Creative entrepreneurship in Japan

Akiko Naka, CEO & Founder at Wantedly

Akiko Naka, CEO & Founder at Wantedly

Many Japanese entrepreneurs clone businesses whose concepts are already proven somewhere else. However, it is the rare creative entrepreneur who develops a new and profitable idea from scratch which Beacon Reports finds most attractive. A role model for creative entrepreneurship in Japan is Akiko Naka. Her social networking site, Wantedly, helps Millennials find dream jobs while also helping employers secure top talent.

Naka founded Wantedly in 2011 when she was 26 years old. A gifted graphics illustrator, she had previously left Goldman Sachs to start a new online manga publishing venture. When that market proved too competitive, she took a job at Facebook. Mixi was then the dominant social network in Japan. It wasn’t long before her creative entrepreneurial spirit re-emerged. “I wanted to build something on Facebook’s platform as I felt they were going to be successful here,” Naka told us. Six months later, she quit Facebook to start Wantedly — a unique concept that no one believed would succeed.

Her idea was to use online social networks to help young people proactively find careers they truly loved. Employers sometimes shun active job seekers because they assume, often correctly, that the most talented people are already employed. Instead, companies turn to executive recruiters who poach top talent from other firms. Or they troll online resume sites, like LinkedIn.

Naka set out to bridge the gap between employers and potential hires, especially candidates who were not seeking a job because they already had a good one. Wantedly does so by connecting them through common friends on Facebook and other social networks. Trusted recommendations help firms and workers better assess the chances of finding a good mutual fit.

Naka’s website went live in September 2011. It barely worked. A novice programmer, she had built the site after learning to code from a book. Engineers told her, “Wow, your code is such a mess.” The site was painfully slow, but it worked. Within a month Wantedly had acquired 10,000 users.

One reason for Wantedly’s early traction was that TechCrunch, a technology blog, wrote an article about a young woman who had launched a site with little training in a country where there are few female entrepreneurs. Another was that it was the first online firm to use ‘Facebook Connect’ in Japan, a new feature which allowed users to sign up to third-party sites with just one click (no username or password was needed). Japanese flocked to try the new feature, not realizing that Wantedly would appear on Facebook timelines. Without experience, users failed to uncheck the ‘share to your friends’ check box. “That was one reason we went viral,” says Naka. Afterwards she had to freeze users from signing up, while an engineer rebuilt the site from scratch.

Wantedly works a bit like Kickstarter, the famous crowdfunding service which helps entrepreneurs finance new projects. Entrepreneurs post their project, passion and vision on Kickstarter’s site. Mutual friends then spread the word for others to support projects through twitter, facebook, linkedIn and other social media. Through Wantedly, employers also post their passion and vision online, asking friends and employees to spread the word about available new positions. These find their way onto the timelines of potential hires.

Wantedly’s ‘secret sauce’ is its rules encouraging casualness which attracts top talent: In addition to posting their passion and vision on Wantedly’s site, employers must also allow informal drop-in visits from interested parties. Salaries and benefits cannot be mentioned online. The idea is to foster a casual environment for employers and potential hires to ‘meet-and-greet’ one another.

Not all has gone to plan. In the early days of 2011 before her website went live, Naka pitched Wantedly to HR people at companies she visited. Ninety-nine percent told her they would not use Wantedly because they didn’t have time for drop-in visits. “It took some time, especially for older people to understand our service and for Wantedly to take off,” Naka recalls. The informal approach appeals to Millenials accustomed to casual social meetups — but is anathema to the older generation.

Wantedly allows employers and prospective employees to check each other’s references and obtain referrals through mutual friends. Employers then contact people they want to reach through Wantedly’s instant messaging. They casually ask, “Do you want to come by my office?” Potential candidates can then drop by for a chat over a coffee. Later, if fitting, an internship or formal interview is proposed.

The social recruiting service took off after success stories went viral by word of mouth. One widely shared story was about a startup firm which successfully hired a top PhD graduate student from Tokyo University — a nearly impossible task. Wantedly works especially well to recruit creative people.

The firm operates a freemium business model. Early positive cash flow helped Naka grow the firm organically to a headcount of about 50 full-time staff. She has taken minimal investment from business angels and strategic partners.

Wantedly has over one million monthly active users and 15,000 corporate clients, including Sony, Mitsui Sumitomo, Dentsu and Suntory. Clients upgrade online to paid accounts without the need for cold calling. “It’s not hard to be profitable,” says Naka, given Wantedly fits into companies preexisting hiring budgets.

Akiko Naka Bio

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