We had the privilege of catching up with Akiko, Founder of Wantedly, who managed to spend some time with us amid her busy schedule during her recent trip to Singapore. Akiko stands out as a thought leader, one that is bold and forthcoming, beaming with energy and a crystal-clear mission to not only change the the way we hire, but also the way we live, considering the best of us spend 40 hours a week on our jobs.
Akiko, you stand out as a female founder who wishes not to be known as such. When we got in touch, we were told that you generally shy away from being regarded as a “female founder” and wish to simply be known as a “founder”. Can you share more of your views and values surrounding this?
There are so many self-proclaimed entrepreneurs in Japan that run small businesses. They run seminars for women as a business but that is not a real business from my point of view. I think it’s easy to use the gender card to run these seminars. Factors like how many users you have, how much revenue or profit you make, the size of your team are important for a business. If your business only revolves around women, I don’t think you can scale. In fact, the times I have visited such conferences, the speakers are all small business owners – I don’t want to be compared with that.
At the same time, there is a prominent female founder in Japan called Tomoko Namba, who is now in her 40s. Namba-san is the founder of DeNa, one of Japan’s most successful mobile social networking and gaming companies, whose culture is rooted in embracing change so the business is constantly evolving to stay competitive. Its valuation is USD5 to 6 billion and has been around for 15 years.
Namba-san doesn’t sell herself as a female founder - She just happens to be one and she’s leading a company that everybody wants to work for.
What would you say Wantedly is and wants to be, in your own words?
Our mission is to build a world where working is a passion.
We started out as social recruit service, which is what we are now. In Japan, with more than 1 million active users, we are evolving into something like LinkedIn, but more for millennials – so we are known as LinkedIn for millennials in Japan, as we match companies and candidates based on our mission values, not solely on salaries and benefits. It is working very well and so many young people support our service. Most of our user base are people in their 20s and 30s, college students and people just out of college. The user base will age, but at the same time more users are coming in and it will stay that way.
What are the demographics of Wantedly’s users?
So, we see these 3 types of people form the demographics of Wantedly users.
First, students. When they apply to do internships, they are given more easy, routine work. With Wantedly, they can casually get a real job and get paid while learning things at the same time. More and more students, especially the top-tier ones, are beginning to use Wantedly, and they form a big chunk of the demographics.
Next are students fresh out of college. They join larger corporations because they want to satisfy their parents and partners. It is hard to change the behaviour of young people fresh out of college because they have no experience yet. What we observe is that after a few years at the firm, they get frustrated and disillusioned. A lot of bright people who are in this situation tend to turn to Wantedly to seek a meaningful job.
Lastly, people about to turn 30, since they think it’s their last chance to make a leap before they have family and kids.
It’s perhaps a little ironic that Wantedly is thriving back at home in Japan, where people are generally accustomed to a work culture that is known to comprise gruelling hours and a lack of work-life balance. How do you think Wantedly is shaping the work-life culture in Japan from this perspective?
One, is a micro view – Since Wantedly matches users and candidates based on its mission and values, we want to change the notion of work by making work more exciting. In Japan, work is something you have to do because you are being paid and that makes people feel chained to their work and that is the mainstream notion of what work is. We want to make work something more exciting that you can devote your life to, one where you can make a real difference in this world. That’s the first thing we want to change.
Another thing is, I strongly believe that we’re contributing to growing the economy in Japan by increasing liquidity in the market here, something that I feel Japan needs now. The sectors growing the most here are those in medical, elderly care and internet-related businesses. The manufacturing industry in Japan has grown too saturated and these workers have to look for other jobs in growing industries instead.
That is not happening because Japanese have the notion of lifetime employment, where they have to stick to one company and are afraid of changing jobs. Changing jobs would mean that they would have to look for a new job, and that is perceived as a sign that one is not performing well at the job, does not get along well with his or her boss and colleagues and just does not fit into the work environment. On the other hand, the notion is that people who are doing well will stay in their jobs for a long time, since they are getting promoted and being given exciting projects.
That said, new industries need good people.
Wantedly is trying to make this job change very casual. Traditionally, you would apply for job, maybe get invited to an interview and it is all very official. At Wantedly, we meet casually over coffee or lunch instead, which encourages high performing individuals, who are not necessarily looking for a job, to connect with us and explore opportunities. It is a bit like dating first before jumping into a marriage – the more you date, the more you know your type and the happier the relationship will be.
What kind of social footprint does Wantedly want to leave globally and how do you envision Wantedly impacting traditional methods of hiring?
I am really influenced by Motivation 3.0, written by Daniel Pink. Motivation 2.0 is more suited for the industrial age, where people are doing routine work and externally motivated by money. Whereas now, we are shifting into the creative age.
If we consider the iPhone and attribute the revenue to what goes into making the iPhone a success, for example, we find that in terms of value, only a small percentage goes into the parts and the assembly. What is making it a truly valuable product is the creativity and thinking that goes into it. Routine work reaps less rewards while those who come up with the ideas and branding are better rewarded. These people are usually motivated by Motivation 3.0, which is more to do with intrinsic motivations centred around mastery, autonomy and purpose.
There are so many job platforms out there based on Motivation 2.0, encouraging an exchange of skillsets for a salary. It is contract-based, which was the best practice for the industrial age. Now that we are undergoing a change and shift in our environment, we also need to change how we motivate ourselves. LinkedIn, for example, provides services based on motivation 2.0, which is outdated. We want to replace these platforms with the Motivation 3.0 style and attitude towards work.
How did Wantedly come to be? We understand that you aspired to be a Manga Artist early in your career. You have come a long way since then!
I have wanted to be a manga artist since I was young – This is considered a really prestigious job in Japan! I was really good at drawing and there seemed to be a few professions I could choose from… I could be an artist and be alright with struggling to making ends meet, or an illustrator which was as volatile an option as being an artist. Being a manga artist, if you can nail it, you can become super successful and have a great influence over the world, so that was my dream job.
I tried really hard for a year after leaving Goldman Sachs. I went to live with mum, who was teaching at the University of Hokkaido then, to isolate myself from the rest of my peers in Tokyo so I would not be distracted by my social life back in Tokyo. I believed where you are, builds who you are – so I isolated myself and drew manga day and night for 6 months to a year. That did not really work out, since it is too competitive in Japan, with many aspiring manga artists and only a number would have made it. It was a game of supply and demand and my quality of manga did not meet that demand – I had to supply something that others could not supply.
I was always interested in tech as well since my father teaches Computer Science at a university, so I had this background and foundation of how to code. I started coding some homepages and websites when I was 9.
I think my strength comes from the intersection of my knowledge in tech and creativity, and just see building products as another means of being creative and creating an impact in society. In that sense, drawing manga and building products aren’t that different to me. I just shifted, that’s all.
You learned to code when you were so young… Do you think it is still possible for the rest of us who want to start coding now?
I think teens and those in their 20s are considered digital natives, who were probably born into a world where the internet had already begun proliferating our lives. When I was young, the internet was still considered a weird thing that few people knew about. The hurdle for us now is a lot less as people are more inclined towards technology.
When I was in elementary school I couldn’t tell people that I used technology because I was worried that people would perceive me as a nerd. That was the notion back then, so I didn’t tell anyone that I played around with the computer… But now, coding is considered a cool thing. It used to be really hard back in the day, but these days, programming is becoming easier and easier to pick up because of all the open-source developments.
Who are the role models in your life, those who have shaped your journey and kept you right on track?
I like Steve Jobs a lot. I think he shaped our world and brought human beings to a higher level of appreciating beauty. Most of the mobile phones we use today are influenced by Apple, because they came up with great design and interface and all the calligraphy that were from Apple have become the de facto standard used today… They really raised the bar for human beings, in terms of sense of beauty and taste. Apple made their products a no-brainer such that even non-tech savvy people could enjoy using the iPhone the way they would use a small computer… There is so much cool technology in one device!
By changing the way phones were being used, Steve Jobs empowered people. He was relentless when it came to perfecting the product, which earned him some bad rep, but at the end of the day he delivered a product that really changed the world. I think that the outcome he delivered matters the most, even though the journey may have been tough for those who played a part in making it happen.
Do you have a message for those of us who want to start our own business or are still in search of a career of our dreams?
Everyone is judged by appearances – When you’re running a business, especially in the areas of sales and marketing, there is a high chance you will be judged based on your gender, the colour of your skin, or your religion… but, if you focus on your product, product does not have colour… product has no gender and no religion.
Every time I get asked by the media in Japan about whether I faced barriers as a woman entrepreneur, my answer is always no – I feel that I enjoyed the upside because I got more media coverage.
When I look back, I realized that it was because I did not do as much sales or marketing – I only had to focus on the product. I strongly feel that if you have a good product, that is what is going to draw people to you – be it for a partnership, or to buy your product – you are going to have that advantage.
That is why I think it is important for girls and women to know how to code, because to build a great product you have to be able to know how to code and design. Of course, you could work with an engineer to do that for you, but to know coding at the beginner level really gives you an advantage… Because I was able to code the first version of Wantedly at the beginning, I was able to gain traction before refining the platform to what it is today.
We are excited to have Wantedly as our Community Partner for the inaugural Girls in Tech Android Developer Bootcamp, powered by CodePath! We will be matching course graduates with meaningful developer jobs as part of Demo Day.
Wantedly just launched an office in Singapore! Wanted – Marketing growth hacker and Business Development Manager to provide end-to-end lead generation and Account Manager to spearhead end-to-end customer experience and lead in customer success. Keep an eye out for these positions on https://sg.wantedly.com/
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