up for one cubicle and two roaming seats, figuring we could just keep adding (or subtracting) roaming seats as needed.

As we hired more freelance developers and interns, we quickly grew to about eight members, with around three of them part-time. Thing is, we could only afford five seats, so we had to discreetly rotate key-cards among the non-holders. It was easy to hear people outside the secured enclosed space, so we sometimes used a ‘secret whistle’ or covert knock to let those inside know someone outside needed to be let in. Despite others (unrelated to Gengo) using the shared-office space, we nimbly got through this episode for a few months before eventually moving into a proper office.

See: Razmig Hovaghimian: from failed pizza maker to founder of Viki

The second story about being nimble was a period when I slept on an inflatable mattress in a spare room at my parents’ place for eight months. This was a period when I essentially dropped any responsibility not related to developing Gengo. Shedding personal possessions down to what could fit in a single 3’x3’ box and sleeping on the floor of a spare room all in the name of reducing financial burden required a certain level of mental nimbleness on my 28-year-old self.

On most days I would take a 45-minute walk to the office, saving an additional few dollars per day. Walking to work turned out to have three essential upsides :

1) It enforced an exercise regimen during a lifestyle that was 99 perccent sitting and coding in front of a laptop.
2) It helped save some money.
3) And it gave me time to think and solve problems — time that could easily have been usurped by other company-building needs. If there’s a lesson here on being nimble, it’s around identifying the upside of working with limited resources.

international

For international, I chose Captain Tsubasa — a manga from the early 1980s about a young football prodigy (that’s “soccer” for Americans) named Tsubasa Oozora. Tsubasa has a dream of winning the FIFA World Cup for Japan, and the series shows numerous incredible — often unrealistic, but still very cool — shots on goal.

Early in the series Tsubasa meets Roberto Hongo, a Brazilian footballer who comes to live with Tsubasa and his family. Another character named Taro Misaki traveled around Japan at a young age because of his father’s job, and soon becomes Tsubasa’s best friend. What I like and found interesting in the Captain Tsubasa anime is that not only does Tsubasa have a global dream, he surrounds himself with people who are either international — like Roberto — or who have been exposed to different subcultures — like Taro, in his adventures around remote parts of Japan.

Throughout the series, Tsubasa continues to surround himself with international players, both as teammates and competitors. For example, in the World Cup Youth edition, Tsubasa leaves Japan for Sao Paolo, Brazil, and meets talented Brazilian players like Pepe and Carlos Santana. When the AFC Youth Championships begins, Tsubasa returns to Japan and joins the national team, competing against teams from around the world including Thailand, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

See: If you want to do a startup in Asia, you should go live abroad first

Our team at Gengo is incredibly diverse — possibly the highest ratio of nationalities per headcount you’ll find for a company in Japan, with an office in the US. Among the approximately 45 people who make up Gengo, at least 12 nationalities are represented, including the US, UK, Japan, Kazakstan, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India, and Singapore.

Each and every hire is interested in different cultures and languages; some are obviously better than others at speaking a second (or third!) language. But the interest and passion for learning and trying is what’s most important to us. We have found that building an international team early in a company’s growth is a clear way to show both internally and publicly that diversity is incredibly valuable to us. This sort of company culture becomes particularly helpful when recruiting talent.

Thanks to the internet’s inherent global reach, an “international mindset” is now less about physical location and more about valuing diversity and having a global outlook. That said if you’ve never lived overseas, get moving ASAP!

mature

For maturity, I knew I had to go with Golgo 13, a manga from 1968 about a professional assassin who also goes by the pseudonym Duke Togo. This guy is a badass — a pro among pros. Golgo 13’s past is a mystery, but throughout the series he’s known as a guy who just gets shit done. He’s calculating and methodical, and is never known to fail a mission as a hired gun.

Okay, so he doesn’t always kill someone in every episode. In the episode Sharp Shoot on a G-String, which is about two rival violinists, one of them has a meltdown during a solo performance when the G string on his violin snaps and he can’t continue performing. The incident becomes global news, and he withdraws from the public realm. But the show must go on, so his agent got his key rival to continue in his place. This selection enrages the original violinist, who decides to hire Golgo 13 to shoot and break the G string at the rival violinist’s next performance. Golgo 13 is that good. The original violinist wants his rival to endure the same meltdown and humiliation he’s undergone, and is willing to go to quite an extreme to make it happen.

Golgo 13 completes his mission successfully, snapping the G string mid-performance. The rival violinist pauses, and a tense air fills the auditorium as everyone watches to see what happens next. To the dismay of the first violinist, his rival retunes the D string on stage, and completes the rest of his performance. Golgo 13 obviously knows what would ultimately satisfy his client — to cause complete and utter humiliation in the performer — but he’s done his job, so he packs up his rifle and leaves the venue. Golgo 13 doesn’t let himself get sucked into the negativity of his client; instead he keeps his cool and professionalism. He’s mature like that.

At Gengo we’ve seen our share of nonsense clearly targeted at us with the intent to humiliate and distract. Being mature as an entrepreneur means not letting bullshit bother you. There will always be people who try to waste your time, so it’s important to recognize when that’s happening and not get sucked in.

See: Despite the naysayers, Pixta became Japan’s biggest stock photo marketplace

When we received our first serious coverage in online media, we were elated — only to read through the comments and find tons of vitriol and negative feedback about our business model. It would have been easy to take it as a setback — but instead it thickened our skin and proved to us that we were on to something clearly disruptive and upsetting because at the least we were reallocating value to different parties.

We’ve seen our share of trolls on other social media platforms, and as we grew we established a company policy on how to respond — maturely and professionally, no matter what. Never let yourself get sucked down to another’s level. We’ve done such a good job at this that our fans — our customers and translators — often rebut complaints, false claims, and trolling activity on our behalf!

If you focus on adding value and block out the noise, you’ll be just fine.

experimental

For the final quality — experimental — I chose Yatta-man, a relatively niche manga (at least compared to the ones above) from 1977. Yatta-man (or “Yatterman” according to English distributors) is about two young tinkerers, a boy named Gan-chan and his girlfriend Ai-chan. They exist to protect a magical stone called the Skull Stone from a gang of three villains called the Doronbo. To do this, they’ve modified a large rescue robot in the shape of a dog into having weapons and called it Yatta-wan. As the series progresses, Gan-chan and Ai-chan experiment and iterate on their choice of weapons by building different robots, or mechas, for special occasions and changes in environment — such as Yatta-pelican for airborne needs, Yatta-angler for underwater activities, and Yatta-bull for drilling underground.

When the Yatta-man duo encounters the Doronbo, they’ll trigger one of their mechas to deploy an army of little robots. But the Doronbo also have their own mechas that pack weapons, and usually defeat Yatta-man at the beginning of the fight with their own army of mini-robots. Gan-chan and Ai-chan again experiment and iterate on their original mini-robot army, and ultimately defeat the Doronbo.

At Gengo, experimentation and iteration is a core part of our product development and company growth philosophy. One of our five core values is kaizen, which essentially means “improvement through iteration”. Throughout the five years we’ve been growing as a business, here are a few “experiments” we’ve done for the purposes of improving the product and how we operate:

  • used four different video conferencing services
  • changed our total office layout twice in only eight months
  • completely changed our online order-form UI/UX four times
  • experimented with all-hands meetings to be Japanese-only

Some of these might seem trivial — but if you’ve ever worked in an environment with some history you know how cliche yet frequent the answer “well, that’s how it’s always been done” is, especially in a Japanese work environment. So we try to never let this mindset get in our way. Getting into a habit of iterating and tweaking is important as teams and environments grow because there is never one-size-fits-all.

anime

So that’s ANIME — my take on a Japanese, entrepreneurial way to succeed globally. Thanks for reading this far; I’d like to close with one of my favorite quotes by George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

So go out and be unreasonable!

See: Why this startup is better off in Tokyo than in Silicon Valley

Editing by Terence Lee / Top image credit @Saeba on Flickr

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