Startup Weekend’s website says that you can ‘Launch a startup in 54 hours’. I was skeptical. The claim reminded me of the ‘Cheaper than free’ advertisements from the dot-com era. Still I thought, Japan needs more self-reliant entrepreneurs to help reverse two decades of economic stagnation. I put aside skepticism to attend one of their events, to meet the organizers and to get the real story.
Startup Weekend was founded in the USA in 2007. Its original mission was to create a venue where individuals could come together to develop a single business idea – from brainstorm to startup – over the course of a weekend. It has since morphed into an international organization that operates in 556 cities and 115 countries where entrepreneur ‘wannabes’ get their first taste of what it might be like to start a business.
Don’t tell that to 41-year-old Korean born DongYol Lee, the driving force behind Startup Weekend in Japan. He laments that not all participants become entrepreneurs. “Many people believe Startup Weekend is a social event,” says Lee adding, “They don’t take what they learn during the event and use it in their actual lives.” Lee’s goal is to create 300,000 entrepreneurs in Japan by 2020.
The volunteer Startup Weekend Facilitator may well be on the road to achieving his objective. Lee organized the first full 3-day Startup Weekend event in Tokyo in the autumn of 2010 which attracted 80 participants. Last year he produced 27 events in 10 Japanese cities. This year with the help of 4 certified facilitators and over 40 volunteers, Lee expects to add 6 more cities to the list, taking the total number of events to 45 or 50. Each attracts up to 125 participants. In total, his efforts have produced 3,000 alumni from which 4 – 5% typically go on to start a business. And thanks to Lee, the Tokyo event is now Startup Weekend’s largest in Asia.
His efforts have significance because Japan’s youth can no longer rely on big corporations to provide reliable employment opportunities. After World War II Japan built a successful export led economy based on shushoku katsudo, an arrangement where large companies offered lifetime employment to graduates in exchange for an almost religious like commitment to the firm. The arrangement worked well as long as the developed economies grew and Japan held the competitive advantage. When growth slowed and the emerging countries caught up, the tacit contract between employer and employee began to crumble. Large Japanese firms no longer offer the prospect of lifetime employment.
While the unemployment rate in Japan is still generally below that of other developed nations, youth unemployment is about 8%. The result is that Japan’s youth must find other avenues to fend for themselves.
Today entrepreneurship is increasingly being recognized as a legitimate career path in its own right. Validation is provided by institutions which teach entrepreneurship to young Japanese whose parents would never have considered becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
One type of institution called ‘accelerators’ bring entrepreneurs up to speed with what they need to start a business, providing community, mentoring, and seed capital. Another type called ‘pre-accelerators’ allow young people to explore entrepreneurship without risk – a taste of entrepreneurship without the bite. In a risk-free environment, participants can decide if they want to pursue entrepreneurship as a career.
Startup Weekend is an example of a pre-accelerator. Participants each pay ¥9,000 (about $85) for the three-day weekend event. On Friday night they meet for the first time to engage in team building. Pizza and beer are served. After ice-breaking exercises, those who wish to do so pitch their idea before the other participants. Participants then vote for the pitches they think are best. Before the evening is over they have formed into teams of between 2 and 10 individuals, each focused on a single startup idea.
On Saturday morning participants return to develop their business plans. By evening the mood reaches a low point. Most of the ideas they find, prove unworkable. Nevertheless, teams work toward their objective to make a final presentation before a panel of judges. They are assisted over the course of the event with mentoring provided by serial entrepreneurs, says Lee, “to provide a totally real environment for founding a company.”
The big event takes place on Sunday evening when the judges select one winner. It is often a charged emotional moment when participants learn that their team has either won or lost as this author experienced first-hand. One female member on the winning team the evening I attended couldn’t stop crying with delight.
Most who partake will remember Startup Weekend as nothing more than an unusual learning or social experience. That perhaps is as it should be: Most who start ventures will find success elusive as the majority of startups fail. However, a tiny percentage may come to enjoy visible success, leading to a virtuous circle in entrepreneurial activity by those so inspired. Lee’s quixotic mission, then, serves a useful purpose indeed.
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