One often reads how difficult it is to entrepreneur in Japan. The country lacks a robust new venture ecosystem. An entrepreneurial career path isn’t socially accepted. Too few entrepreneurs get second chances. The list goes on.
In reality, starting a new venture is difficult. It is hard to secure financing. It is hard to find customers and it is hard to make the payroll. “Entrepreneurship is difficult everywhere in the world. It’s not unique to Japan. It’s hard to do and you’re probably going to fail,” said a noted Stanford professor of Japanese entrepreneurship.
The journey from idea to success is riddled with setbacks, twists and turns. That’s why eight out of 10 startups fail and why most people follow traditional career paths.
Entrepreneurs need more than a bright idea, high tolerance for risk, hard work and good luck to succeed. They must sustain themselves through difficult times.
When ambitions align with underlying beliefs, people can achieve great heights. However, too often, people chase societal norms of work echoed by parents, teachers and friends without questioning them. Later in life they regret not having asked why?
To succeed, know your ‘why’
Erika Kullberg is a young lawyer who asked herself why she was following a traditional law career, after a heartbreaking event caused her to reflect on life. Soon after, she quit her job at a top global law firm to entrepreneur.
Growing up Kullberg, a bi-racial ‘hafu’, moved frequently around the world, including to Okinawa and Iwakuni where her father worked for the US military. Kullberg wanted to live in Tokyo – a town she calls the world’s “ultimate city”. Morrison & Foerster recruited her direct out of Georgetown Law to work at their Tokyo law offices.
By all reckoning she ‘had it all’. Kullberg worked for a prestigious law firm on a high salary and in her city of choice. Colleagues felt lucky to be among the chosen hires to work at the firm. She too should be happy, but she was not. So she asked herself, why?
Kullberg went into law to help everyday people. However, her clients were mainly large “faceless” corporations. “I struggled with deriving any meaning from it,” she recalls. The expected 100-hour workweek was also a grind.
Many nights she slept at the office, quickly showering in the morning before changing into a spare suit kept at work. That, she says, is the norm Big Law expects recruits to endure without pushback. “Colleagues are all shooting to become partner and for the respect that comes with it,” she says.
But that wasn’t her ‘why’. Kullberg wanted to make a greater impact on people’s lives and to gain control over her time. Entrepreneurship looked appealing, but she still had student loans to pay off. In addition, she worried about leaving a secure job to take on a risky startup.
“I knew I wanted to do something that had more of an impact on actual people—something entrepreneurial—but I was too scared to leave. I also worried that I’d fail miserably on my own,” she confides.
Then Kullberg learned her 89-year old grandfather was ill. His condition was rapidly deteriorating. She asked her boss to give her time off so she could visit him at the hospital. He obliged, but even so kept giving her time sensitive assignments to complete.
When she again asked for a work extension he reportedly refused, asking rhetorically, “What do you think we pay you so much for?” Kullberg ultimately complied, but regrets not spending last precious moments with her grandfather.
She could not change the past. But she could change the future. From that moment on Kullberg put fear of failure aside: “I don’t want to look back 10 years from now as a partner at a law firm, asking, ‘Why am I working until 2:00 AM?’”
Kullberg enjoyed earning the firm’s pay, but money was not her ‘why’ either. “Money might buy prestige—a fancy car and a big house to impress the neighbors—but it won’t buy you time, health or happiness,” she says.
After earning enough to repay her student loans and to build up a small cushion to cover startup costs, she quit. Starting her YouTube channel was the scariest part of her entrepreneurial journey. “I don’t really like speaking,” she says. “That was the leap out of my comfort zone.”
Now in her element, the budding YouTube celebrity provides financial advice to about 75,000 YouTube followers. Her online legal business, Plug and Law, provides affordable legal advice to startup businesses. Both endeavors, she says, are taking off.
Knowing why she gets up in the morning sustains Kullberg though difficult periods. “I just have this attitude that I’m not going to quit,” she says, adding, “I feel much more inspired to start my workday.”
Make the best use of time
Dr. Hardy Kagimoto asked himself why he was following a traditional career path as a young medical intern, after a series of events caused him to reevaluate life’s purpose. Until then, Kagimoto was on the same career trajectory into medicine as his parents before him.
Then an 18-year-old patient diagnosed with terminal cancer refused examination by the young doctor. The patient had only three months to live, while Kagimoto could look forward to a bright and promising future. The intern inferred from this experience that life isn’t fair.
Another patient was going blind. With non-curative treatment the symptoms disappeared. Still, the patient committed suicide over worry she would eventually go blind. “We could cure her eyes, but we couldn’t cure her soul,” says Kagimoto.
A third patient had lost vision in both eyes. The patient asked if he would ever be able to see his newly born granddaughter. Kagimoto felt bad having to tell him that he would never do so.
Following these events, Kagimoto decided creating new cures was his best use of time. He founded several biomedical companies, including Healios K.K., a Tokyo Stock Exchange listed company with a market cap of about $800M. “Life’s impermanence makes good use of time the sole measure of one’s success,” he says.
Kagimoto experienced many startup challenges. For example, a biotech iPS ecosystem didn’t exist in Japan then, so he built one from scratch. “People always blame that they lack something. The truth is, if you really need something – if you’re desperate – you’ll find a way,” he says.
Discover your ‘why’. Define your best use of time. Avoid future regrets by doing what you love… and if you stop loving it, stop doing it.
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