Building an International Team in Japan

A sliver of Silicon Valley, here in Tokyo.

This is an English version of an article intended for a Japanese audience. The Japanese translation will be available soon.

When we started Gengo (we were originally called “myGengo” until we rebranded), one of my goals was to bring a little piece of Silicon Valley to Tokyo. Living here is very comfortable—Tokyo is possibly the safest truly 24-hour city in the world—but the employment ecosystem does not support young, ambitious personalities who have the energy (but often lack the maturity) to create economic value. Instead, the Japanese work environment is like a large company hindered by process and inertia—too much consensus and paperwork is needed to get anything started, and there are too many “senior managers” with vested interests in not supporting change. Process and inertia have their merits in moderation, but like anything else, too much of anything can be destructive.

Before launching Gengo, I was frustrated with the general employment environment in Tokyo. My perceptions had been formed after various positions within Sony as a seisha-in (“full-time employee”) and after having worked with various large Japanese entities, including the Japan Post. But I wasn’t ready to move to the United States. I knew I couldn’t be the only one frustrated by this situation. I thought about what I could do to build on this perception that the economic ecosystem was unsupportive of hyper-iterative entrepreneurship and to take advantage of the positive experiences I had had while working as an intern at American companies when I was a college student. So I figured, “Why not bring a piece of Silicon Valley to Tokyo?”

Everyone has his or her own definition of “Silicon Valley”; here’s one of mine:

Silicon Valley is an attitude that espouses the idea that advancements in technology outweigh any downsides, that these advancements create value and improve our lives, and that failures encountered during this pursuit only strengthen the foundation on which further risks can be taken.

Doesn’t sound unique to Silicon Valley, right? The key is in the way this philosophy manifests itself—the execution. Silicon Valley has become an ecosystem that encourages exploration, experimentation, and risk taking in focused and fast iterations. Because I believed that Silicon Valley was an attitude and execution, I reasoned that there was no physical barrier to creating something similar in Tokyo. The challenge would be in growing a team that would also encourage and benefit from this ecosystem. And because this was about merging a more Western attitude towards work within a Japanese environment, cultural diversity would play an integral role in achieving success.

Integrating an International Team

Rakuten made headlines in 2010 when CEO Mikitani announced he would require all employees to conduct business in English by mid-2012. After nearly four years since the announcement I don’t know whether Rakuten considers the campaign a success, but I will say I’ve been in a handful of meetings, and 90 percent of them were conducted in Japanese. I’ve read much skepticism about the Rakuten endeavor in the English-language media, mostly highlighting how the business issues Rakuten is hoping to solve with “Englishnization” are not really about language but rather about business practices and attitudes that hamper value creation. Cultural risk aversion, consensus-driven decision making, belief in past precedent as an indicator of success—these are just a few of the issues that constrict progress in a Japanese corporate environment and that have nothing to do with language.

So, if you’re a Japanese entrepreneur who believes cultural diversity strengthens your competitive advantage and wants to build an international team, here are some topics I suggest thinking about.

  • Building an international team does not entail forcing English on all employees. It also doesn’t just mean you hire foreigners. Most foreigners interested in living in Japan don’t want to spend time improving a Japanese colleagues’ English—if anything, these foreign employees want to improve their own Japanese! Pick a main language for the company and build a foundation to support it. At Gengo, English is our main internal language of communication; anyone who wants to improve his or her English receives free lessons for the first six months of their employment that are paid for by the company. And since we’re in Japan, the same benefits apply to anyone who wants to improve his or her Japanese. This removes any expectation that employees serve as “language teachers.”
  • An international team by definition means a diversity of opinion. Embrace these differences. There are benefits to an environment that is united and consistent, but a team focused on solving external business problems is not one of them. The diversity—in people, culture, and ideas—is what gives you the advantage over your competition. If you believe a company is like an organism, this strategy makes sense. In biology, there’s an understanding that a species with a more diverse gene pool has a higher likelihood to survive because the risks of a single disease wiping out a less genetically diverse species are so high. At Gengo, our strategy has been to hire for diversity, and we’ve now built a team comprising over twelve nationalities in a company with fewer than fifty employees.
  • Another way to embrace diversity and to show the team that differences are encouraged is by giving everyone opportunities to shine. You can do this by recognizing individual accomplishments or by giving team members the chance to present, internally or publicly. At Gengo, we’ve done both: we’ve had employees vote for who they felt was the “Most improved Gengon” or the “Best exhibitor of Gengo’s values.” Our engineering team has also held technology presentation events, giving our non-native English speakers an opportunity to present in English and our non-native Japanese speakers a chance to present in Japanese.
  • There is always a first time, and sometimes, being first is all it takes to win. Unfortunately, good ideas are all too often stunted because there is no precedent, which is especially true in my experience working in Japanese environments. There is too much fear of being the first, as being first means being unproven and therefore the likelihood to fail seems so high. It is as if people are thinking, “Nobody else has ever done it, so it must not be possible.” My usual response to that thinking is “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!” At Gengo, we like to be first—first to raise capital as a Japanese company from some of our earlier investors 500Startups and Atomico, first to have an openly accessible, public, REST-based human-translation API, and first Japanese client for Cuban Council (which did our rebrand and those of other great companies, too).

Always Have Fun!

Just remember while executing any of these ideas for the sake of competitive diversity that the most important factor is to have fun: add humor when and where you can, have fun with languages, and as a team, highlight your curiosity about culture.

If you can’t show genuine interest and excitement about individual diversity, there is little chance the company culture will sustain itself.

As a bonus tip, there may be times when a balance needs to be proactively established. For example, I have found that having at least one truly bilingual speaker per four to five non-native speakers helps keep the environment humming. A bilingual person is like a silent ambassador and serves as an outlet for those struggling to express themselves in the company’s primary language in a group setting. The key is to make sure the bilingual person doesn’t even realize he or she is functioning as an interpreter when needed; this person should never feel as though he or she is expected to be or is spending too much time as a silent ambassador.

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