Profile #10: Miho Tanaka, supporting entrepreneurship in Shibuya

Paul: A recent introduction to Miho Tanaka from Sasha at Le Wagon Tokyo was a case of perfect timing, as I’d just been reading about Miho’s work at Startup Welcome Service, an initiative from Shibuya City to promote foreign entrepreneurship. I was eager to find out more from Miho on her background and what led her to a career focusing on promoting entrepreneurship.

Hi Miho-san. Please introduce yourself.

Miho: I am currently a Startup Visa Lead in Shibuya and Director of Shibuya Welcome Service. Prior to leading the Startup Visa initiative of Shibuya City Office, I was working at Tokyo One-Stop Business Establishment Center (so-called TOSBEC) governed under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a Public Relations manager.

After spending over 2 years at TOSBEC, I decided to quit the government job and started my own business in order to go through the “real” issues and startup journey together with international entrepreneurs.

Are you from Tokyo originally? Could you tell us a little about your early years?

I am originally from Kyoto, so I cannot speak Japanese in the standard accent. Since my accent is Kansai dialect, speaking the standard accent is harder than speaking English.

I grew up in a merchant family, and the first floor of my parents’ house is the office for their business. Since I was a small kid, it’s natural to see my parents working with their employees, and listen to their business talk in the living room. My parents work in the retail business for electronic products. They sometimes say “hey did you send the invoice?” or “did you send the battery?” while we eat dinner, so I am not used to discussing “work-life balance”. Work = Life for all business owners.

Kyoto was my first destination when I came to Japan originally in 1999. A great city to spend time in. I’ll come back to TOSBEC and your own business later, but first, stepping back earlier, you studied international relations and development. What led you to choose this area to study and what kind of career did you have in mind for yourself after graduation?

“Writing” always led me to the next level. My high school had an annual essay contest, and the prize for the winner was a travel ticket to Cambodia and Vietnam. I had never been abroad until I turned 16 years old, and the first country that I travelled to was Cambodia thanks to the prize.

That was the first time that I saw the economic disparity between countries and captured my attention. I decided to study more about what’s happening in the world and decided to study International Relations. After joining the university, many professors talked about poverty in Africa, but not many people had actually been there. To know the truth, I decided to visit Kenya when I was 18 years old.

I visited homes of HIV+ ladies living under $1 per day, schools and orphanages, and started some projects with community-based organizations such as a farming project to utilize some vacant space to produce food for the ladies, and a sanitary pad project to increase the school attendance rate among school girls because they are absent from school every menstrual period.

Because of the lack of cash, these projects didn’t sustain. In order to learn how to sustain and grow a business, I joined some startups after graduation.

You spent some time studying in the US also. What do you think you learned from studying in the US and from your time volunteering in Kenya?

In the US, I studied entrepreneurship and business to see how to better manage projects in Kenya. 

In Kenya, I learned the strength of mothers, how to start projects, and what to prioritize. Several ladies and kids died because of malnutrition and weakened immune systems. We wanted to help everyone, but we could not. Sometimes we had to choose between spending all our money to save one life or giving up something precious for the bigger purpose of a community.

I also found that many people support me regardless of nationality, location and background as long as I am selflessly committed to supporting less privileged people. As a teenage lady, I didn’t have any skills, success stories or know-how to build something up from scratch, but many people supported me.

You initially worked in public relations, both in Osaka and Tokyo. What did you work on in PR?

Osaka: PR for Japanese startups – creating contents, handling exhibitions, managing website

Tokyo: TOSBEC – mainly community building

So, if I understand correctly, TOSBEC is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s organisation to promote foreign entrepreneurship and startups in Tokyo. What was your experience there?

I chose to work at TOSBEC just to survive in Tokyo after a startup that I was working for almost went bankrupt. More than half of the employees in the startup were fired in a few months. My salary was cut by 20% in a month, and I lost 10% of my weight in a month. (funny but serious)

I didn’t want to go back to startup life, because seeing the team breaking, the product getting recalled, the employees crying, the salary getting cut was not fun at all, and I wanted to forget about startups for a while. But, I ended up coming back to startup life later.

After starting the work at TOSBEC by becoming a female employee in a traditional Japanese corporation, my main work was making a copy for my team, picking phone calls for 30 members around me and shredding a thousand pages of documents for my boss.

I didn’t want to waste my time on these tasks and decided to solve some issues that nobody was solving.

  • PR marketing: pursue uniqueness of the service
    • the only government-led support centre where entrepreneurs can get information in English
  • Bridge information gap for international entrepreneurs via English materials
    • many startup support initiatives are only for Japanese speakers
    • JETRO was playing a great role for foreign companies but often for established companies (they are extending the support for startup sectors now)
  • Get involved in the startup community from a startup perspective
    • No one including legal advisors at TOSBEC had startup experience, but I had.

The centre always holds 10+ consultants and legal professionals, but many founders started asking me questions about all the chicken and egg issues around incorporation processes. I found there was nobody who could answer their questions, but I also didn’t understand all the complexity of the practices without going through the processes with international founders struggling with immigration procedures, getting an office space, opening a bank account and all the practices bound by traditional regulations or rules.

You started your own company, Startup Work Inc., in 2019. Why did you decide to start your own business? Could you tell us what services Startup Work Inc. provides and who you help?

Starting a business was not something special for me, because my family members own businesses and they are originally from Oumi (近江), the famous place known as a city of “merchants (商売人)”. After I started my own business, I found this work style suits me.

The main work of Startup Work Inc. is guiding through the entire startup process for international founders planning to start a business. All clients are international entrepreneurs.

Are these mostly entrepreneurs in the Tech space or from a diverse range of industries?

We get clients from a diverse range of industries, but more than half of them are working in the Tech space. The amount of capital to start a startup is getting smaller, and tech startups don’t require a lot of initial investment to start. They still face lots of challenges of finding a physical office space and raising funds to cover all the equipment, so starting a tech startup enables them to start small and scale rather than investing tons of money and struggling with debt from the beginning. 

This leads to your current role at Shibuya Welcome Service (SWS), which launched in March of this year. I was excited to learn about SWS and its efforts to promote entrepreneurship in Tokyo. What does SWS do and what are the plans for the service in the short and long term?

SWS provides the necessary support to assist foreign entrepreneurs in obtaining the essential residency status to establish their business in Japan, as well as the various administrative procedures required to set up a legal entity from immigration to incorporation.

Short term : 

  1. Make SWS the first place for international startups when they decide to start startups in Japan
  2. Systematize some of the tedious procedures to save time, the most precious resource for all of us especially for startup founders
  3. Sort all the basic information for international founders and make it publicly available to increase the level of the startup ecosystem in Japan

Long term : 

  1. Create an easier fundraising method for international entrepreneurs
  2. Create a foreigner-friendly environment rooted in Shibuya via regulation change
  3. Create a society where everyone can start a startup regardless of their background, ethnicity, color, or gender to support each other

How does Shibuya differentiate itself from the services offered by TOSBEC or organisations helping entrepreneurs in other parts of Japan? 

Many initiatives proposed by government organizations are often traditional methods such as loan programs in collaboration with domestic financial institutions, subsidy, grant, organizing seminars or certifying entrepreneurs via the attendance rate. 

These traditional methods often don’t work for international entrepreneurs because they are new to Japan and don’t have enough credit history to validate their credentials, assets based in Japan to provide collateral, and language skill to understand legal terms to operate a business.

Shibuya has been diversifying the city and it is trying to further diversify the city by growing an international startup community based in Shibuya. The startup ecosystem and support system drastically changed in the last five years, and Japan is still in the process of adopting new startup schemes that the other startup cities in the world successfully launched. Rather than just distributing free money such as subsidy or grant and following the same structures to support SMEs, integrating new investment schemes for startups that would scale and changing the way that corporations and startups accelerate their businesses together will be the driving force to grow the startup ecosystem like the other world-top startup cities.

What does your typical day look like?

9am: start working 

Between 10am – 7pm : work / research / about 4 meetings per day

8pm: get back home, play the piano (a cheap keyboard), eat and chill

12am: sleep

What kind of music do you enjoy playing and listening to?

I technically learned how to play classics such as Beethoven and Mozart since I was two years old. After I turned 20 I started to play Debussy, Chopin and Scott Joplin, and now I am trying to learn how to play jazz! I have absolute pitch so I listen to some popular songs from TV or music from movies that I want to play a couple of times, and I play. Jazz needs improvisation and a good feeling toward each note, so I need practice.

How do you spend your free time over the weekend?

I spend Saturday playing the piano or meeting friends, and Sunday is a workday for me! Entrepreneurs don’t have weekend-off, I think 🙂

That’s often very true. What are some of your goals for the future? Personally and/or professionally?

First, make Shibuya the best startup city in Japan – soon one of the top startup cities in the world.

Not setting clear goals sometimes helps me find the best path for everyone. Wherever I will be, I will most likely get involved in startups and I will position myself somewhere irreplaceable as long as people need what I offer. Trying to be always market-driven, otherwise, we cannot solve the real pain for our customers.

Quickfire questions

– I usually ask non-Japanese interviewees to tell me the most important piece of advice they would give themselves if they could go back in time to their arrival in Japan. As a Japanese person who has lived overseas, what advice would you offer to someone coming to Japan to live and study or work?

Do not take the instant yes & no answers from Japanese people seriously. For example, “we will think about this idea” does not mean they are fully interested in the idea, but they meant “we will pend this idea for the next couple of months”.

I am originally from Kyoto, and Kyoto people often reflect the core of this communication style. They never say “no”, but their answers are always veiled with three kinds of layers. Growing up in Kyoto, I can instantly feel whether they meant yes or no at least, but I often need to spend a couple of months to see what they really meant. I confirm their answer after I see their actions.

– how do you learn new skills?

Listen to the real issues from people, read, research, recapture the full picture and give it a try. What I try with founders are all new just like how we build a startup from scratch, so I do manage their expectations in advance by letting them know what kind of status they are in, all the potential risks, and possible outcomes based on their timeline or deadline.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

Book: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – Malcolm Gladwell – my bible. [Amazon JP]

Podcasts: Tokyo Speaks – Cliff is the best!

– Any all-time favourite movie?

The Shawshank Redemption! If I can add a drama, I am a huge fan of Breaking Bad!

Games: I don’t play games.

– what’s your favourite place to visit in Japan?

SHIBUYA! We can meet so many people from different backgrounds. I like the dynamics, trends and stylish people walking around the town.

Well said. And hopefully, becoming the home to more successful startups in the years ahead with your help!

You can contact Miho-san through LinkedIn here and read her very informative blog here.

Thanks once again to Sasha at Le Wagon Tokyo for the introduction. Check out Le Wagon for coding and data science bootcamps and read my interview with co-founder Sylvain Pierre here.

Finally, if you enjoyed this profile, please consider signing up for my newsletter on my homepage.

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