Takehiko Ono

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2000

Takehiko Ono
President, Protrade

This man says he's the most fortunate entrepreneur in Japan. ProTrade, of which he is president, is one of the first spin-offs under the Entrepreneur in Residence (E.I.R.) system at NetAge, an Internet incubation company.

"I was at Andersen Consulting," he says, "and while I was doing research for clients I thought about my own business plan as well. I was almost certain I would start my own company." Then an acquaintance told him about NetAge's E.I.R. system. "In Japan you can find almost nothing like this," Ono says. "I was going be an entrepreneur anyway, but if I can get some help, I thought it would be better."

Ono joined NetAge in October 1999, bringing his business plan and some of his Andersen colleagues. ProTrade is a reverse-auction website for small businesses (think BizBuyer.com in the US). This is how the site works: a registered buyer (usually a small-business owner) makes a request for a professional service, then sellers show what they can offer at what price, info that's put into a chart format for the buyer to review. Identities are not disclosed at this stage. If a buyer is interested in a certain seller, ProTrade gives the contact information, which leads to the actual offline negotiation. For buyers, the service is free, and for sellers there's a fee to bid, plus a commission to ProTrade when the deal is closed.

Reverse auction sites help level the playing field for small businesses by providing competitively priced professional services. They also provide a place to both request and offer services. "The buyer can also be a seller, and vice versa," says Ono. A website designer can both offer his services and request proposals for accounting services. The site's small-business focus makes it rather unique in Japan -- unlike in the US, there aren't many services like this that target the little guys. "I think this is quite an interesting area to explore," Ono says.

To turn his original plan into reality, Ono had to endure numerous nerve-wracking meetings and presentations at NetAge. Under the E.I.R. system, he was expected to become an independent entrepreneur, so the folks at NetAge were highly critical of his plan. "It was modified and refined so many times, now it looks completely different. What's remained here is just the original concept [of targeting the small businesses]. But I'm happy I came to NetAge. My mind went in various directions along the way -- from dealing with food to education -- but every time NetAge pulled me back in the right direction."

Ono says he would have become an entrepreneur even if he hadn't joined NetAge, but he admits that it would have been much more difficult. "The president of NetAge, Mr. [Kiyoshi] Nishikawa, loves to start up new businesses. And he knows many people who I can get help from. Also, I don't have to worry about office space or funds, which is usually the biggest problem for startups. I am the most fortunate entrepreneur in Japan."

As of mid-February, more than 200 professionals have pre-registered for ProTrade. Ono predicts about 15,000 sellers will register within a year, and 100,000 in three years. Will his luck hold out?

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