Moeko Suzuki, who went to high school in London and college in the U.S., established Tailor Innovations Inc. after working for an overseas market development consulting company, and also founded Startup Lady Association, a community of global female entrepreneurs. She discussed the features of the startup scene in Japan from her global point of view.
Let me start by introducing myself. I lived in London during high school and then went to college in the United States. I was able to learn about global perspectives and diversity as I interacted with diverse people from about 70 different countries. I also learned Spanish as I lived in Panama and Ecuador, which made me trilingual. After graduation, I worked for a consulting firm that dealt with overseas market development and other related work.
However, when I asked the people around me, "What is your dream?'' One day, I felt that I was in an environment where few people around me had dreams and goals. So I decided to start my own company, Tailor Innovations Inc. on May 1, 2015. I started with overseas marketing support business and later tackled with single manufacture to 1,000-unit mass production of OEM and ODM in IoT equipment. At the time of my company establishment in 2015, it was not yet common for women to start their own businesses, and it was just beginning to attract some attention. The people I met during that time were women and foreigners, and I felt that they were unfamiliar with entrepreneurship. Thus, I decided to create a community to support them. That is how "Startup Lady" came to be with its three pillars of global, female, and international, leading to the establishment of my company.
We are a "global community," and we all pull together in a fun way. But there are quite a few difficulties there.
First of all, the main challenge is the language. We are primarily Japanese and English, so everything has to be translated. I think probably everyone in the bilingual community has this challenge, because everything that is created in Japanese has to be translated in English. This translation alone takes considerable time and effort. We have used machine translation and volunteers as a solution to this issue, and it has improved things a bit. When we first started up, the quality level of machine translation was low, and we had quite a bit of trouble. But it has considerably improved now.
Also, because setting up a business in Japan is very difficult for foreigners, it is also difficult to provide support it. The government does provide support, but there are still some things that are not known and problems that need to be addressed. That is why we are working with organizations such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and TOSBEC to provide online courses on how to obtain visas or how to start a business. We provide these support through "Startup Lady.
We also have a Japanese founder, but she is a little different because she grew up in Austria, exposed to the European culture. She herself doesn't speak Japanese very well, so we realized that what is normal for us is not normal in other countries. We have taken measures against these issues to cope with cultural differences. However, what we take for granted may not be understood by others.
The current situation is that there are many startups that are ambitious and have excellent technical capabilities, but they are struggling to get funding. In order to receive investment, you need to have a track record. And it is difficult to proceed with a conversation when you are unable to create that track record. In this respect, I feel that the attitude of investors in Japan and overseas is different. While some investors overseas are willing to buy dreams, many investors in Japan tend to focus on actual performance. If the exit strategy is clear, there is a possibility that they will invest even without a track record. However, while Japanese investors are honest, they may tend to be overly concerned about what others think. I do not mean to criticize the Japanese investors, but compared to the rest of the world, I feel that they should be willing to take a certain amount of risk in their business plans.
I think it is important to motivate investors too. Not only to increase the number of angel investors, but also to create an environment that makes it easier for them to invest is important. For instance, tax incentives for the startups in which they invest, or arrangement of a matching platform that connects angel investors with portfolio companies, may help to create an ecosystem that facilitates the flow of investment. Angel investors themselves can also work closely with portfolio companies to support their growth and pave the way to success together.
The reason behind the establishment of the Startup Ecosystem Association is that while many organizations that support startups exist, there have been few that do so from a neutral standpoint. Therefore, Mr. Fujimoto from plug and play and Mr. Nagura from CIC took the lead in creating an association where people from accelerators and startup support organizations can share information domestically and internationally, and aim to build a startup ecosystem in cooperation with government and private companies. The ecosystem association not only provides educational institutions for entrepreneurs and an environment that encourages the creation and growth of startups, but also serves as a Japanese contact point for overseas startups and startup-related organizations.
Globalization of the startup ecosystem is also their main goal, and that part is quite in line with the globalization goals we are working on. In fact, we are still working with them and have quite a few connections with them, including the startup ecosystem. However, there are many startup ecosystem-related organizations in Japan, and it has been difficult to know which ones are providing what kind of support and what roles they are playing. Therefore, the Startup Ecosystem Association, to which they belong, has created a database of organizations and companies, aiming to create a centralized system that can manage all information. They are trying to increase the transparency of the startup ecosystem by building a system in which information of startups that come and go is automatically updated and can be accessed by anyone.
Especially since Japan is a country with many unique cultures, I think it is important for foreigners to cooperate with local people when starting a business in Japan. You can try out businesses that have succeeded overseas in Japan, but many of them have not yet been tested in the Japanese market. You can say that there is a blue ocean market. But if you proceed with business without understanding the cultural differences, you are bound to fail, as seen in some cases of failure in M&A and other deals. When a foreigner starts a business in Japan, I think it is important to understand the local culture first.
When building a team and working together, what the locals say is almost always correct. This is true in any country. Therefore, I think you’d definitely better to have an attitude of respecting and working together with the local people.
Starting a business in Japan is somehow more difficult than in other countries, but on the other hand, what is popular overseas may become popular in Japan three or five years later. So, I think that Japan has a high potential for success in the areas where such a chance exists. In addition, I believe that there are still many opportunities for us to take the lead in Japan if we develop the same way as the many leading, global companies do. As Startup Lady, we are working with TOSBEC to offer courses to support international entrepreneurs and create a community place for startup companies and minorities to gather. We provide places where you can collect information both online and offline, so we hope you will feel free to use our services.
As I mentioned earlier, the Startup Ecosystem Association also spreads information related to such support both domestically and internationally, so I think there are many areas where they can be of use. We also hold meetings to exchange opinions with the government and are involved in policy making, so we can, for example, take the opinions of people from other countries seriously and create a trend to reflect them in our policies.
We hope that people take advantage of our association’s such services. We will also continue to provide databases and information on startups in Japan and create situations where people can think: "These are interesting startups, let's collaborate with them," or "I know this kind of organization exists, let me utilize it.”
Finally, what do you find attractive about Japan?
I have visited about 40 countries, but I think Japan is outstanding in the world to eat delicious food, visit various tourist attractions, and have a good time, thanks to the low cost of living, the street safety and friendliness of the people.
Thank you very much.