Taizo Son Shares His Five Rules For All Entrepreneurs Wanting To Take Their Startups To The Global Stage



On February 18, X-HUB TOKYO, the overseas expansion support program for Japanese startups, held the “X-HUB TOKYO DEMO DAY – LEAP into the WORLD” event for all entrepreneurs and supporters who want to challenge themselves on the global stage. The Demo Day included pitches by participating companies of the X-HUB program as well as a panel discussion by foreign VCs about the “ways for Japanese startups to succeed around the world.”

The keynote speaker at the event was Taizo Son, startup founder and supporter and the CEO of Mistletoe. We are proud to present his Demo Day speech below.

I first got involved with startup movements and helping out young entrepreneurs five years ago, mainly thanks to the Finnish startup event SLUSH. I was deeply impressed by what I saw there so I said to myself: “We should have something like that in Japan,” so four years ago I co-founded SLUSH ASIA (Current SLUSH TOKYO).

And now, I’ve created Mistletoe, a community for supporting young entrepreneurs. Our mission is to have a big impact on the world by supporting the next generation of businesspeople who want to “change the world by creating and implementing innovative technology.”

That’s why, the members of Mistletoe, be they ex-entrepreneurs like me or lawyers or designers etc., all bring their specialized knowledge to the table to create an organization that offers support from every possible direction. We also firmly believe in “together from the cradle to the grave,” meaning that we are in this together from the moment a business is set up to when it closes. That’s because, to us, success isn’t the only thing that’s important. We believe that there are important lessons to be learned from failure as well. A person who’s failed will get up and do it again and again until they create something better. Giving up after failing is such a waste. That’s why we go all out on the support when someone fails.

Today’s theme is “taking Japanese startups out into the world” so I’ll be talking a lot about overseas expansion. I have some advice for all the entrepreneurs here.

Come Up With A Grand Vision And Gather Your Supporters

The first rule is to “Create a Vision.” I think we’ve gotten better at it in recent years, but if you’re going to do it, you first need to be clear about how your product or service will change the world once they become popular.

Whatever you imagine then and there in your mind’s eye, that’s what we call a “vision.” And if that vision is beautiful, then we will say “We should make it a reality. Let’s support that idea.” Many people confuse an “idea” with a “vision” but they are two very different things.

Especially during early-stage seed rounds, it’s very important for entrepreneurs to paint a beautiful picture of the world that they want to bring forth and ask us to “help make it a reality.” But many Japanese businesspeople only think of their “vision” in Japanese, saying things like “we’ll take it abroad if it succeeds in Japan.” If you want to one day expand abroad, then start thinking of your “vision” in English from the moment you first come up with it.

The second rule is “Find Supporters.” You will use 95% of your time setting up a startup on “gathering supporters,” just as I did. There are many cases of people who delay employment decisions to give themselves more time to come up with a business plan because they’re “busy,” but that’s going about it backwards.

That’s why you need a vision, because once you have it, you’ll quickly find people saying things like “I want to help” or “I want to work on it with you,” and your chances of bringing your beautiful vision to life go way up. However, if you plan on expanding abroad, think internationally from the start and don’t only recruit Japanese people.

The third rule is “Don’t Imitate People.” It means that I want you to “walk your own path without fear.” Many Japanese startups imitate the services and business models that have succeeded in Silicon Valley but I don’t want you doing that when it comes to “technology, talent, and passion.” You can’t clone those. Japanese originality is more sought-after around the world than you think. So don’t just clone.

Have A Grand Goal, Solve Problems

The fourth rule is “Think Big.” If you have your sights set on the global stage, you have to think big, like “I’m going to save the world!”

The youngest entrepreneur I ever met was also the one that impressed me the most. His name is Boyan Slat, and he’s from the Netherlands. One day, when he went for a swim, he saw all the plastic garbage in the sea and thought to himself: “I want to clean this up so I can swim in clean waters.” And then, he experimented with ways to do it. He uploaded videos of his experiments to YouTube to show everyone what he was doing, and soon, more and more people started contacting him to say “That’s great! Come to our laboratory!” and he found himself many supporters. Currently, he’s raised 5-6 billion yen in funding for his cleanup efforts.

And right now in Japan, there are many young entrepreneurs about to be born who will tackle some of our society’s biggest problems. More and more children are broadening their horizons and looking at the bigger picture, and those are the people we want to support.

Finally, the fifth rule is to “Shine a Light.” This comes from “Those who can shine a light onto a dark corner are the treasures of Japan.” The Buddhist monk Saicho said it and it’s my motto. The “dark corner” part refers to “things that no one notices but which are actually important” or “things we should be confronting but which we’re turning away from.”

Saicho says that those who seek dark corners to shine a spotlight on them and makes us think that “we should do something about it” or “if we did this, then it should work” are the treasures of Japan and they deserve our utmost respect.

Japan is a country where profound thoughts and ideas have been passed down for over 1,000 years. And the person who first brought Buddhism and architectural techniques from China, the person who first introduced these cutting-edge technologies to Japan, was none other than Saicho. So, you see, the entrepreneurial spirit has been a part of Japan from the beginning.

I want you to take these five rules to heart and do your absolute best as entrepreneurs. Thank you very much.