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How a high school dropout became a multi-millionaire entrepreneur

Haruhisa-Okamura-founder-Adways

Born in 1980, Haruhisa Okamura (pictured above) is the founder and CEO of Adways, one of the largest tech companies in Japan that focuses on online advertising. Adways also has its own ad network, internet services, and mobile games. Today, it employs more than a thousand employees worldwide and recorded revenue of over JPY 22.6 billion (US$221 million) last year.

What’s most impressive, however, is that Okamura is one of the youngest founders to bring a company from zero to IPO in Japan.

His success is only possible because Okamura started his career early. At age 16, young Okamura decided he was too cool for school. He opted to drop out of high school to join a company as a salesperson.

“I couldn’t make friends in school so I chose to work early,” he says.

(See: Razer CEO tells students it’s okay to waste time, get an ‘F’)

Okamura’s sales performance saw him rise through the ranks. He was so good at selling door-to-door that he became the company’s top salesperson on many occasions. At 16, Okamura was already displaying signs of a good entrepreneur. He had at least proven that he understood the art of sales.

Intrigued by internet fever

In 2000, Japan was hit by the internet craze, which saw many internet companies go public. Okamura was fascinated by the industry and wanted to be a part of it.

“I saw the CEO of CyberAgent [Mr. Susumu Fujita] on TV and I was very inspired,” he says.

He didn’t know much about the internet back then and laughed, saying he thought “CyberAgent was the internet.”

Okamura tried to apply for a job at CyberAgent but was rejected. With few other options left, Okamura was determined to start his very own online marketing company.

In February 2001, Adways was born. With just one million yen (US$10,000), Okamura spent his first JPY 300,000 (US$3,000) on a computer. The rest of the money was to be invested to build an email marketing software. In search of talented developers, he went to engineering colleges distributing flyers and randomly pitching to students to convince them to build him the system. He eventually found one who did it for 500,000 yen (US$5,000), but the product turned out to be unusable.

Okamura didn’t give up despite hitting the bump. Rather, he went to a top engineering university and continued pitching to students. He was almost broke. So instead of offering straight cash, he offered 30 percent of Adways’ sales margin if the engineer could deliver the software he wanted.

With some luck, Okamura met Sanki Nishiguchi, a talented engineer who agreed to help Adways. Nishiguchi later became Adways first CTO. “I was so determined to find good talent to work with that I even go to [the] bookstore searching [for] and stalking good engineers,” he says.

Zero to IPO

adways-best

Under the leadership of Okamura together with Nishiguchi’s technical talent, Adways grew quickly and went public in 2006. The IPO made Okamura one of the youngest entrepreneurs to list a company in Japan at that time. When asked what made the company grow so quickly, Okamura told Tech in Asia three key points:

  1. Adways started with an affiliate model, which means clients only pay for actual results. Many clients felt more comfortable with this model and were therefore willing to pay.
  2. Despite starting out targeting the PC market, Adways switched to mobile marketing after four months to catch up with the trend. It turned out to be a good choice.
  3. Adways always insists on hiring the best engineers in the company, which helped to build the backbone of all its products.

Okamura, now 33, has grown Adways from a small startup to an international corporation with over a thousand employees around the world. Outside of Japan, Adways has offices in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong, the US, and Singapore. Revenue outside of Japan makes up 10 percent of the company’s revenue, but the figure has grown over 50 percent in the last few years. Apparently, Okamura doesn’t just want to be successful in Japan. He is hungry for success across the globe, too.

“Now in Japan, we are the biggest in ad network business and we want to expand all over the world, especially in Asia. We want to be the top smartphone ad network in the region and we also want to build more new [services] for mobile users.”

Adways also invests in other promising and interesting tech companies. Its latest investment was Gumi, the social mobile gaming company behind the popular Brave Frontier mobile game.

(See: Having struggled through a tough year, Gumi bounces back stronger)

“We are in a good position as mobile marketing company throughout Asia and we want to be number one in this field. But it is impossible to do this by ourselves so we are always looking for partners to work together. We are willing to make investments to achieve our target,” says Nobu Noda, head of global business development group at Adways.

Okamura is encouraging the new generation of entrepreneurs to be bold, especially in the internet industry. Walking the talk, Okamura shared that more than 60 percent of Adways’ sales revenue generated now comes from businesses it created three years ago.

“We have to read the trend in the internet industry. Everything is fast and going up and down. Entrepreneurs need to go with the flow,” says Okamura.


Join us at Startup Asia Tokyo 2014 this September 3 and 4. Get 25 percent off with the SuperEarlyBird code when you get tickets here. Hurry because the discount ends on June 6.

Editing by Terence Lee

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