Keep Climbing!

Sansan co-founder and CEO, Chikahiro Terada

One voice stood out amid the cacophony of Slush Tokyo 2019, the annual tech event which now defines Tokyo’s startup community. Chikahiro Terada, the 42-year old co-founder and CEO of Sansan, gave an impassioned talk about his own journey towards personal fulfillment by pursuing an entrepreneurial career.

Successful entrepreneurs may enjoy fame and fortune, but many—if not most—are not satisfied with their lives. Discontent is often traceable to chasing societal definitions of success, rather than those aligned with one’s inner values. There are rare exceptions. Who can ever forget the memorable words of Lawrence Garfield (Larry the Liquidator) played by Danny DeVito in the 1994 comedy-film “Other People’s Money” who euphorically proclaims, “He who dies with the most, wins!”

Garfield’s highest goal was to make money, especially by using other people’s money. However, most people have wider aims. Those who set career goals based on deep self-understanding stand a better chance of achieving rich and fulfilling lives.

Consider the path taken by Terada. As a child, he became interested in entrepreneurship from reading books about Sengoku-era tribal warfare and from watching his father start, build and float a company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Terada enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Early on he got the idea to surpass his father in business. This is not paternal rivalry. Rather, he felt obligated to build on his father’s successes. “That’s my obligation for holding a privileged asset from the beginning,” he says.

Terada worked at Mitsui, a major international trading company, for eight years before launching Sansan in 2007 from a small room in Roppongi, with a team of four other co-founders. Today the firm has about 550 employees and occupies five modern-looking floors within Shibuya’s Aoyama Oval Building.

Sansan is best known for making an accurate and free-to-use business card scanning Smartphone app called Eight, used by 2.5 million people. The majority of the firm’s revenue, however, comes from big corporations. For example, SMBC’s 30,000 employees share customer information internally by leveraging Sansan’s business card-based contact management platform.

Speaking before the Slush audience, Terada invited attendees to reflect on their past, present and potential future selves, before taking their next entrepreneurial steps. This is what he had to say (lightly edited):

I’m never satisfied. What drives me and keeps forcing me to introspect, to change and challenge myself—is by seeing myself as my own rival. This may sound a little weird to many of you, so I’d like to tell you two stories that were turning points in the history of Sansan and indeed in my life.

The first was my decision to found Sansan: As I turned 30, I felt I was ready to start my own company. I already had the business idea. I hesitated to start at first, not because I was unsure about Sansan’s potential, but because I questioned whether it was worth taking the risk.

At the time I was working at Mitsui. As I was climbing up the corporate ladder of a great company, I imagined my future self. If I worked hard enough, I believed it possible to become Mitsui’s CEO one day. I imagined myself in that role—the future me. I also imagined him as my present-day rival. Looking at him that way, I asked myself, “Could I beat this guy?”

The answer was, I could. At least, I had to try. So I quit Mitsui, believing someone else would follow that path—it wasn’t my future. I wanted to do my own thing. Seeing the future me as my rival gave me the perspective to make the right decision. Then the real challenge began.

For the first few years I did everything I could to become the future me. The Chika which was me over the last four years at Sansan has been my strongest rival. He was far from perfect, even headstrong and naïve. I certainly know a lot more now. I have more resources than he did, but he was dedicated and committed to the challenge. I often wonder now whether I am as committed as he. I don’t want to lose it.

This relates to my second story: Back then we had about 50 employees and 500 clients. We continued to grow and had gained some status and recognition as a successful startup that was going places. From the outside, it may have seemed all positive. Sales were continuously going up. But I was unsatisfied and experiencing internal conflict. I worried the company would reach a certain level and never make a real impact—just becoming a reasonably successful, average, small-to-medium sized company. I knew my younger self wouldn’t be happy with that.

At the time I met Nobukazu Kuriki, a Japanese mountain climber in his late 20s. He became famous in Japan for his dedication and perseverance. By age 25 he made a first attempt to climb Mount Everest. Shortly after I met him, he lost nine fingers to frostbite on another reach for the summit. Sadly, he died on Everest last year.

When I met him, he told me that building a company is like climbing a mountain without a summit. I thought that was a brilliant way of looking at it. After listening and speaking with him, I felt a sense of clarity about my mission. His spirit reminded me of my younger self which reinvigorated me. He risked his life. “What are my risks compared with his?” I asked. “Am I challenging myself enough? What more can I do?”

I decided that I wasn’t challenging myself enough. So I spent $5 million on a TV advertising campaign representing Sansan’s entire ‘Series A’ funding round. At the time, there were no business-to-business ads on TV in Japan. People said I was crazy to spend so much on an ad campaign. Even the advertising agencies were telling me to forget it. But I felt it was a challenge which I had to take. It was a calculated move, one based on the original inspiration for starting Sansan.

Despite what everyone was saying about how bad an idea it was, our orders doubled. It played a major part in getting us where we are today.

Pointing to a period of early rapid growth on a chart showing Sansan’s revenue history, Terada continued:

This is the Chika I most admire because he did this from nothing with a small team, thanks to his commitment and dedication. It is only by seeing him as my rival and by trying to get ahead that I can preserve our (now lower) 50% year-on-year growth rate. I haven’t achieved all I want, but I remain committed.

What I am saying today may not be profound, but I hope at least it gives you an alternative view on rivalry.

Rivalry can be ugly, when you compare yourself to others. It creates antipathy and negativity. But looking at yourself as your rival is different. There is no negativity, only encouragement and inspiration.

I urge you to look back at your own self, both the good and the bad, and to focus on the good. What are your strengths that got you where you are today? Do you still have those qualities? Are they waning? Are you becoming too comfortable? Would the younger you be more committed? Also imagine the future you. Where could this lead you? Is it where you want to go? Can you do better than him? If you take another path, what will he be like?

Embrace change. Stay true to your vision and goals. Always challenge yourself and those around you. Only then can you keep up with your former self. Only then can you achieve consistent growth.

I wish you the best of luck with your new ventures. Most importantly, enjoy yourselves and keep on climbing!

Good advice, we think for just about everyone.

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