Naofumi Tsuchiya had faced death before. But when Tomoko Namba, founder of Japanese gaming powerhouse DeNA (TSE:2432), exhorted him and his fellow would-be entrepreneurs to go to Silicon Valley, he experienced a new type of fear.
Remembering that day in 2011, he explains, “I had never been out of Japan before, I didn’t know anyone in Silicon Valley, and I couldn’t even speak English that well.” He did, however, agree with Namba’s assertion that Silicon Valley companies succeed on a global level because they tend to have an international mix of employees. Tsuchiya wanted to experience that and break out of the standard Japan-services-for-Japanese-people mindset. He immediately began planning how to make the move.
Three years later, his company, Goodpatch, is a rising star in the competitive landscape of digital design firms. Specializing in websites, mobile sites, and smartphone apps, Goodpatch receives clients looking to spruce up their user experience or user interface. Tsuchiya wants Goodpatch to stand out from the pack by working closely with clients and lending expertise during the planning stages of the design.
He is a champion of simple and clean structure, making him part of the new wave in Japanese design. His growing stature is all the more impressive considering nine years ago he was a college drop-out lying in a hospital bed and grappling with a potentially fatal diagnosis.
Dropping out of school
Leukemia does not define Tsuchiya but it did give him perspective. Healthy and in full remission now, he was diagnosed while taking a leave from a college that bored him. Only 21, he says the incident taught him to respect his own mortality and to make the most of his life.
With newfound determination, he recovered quickly and returned to school. There, during a class on entrepreneurship, he was particularly drawn to a case study of Rakuten, the Japanese internet services conglomerate. He learned that Rakuten’s founder, Hiroshi Mikitani, left his successful banking career behind after his hometown was ruined in the deadly Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Tsuchiya decided there was no time to waste and left school again. This time it was for good.
He joined a series of companies, experiencing the usual highs and lows of the working world. By 2011, he was 27 and still had not become the entrepreneur he wanted to be. On his birthday, he discovered that his grandmother had left him approximately US$50,000 only accessible after turning 27.
“This was my grandmother’s way of challenging me. She was telling me to just do it,” Tsuchiya says. Shortly after, he attended the speech by Namba and decided to seize his moment.
His first flight to Silicon Valley was a calculated risk. He had an interview with btrax, a market-entry advisory firm, and needed to show up in person. He signed up for a Silicon Valley tour package with some other Japanese businessmen and flew out on March 10, narrowly missing the tragic earthquake of March 11, 2011. He relocated to San Francisco but his stint with btrax was short-lived. Goodpatch launched that September.
Company almost went bust
During last month’s Failcon Tokyo, Tsuchiya spoke about how he almost lost the company he had worked so hard to gain. At his nadir in early 2012, Goodpatch had only a few hundred dollars in the bank and insufficient work coming in. Everything turned around when he got in touch with Yoshifumi Seki, another participant on that Silicon Valley tour the previous year. Seki co-founded Gunosy, a news curation app in serious need of a redesign. Tsuchiya took the job.
The company has passed thirty employees and continues to grow. Tsuchiya has his eyes set on a San Francisco office by mid-2015. For the immediate future, he is concentrating on a new tool, Prott, which allows users to sketch, animate, and design models for UX/UI designs and share them within the team.
Tsuchiya is happy with Goodpatch’s progress so far. He is not targeting a new funding round and says the company still has a sizeable nest egg and many orders coming in.
Looks like Tsuchiya’s grandmother bet on the right guy.