During my first couple of months discovering Tokyo’s startup ecosystem, I mostly focused on two aspects that I think are critical: spaces and communities. Impact Hub Tokyo shines as one the very few places successfully combining these aspects, and I really wanted to dig deeper into their philosophy and vision. Who better ask than one of its two founders, Shingo de la Morandière? I was expecting to sit down with him 30 minutes to run this interview, but the discussion went deep into open organizations, systemic approach of our Society, and of course… Coworking!
Impact Hub Tokyo started in February 2012 when Shingo came back from London, where he met his cofounder Shino Tsuchiya. “There were only a handful of coworking spaces in Tokyo back then” he begins, “and the startup population was very small at that time, so we thought it had to start with a place to cater for it”.
And providing a space was just the very first step to helping develop the ecosystem: “You know, pitching is supposed to be something cool, you need to tell a story as opposed to specifications of your product… But in Japan it’s all sat down, very quiet, in a very formal settings, and basically no interactions” Shingo continues “So the very first event we held at the Hub was naturally a pitch event”. Was there any other issues that they tried to address? “The second thing we did was to launch an incubation program, Team360. Our vision was more co-learning, as opposed to traditional classroom-type programs which were still the standard back then”, A program that they are still running after 8 successful batches.
The core community will decide the color of our image.
“But first and foremost, we wanted Hub to be all about the community. People knowing each other, sharing, collaborating. We do not filter new members, though we spend quite a bit of time explaining them who we are and what we want to be. After that they go out, think over it, and join us if they choose to. Existing members trust us to maintain that community spirit. We are known as a community with high standards and that can deter some potential members, but we are as open as we can be and welcome people of all backgrounds and skills”. This is for me the most critical aspect of Hub Tokyo, that gives it its personality: the feeling of belonging and being all here to Make an Impact, as their slogan says.
Competing with VC funded spaces
Having navigated through Tokyo’s coworking spaces over the past couple of months, I wanted to hear his take on the offering “Well, first you have all the VC funded spaces, like Cyber Agent for example. Obviously, these spaces do not really need the membership money. Mostly, they are cultivating grounds for VC firms, and if you join their space, these firms will manage to shape your product into something they want”.
With real estate prices being famously high in Tokyo, I also wondered how a large space like the Hub could be run: “Well, our steady stream of revenue comes from memberships” Shingo explains, “and from a gross number viewpoint, consulting is our biggest contributor”. What kind of consulting? “For that part, we focus mainly on what has a social impact, like this project we ran to launch a new consumer good in rural India. We introduced new concepts to our customer (a large manufacturing firm) like field studies, talking directly to end users, or rapid prototyping. We brought them to India several time, talked to people there… It was intense (laughs)”.
“But frankly, today there are too many spaces. Our membership is peaking at around 150 members, we lost a bit of membership to Tech Paak… The space business itself has to change”. So what’s next for Impact Hub Tokyo? That’s when we started switching to a more “ideological” conversation.
“These days the way VCs approach startups, it’s more like a commodity. Other investment areas show poor performance, so investing into startups became just another investment class. But being an entrepreneur, you take a lot of risks. And we talk a lot about solving problems… But who created those problems in the first place? Often, it’s large corporations” he continues, laying down his vision: “That’s where we want to take our space. Some of these large corporations do mean well, but may not know how to actually do good. So here is the equation we are trying to solve: Can we create a coworking space for corporates?”. How would this space look like? “Well, for now the critical aspect we identified is that whatever would come out of this space, it would not belong to any corporation… A sort of Open Innovation space. And suddenly other questions come up: What do we do with IP? How do we run the space? It’s a whole new concept”.
Can we create a coworking space for corporates?
And when it comes to experimenting new concepts, Shingo and the people who run the Hub are everything but shy: “We recently took a new approach on how to decide salaries within the team, starting with a simple question: How to reward impact rather than the number of hours you work?” How did it turn out? “Well, the tricky part is that at Hub, whatever you do, you somehow owe it to someone else’s work. Everything is linked. So we represented interdependencies, and people could ‘invest’ 5, 10 or 15% into each other. That’s a way to determine who has an impact in our team. I am running the space but I am not God, the decision on who brings what should be collegial”.
Everything is linked
Interestingly, this “everything is linked” sentence continued to resonate until the end of the discussion. Shingo recently founded a research company, Open Impact Systems (OISYS), which aims at modelizing the interdependencies between organizations, individuals and societal issues “Like I said, I believe most large corporations do mean well. The problem is just that most of the time, they don’t know the impact of their actions. They can’t measure it. That is my objective with OISYS: What if someone showed them?”
Well thanks Shingo, that was intense! And of course, don’t miss a chance to drop by Impact Hub Tokyo, you’ll be warmly welcome.
(Photo Credit: Impact Hub Tokyo)