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Antti Sonninen(Takeoff Tokyo)

March 21, 2024

Antti Sonninen, who organizes and manages the startup conference Takeoff Tokyo, talked about the issues related to the startup scene in Japan and the uniqueness of his event.

Please introduce yourself. 

I have been in Japan for 10 years. I am originally from Finland and first came to Japan in 2007 as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo. Then, I moved to Japan in 2013 to work as a country manager for the game company Rovio Entertainment, where we were developing the game “Angry Birds”. As I mentioned earlier, I had studied in Japan and could speak some Japanese, which is probably why I was chosen to be the country manager.
I had very few contacts when I arrived in Japan, so I immediately went to meet as many people as possible. I was determined to go to every tech-related event I could find (laugh). I went to both Japanese-language and English-language events, and I noticed that the audience was very different depending on the language. For events held in Japanese, there were no foreigners other than myself, and when it came to events hosted in English, I thought there were very few Japanese attendees.
I noticed that international game companies were wondering how to enter the Japanese market, while many Japanese companies were wondering how to reach the international markets when I visited Japanese meetups. So, I thought it would be easier for everyone in the same industry, both English speakers and Japanese speakers, to be in the same space to discuss it, rather than having a third-party consultant help them with their overseas expansion.

Please tell us more about "Takeoff Tokyo," which you started last year. 

I think the Japanese venture industry has grown quite a bit in the past 10 years since I came to Japan. The amount of funds raised for startups increased tenfold in 10 years. Most of the advertisements inside cabs are startup commercials, and a minister in charge of startups was appointed within the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). However, when comparing data from 1989 and 2023, Toyota, the strongest candidate for a global Japanese company, has fallen out of the top 50 list. Although various domestic ecosystem builders say things like “Japan is making progress” and “Japan has done well”, though, as the data shows, Japan has been left behind from an international perspective. Many people do not seem to realize this.
I’d like to point out that there are quite a few companies that have grown big with hardware. Hardware can be touched with your hands and seen with your eyes, so communication and language skills do not require high levels, even if you don’t speak English much. But this is not the case with software, since it requires a developer ecosystem and community management. Consequently, communication skills are required. Branding skills and the mindset of who to assume as your audience are also important.
The biggest challenge in Japan is that no one has prepared a space where the world's best companies can be created, even though they have been saying that they will create such a space. For example, when I look around at events and communities, I see that they are labeled “Global XX” but the links are written only in Japanese, or panel discussions are only for Japanese people. I often want to say, “What's global about it?” (laugh)
There are cases where simultaneous interpretation is provided, but if you really want to present excellent content, it is much more effective to show it on YouTube. Considering the amount of work you can reduce and effectiveness, I don't think you can beat YouTube as a session. Does this mean that is it okay to just use YouTube instead of hosting events? The answer is no, because events should be where you start new conversations with people you don't know. Despite having this unique quality, many events are currently treated as nothing more than “icebreakers”.  

Thank you very much! What kind of people attended the events that were held last  year? And what kind of people would you like to see at future events as well? 

We had 800 unique participants, and 20-30% of them were foreigners. There were many founders of startup companies and employees of startups, as well as representatives from large companies with various technologies and capital from in and out of Japan. Government officials and academics also participated. If we can propose new things and services that are likely to come in the future, people from various sectors will be on board. 
We had volunteer staff running the event, and 80% of them were university students. I like the younger generation because they are enthusiastic about new things without much prejudice. They are an important part of the team and the event’s success.
We cater a unique experience to those who not only support the current direction of their company but also have an entrepreneurial mindset.

What are your plans for Takeoff Tokyo 2024?

Feedback from the first event has already been positive, such as: “I'm glad we were able to participate in this kind of event. There should be more.” “Tokyo needs this kind of place.” But we had less than three months to prepare for the first event, we also received comments like “If we had more time for proper advertisement, we could have invited more people from overseas”. We used this feedback as a driving force in preparing for our next event. At the end of the day, we did launch only 50 days before the event.

I heard you had three qualifying pitches in Europe at the end of last year in three different cities.

Tokyo Pitch Night brought us to Europe, where we were able to meet many startups who have high expectations for Japan and its market, and we are still in contact with some of them almost 3 months later. We were informed that opportunities like our event are rare; there are groups that come from Japan for business relations, but not many actually take futher action past introducing themselves, such as saying "I came from Japan, let's meet again in Japan".
I don't want Japanese startups to just be spectators in the global startup ecosystem! I want them to gain the confidence to challenge themselves overseas by learning about interesting startups from around the world, and I would be happy if we could hear more stories of overseas expansion, office openings, and attending events abroad in the future.
This year, Takeoff Tokyo will take place in April and will involve a larger number of participants compared to last year. We already have several international participants, thanks to Tokyo Pitch Night in Europe. 
We had 800 visitors last year, but this year we want to make that number doubled and tripled. We would also like to make the venue itself more exciting. For instance, we are working with a company that usually works on stages for Fuji Rock (one of Japan's largest music festivals) for the lighting design, to incorporate a lively, vibrant atmosphere.

Can you tell us more about this year’s team members?

I’d like to point out that our core team includes both working professionals and students, with Japanese and non-Japanese members. The majority of our team members are individuals who are pursuing entrepreneurship themselves and actively taking initiative as co-organizers. 
This kind of organizing style indeed involves risks and challenges, but we believe it's the best way to build the bold ecosystem we envision. If we want to empower the youth of Japan, they need to be on the planning team too. While I have been in Japan for a long time, one of the things I learned in Finland is that trusting ambitious, young people leads to amazing startup ecosystems being built.

Takeoff Tokyo 2024 is scheduled April 10th-11th. I look forward to seeing you all at the venue.


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