In the last of our profiles of people who have become successful in Japan without speaking fluent Japanese, we cover entrepreneurs. Now I realize that I've skipped R&D professionals, English professors, golf course designers, sports coaches, priests, and no doubt a slew of other professions. However, I hope that by picking up on multinational executives, Geeks, and now entrepreneurs, that I have been able to establish a pattern for creating a successful career despite some obvious handicaps - a pattern that not only works in Japan but also in other countries as well.
And what is that pattern? Quite simply it's an obsession to be the best in your field, with all the after-hours study and work that this might entail, to be able to conceive a vision powerful enough to "sell" to and enthuse your colleagues, and a commitment to become an effective communicator (i.e., learn how to both listen and to tell stories). No where else do these attributes matter more than when you decide to go into business for yourself.
Our entrepreneur didn't start out wanting to run his own business. He arrived in Japan as the second leg of a world trip, known to those of us Down under as our "OE" or Overseas Experience. He entered the country on a Working Holiday visa, a visa system established in the early 1980s to enable young people to travel and work between Japan and Australia, and which now covers many other countries (but not the US, unfortunately).
He started off by working for a translation company as a rewriter/editor, much the same as myself. In doing this work, he was building on prior experience back in Australia as a software developer, and before long, he was not just rewriting computer manuals but also giving the customer some helpful tips on how to improve their software as well!
Working with a number of major Japanese companies, he started to build an excellent client base of contacts without really thinking about it. Then one fateful day, he received a call from a CEO friend of his parents, asking if he could help the CEO's software company get started in Japan. Although it turned out that what the Australian company was beyond our budding businessman's experience, it woke him up to the fact that there were other products out there that could be represented in Japan and that he should go about finding out what they were - in the same systematic fashion that he approached developing software.
So that's what he did. He looked at the various clients he knew and worked with, as well as some new ones, and he found that database work and accounting systems were poorly represented in Japan at the time. In particular, he felt that since he was a foreigner, maybe it made sense to focus on a bilingual package.
He then set about contacting a number of companies that had solutions that supported Asian 2-byte languages, if not yet Japanese code. It wasn't long before he found such a company and had entered into negotiations with it.
He was taking a huge risk going this far: a) because if his current (Japanese) employer found out they wouldn't be happy he was setting up his own business, b) the European firm was looking for a minimum financial commitment that was beyond his financial means, and c) because he doubted that a one-man company would be considered sufficiently credible to be able to appeal to customers in Japan?
Our entrepreneur set about addressing those questions one by one. He approached his employer and asked to go on to a part-time arrangement. In return, he offered to find and train his replacement - and that he wasn't going in to competition with them. They were satisfied with the work he'd done and to his surprise they agreed. Next, he came clean with the foreign software publisher, revealing that he was just getting started. But he did manage none-the-less to get them to agree to his being a non-exclusive distributor until he met some mutually agreed upon targets.
Lastly, there was the little issue of being the only employee. This he solved by recruiting several friends who were also willing to become partners in the business and work part-time so as to lay off their risk. One of these turned out to be a sales genius, and before long the partners were all so busy that they had to resign from their day jobs.
Not all companies are successful; in fact most fail within 3 years. But I've noticed that foreigners in Japan tend to be made of sterner stuff, and our entrepreneur passed the usual tests that can kill a company: cash flow drying up, partner disputes, competitors in the market, failed new products, headhunters, and plenty of other challenges.
Fast-forward about 15 years and he had built his business into a leader in its field. With more than 100 staff, he was coming up on the radar screen of some major competitors - and some interested buyers. After looking at the intensity of the rising competition, our entrepreneur decided that having money in the bank wasn't such a bad idea and sold the business. Importantly, he shared the decision to sell and the proceeds with his partners and some key managers.
He then took several years off, but found out that once running your own business gets in your blood, it's hard to stop. So now he is in the process of forming a new company, and once again he is studying what the market needs several years from now...