Japan’s Youth Culture: A behind the scenes look at Slush Asia

Antti Sonninen

Antti Sonninen: Modern day Admiral Perry of Japan entrepreneurship

Beaming down to a remote football pitch sized tract located on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, a remarkable event took place in Odaiba earlier this year. Antti Sonninen and his crew of over 300 volunteer students time-warped to bring Finland’s sensationally successful student-driven tech event called ‘Slush’ to Tokyo.

Over the course of the one day event in April, 3,000 digital luminaries, entrepreneurs, investors and volunteer students from 37 nations mingled from dawn till dusk under large makeshift tents. Slush Asia 2015 was the first major entrepreneur’s event of its kind to be held in Japan entirely in the English language. Symbolically it opened the doors for many Japanese to the possibility of global entrepreneurship.

So far similar events have typically been moderate in size, formal rather than casual affairs and more often organized by seasoned businesspeople rather than by enthusiastic students. Entrepreneur ‘wannabes’ attend in the hope of learning the do’s and don’ts of entrepreneurship from those more experienced. According to Antti, the Finnish born main organizer of Slush Asia, these events could do a much better job at inspiring people to start their own businesses. He and his team want to enlist the energy and excitement of youth culture to unlock Japan’s hidden entrepreneurial potential. “Someone needs to bridge this gap,” Antti told Beacon Reports.

Slush was founded in Finland in 2008 by serial entrepreneurs who wanted to get to know each other. What started as a small gathering of a few hundred entrepreneurs later expanded to several thousand, when student volunteers began organizing the event. Suddenly, top-tier venture capitalists began attending. Production became more elaborate year after year, with lasers added to shine a light on Finnish youth culture. Policymakers took note: The City of Helsinki lent a disused subway tunnel in which to hold events. The Prime Minister of Finland even made an appearance, wearing a ‘hoodie’ instead of the expected suit befitting a head of state to promote entrepreneurship in his country. Today, the once yearly volunteer organized Finnish Slush event attracts about 15,000 attendees.

Antti felt a stark difference in attitude between the more upbeat younger generation in his native Finland, compared with those he met in Japan when he first took up the position as Japan country manager at Angry Birds, a computer games maker, in 2013. While the elder generation in both countries worried about future economic prospects, Finnish youth took control over their lives by starting businesses. Meanwhile in Japan, a culture of entrepreneurship was only just emerging.

Global studies into entrepreneurship consistently rank Japan the lowest in almost every category. For instance, the GEM 2014 Global Report found entrepreneurship ranked lowest in number of opportunities, career status and as an attractive career choice compared to China, the US and the UK. Only did fear of entrepreneurial failure score highest in Japan.

One reason is that Japan suffers from its own success. The nation ascended between 1950 and 1973 when it grew at 10% each year to become the world’s second biggest economy. Then, a few very successful export led manufacturers created great wealth by fine tuning processes, operations and logistics. Japan was a rich nation, but its managers were products of large bureaucratic companies that valued conformity over innovation and risk taking. Afterward, Japan suffered two lost decades as firms like Sony and Panasonic became victims of low-cost producers in Asia and to more innovative firms like Apple.

Antti’s first attempt to inspire more Japanese to entrepreneur involved organizing a Tokyo ‘pitching contest’, where entrepreneurs present their business plans before an audience of investors. To simplify its organization, he worked together with an established nonprofit Finnish ‘accelerator’ called ‘Startup Sauna’. Accelerators help early stage startups get off the ground.

Taizo Son, founder of GungHo Online Entertainment and the youngest brother of Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, was scheduled to be one of the speakers at Slush 2013 in Helsinki. Since Antti was also attending that event, he sent the well-known entrepreneur a message through his secretary, offering to show him around. “I think Japan needs the same culture that Slush represents and I would like to build that together with you,” he communicated. Luckily, Taizo Son agreed. “With Taizo and Angry Birds boss Peter Vesterbacka on board, getting other speakers interested in joining became even easier,” said Antti.

Tokyo based venture capital firm Digital Garage offered an event venue free of cost after Antti persuaded them that it was going to be one of the more exciting events they had held. ‘Startup Sauna in Tokyo’ attracted a small turnout of 300 people. He aimed to double attendance the following year in 2014. However, progress stalled when the larger event proved to be too big a challenge to organize, given Antti’s full-time job at Angry Birds.

That changed after Antti went to Slush 2014 in Finland with a group of a few dozen Japanese guests. Taizo Son was among them. The Japanese visitors were impressed with the enthusiasm and energy that Slush radiated and the idea of organizing a similar event in Japan started to become a popular topic. A critical mass of people who wanted to bring Slush to Asia started forming. Antti and the others thought Slush Asia could achieve big goals. “If we can also create a place where startups can feel powerful and confident, that will inspire people more broadly in Asia,” he thought.

In early January the core organizers of Slush flew to Tokyo for a brainstorming session. There the decision was made to hold the first ever Slush event in Tokyo in April 2015, after Antti and the Slush Asia team committed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure the event’s success. With only three months to launch, the countdown began in earnest.

Slush had been a part time project for Antti until late January 2015. After that, it consumed all his free time. Taizo Son lent a hand by opening doors to his professional network. Antti admits support of experienced businesspeople as well as the enthusiasm of over 300 student volunteers was crucial to pull off the event on such short notice.

He became a quick study. While many aspects of event production were organized by professional production companies, volunteers helped by sending out emails, facilitating meetings, guiding visitors, running registration, attending to media representatives and cleaning up afterwards. Antti commented, “While experienced professionals are a valuable asset to get the details of event production right, student involvement adds the needed excitement and energy which ensures greater societal impact.”

To recruit students, he and student volunteer leader Yoshiyuki Taguchi visited 10 different universities. “At every session we got 20 more students to volunteer,” he noted. The volunteers were matched with newly created teams responsible for organizing partnerships, marketing, volunteering, investors, speakers and startups. Students were eager to assist in part because Slush operates as a nonprofit.

Supplemented by volunteer efforts, Taizo Son and his friends helped gain access to additional investors from around the globe who were asked to judge the ‘pitching contest’.

Busiest speakers were invited through several channels simultaneously. To give an example, Tom Kelley had previously spoken at TEDxTokyo and also was an advisor to several Japanese innovation related organizations. His company IDEO also had a branch office in Tokyo. Similarly, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure had previously spoken at several events in Japan and had invested in numerous Japanese companies. In short, many speakers like Tom and Dave already had plenty of ties with Japan. With some detective work and creative thinking, the Slush Asia team was able to successfully secure many high profile speakers.

This year’s Slush Asia boasted 31 keynote speakers, 50 contest pitches and 97 investors. All told 3,217 people came to the event. One third of the startup founders who participated at the ‘pitching contest’ flew in from outside Japan to attend. The multi-tented venue with its concurrent speaking, pitching and Q&A sessions ensured that Slush Asia was a hit.

Similar entrepreneur youth culture events, albeit for-profit, are now popping up in Japan. Singapore based Tech in Asia held its second annual Tokyo event this September. Coming in March, Vienna based Pioneers will launch Pioneers Asia in partnership with the Nikkei. Japan’s entrepreneurs have much to look forward to.
Antti Sonninen
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