The interview with Taizo Son was published in CoFounder No 10 in late 2017.
Slush Tokyo is held March 28-29.
We spoke with Taizo Son, during his visit to the Latitude59 conference in Tallinn last year, about creating a movement, taking Slush to Japan and how he became an entrepreneur.
What brings you to the Nordic countries so often? We often see you at Slush and now you’re here in Estonia.
The first time I visited Helsinki was about four years ago, to join Slush as one of the keynote speakers. I was so shocked that there was such a ‘hot’ event being held in such a freezing country! The atmosphere is really cool – it’s like a rock concert.
At the time, it was run by Miki Kuusi. He was a very young guy – only young guys can run such great events by themselves. At that time, there was so much Japanese media there and everybody kept asking me questions like: why do they not hold this kind of Slush events in Japan? I turned the question back to them and we all agreed that we should be introducing this kind of movement to the Asian people.
After I returned to Tokyo, I spoke to others who shared those same passions. So, I emailed Miki, suggesting that we introduce the Slush movement to Japan and other Asian countries, and inviting him to come and help launch the movement in Tokyo. Miki was excited by the idea but we had to help fund it from Japan to make it possible for Slush to come to Tokyo. That was in January and we decided to hold the event in April – such a short period of time to make it happen!
That was the beginning of my relationship with the Nordic countries. This is the first time I have visited Estonia and I’m finding it is one of the ‘hottest’ countries in the world. I don’t know why the Nordic and Baltic countries are so hot in innovation compared to other areas of the world. Perhaps it’s because the countries are small, so they have to be global from the beginning. Everyone here speaks fluent English too, so naturally, they can become international with more ease. If their mindset is global from the beginning though, then they can be very innovative, because they are always looking at the global market and how to be popular in the global market. You need to be very innovative for that.
How successful have you been with your mission to take Slush to Japan? It’s not a 15,000-person event, right?
We learned from the people at Slush that the most important thing is to create a community where we can share our passions and vision, rather than holding big events in a big venue. At the beginning, I started involving passionate people in Japan, but I found that although many people were passionate, they didn’t have any clue how to be motivated about it. Once I brought Slush to Tokyo, everybody became really excited – it ignited a fire.
Going back a little, what ignited your fire for entrepreneurship? What was the moment when you thought, ‘Hey, I have to be an entrepreneur’?
I asked a similar question to the Finnish people at Slush. They said that five or 10 years ago in Finland there was a similar situation to Japan today – big companies like Nokia were powering their world. Then all of a sudden, because the market situation changed and Nokia started to break up because of Google, Apple, Microsoft and so on, they felt that they had to do something new for their society.
In Japan, a similar thing is happening. There are so many great establishments there: Toyota, Honda, Sony and so on. Most of the time people work for a big company, but these days, even the Japanese establishments are not doing so well. Some big companies are no longer profitable, so some young designers and entrepreneurs have started thinking that they need to do something new for society.
Since Slush has such a cool atmosphere, like a rock concert or a club music event, young people are allured and attracted to it – all the entrepreneurs are such great, cool figures. The first year that we brought Slush to Japan everybody was really shocked like I had been the previous year. This year was our third and we’re finding that it is really easy for us to ignite a fire for lots of people in Japan now.
What about you personally? When you started your first business, 15 or 20 years ago, what was the thing that moved you to entrepreneurship? Did you feel that you wanted to work for one of the big Japanese conglomerates, or did you prefer to build your own company?
My family is an entrepreneurial family – my father is an entrepreneur and so is my brother, Masa.
I was in Tokyo University at the time. It is one of the most well-established National Universities and most of the students there were very conservative. Often they were conservative because their fathers were not entrepreneurs but government people, national university professors, or something similar – not so innovative. So even though my father and brother were entrepreneurs, the people surrounding me were not particularly entrepreneurial and I was affected by those surroundings. It made me think that I couldn’t do big entrepreneurial things by myself, like my father and brother did.
I was struggling to work out what kind of job I wanted to do. Then I met Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo. He had just started Yahoo Inc in the US at Stanford University. Meeting him more than 20 years ago was my first shock (the second was at Slush!). At that time, I could only benchmark against established companies like Toyota, but here was a Silicon Valley startup with an internet culture, and this geek guy, Jerry, was changing the world.
Of course, even in Silicon Valley at the time search engines were not popular among people – everybody was asking Jerry what it was. He told me that he was using an interesting metaphor to explain what Yahoo was. He would say that Yahoo was making an apple fall in front of the future Newton. If the apple hadn’t fallen in front of Newton, what would have happened to the world?
Newton might not have discovered gravity and he would not be a historically-famous person. I’m sure that someone would have discovered gravity 50 or 100 years later, but our technology would have been delayed for so much time.
We might not have harnessed electricity. We might still be living with candles or might not have cars. We could still be riding horses. So in some ways, it had a really big impact on everything, that an apple fell down in front of the Newton.
Jerry predicted that in the future all kinds of information, knowledge, and wisdom would be uploaded to the Internet, and if a search engine didn’t exist, the future Einsteins, Newtons and Edisons wouldn’t be able to find the right information and knowledge to discover something new.
So in a sense, a search engine is really important for human beings.
I was so shocked by that idea that I felt I should support the launch of a Japanese version of Yahoo for Japanese internet users. That was the beginning of my career.
Fortunately, I experienced this great inspiration at the beginning of my career, so I could become an entrepreneur. That’s why I have come to Latitude59 in Estonia. I would like to provide a similar kind of experience to the young people here.
So, 22 years later you’ve been building and investing in companies. When you meet young entrepreneurs with shining eyes who want to change the world, what’s the key advice you give to them?
If I were to choose one piece of advice it would be to think big. That’s the key message from me.
Sometimes in Silicon Valley, senior entrepreneurs praise younger entrepreneurs by complimenting them on how big they are thinking, which is really good. They praise it because to keep thinking, and staying, big is so difficult to manage. At the beginning, someone has a big idea, but once they start out on the execution of their idea they will eventually confront hardships and the idea will shrink to a smaller one. Of course, the idea becomes much more feasible, but it has shrunk to this smaller size.
Keeping the big idea is a tough thing for anybody, but the people who change the world for the better are always thinking big. So if I give only one piece of advice to young people, it is that thinking big is the key.
Is changing the world your mission, in a way?
Yes. Because there are so many issues in the world for every kind of people. To solve the bigger issues, I don’t think one or two innovations is enough. We need to integrate and orchestrate those innovations so that we can make a collective impact on the world to solve the bigger issues. I’m always conscious that connecting dots is, ultimately, the most important thing we can do to accelerate innovations and solve the big issues in the world.
I am always telling the young guys to think big and do something that no one else is doing. That way they can play a role as a catalyst towards making a collective impact. That’s my lifetime mission and goal.
Where will you go next with that? What will be the next big mission for you?
We have some projects that we call ‘orchestration projects’ – integrating innovations into collective impacts.
One example I can share with you is that we would like to design a new city – urban planning designed from scratch, utilising the latest cutting-edge technologies, like autonomous vehicles and drones. We would like to update the way we work and live, and our healthcare indicators.
Existing cities were designed in the twentieth century or earlier. Those designs were based on the technology available at that time. For example, if you look at Manhattan, it was built in the early twentieth century. At that time, the current technology was cars and trains, so Grand Central Station is the centre of the city and there are rows for cars to move around. It’s a car- and train-centric city.
By utilising the latest technologies, I believe that we can design a human-centric city. Instead of adopting new technologies to the existing city, we can design new cities from scratch, so that we can utilise the new technologies in the best way, providing a tangible demonstration to stimulate the rest of the world into change.
Have you already picked out the place where that city will be?
We have some candidates in Asia, like Singapore, India or the south part of China, but we are still looking. Like the Slush movement, building a community that shares this idea is essential, not deciding on one or two locations but starting to share the idea with as many people as possible. I believe that, eventually, we will find some good partners and some of those partners will bring good opportunities and information – like information about building a new city from scratch. So, in the end, it could be in Estonia or Finland!
In the middle of the tunnel Peter Vesterbacka is building?
He introduced that idea. It’s just a coincidence that I’m thinking of building a city. But wow, this is serendipity, not just a coincidence! We might be able to be part of that project.
Picture of Taizo Son from Latitude59 by Annika Haas