We spoke with Masa Okunishi, representative of Rising Startups. In 2015, Mr. Okunishi established Japan NYC Startups, a community for Japanese startups located in New York. The community grew expansively, and within only a few years’ time, was organizing events attended by over 2000 people. The year after creating Japan NYC Startups, Mr. Okunishi started Rising Startups, a company focusing on event planning, event management, and consulting, to act as a bridge between Japan’s and New York’s tech scenes.
How did Rising Startups come to be formed?
My background is mainly in tech-related engineering: I worked in corporate system development for 2 years in Los Angeles before transferring to New York for another 9 years. After that, I took some time off to travel around the world, and during my trips I used Meetup.com for networking, and even after returning to New York I continued to participate a lot in Meetup events. That was 2012. With the two-pronged goal of working at a startup myself and polishing my own application development skills, I joined Zocdoc, a NY-based, medical startup. I still continued networking, but I noticed that there were very few opportunities to connect with Japanese people in New York City on Meetup, which is what spurred the creation of Japan NYC Startups. One year after that, I felt that I could contribute more towards the bridge between American and Japanese businesses, so I left Zocdoc to start Rising Startups.
What services does Rising Startups offer?
We created an event called “IF Conference” to connect Japan’s and America’s tech scenes on a larger scale than was capable on Meetup, and to get not only individual members but businesses involved in that scene as well, and we’ve already held that event three times so far. As for consulting, we meet demand for tours of New York’s tech scene highlights, and New York market research. As part of the market research, we investigate current startups and offer insights as to which startups seem to have potential from our perspective. Recently, we’ve experienced higher demand to include potential collaboration opportunities with New York-based startups within the information we offer. There’s a lot of advice out there for entrepreneurs about the early stage, but it isn’t always clear how to actually take a step like expanding internationally. Luckily for Japanese startups, there have been a lot more opportunities recently for those companies to join government-sponsored business trips abroad, and we’ve been helping out both the Japanese Ministry of Industry and Trade and Kyoto Prefecture with those kinds of projects in New York. We find locations and opportunities where the participating startups can make presentations and give pitches. It’s through events like these that we combine our services in market research, local inspection tours, pitch training workshops, and more. But of course there are many different possible motivations for that startups could have in joining such a trip, so we’re hoping to respond to those different motivations by offering various, tailored solutions that address the needs and desired outcomes of participating companies.
What are your views of the New York startup scene over the last few years?
When I started Rising Startups, the foundation for a startup ecosystem in New York already existed, and over the last few years it’s only increased in scale. Especially since large, powerful companies like SAP, Samsung, and Amazon have thrown their weight behind New York’s innovation ecosystem. The variety and number of accelerators and co-working spaces have really increased too. If your goal is investment (fundraising), then Silicon Valley is maybe still your best bet, but New York could be great for your business if business development is your goal, or if your business is a fit for New York, like if there’s a market or a good customer-base here. As one example, NewsPicks has been gaining a lot of traction here thanks to New York’s strong media industry.
How about Japan’s startup scene?
There are a lot more Japanese startups around now than there were when I started Japan NYC Startups. Originally most startup related interest was only coming from METI and the national government, but there have been more inquiries recently from local governments as well. There are also examples of companies, like Mercari, that grow domestically within Japan and then spread internationally, but I feel that there are many companies that would be able to succeed internationally from the outset. Especially hardware companies. And I think that people involved in hardware are noticing this too. Now that you can do market research and fundraising, get your company into articles and increase its reputation that way, I’d like to see more companies trying to break out into foreign markets. But even if we use America as a reference point, we have to do things differently to some degree, or, considering the difference in Japanese values and the linguistic and geographic gap between the two countries, American consumers will likely be left wondering why they should be going out of their way to buy from a Japanese company. That’s why I believe that when projects and plans preserve that “Japanese” identity, American customers will come to understand Japanese values and uniqueness, and America will be able to learn from Japan.
How do you think that the local business ecosystem is affected by those businesses which are interested in international expansion or sales?
Having startups that expand internationally should benefit the local ecosystem, if anything. Nulab, a company which is headquartered in Fukuoka, has an office with about 20 staff members in New York City. As a result, even the headquarters in Fukuoka has started using English as its main operating language. Being able to communicate with a diverse cast of international staff members has been a great incentive and inspiration for the workers at the headquarters, and I’m sure it’s been an inspiration for nearby companies too. I encourage the companies who are currently considering expanding abroad to summon the self-confidence to try it. The situation right now is that many Japanese entrepreneurs who come to New York to give pitches end up sounding a bit… “reserved” about their own products. But when I listen to them more and look at their product, I often end up with the impression that their product is well made, interesting, and that they have a real chance at success. And if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, they can always just go back to the drawing board and find a way to overcome the wall they ran into. The more companies that try expanding internationally, the more end up succeeding, so other companies and up thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll give it a shot too.” I think we’re entering a time when, for example if we use Yokohama as an example, businesses could start doing business abroad from Yokohama, even if they’re not doing business in Tokyo. In fact, rather than moving your whole company abroad, I believe the best way to expand your business is by having one local—or in this case Japanese—team and one team that’s located abroad.