#04 - On bootstrapping a startup, selling it and rescuing Japan's primary sector

- with Tao Romera Martinez -


Paul: 00:00:00

Hi Tao, welcome to the show!

Tao: 00:00:02

Hello Paul. Nice to talk to you again. It's been a while!

Paul: 00:00:05

Yeah, it's been a while! Tao, you are currently in Japan. But you are originally coming from Spain.

You've been living in Japan for many, many years. You've been doing a lot of activities there. Being a student, being an employee for a Japanese company, you worked as a freelancer.

Then you created your company, you worked as an entrepreneur and now you are, if I'm correct, currently a product manager at a Pocket Marche.

That's a lot of different lives and we'll have a chance to discuss about this a bit later during the conversation.

But before starting, I just wanted to note that you were also the co-founder of a startup called Tadaku. Tadaku had this goal of connecting Japanese people and foreigners through food, through cooking lessons.

Tao: 00:00:58

Yeah, exactly!

Paul: 00:00:59

And when you launched, that was about the same time I was starting to research and to look at the startup scene in Japan. I was starting to work on a few ideas, on a few projects. And actually Tadaku was one of the startups I was looking up to.

Because it was bootstrapped, with two cofounders if I'm correct, with success as well. And with the clear goal of connecting people. Connecting Japanese people and foreigners. It was very inspiring for me who was just starting in this field, to have this model to look at.

So I just wanted to thank you for this, for creating, this inspiration.

Tao: 00:01:46

Oh, well thank you! I'm really happy to hear this and to hear that I actually inspired people to pursue this career of entrepreneurship.

Paul: 00:01:59

You did! We'll have a chance a bit later on to discuss about this, but let's proceed chronologically.

To get started, could you please briefly introduce yourself and let us know how long you've been living in Japan?

First time in Japan

Tao: 00:02:16

My name is Tao. Tao Romera Martinez. It's a long name, in Spain we have too many names.

I came to Japan in 2005. I came as a research student at first. I was studying at university engineering and I needed to do an internship for six months. There was a lab in a university that was accepting research students. So I contacted the professor and he accepted me. So I came to Japan.

Honestly at the beginning, I wasn't really interested in Japan and the Japanese language especially. So that's why I made an effort to find this kind of research internship here in Japan. I didn't have the idea of staying in Japan for years. But I've been living in Japan since then. I came in 2005 and since then I've been here but it was not in my plans to stay for so long. I was definitely not foreseeing myself 14 years later still here in Japan.

Paul: 00:03:28

So you just came originally for what, one year? One year project?

Tao: 00:03:33

Not even! It was a six month internship.

Paul: 00:03:39

Were you studying Japanese already before that? Was it in Spain?

Tao: 00:03:44

It was in France. I went to university in France. I'm originally from Spain, but I went to university in France.

Paul: 00:03:53

Where was that?

Tao: 00:03:54

I spent two years in Rouen and three years in Rennes actually. So two years for the common years where you study the same engineering. In France, it's a very particular system.

The first two years is like common subjects for all engineering specialties after that. And then the following three years, you choose your specialty and then you go to a university that actually teaches that. That's when I moved to Rennes. So for three years.

Studying Japanese

Paul: 00:04:28

At that time, were you studying Japanese?

Tao: 00:04:32

Yes, I've always liked languages. When I moved to France for my university studies, I already spoke French, English and Spanish. And I had studied a little bit of German. So I wanted to learn something totally different. Italian, even German, all European languages are really... all the major European languages that were taught at university at least are all related. They're all quite similar in the end.

I was looking to learn something totally different, just for fun. It was not my major or anything since I was studying telecommunications engineering and they only had Japanese. So I took Japanese lessons, not because I was originally interested in Japanese culture or Japanese language or Japan. But just because it was the only option available as a totally different exotic language.

Paul: 00:05:27

Is that what pushed you to come and do this internship, this project in Japan later on? Or was it another opportunity?

Tao: 00:05:37

No, no, it's exactly that.

Because then I started learning about Japan for the first time, the Japanese culture and the Japanese language and I got more and more interested in the Japanese society. I came for the first time on my third year just for a summer internship... not internship sorry, homestay. It was a summer homestay. And I loved it.

I loved it so much that when I went back to the university in France, I decided that I really wanted to come back to Japan at some point. The internship was the perfect opportunity so I came back again.

Paul: 00:06:17

What's your very first memory of Japan?

Because often when we live in Europe, in the US, outside of Japan, we read about it, we search about a lot of different things. But when we arrive in the country, sometimes it matches, sometimes it's completely different.

For you, the very first time you came here, what did you feel? Was it like you were expecting?

Tao: 00:06:41

Well, the interesting thing is that I was not a fan of Japan in the first place.

Before coming to Japan, I was interested, definitely. But I wasn't a fan of Japan like many of the people I encountered when I came to Japan for the first time. I wasn't, and I'm still not interested in manga or anime, not in Jpop, particularly, not in Japanese movies particularly. Of course I liked some of them. But I had zero expectations when it comes to Japan. I really didn't know what to expect.

With time, I realised that was actually one of the best things that could happen because I saw that many of the people who came almost at the same time as me to Japan (I knew actually some of them because we were studying at the same Japanese language class) were really fond of Japan. Of Japanese culture, anime and manga... And when they came to Japan, they had a lot of expectations.

Then they found out that many things in Japan were not as they as they expected or that Japan was not like a dream country, as you might think by watching or reading anime and mangas. So they were disappointed at some point, like after a year, a year and a half.

After the honeymoon period, you start seeing many aspects of Japan that you don't like. Many of them got really disappointed and ended up having a love-hate relationship with Japan and eventually left the country and went back to France or other countries.

But in my case, because I didn't have these expectations, I came to Japan like a blank sheet. And I loved it! At that time especially.

It was 2005, so we still didn't have smartphones. We had Internet definitely. But it was a much more remote country, much more unknown than now. Now you have so many resources, videos, YouTube everywhere. It feels closer I think. At that time it was not case.

Plus when I came for that summer homestay, it was not in Tokyo. It was in Nagano, in a small village in the middle of the mountains. I remember I arrived in Narita, the airport. The family came to pick me up at the airport and we went straight to that village. So I only saw Tokyo the last week of my two months stay in Japan at that time.

And for me it was like literally going to another planet. Because I didn't understand a word of what people were saying around me. No one spoke anything but Japanese and suddenly I was eating with chopsticks, which I had never done in my life before. I was sleeping on tatami... The culture, the customs, the personal relationships were so different that for me it felt like going to another planet.

Paul: 00:09:52

That must have been a long drive from a Narita to Nagano!

Tao: 00:09:57

Yeah, it was a three hours drive by car, but it felt like three light years. It was so weird, it felt so out of place, suddenly.

Paul: 00:10:10

You mentioned that when you came, everybody of course was speaking a different language. You also mentioned that you did study Japanese at school. So maybe not the very first time during your homestay, but when you came for university, let's say, the first time that you were staying a long time... That was at Tokyo university of technologies, was it?

Tao: 00:10:32

Yes. Yes, that's correct.

Paul: 00:10:33

So when you came here with already some Japanese learning experience, how was it for you?

Did you feel comfortable in your way to communicate with people or did you feel that you had to relearn everything from scratch?

Tao: 00:10:47

In terms of language you mean?

Paul: 00:10:49

Yes. In terms of communication.

Tao: 00:10:51

Well actually when I went to that homestay in 2003, that was my very first time in Japan. I really didn't speak a word, even though I had been studying Japanese for almost three years. It was like a one hour lesson a week, it wasn't my major. When I got really busy with my main study, I was totally forgetting about Japanese for a while.

So I had some notions on grammar and vocabulary, but really, really basic. But it was better than nothing. It gave me a little basis upon which I built. And because no one spoke English around me, I was forced to speak and to learn very quickly, just to survive. So at the end of these two months, I had basic daily conversation Japanese.

And once you reach that level, it's so much easier to keep on progressing and learning a language. When I came back for university in my fifth year, in 2005, I was able to communicate with people more or less like, you know, not very complex conversations.

I still lacked a lot of vocabulary and grammar expressions. But it kept building up on that. After six months I was more or less able to navigate around me and to talk to people about more or less anything.

So, yeah. I was lucky because it was a university, I was not working in a company. I had time to keep on learning Japanese a lot. That was one of my main activities during the first six months.

Paul: 00:12:35

I think that's very true. The fact of being in a full immersion in Japanese, not having the choice or the comfort to speak another language, and especially your own language is a massive help in improving your level. I felt the same when I went to university and that's really the best way to improve.

What's your level now? I mean, after 15 years it must be pretty good. Do you consider yourself fluent?

Tao: 00:13:08

Yes, I'm a very fluent now!

The secret to Japanese fluency

Paul: 00:13:15

My question would then be: what steps did you go through in order to improve and to reach this level of fluency?

Tao: 00:13:24

Well, there are no secrets really.

A lot of people asked me what the secret to learn Japanese was. And I was like "There was no secret, sorry".

The only thing is learning tons of stuff. I think it's just a matter of spending time learning it. Definitely, this total immersion helps a lot. You can do that. That's the best!

If you cannot do that, I see a very common situation here in Japan of foreigners, for example, dating a Japanese person. And because the Japanese speaks English or the mother language of the foreigner, they speak all the time in that language. Because if the foreigner doesn't speak Japanese well enough to have a conversation, the other person has to make an effort to communicate. So usually they switch to the easy language.

And what I told these people is to set a time, like once a day for example. Then with a watch on hand, they say "okay, from now, for 10 minutes or for 15 minutes, we will only speak in Japanese. Even if I don't understand a word of what you're saying, no matter what the world might be stumbling down, it doesn't, you only speak to me in Japanese". And you make it a rule!

It's really, really effective because the first sessions of these only Japanese speaking time are going to be really tough because you don't understand a word and your brain is like working like 500%.

But very quickly you will start picking up some things and being able to communicate very easy stuff. Then it's just a matter of sticking with it and keep doing it everyday if possible, as much as you can. Then you will learn!

Once you start on getting used to it, you increase that time little by little. So if you start with 10 minutes, after a while you make it to 15, and then after a while you make it 20 minutes.

That's great because then you start setting your brain to that language. That's the very first step, I would say.

Paul: 00:15:56

Yeah, that's it. That's the keyword: setting in your brain.

That's a very effective technique. And I think one of the benefits of this technique as well is to teach you how to feel uncomfortable in the language, in a communication situation, and how to be ok with it.

The most difficult at the beginning might be when you want to say something or you want to understand something but you don't, and you kind of freak out because you are not used to that situation. Being ok with that, I believe, make things much easier later on.

Tao: 00:16:38

Yeah, you're absolutely right!

I think one of the major obstacles for learning a language is not the complexity of the language itself, it is the mental barriers that people have.

Because they face a situation they're not used to, that they're not comfortable with because they're not able to understand or they're not able to communicate anything.

Exactly, you just have to be okay with it because you know, it only gets better with time. The more you learn, the more you understand and the less out of your conference you are.

Paul: 00:17:13

The other technique you mentioned, the boyfriend or girlfriends situation, is also very effective to keep up the motivation.

Tao: 00:17:22

A lot of people were asking me at the beginning "Oh, how did you learn Japanese? Your Japanese is so good, blah blah". Asking me if I had a Japanese wife.

And no, I've been single most of my time. I've had some boyfriends here and there, but especially in the beginning it was just because I was talking with friends.

So you don't need a boyfriend or a girlfriend to be able to learn the language.

Paul: 00:17:51

No, you don't. You actually have groups in Tokyo doing exactly this. You go there for a meetup of one hour and 30 minutes of it is dedicated to, let's say, English and the other 30 minutes is for Japanese.

Tao: 00:18:05

I think it works better if you do it one on one.

If it's a group, if you don't understand something, you kind of just stop the group and try to make sense out of it.

But if you are one on one, the other person is following you and the other person knows if you're understanding or not. They will repeat the same thing or try to make gestures to make you understand what he or she is saying.

So I think it works better one-on-one. Either with a friend or a boyfriend or whatever.

Working a corporate job in Japan

Paul: 00:18:40

You did your internship at the Tokyo Institute of Technologies.

How did you transition from the university to getting into a corporate job?

Tao: 00:18:56

I went through a recruiter. There are plenty of them in Japan. I contacted a couple of them and they introduced me to different jobs.

At that point my Japanese was not very good, but I could communicate. I mean it was not good enough, for example, to be able to write perfect business emails for example, to read spec sheets, things like that.

But because I was in a technical field, maybe, that was not a deal breaker for some companies. They were interested in my coding skills or my technical skills more than that, because I was still able to communicate with my coworkers.

If you have enough Japanese to be able to communicate orally, at least with your coworkers, I think it makes things much, much easier.

And then, yeah, in my case, I went through a recruiter.

Paul: 00:20:05

What was your experience of the job interviews with Japanese companies?

You worked for Fujitsu, is that correct?

Tao: 00:20:14

Yes, I worked for Fujitsu Labs. It was not really that difficult. It was pretty easy really. But I guess it really depends on the company. After that, I did some interviews with other companies which were much, much tougher. It really depends on the company, I guess. For those big Japanese corporations, it was not that difficult, so particular comments about that.

Paul: 00:20:46

What were you doing at Fujitsu?

Tao: 00:20:49

I was doing applied research for a microchip. SOC, it was called. A system on a chip. It was a small microchip that would go into the interface, between USB 3.0 devices on the computer. I was designing one particular part of this microchip, which was an adaptive equalizer...

Paul: 00:21:24

Okay ... I was saying yes to the keywords, but I'm not very sure what you're talking about haha...

Tao: 00:21:32

It's very technical. I was doing applied research, basically. So with my computer doing simulations with MathLab...

Paul: 00:21:40

How long did you do that?

Tao: 00:21:46

For 2 years and a half.

Paul: 00:21:46

What experience do you keep of working there?

Because Fujitsu is a massive Japanese corporation. I know some people who went there who had very good experiences, some others who had not as good experiences...

What's your memory of your time there?

Tao: 00:22:03

It was good!

I remember it fondly actually. I was not particularly traumatised by it. It was very technical. It was very geeky, in the sense that, you know, everyone around me was researchers as well in the technical field, engineering. So you get a lot of Otakus...

It was not the most creative people, right. It was not the people interested in arts and music, things like that. Everything stayed very technical.

Paul: 00:22:43

What about in terms of management, in terms of working hours, 残業 (overtime)?

Tao: 00:22:49

Working hours were not a problem at all.

I was doing overtime sometimes, but it was basically because I wanted to do it, because I wanted to advance on something or because I felt like working a little bit longer that day. There was not a culture of overtime for the sake of it, at all.

There was a hierarchy, as in every traditional companies in Japan or in Europe. So you have managers and then you have managers of managers, but they were really nice. It was not an authoritarian company. There were nomikais, here and there. You could go or not. It was up to you really.

I was surprised because so many people actually have this image of Japanese corporations, especially because Fujitsu is one of them. The sort of typical salaryman doing overtime and stuff. I mean, Fujitsu is huge. I was in the research department, in the Nakahara office, just a specific part. It might not be the same in all the departments.

If you go to marketing, it's probably something totally different. So I'm just talking from my experience. But yeah, it was not at all as bad as people picture it all the time. I think less and less that's the case, especially for companies that will accept a foreigner as a staff. I think that culture is changing a lot.

Paul: 00:24:20 It's usually like this in big corporations. It depends on departments mostly. And on the department managers. They kind of give the vibe of the workstyle in each department. Just for the listeners who don't know about the terms, Zangyou is overtime. And Nomikai is literally a drinking party session, usually having drinks with colleagues, at the end of the week or after some special projects. Usually they are here to make bonds and to make connections. Have a good spirit in the team..

Paul: 00:24:59

So two years and a half at Fujitsu. What happened after that?

Tao: 00:25:05

After that, I decided that I wanted to go out of the lab and see the world. So I joined a consulting company, still as an engineer, um, which was specialised in international development.

It was a consultancy company that was mostly working on projects by JICA. So JICA is the Japanese International Corporation Agency. What happens is that JICA funds, let's say a project in Tunisia. They start to discuss with the government of Tunisia, the terms of the project, the amount of money they lend to the country. Then they hire Japanese engineers and consultants to work on the infrastructure of the project. So I was working for one of those consultants.

It was like a three parties scheme, because JICA was lending the money to another country. And we were designing things for that country, who was kind of the client for us. You had to be dealing with the Japanese side and the non-Japanese side all the time.

Paul: 00:26:24

Okay. So a bit more international.

Tao: 00:26:26

Definitely, yes. A lot more international.

Paul: 00:26:29

Is that when you were working as a freelancer or was it after that?

Tao: 00:26:33

No, it was after that.

At that time, I was just an employee of that company. And after I worked there for another couple of years or so, I just decided that companies were not for me, that corporations were not for me. They tend to be very rigid in the way they work, in the rules. They have working hours for example, and a management style I didn't like at all. I didn't see why we needed to be everyday at nine o'clock in the office, when actually coming like a 10AM or 11AM some days made your work much more efficient. I just couldn't understand why they prioritise rules and old habits over efficiency.

So I just decided to quit the corporate world and to dive into startups, which actually I discovered at that point. I just decided that's what I wanted to do and to me that's what I really would have wanted to do if I had known about it earlier. I just found out about startups four or five years after I left university. That's when I went over to that world.

Paul: 00:28:06

Well, I guess around that time was the very beginning as well of the Japanese a startup scene. How did you discover it and how did you manage the transition between being a corporate employee to becoming a freelancer?

Moving to entrepreneurship

Tao: 00:28:22

When I was working in my consultancy company, I knew that kind of work style was not for me, but I didn't know what other options there were out there at that time. I remembered I had heard something about startups and I felt that might be something interesting and that I would like. So I Googled it.

And the first thing that came up on Google was the Tokyo Startup Weekend, which is a two days and a half event. You go on a Friday evening after work, then so you form teams around ideas that you develop for two days during the weekend. They guide you, they teach you the very basics of starting on your service and startup. I attended one of them and I fell in love. It was love at first sight.

That's when I knew that was the thing I wanted to do.

Paul: 00:29:42

Startup Weekends are great. The organisation exists all over the world. You have the Tokyo one. I think you have a couple of others in Japan and you have many in different cities, in different countries all over the world.

If you're interested in startups, I really encourage you as well to look online and see if you have any happening in your city. That's always a lot of experience. As you said, it teaches you a lot of the basics and it shows you all the development areas you could work on to make a bigger project.

The project you worked on during your startup weekend, was it what became eventually Tadaku or was it different?

Tao: 00:30:30

Not the project I've worked on when I went to my first startup weekend. But a year later I went a second time, because they organize it regularly, like every three months or so. So a year later I had an idea I wanted to develop a little bit farther and get feedback on from other people.

I brought it to another Startup Weekend. And we won the prize that time. I had spent the whole weekend working with other people on the idea, developing this product. That's when I went and took it to the next stage and actually made it into a business.

Paul: 00:31:17

Okay. That's interesting. So you worked about a year as a freelancer, if I'm correct, you were designing and coding iPhone applications?

Tao: 00:31:28

Yes. The thing is that we were not doing client client work. I was with another couple of engineers that I had met at Tokyo Startup Weekend.

We were working on developing our own ideas or apps in the hope that they would become a big success and we would be able to make money with them, which was not the case at all. Of course, because we had zero experience in product.

So we made all the possible mistakes that you can do and when you're working in startups, in new products and your businesses. But it was very enriching. So it was a whole year spent designing and working, making apps and stuff. I learned a lot.

Paul: 00:32:17

And that was already the beginning of becoming an entrepreneur then. Working on your own ideas, for yourself.

Tao: 00:32:24

Yeah, absolutely.

That was already being an entrepreneur because we were really bootstrapping. I was not working for clients or anything else. We were working on our own ideas, building things from scratch and trying to monetize them.

Bootstrapping a company

Paul: 00:32:41

What led you to Tadaku?

And if you want to explain what Tadaku is.... And how did you feel this was the one idea you wanted to spend most of your time on for the next few years?

Tao: 00:32:55

I came with this idea because Airbnb was starting to be popular in Europe, not still in Japan. It was just really starting in Japan. I knew of Airbnb and somehow thinking about ideas that I could turn into an interesting business.

I liked cooking. I've always liked cooking and I love, you know, meeting other cultures. So I thought, well, why not try to make a platform to connect locals with travelers. So when someone would travel to another country, they could go to that person's home. And then cook together food from that person's region.

I thought that was a great way of not only learning about the cuisine, about the cooking, but also about getting to know how local people live. Like a peak inside the house and see. Usually, you know, when you go to a place, at that time at least when Airbnb was still not that big, you were staying in a hotel, which is very different from like a regular home. So, I thought that would work. That would provide a very different experience. And that was the initial idea of Tadaku. For travelers, when they would travel somewhere, to have a cooking class with someone living in that region.

I knew that I wanted to spend time working with them because I really saw a business opportunity there. I really thought I could make enough money, at least to sustain myself, the employees and the other cofounders with that. I had already been trying building different services and apps for a year. So I didn't have zero experience. I had a little bit of experience. Still like way not enough I think to start up. When I look at my setup at that time, I really had so many more things to learn. But it was, it was not nothing. Suddenly I just had enough insights, I guess, to know that it could potentially be something that could make money someday.

Paul: 00:35:17

A mix of experience and a gut feeling!

You launched Tadaku, you cofounded it with Trent, another foreigner in Japan in 2013. What happened?

What's the story of the startup?

Tao: 00:35:35

Actually there was one more founder and eveloper, Ben. He left actually the team after 6 months or so because he moved to San Francisco.

Initially, the business model we had was what I just explained three minutes ago. We built a website very quickly. No functionalities at all. Everything was manual. So you had all the interviews and everything. You could contact the host, you could book lessons. You could like browse through different lessons and stuff. But every action you took was actually sent as an email. Then we were doing things manually, like contact the host for example. To contact the host, you had a form, you fill that in and then you pushed the send button. There was nothing like a messaging function or feature built on that. We would get an email with that content and we would actually contact the host and transfer that information. Not because we wanted to control everything, but just because we didn't want to build all these functions until we were sure that we really needed them.

I mean, we wanted to get things out as soon as possible.

Paul: 00:36:55

Pure MVP, very lean!

The Pivot

Tao: 00:36:57

Yes, absolutely.

We took it out as soon as possible when we tried this business model for three or four months. We could quickly realize that it was really, really tough because for the services targeting travelers, it's really difficult to know when someone's going to travel and where. Basically acquiring users was really difficult.

So we switched, we made a pivot, we changed the business model and then we started organizing lessons by foreigners living in Japan who wanted to teach their country's cuisine to Japanese people. So basically you would have a group of Japanese people going to a foreigner's home, living here in Japan. They would cook together his or her country's cuisine and learn about the culture and the cooking of course.

Paul: 00:38:03

Were Japanese people comfortable with the idea of going to the house of an unknown foreigner?

Tao: 00:38:12

Yes! I mean, you know, the website was clean. We got some press quite soon. Also words of mouth in the beginning. So yeah. Actually to our surprise, there were not that many barriers from the Japanese side. So yeah, it was actually quite smooth.

Paul: 00:38:34

How much did your company grow eventually?

The Acquisition

Tao: 00:38:38

I can't talk about numbers because I think that's still confidential. But we had a decent volume of bookings every month, after after a while. Because we were bootstrapping for two years or so. Then we got acquired by Gaiax, a big company.

We kept on working on that for a while. So yeah, it was growing little by little. It started with me actually. I was the first host on the platform teaching Spanish cuisine at my home. That's how I got all my income for two years. We were bootstrapping and I was basically teaching cooking.

So in the beginning it started really with me and very, very few transactions a month. Then little by little, especially after we were bought out by Gaiax, because they injected money into the company, we suddenly had resources. Not marketing, but just the resources to help develop the service faster. And we could spend like a really 100% of our time working on the product only. Then it started growing little by little.

Paul: 00:39:54

Interesting! That's not a story we hear very often, a company acquisition. So you mentioned you bootstrapped fully the company for two years, then got acquired by Gaiax. And then you kept on working in the company still as a founder, but not as the owner anymore...

Tao: 00:40:18

Yes, that's correct. When we were bought out, we sold most of the shares of the company, so we didn't have ownership of the company because we didn't have a majority of shares between me and my co-founder. But we still retained a portion of the shares.

Actually people would tell me "Oh, so you actually had an exit! You exited your company!" And I would say not really, it was more like an M&A really because they just bought all the assets of the company and then injected money. And then we were also able to use their resources, internal resources, office space, for example, or engineering. Resources to keep on growing the company.

Paul: 00:41:01

If it's confidential, I totally understand, but what motivated you to go this way?

As you said yourself, it was more like an M&A rather than raising money staying independent, staying a full owner of the company, but raising money to keep on developing the activity..

Tao: 00:41:24

Well, first I am a product person. I have always been like this, which I know now looking back on my life. I'm not good at raising money. It's really an art. It's really a skill and I'm pretty bad at that. I tried to raise some money in the beginning. But I didn't have experience raising money, so I made some mistakes.

For example, if you really want to raise money with a new service, you have to raise money before you even started or just right after your start date because you are selling a dream. You are selling your story. Either you do that or, if you're lucky, you bootstrap for a while, then you start getting some traction and then you can raise money.

Based on that traction you're selling actual growth. But if you have a service you've been running for a year or so and if you don't have any traction, it's really difficult to raise money because investors will see that it's not a dream anymore. Because the service has been out for a year, let's say. And you also don't have any attraction. So either you sell the story even before it starts or you wait until you have some traction then raise money. But that's really difficult.

In my case I didn't know that. I learned that after we started. That was one mistake I did. So yeah, for me it wasn't easy to raise money.

Paul: 00:43:04

That was a tricky situation!

Tao: 00:43:06

Yeah. M&A was actually good for us because it was a substantial injection of money. We would be paid as well, after the buyout. So we would have a salary. We wouldn't need to worry about doing cooking classes. I could spend that time working on the product for example. It seemed fair to us at that point in time in those circumstances.

So yeah, it was, it was enough. Good enough.

Paul: 00:43:41

I think that's a very good lesson. Especially right now in the startup startup environment, where you look up to all these unicorns and all these companies that are maximizing the amount of money they are raising. It's very good and I think it really depends on the business model, but it's good to know that it's not the only way as well.

And you can be very successful with your company, with your project, without having to raise millions and millions of us dollars.

Tao: 00:44:10

Absolutely! If you can, don't raise money! There was also a lot of people that I met in my career, in my life who had an idea and then quickly they say, okay, we raise money.

How much? 1 million. Why? I mean, why do you want to raise money in the first place and for what and why 1 million? Wouldn't you be okay with money?

I mean raising money seems like a step everyone has to go through in a product. But if you can allow yourself not to raise money, that's the best choice. Don't spend time raising money. It's a lot of effort. It's a lot of time, a lot of pain and you will not have to deal with your investors later either. So if you can do that, definitely don't.

Most of the time you will indeed need to raise money because if you have a service, until that service becomes profitable enough to sustain the company and the people that are working on it, it will need some time. And until that point, you still need to sustain all the people working on the product. So that's why people usually raise money.

But if you can avoid it, by all means please do!

Paul: 00:45:27

There is a very good book on this topic that I've read recently.

It's called Company of One by Paul Jarvis.

I don't know if you've read it but it's about all this. Depending on the business model, and not saying that raising money is bad, it's not bad at all, but depending on what you need, you might not need to raise. He's explaining a lot of alternatives and a lot of different ways on acting on your ideas when you are a small size company.

Also making you ask yourself if you really need to scale. And if you need to scale, if you need the investment money and talking about all these topics. I really recommend this book if you are interested in this subject. I'll put the link in the show notes.

So Tao, you got the buyout around 2015. What happened in 2017?

Tao: 00:46:30

Me and my co-founder decided that it was time for us to move to something else. I don't know if people thought there were problems in the company, that we fought or something like that. Because we both left the company at the same time. No, there was no drama at all.

It was really that we thought our time working at Tadaku, we had already been working on that for like four years I think, or a little bit more maybe. We also felt that the market was probably not much bigger than what it was when we went in. So we decided to go onto the next thing.

We left and then I moved to Berlin.

Leaving Japan to better come back

Paul: 00:47:24

Okay. How was the transition from Japan to Berlin?

Tao: 00:47:28

It was interesting when I moved to Berlin because I found an interesting opportunity in a startup there. I wanted to move to Europe because I missed the Western culture basically.

At that time I had been living in Japan for 12 years already, and I just missed the Western culture. So I decided to move to Europe and then I found that opportunity in Berlin, in a startup. And it was interesting because in my team was composed of Americans and Israelis and one Japanese, I think. It was a small team, six, seven people.

And the culture, the working culture is so different that in the beginning I was a little bit overwhelmed. I had to adapt to it.

Paul: 00:48:22

But then you came back to Japan one year later.

Tao: 00:48:25

Yeah. So after a year that startup run out of money, they had some financial problems. The team was dissolved more or less. And then it was a little bit of a coincidence, but I found out that I actually had already bought a ticket to come to Japan. So I said, okay, let's go to Japan. I have the ticket anyway, so let's go to Japan and see what opportunities are there. In the end, when I moved to Berlin, it was not because I was fed up with Japan or tired of Japan. It was rather that I missed the Western culture.

So I went back to Japan and discovered there are quite a few things happening here on the startup scene as well. I knew a few people, so it was easier for me to find those opportunities. I quickly found something that interested me. So I decided to move back to Japan again.

Pocket Marche and the aging agricultural market

Paul: 00:49:28

And this is a company called Pocket Marche. That's pretty cool actually, what they are doing. And what's funny is that you moved from cooking (arranging products) to actually the raw products themselves. Can you share more about Pocket Marche and what you're doing there?

Tao: 00:49:51

Pocket Marche is a CtoC marketplace. It's an app where you can buy products directly from farmers. That's basically it. I'm doing Product management.

Paul: 00:50:13

What attracted you to this company specifically?

Tao: 00:50:17

Well, the mission was really cool. I really loved it because Japan has an aging population, especially in the countryside.

More than half of all the farmers in Japan are aged 60 or more. Which means that in 10 or 20 years as they start retiring, the primary sector in Japan is going to collapse, basically. Because no one is going to be working in the fields.

The reason is that young people don't want to work in the primary sector, as farmers or fishermen, because they don't make enough money. First they make much more money if they work in the tertiary sector. And because the image of farming in Japan is quite bad. It is seen as a very socially low status job. People don't want to work there.

And what Pocket Marche aims at is changing that image. Make it cool... Not cool, but get people have respect for people who are actually growing the vegetables, make the food that sustains us.

And also because you can buy products directly from the producers, they make much more money than if they have to sell it to wholesalers, which helps solving the problem of not getting enough money.

So I really loved that about the problem, the service.

Paul: 00:51:40

And the company is growing. I've seen some job openings as well. I think you are hiring, especially developers. I will put the links as well if people are interested. So now you're working for a very cool project as an employee.

Do you have any plans to go back to being an entrepreneur, to go back to developing your own project?

Tao: 00:52:06

Never say never. I really don't know, but I'm not, on the short term or the near future.

Because, you know, as I was telling you before, I'm a product person. It could happen that I meet someone who is really good at raising money for example, and taking care of operations, on that side. Then yes.

But definitely not as a CEO, because I would need to take care of a lot of things, raising money, all the bureaucracy of starting a company and setting the terms and all the legal stuff and things that are not interesting at all. So I'd rather spend my time on the product than doing these kind of things.

So if there's someone who takes care of all that part, then yes, definitely. I'm totally open to starting your business.

Otherwise I'd rather join a service, a startup already running with people taking care of all that part and then just allow myself to concentrate on the product and growth.

Advice to younger self

Paul: 00:53:12

Very nice. That's very wise. I think it's always good to succeed to identify what your strengths are, what you like, what you don't like as well. Putting aside the titles and just be happy with what do.

You've done so many things in 15 years, again from a student, employee, freelance, entrepreneur and worked a lot of cool different companies. So thanks a lotto for sharing all this with us today!

I like to finish the conversation with a couple of different questions. And knowing that you've been in Japan for a long time, it's even more precious.

One of them is: if you could go back in time, and we could divide it into timeframes. If you could go back and meet yourself the very first time you came to Japan in 2005 and also just before starting as an entrepreneur in Japan, in 2013. If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself at that moment?

Tao: 00:54:33

To my just-new-grade me, I would send the link to Tokyo Startup Weekend because I know that was really the path I wanted to take. I just didn't know that option was available. I would have loved to start working in the startup scene, in the startup field sooner. It would have felt more the right path from an earlier stage.

And then when I started as an entrepreneur, I would have joined an early stage startup that was already running because I didn't know a lot when working on my own products, by starting my own business and everything. I think it's a much faster and more efficient way of learning.

If you work with people who can teach you, you know, if you join a small startup that's already running, there are many things you can learn from there. If you want to start something on your own then great. Go ahead and do it. But with a little bit of experience, I think things will go much smoother.

Favorite Japanese Word

Paul: 00:55:49

Going back to the language, what's your favorite Japanese word or expression?

Tao: 00:55:55

Oh wow. That's a question I've been asked a few times. And actually wasn't able to answer. Can you give me like 10 seconds to think about it...

Okay. Because I'm working at Pocket Marche right now, I'm a little bit biased, but 頂きます (itadakimasu) is actually a word I like a lot. Itadakimasu means "I humbly receive".

You say that when you are going to start eating for example, because you are humbly receiving the food you are about to eat. It can be used also when you receive something from someone, a favor for example. I think it's great.

I think it's very representative of the Japanese culture. Where humility is really a virtue. I love that! I think in Europe we are very self centered, always thinking about ourselves, about our rights, about what we deserve and what we are worth, too much. We just don't think about our duties, you know, towards other people and respect for other people and other people's respect.

So I think that's something we could definitely learn from the Japanese culture.

Paul: 00:57:21

Itadakimasu is part of what gave the name to Tadaku, if the legend is correct...

Tao: 00:57:28

Yes, actually, yes. Sorry I didn't do it on purpose, but it is. From Itadakimasu, that's the conjugated form of the verb. The dictionary form is Itadaku, so you just cut out the first "I" and then you get Tadaku and that's where the service name comes from.


Paul: 00:57:51

Last question: is there someone or a project or a company or anything that you find interesting right now happening in Japan you would like to give a shout out to?

Tao: 00:58:08

Let me think... There are so many things, so many interesting things happening in Japan in the startup scene right now. I actually found out about a startup. I think it's very early stage. I thought it was great for digital nomads or for people who want to stay in Japan to travel and work at the same time in Japan. I forgot the name. But what they were doing is basically that you pay a monthly fee of a, like 40,000 yen. And this gives you the right to stay in any of the multiple houses they have around in Japan, not as an Airbnb. It's like shared houses. They have a lot of shared houses in the country and then you pay a fixed amount per month, then you can stay in any of the houses you want as long as you want. It's like paying a monthly rent, but instead of being locked in one house, one room, you can move around.

Paul: 00:59:39

That sounds like an interesting model.

Tao: 00:59:41

Yeah. I mean, I don't know if from the business perspective it would work or not. I haven't done the maths. But from the user's perspective, I think it's great. If you are a pure digital nomad, if you are young and you have no attachments, you have no family, it allows you to spend one month here, two weeks there, three weeks there. I love it. I thought it was very cool.

Paul: 01:00:06

Okay, I'll definitely share the link later on in the show notes.

If people have questions or if they want to follow your activities online, where can they find you?

Tao: 01:00:19

They can find me on Facebook, but I rarely use Facebook, meaning that I almost don't post anything. But I can be contacted there. If they want to send me a message, they can find my profile and just contact me on messenger.

Paul: 01:00:42

I'll share the link as well after that.

Perfect! Thanks a lot for your time Tao, on a Sunday evening in Tokyo. I know that you had a busy weekend, so thanks a lot for sharing all this with us. All the best for your adventures in Japan..

Tao: 01:01:04

And see you soon back to Japan, I hope.

Paul: 01:01:06

Yeah. See you soon in Japan. Thanks a lot!