Introducing Straylight, and the Motives for Building a Human-Centric Incubator

Taj Campbell
Sep 11, 2016 · 7 min read

Another day. Another sunset. How does the chaos of the universe suddenly arrive at such harmony? The simplicity of its beauty belies fantastic complexity. An explosion of light travels a hundred million miles through darkness of space; refracts orange, pink, purple through atmosphere; bounces and scatters across an ocean surface; arrives gently to the warm noise of crashing waves and singing cicadas…

Since leaving Google last spring, I’ve had more time to ponder the grace of the ordinary. Fortunate to have the means to explore and experiment without being tied to full-time work, I took a long pause and moved from Tokyo to a small beachside town in Japan to escape the summer heat and practice Japanese among locals. I took up new projects and hobbies, traveled often, developed new and old relationships, reconnected with home and family, and collected insights from inspiring friends and creators around the world. While my goal was to eventually start a new venture, I wanted to take a more slow and deliberate journey, perhaps to discover a more sustainable rhythm to work and life.

To be clear, I loved my time at Google. My 8 years there were filled with amazing experiences and people, as we rode the waves of massive technological shifts which have fundamentally changed how humans interact with computers and each other. As a product manager on Google Maps, I was deeply focused on my work, well paid and pampered, and motivated by brilliant colleagues and the impact of products that touch more than a billion lives. I experienced living and working in two of the world’s great economic and cultural centers, moving from San Francisco to Tokyo halfway through my tenure with a desire to better understand and bridge the gaps between two hemispheres. I saw our product grow from a handful of countries to the entire globe, with petabytes of imagery taken, millions of miles driven and drawn, and the development of leading technology and design that would make the whole world accessible in your pocket.

This life was seemingly far removed from a childhood spent growing up on a vineyard in a small agricultural town. Our nearest neighbor, an elderly woman who shared her home as though we were her own grandchildren, was a half-mile from our house. A mile in the opposite direction was my first school, a small Montessori run out of another neighbor’s basement, where I developed an early foundation for self-learning. Later, we moved to Montana to be closer to my father’s roots, to a picturesque town in the mountains at the base of a crystalline lake. People, wealth, power, and influence in these places were all sparse, but life was humble and happy as we celebrated seasonal changes, the bounties of harvest, and time with friends and family.

The dichotomy of these lifestyles has given me a broader worldview and desire to constantly question my values and explore divergent paths. When two worlds can seem so close and so far apart, how can we measure the value of our experiences? Of wealth and freedom? Of individuality and community? Of beauty and utility? Of design and art?

There are no simple answers or universal truths. The point is the questioning itself: to be conscious and intentional in our existence; to recognize that what is claimed as valuable or true is often relative; to inspire new journeys, and seek connection to those who remain curious, persistent, and joyful in an infinite universe of myriad experiences.

After leaving Google, I became more fluid and nomadic, opening up to new people and experiences, and volunteering time to various projects with friends. While helping construct the first rooms for Tokyo BnA, I learned about the nuances of building a new business in Japan and the challenges artists face in making a living from their creative work. A close friend shared the excitement and conflicts of moving from Tokyo to New York to seek a more successful and independent career in fashion. In Berlin, I met a tight community of techno artists who share inspiration and studio resources to collectively advance themselves and promote each other. In San Francisco, I spoke with friends who had left the tech industry with ample wealth, but in search of new avocations that could more fully enrich their minds and hearts.

Onsen trips, music festivals, travels with friends and family, and late nights at sleepy beachside bars were common backdrops for many heartfelt conversations about life, values, careers, and starting new ventures. While many discussions followed specific dreams and ideas, I also began to notice that many of us were describing more fundamental motives for building better environments for creative work. Over time, these discussions began to coalesce into a few common threads:

  1. Tokyo is experiencing a brain drain. Talented and ambitious individuals can easily hit a glass ceiling in their career development, and often find it easier to pursue their work in other cities which host stronger companies, community organizations, universities or development programs. San Francisco and Seattle for tech; New York, Paris and London for design; Berlin and LA for music. Tokyo remains a global creative powerhouse for design, food, architecture, art, and craftwork, but it still lacks many of the institutions necessary to scale its influence, retain creative talent, and attract international creators to pursue their work here.
  2. From the outside, the Silicon Valley culture of startups and venture capital seems increasingly sick with individualism, greed and short-term thinking. While there is much to be admired for its ability to consistently produce incredible technical innovations and triumphs, there are also many entrepreneurs and investors who focus on ventures which are ultimately shallow and self-serving. Too many startups lack soul, producing solutions for only the privileged, while ignoring contributions to deculturalization, commodification, and global wealth disparity.
  3. There’s an opportunity to create a new approach to the incubator, or a community obsessed with making new things. It’s the burden of thoughtful creators and global citizens to build and shape our own environments for work and play.

Though I was enjoying beach life, new hobbies, and prototyping a Japanese sake startup, my narrower goals became overwhelmed by thoughts of building an incubator. And so, last November, I returned to Tokyo to collaborate with friends and conceptualize the kind of community needed to sustain our longer-term pursuits and ambitions; a human-centric incubator which expands into wider realms of creativity.

Straylight is a collective of engineers, designers, artists, builders, curators, and entrepreneurs.

We explore creative realms at the intersections of technology, art, and design:
- to seek confluence and inspire collaboration;
- to advance learning, research, and development;
- to incubate new products, experiences, and teams.

We are guided by an ethos which shapes our community and approach to creating new things:

  • Exhibit sophistication, mastery, depth, and humility. Small is beautiful. Quality and utility over scale.
  • Continually learn and evolve. Share and refine creative processes. Improve tools. Enable remixing and open collaboration.
  • Focus on community and a holistic approach to building. Encourage generosity and reciprocity. Reject opportunism and short-terms.
  • Celebrate humanity and global connectedness. Seek and create opportunities for international cultural exchange.

We are rooted in Tokyo, a city unfathomable in its scale and complexity. With over 30 million people, it’s the largest and wealthiest metropolis in the world. It’s home to holographic pop idols, international fashionistas, and Pritzker laureates; to hidden music bars, ancient shrines, and modern technological marvels. Of its 100,000+ restaurants, a quarter turn over each year, more than all of the restaurants in New York. The Yamanote line’s 29 stations serve more passengers than London’s entire network of 275 stations, yet represent a mere fraction of its vast transit system. It is a microcosm of industrious people and connections, of deep cultures and incredible craftsmanship. It is the manifestation of small dreams. It is proof of the value of focus, persistence, and mastery.

Straylight seeks the synthesis of differing value systems while exhibiting the best of Japan. We approach building an incubator and new cultural identity as a long-term endeavor. It will require nurturing a strong and active community, developing new spaces for work and creative exploration, and fostering an ecosystem which openly shares knowledge, resources, and risk. In this venture, I am joined by Ryo Kawaguchi and Alisaun Fukugaki, along with several early members, advisors, and collaborators who are helping give shape to our community and vision.

I remember the tone the sunlight made
reflecting as it did…
Rick Holland, I Remember

While floating in the ocean on a humid summer evening, gazing at the setting sun, I momentarily saw a reflection of what we hope to create through the collective effort of diverse talents: a depiction of harmonies of light and sound; the gradual emergence of refined symbols and tones from darkness and noise; the warmth and energy of intersecting rays of light; a metaphor for the vibrant people and perspectives in our community.

Straylight is still an early concept being defined through the thoughtful introduction of new members and projects. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll continue to reveal more fragments of our identity, story, and progress. Those interested in participating in our journey can find us here:

Website
Medium
Soundcloud
Facebook

Straylight

Straylight

We’re a Tokyo-based collective of engineers, designers, artists, builders, curators, and entrepreneurs, exploring creative realms at the intersections of technology, art, and design.

Taj Campbell

Written by

Straylight

We’re a Tokyo-based collective of engineers, designers, artists, builders, curators, and entrepreneurs, exploring creative realms at the intersections of technology, art, and design.