Tugi Guenes
Apr 11, 2018 · 4 min read

Opinion: Don’t bring Slush to Japan, but take Japan to Slush.

Slush is one of the largest startup-events worldwide. It is originally from and still annually taking place in Helsinki (Finland). The promise is simple: Bring together founders, investors, and interested individuals. So they can meet, exchange and discuss opportunities. The driver is key: The events are organized and managed by self motivated (student) volunteers. And it works. Slush grew immensely within short time.

The people behind Slush Tokyo seem to aim for a similar scale up. But four years in, the hype is fading and the figures are stagnating on a comparatively low level. I believe this is because the promise is compromised and the drive is motivated by different reasons in Japan. Maybe it is time to rethink what it means to be Slush Tokyo.

Going by the official numbers, around 600 startup and 200 investor tickets were sold for #SlushTokyo18. And while many of the speeches on the main stage were discussing Blockchain and AI related topics, the various startup people on location were a colorful mix of industries and interests. The promise seems to hold up. That is, if you are an open-minded investor or an international company. I couldn’t find many Japanese startups with a global appeal. And some of the local teams I met couldn’t even fully explain me their product. I don’t blame them. Entrepreneurship in Japan is still in its infancy and startups are not widespread. They are praised and often proudly presented in local media but don’t face a strong competition — not developing the skills and mindset needed to compete in a global spotlight.

Most of the volunteer community organizing and supporting the Slush Tokyo events are helping for different reasons than what has melted the ice in Helsinki: Slush Tokyo is a big foreign-event — a known brand — and volunteers can get in for free. Furthermore, you can be part of the global “startup movement” and might even meet famous people from Silicon Valley. This is more or less what you hear when you ask the volunteers about their motivation and goals for joining the cause. And while there is nothing wrong with that, most volunteers don’t make more out of it— they don’t dig deeper. In other words, Slush Tokyo is just an event for them and their “startup efforts” end with their given task at the event. Totally understandable, because they don’t know any better. The Japanese society, education and career system are built on that behavior scheme.

“Welcome to Slush Tokyo 2018. We are bigger than ever with double the number of attendees since the first event in 2015”. The count of participants is obviously a key benchmark for any such event. This year there were supposedly 6000 attendees — including ~600 startups, ~200 investors, ~300 media, and the more or less 600 volunteers. Last year the total number was roughly at 5000 and the year before at about 4000. Slush in Helsinki started with a ~300 people conference and managed to grow beyond 17,500 attendees in less than a decade. By the sheer number of population and the strong business network in Tokyo, one would expect a similar trajectory of growth as in Helsinki . Obviously the actual numbers are plotting a different graph. Moreover, other international events in Japan easily outnumber Slush Tokyo. So, the interest in English speaking startup events is limited in the land of the rising sun and one can only attract so many foreigners to the island. I assume, this was one of the reasons the organizers launched further spin off events in more convenient and nutritious environments in Asia (Slush Singapore and Slush Shanghai). The startup culture in Japan is lacking the needed support to thrive yet. At this point, going for higher Slush Tokyo numbers seems tough and might end in frustration more than anything else.

The insular society and culture of Japan is not in favor of disruptive entrepreneurship and does not yet understand the benefits of a fast-paced global exchange. Individuals are not educated nor encouraged to push the boundaries. Why “bigger than ever” seems to be an unsustainable short term goal for a startup event in Japan. The core values of what made Slush big in Helsinki have yet to grow in Japan. And to accelerate that, you have to tackle the underlying shortcomings. In other words, Slush Tokyo has to become more than just an event to stay relevant and to grow in Japan. The format has to turn into a platform that engages in active learning instead of just being a framework for passive failing. It would require to mix-up the proven formula and to experiment with different approaches. But then again, isn’t that what the “startup movement” is all about?

See you at Slush Tokyo 2019.

Tugi Guenes

Very random, often artsy and always hungry.

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