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Working For a Startup in Japan: An Insider's Perspective

Updated: Jan 7

Author: Raihan Abimanyu

Published Date: 26th December 2019

Startups may become the next big thing here in Japan. With Japanese youngsters increasingly shifting from everyday corporate cultures to government support in establishing the proper startup ecosystem; we are expecting a startup trend to emerge soon. This also means, increased employment opportunities and alternative workplaces for you!

The Japanese Startup Scene


We all have heard of the startup craze of the silicon valley, even extending and spilling over into South-East Asia and China.


Recently, the Indonesian ride-hailing app, Gojek is expected to be the 2nd decacorn (startups valued at over US$10 Billion) in the region while the Chinese Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent-backed WeChat Pay are expanding services for inbound tourists visiting China. Japan is one of the world’s-leading nations in science and technology, but we honestly haven’t heard a lot about this scale of innovations or breakthroughs.


In contrast, the start-up scene is a rather new phenomenon here in Japan. With the infamously rigid and stringent business environment, they are significantly lagging in entrepreneurship compared to previously mentioned part of the world. Japanese workers are more used to stability of corporations and views entrepreneurships as a plan B.


For entrepreneurs, risks of bankruptcy looms large and even if you succeed, you won’t be making much more than executives in the Sogo Shoshas (General Trading companies such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui or Sumitomo).



In short, entrepreneur was all risk and no reward while employment in large companies are all reward and no risk. However, this might come into substantial change in the near future as Japanese startups are getting more and more attention from the public, even the JETRO.


If want to know more about the startup scene here in Japan, Jport has exactly the right article for you as we cover most general information in another article.


But in this article, we'll give you an idea of how it's like to work in a Japanese startup from a collection of real voices we have acquired. We will also list the top 3 startups that might well be your next workplace!


Top Japanese Startups


As Japan is steadily building a startup ecosystem, several firms are already making waves in the market, so here are some of the top startups currently in Japan.

(Listed in no particular order.)


Mercari



Started in 2013 in Japan, Mercari is an online marketplace similar to Ebay with their core-business on becoming an online flea-market app. They are the first ever Japanese unicorn with established overseas offices in the US and UK.


They have also joined forces with LINE Corp. in the Japanese mobile-payment race with their MercariPay and recently acquired the most successful team in Japanese football history, the Kashima Antlers. Currently, they employ around 1800 employees globally and is listed in the Japanese stock market.


Mercari have various jobs online as they are always expanding. However, a lot of the positions require Japanese proficiency and several years of work experience! But fresh-graduates are also welcome and opportunity for a long-term internship are mentioned in their FAQ section.



You check out the available positions in English here.



Cookpad



Cookpad is a cooking and recipe-sharing site founded in Japan in 1997. Established as a community-based sharing platform, Cookpad has grown to become Japan’s biggest recipe sharing platform with around 60 million users domestically. Since their IPO in July 2009, their main service is now available in more than 70 countries and 30 languages. Currently, Cookpad has offices in the UK, Spain, Lebanon and Indonesia.


Employment opportunities are available on their website but details are all in Japanese and are focused for graduates from the IT field. They are offering recruitment for fresh-graduates of 2020 and 2021 for software engineers, research engineers and designers. Besides full-time positions, Cookpad also has a summer internship program where short-term and long-term programs are offered for engineers and designers.


English Site: https://www.cookpadteam.com


Sansan


This company is trying to revolutionize the traditional Japanese way of Meishi Koukan, or the exchange of business cards. By utilizing cloud-based services, they build up databases of these business cards making them accessible through their application. Sansan is reported to have raised around $93 million in funding with 6000 companies introduced to their services.


If you are looking forward to joining their team, they are hosting their “Sansan Recruit Event” on the 25th of November at Roppongi Hills where they would do company briefings for interested individuals. They are also having a separate industry seminar on “Software as a Service” at their office, next December. For graduates of 2021, applications are now open for regular office positions, engineers, designers and R&D.

English Site: https://www.sansan.com



Working at a Startup in Japan


We were able to reach out to Marcus Jackson, an engineer for Homii, a startup in homestay matching services here in Japan and Jatin Kumar; a tech recruiter for Japan’s first tech unicorn, Mercari. We had the opportunity to ask a few questions regarding working in a Japanese startup, so buckle up as Marcus and Jatin shares pieces of their insights and perspectives!


Marcus Jackson (Left) and Jatin Kumar (Right)


Marcus is a graduate of Stanford University majoring in computer science. He actually started off as an English instructor for the JET program in Tottori. While teaching, he enhanced his Japanese skills as well by living in the countryside and has initially planned to find a programming job in Tokyo. Fortunately, around the time, a study abroad friend was starting a company and he decided to join the Homii team.


Jatin originated from New Delhi and joined Mercari in 2018 after he read that Mercari is looking for engineers across the globe for the Tokyo office. As a tech recruiter, his works revolves around creating and executing sourcing strategies to find talents; such as scouting candidates, screenings, interviews and enhancing the selection process.


As we know, work environments and cultures in startups differs greatly from the common Japanese corporate. It tends to be more relaxed and informal, which now has become a trend in working cultures across the globe. Jatin also agrees with the previous statement and also listed several other benefits in working at a startup.


“Many startups in Japan (including Mercari) offer flexible working hours, casual dress code, sick leaves, lots of communication opportunities with co-workers and a non-hierarchical work environment, allowing anyone to state their opinions freely and in some cases take important business decisions. For instance, here are the benefits provided by Mercari: https://careers.mercari.com/benefits


Marcus was afraid of the Japanese work stereotype at first, but he mentioned how his team was far from it.


“There’s no complex company hierarchy, so it’s easier to have my voice heard. And I have more flexibility in when I work meaning I can generally avoid the crowded rush hour trains. I also don’t feel pressured to stay late in the office working overtime (though occasionally I do choose to work longer when there’s a lot to do).”


Even with its benefits and rather relaxed work environment, the startup scene also poses challenges for workers. Marcus had difficulty in communication at first as it is generally done in Japanese.


“But especially in the beginning, I struggled a lot with using Japanese for work. And although I’ve improved even more over this past year, there are still times now when I have trouble understanding things, group discussions in particular. However, my teammates are very kind and patient, and help me out when I have trouble.”


The startup scene is also notoriously fast-paced and volatile especially for companies still in its early development stages. Jatin stated; “There are many challenges when you are working in a growing startup. One needs to produce results fast and at the same time develop systems and frameworks to ensure scalability in the process. Also the business requirements change really fast and one needs to adapt quickly to those changes. I understood that this is a phase and things will become stable as we scale up."


When asked about what is the most important thing someone needs to work in a startup, Marcus pointed out how persistence is key.


“I think perseverance may be the most important trait needed in working at a startup in Japan. While working at a startup in your home country comes with plenty of challenges, doing so in Japan can come with a lot more. In particular coming from a Western country, the Japanese language can be a big challenge as well as big differences culture-wise. You may even face a lot of challenges with getting your visa settled and your life together. So things may not work out so well at first. Being determined and refusing to give up is key. Times can be tough working at a startup, but if you push through the challenges, I think you can find it very fun and rewarding.”

While Jatin, emphasized the customer oriented approach of Japanese businesses.


“In Japanese business, the phrase "customer is god" is taken very seriously. When working in a Japanese startup, always be clear about who your customer is and be proactive in suggesting ways to give them a better experience.”



Finally, Jatin puts his final remarks for fresh-grads trying to start a career in a Japanese Startup.


“As the startup ecosystem is flourishing in Japan, there are plenty of opportunities for new grads looking to work in a startup or startup-like environment. It is good to learn some Japanese to show that you are actually passionate about working in Japan. It could be helpful to attend popular startup events to make connections with the community.”


He then added how a lot of recruiters lurks in LinkedIn and having a well presented profile will absolutely be beneficial. Marcus also made similar points on expanding your network of friends.


“A lot of first hires at startups tend to be friends of friends or similar connections. So if you happen to have any friends or acquaintances already here, they might be able to point you in the right direction. Networking in person and online can also be a big help, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone even if you don’t know if it’ll work out.”


Networking proves to be one of the best ways to land a job in a startup here in Japan. “But where do I start networking for startup jobs here in Japan?” No worries, start-up job listings can often be found at Justa, a site specializing in matching the supply and demand of the startup labor market or other job listing sites; Wantedly and LinkedIn in particular. Groups and communities are also available; Disrupting Japan is a podcast/LinkedIn group where startup enthusiasts gather and discuss.


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