What are the strong “bi-polar” qualities entrepreneurs need to be successful? Uzabase Co-founder and director Ryosuke Niino
Established with a mission to “guide businesspeople to insights that change the world,” Uzabase, Inc., provides SPEEDA, the corporate and industry information platform, and the social network economic media site NewsPicks. A venture company established in 2008, Uzabase set up offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore in 2013, and opened a research hub in Sri Lanka in 2016. This was followed in 2017 by the entry of NewsPicks into the U.S. market with the establishment of a joint venture with Dow Jones in New York. Uzabase has established a name for itself as a global company that brings together a diverse range of professionals, including analysts, editors and chartered accountants. In this series of articles we talk to Uzabase co-founder and director Ryosuke Niino about the qualities needed by entrepreneurs and the secrets to building an organization.
Significance of “making 100 true fans” learned from bitter experience in restaurant management
――What in your opinion are the three most important qualities an entrepreneur needs?
First would be “Persistence in seeking how to satisfy the needs of customers you already have, and strength of vision and dreams, ensuring that both of these poles remain strong.” Next would be “working with people who can unite in difficult times,” and third would be “running through PDCA cycles speedily.”
Joined the Business Investment Team in the Lifestyle Segment of Mitsui & Co., Ltd., where he was engaged in the formulation of domestic intermediary distribution strategies, execution of business investments, and corporate restructuring. He subsequently worked as a corporate financial strategy advisor in Corporate Client Solutions at UBS Securities Japan Co., Ltd., where he was responsible for the consumer and retail sectors. He established Uzabase, Inc. in 2008, which was followed by the release of SPEEDA, an economic information platform for corporate and industry analysis, and NewsPicks, an economic news platform featuring various social networking functions. The company has bases in Tokyo, Osaka, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sri Lanka and New York.
The first quality is “Persistence in seeking how to satisfy the needs of customers you already have, and strength of vision and dreams, ensuring that both of these poles remain strong.” A typical example of this quality would be Jeff Bezos of Amazon, for example. He has an unrelenting persistence to boost customer satisfaction, so that people say, “It’s enough that goods are delivered the next day, but now they are delivered on the same day!!” He also has an overall vision that even makes other people think “Just how far does he intend to grow the business?!” Both of these qualities are very strong.
The real key is to ensure that “both poles are strong,” with many people probably being tempted to think “I can’t make sufficient money if I do all this for my customers,” after which they fall back to a middling compromise solution.
There is a story on this subject that previously featured on NewsPicks, about a Californian startup accelerator Y Combinator, and the title of the article is “Make 100 True Fans.” These words are truly priceless, meaning that in essence, there is no greater value than a customer being happy with a service, and saying, “Oh, I’m glad I used this,” or “What a good service that is.” This demonstrates the need for persistence in always refining your business model in order to generate value.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has said himself that he was supported by the phrase “Make 100 True Fans.” From a starting point of just 100 people, you can develop a global company just like the accommodation search service Airbnb.
――Have you experienced anything particular yourself that made you realize the importance of satisfying the needs of existing customers?
My experience is based on the time I spent running the family restaurant business with my older brother. At the time we looked at success stories at other competing restaurants and tried various ideas to imitate this success, including just providing a drinks menu first and only asking “What drinks would you like?” in order to get customers to buy drinks that have a higher profit margin than food. The customers never came. (laughs). We were also unlucky that we ran a yakiniku grilled meat restaurant, and this was the time when mad cow disease was in the news, which also really hit customer numbers hard.
It was facing this situation that we stopped doing research about the competition and started focusing on the customers we had, based on thinking that, “At the very least we must satisfy the customers who are coming to our restaurant.” Once we did that the number of diners started to increase. I remember thinking at the time, “This is what it means to be focused on intrinsic value.”
I was the person who you would expect to have known more than anyone in the world about the type of customer who frequents our restaurant. Once we base our activities on that knowledge and focus on satisfying those customers, then there is a possibility of us being best in the world. Taking just such a micro perspective, I think it is incredibly important to be persistent in seeking to satisfy each and every customer.
Later, when I was working at Mitsui & Co., I generalized the factors for successful business investment as: 1) does the person planning to run the business have the passion to do it? and 2) does that person know the business well? This is something I call “demand with a keen touch.” This means that it’s not all about demand, but rather that success rates are higher if you have that keen sensitivity for and knowledge about your business.
It was through these experiences that I learned for myself the importance of persistently seeking to satisfy the customers that you already have.
Awareness that “you only get one shot at life” that is shared by all big entrepreneurs
Next, let me say something about the second “pole,” which is “strength of vision.”
What are management bottlenecks? When all is said and done, it comes down to the ability of management that creates or frees up bottlenecks. The greatest bottleneck hampering a manager’s ability could be said to be the “size of the manager’s own mental model.”
For example, the range of what I can think of and the range of what Masayoshi Son can think of are completely different. If I tried to imitate Son’s scale, nonchalantly counting out sales in the trillions, like mere blocks of tofu, no-one would believe how serious I actually am. That’s because talking about things on that scale is beyond my current capacity.
When making a move, you first decide the direction you want to go in and work back from there, that is why the bigger you can draw your concept, the stronger you will be able to strike, and the less likely you will be to fall back on a middling solution. This is where the power to “do what needs to be done, even if it is criticized by others” is born.
――You’re right. I get the feeling that what successful people, or those who others find appealing all share in common is having a unique vision. What was it that made you realize the importance of having a vision?
It’s probably because I’m an introspective kind of person that I think like that. Also, the reason why I have given it so much thought is because I had a strong sense of “wanting to be happy.” That is why I tend to think about “what is the best way for me to be happy?”
A simple analogy for this characteristic could be a teenager’s “too cool for school” attitude (laughs). Starting up a business is very much like keeping up a “too cool for school” mindset.
But when you think a little deeper about why you adopt this “too cool for school” approach, I think it probably stems from a strong desire to “do something meaningful in this life, because it’s the only one you’re given.” When you think that this is the only life you have, your sense of wanting to get up and do something becomes stronger.
Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has said in the past that seeing with his own eyes the deaths of so many people in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 changed his values, and I think that comment indicates a strong sense of valuing the only life we have. In his commencement address at Stanford University, Apple’s Steve Jobs touched on three stories, the third one being “about death.”
――Was there a particular event that made you strongly aware of the limited time we have on this planet?
I think that what made a big impact on me was the way my father did business. When you are a small child your father is the coolest man in the world, like a superman who can do anything. My father was a manager, and just like a baseball player’s son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, I naturally grew up wanting to be like him, so that was one example.
Any hesitation I had about my chosen path further decreased around 2012. It was at that time that I fell ill and had to take about seven months off from work. I was so ill that the doctors said I might not be able to go back to work, and it was then that I truly felt the importance and value of what I had possessed, and how pointless the time I had spent worrying about various things had been. It was then that I thought, “Why focus on such a minor thing about making money or not making money, when I’ve met such great people and found a business with so much potential!”
Given that I felt so strongly at the very moment that something important was about to be taken away from me, you could almost say that I experienced a small death of my own.
Interviewer Takuma Ogata
Chief editor of Venture Navi a media resource for entrepreneurs. After time spent working for toy manufacture Tomy Company, Ltd., I joined DI. As a business producer I am responsible for investment, business support and strategy proposals aimed mainly at domestic ventures. When working for Tomy on the Transformers line of toys, the slogan used in promotions was “More than Meets the Eye,” or in other words, don’t simply take things at face value. That is the thinking on which I want to base my articles.