Profile #14: Lawrie Cate, software developer at Tokyo travel tech startup KabuK Style

Paul: Originally from the UK, Lawrie moved to Tokyo in 2018 to work as a software engineer at Mercari, the Japanese marketplace unicorn. Lawrie is now at travel tech startup KabuK Style and the CTO at social enterprise mymizu.

Lawrie and I spoke about his early interest in computers, studying abroad in Mexico, moving to Japan with Mercari, his current roles, and advice for anyone interested in working in tech in Japan.

Hi Lawrie. Thanks for joining me. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

Lawrie: Heya!! Thanks for having me! I’m a software engineer based in Tokyo. Currently, I’m working at a travel tech startup ‘KabuK Style’ which is creating the Home away from Home platform and I’m also the CTO at the social enterprise mymizu!

I grew up in the UK but always loved travelling and came to Japan originally to work for Mercari in 2018. 

You did your master’s course back in the UK in computer science. Why computers? Did you have an interest from an early age?

I didn’t have a huge certainty that it was what I wanted to go for at the time, but since I was really young I was drawn to computers and programming, especially since my father was a software engineer there were a lot of computers around the house. I remember starting out with dial-up internet! Then going through secondary school the web, mobile phones and social media emerged as this huge force in everybody’s lives and I think I felt just a big sense of opportunity in the skills computer science gives you. I went to a couple of hackathons and just enjoyed the openness and entrepreneurship in the coding community as well and just thought this is where I want to head.

Your master’s course included one year spent internationally. How did you end up at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico? I visited Mexico in the 90s and it was a fantastic experience – incredibly warm people, beautiful country, delicious food. Tell us about your time there.

Mexico was a bit of a wildcard choice in some people’s minds but I was keen to brush up my Spanish and who could say no to the homeland of the taco! It was absolutely spectacular and I was really lucky to study at the Tec in Mexico City – during the year there I got to study a much wider set of subjects than I had in the UK, including, for example, a course in social entrepreneurship which gave me some really good experiences for later.  

It was also my first time living abroad for a long time and experiencing I guess real culture shock (relative to spending a couple of weeks in Europe). I was lucky to be somewhere so incredible and I made some lifelong friends, and really want to return someday!

Mexico is most definitely somewhere I want to visit again too. You started working as a web developer after your year in Mexico. Tell us about that.

Yes, during my time at University I did some freelancing to pay the bills and to fund my Starbucks habits! I worked for a couple of local businesses, and it was great to be able to work flexibly and practise my coding skills.

How did you end up in Japan after graduation? Was Japan already somewhere you were interested in?

In my final year I was keen to go abroad again and when I was looking at some jobs – I literally filtered by anywhere except the UK – I came across a job posting from Mercari that really caught my eye since it was the only one from Japan. I learned the company was a unicorn and expanding rapidly, and decided to give it a shot! I hadn’t been to Japan before but had always wanted to travel here.

You worked at Mercari from September 2018 until May 2021 on Mercari’s expansion into the US market. What was it like to work at one of Japan’s hottest unicorns?

It was a rollercoaster time and I really couldn’t have had a better company to relocate here with than Mercari. I came to join the Tokyo office and was assigned to support the US expansion project. It gave me a unique experience working with teams in the US as well as Tokyo. I’m grateful for all the support with lots of the day to day challenges like opening a bank account and visas, and even providing benefits like face to face Japanese lessons in the office.  

Technically speaking I had a great time too. I got to pick up Golang working as a backend engineer and implement some really cool features such as a next-day delivery project working with Uber in the US.

You’ve been volunteering with mymizu (a Japan-based social innovator) as CTO for the past two and a half years. Tell us about mymizu and your work there.

Sure! I was involved in the environmental 部活/ club at Mercari and got to know Robin & Mariko of Social Innovation Japan. I attended a bunch of the SIJ events and around Summer 2019 they consulted me about launching a water refill app. I offered to help get it started and never looked back! mymizu is an organization that aims to reduce plastic consumption in Japan. The app I helped produce guides people to places where they can get free water to encourage people to use reusable bottles instead of PET ones!

It was a very simple idea, but it really tackles such an endemic problem in a smart way and is about building a community of people that want to protect the environment. Since launching, mymizu has made amazing progress working at engaging all levels of society – corporations, governments, educational institutions – as well as at the individual level. I’m really proud to be part of such a go-getting team!

I think social entrepreneurship is a really rewarding field and I’m happy to also be supporting the recently launched Tokyo startup Socious which is building a social network for people who want to get involved in social projects.

Cool. mymizu has had incredible success in its mission and is a great example of what can be done by a dedicated team of the right people. I interviewed Tanmay Goel for this blog a couple of months ago and he has been volunteering with mymizu as a product lead (you can read my interview with Tanmay here).

Socious is also a fascinating startup in the social innovation space. We’re definitely going to see big things from Seira Yun and the Socious team.

You mentioned you’re currently working for KabuK Style, a co-living platform, since April last year. Tell me about KabuK and your role there.

Yes! KabuK is a startup, originally from Nagasaki, that created the Home away from Home (HafH) travel subscription service – you can pay a monthly fee for a curated hotel and hostels network. Travel and work lifestyles are really transforming at the moment so it’s a really exciting time to be building in the travel space, and it’s something I’m personally really interested in!

I work as a software engineer building this service, mainly in Ruby on Rails and NextJS, but it’s also growing very fast so I’m getting involved in lots of areas! I joined to get a taste of working in a small startup, but I also particularly like the diversity of the company – it’s a very young company and over half the employees are women, which is quite unusual for Japan! It’s been great to try working in places like Kyushu and Okinawa too, and escape the Tokyo orbit from time to time!

KabuK Style Home Away From Home

 

Sounds hectic but fun! So, what does a typical day look like for you?

My routine is fairly chaotic, to be honest! Generally, I usually try to wake up, grab a coffee and work on ‘focus tasks’ in the morning. After lunch, I do team meetings and then in the evening I occasionally go to the gym but more often just hang out with friends or cook some food! I like to go to sentos from time to time too to relax!

What are some of your goals for the future? Personally and/or professionally?

Right now I’m focusing a lot on HafH and mymizu! Behind this, my personal goal is to continue building my skills as an engineer but also to learn more about scaling up a product and developing something people find really useful and enjoyable.

In the long term, I’d definitely consider starting my own company or building from scratch since it’s so fun although I’ve learned it’s very stressful at the same time! Outside ‘work’ I really want to continue travelling, especially in Asia while I’m based in Japan and I’m really enjoying living here for the time being! I’d really love to continue playing a role in growing the startup ecosystem in Tokyo.

Quickfire questions

– the most important piece of advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

I was really overwhelmed when I moved here so I think just try to relax and take things at your own pace with an open mind!  (Maybe spend less time in Roppongi too!)

– what do you wish you’d known about living in Japan before you moved here?

Not to panic when the earthquake alarm happens the first time!

– what advice would you have for someone considering moving to Japan to work in the tech industry?

Living in any different country is an experience that will challenge you and help you grow, but especially in Japan, I feel it’s been a great experience. Although the technology scene isn’t as concentrated as some places, I think living in Japan has some really unique upsides and is a really fun place to experience. There is a real shortfall for many tech roles here (you probably know more than me!) so you can get some really good opportunities here too if you look closely! 

I think the tech scene here obviously took a bit of a hit with the entry restrictions as of late, but I do hope that Japan can get back into the fight so to speak in the near future. One of the benefits of Corona has definitely been that it’s enabled people to work much more flexibly and many companies now offer remote work. Even if it’s often limited to Japan, I think that’s huge progress. I’ve really enjoyed working remotely in the last year and I think if you’re looking to move here there are definitely many places to consider other than Tokyo too now.

I definitely agree. The technology scene in Japan has come a long way in the past five years, despite Covid, and there’s a lot of pent up potential ready to be released post-pandemic. And it’s not all about Tokyo either, with remote, flexible work options being offered much more often.

– how do you learn new skills? What are you learning currently?

For programming, I learn a lot just from working with other people I guess, although I dip into programming books and courses from time to time. I’m brushing up on front-end development at the moment, so digging into React and Typescript! I am always trying to pick up more about product management and entrepreneurship too.

Outside work, I am endeavouring to learn Japanese but at a very steady pace! I learn a lot about business and startups from reading podcasts and blogs, often ones I come across randomly from Twitter. I like reading lots of random nonfiction and biographies too!

– what are some of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

I recently read A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough! It’s a very well written history of the climate and ecological crisis but offers a very important message. On a similar note, I recently enjoyed the movie Don’t Look Up too!

In terms of podcasts, I dip in and out of a variety but I really enjoyed The Lazarus Heist of late. Related to startups I also really like The Bloomberg podcast Foundering too!

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

I love going on quick hiking trips near Tokyo! Especially in places like Mitake or Oyama, it’s really refreshing to be able to get out from the city and enjoy nature so easily.

And finally, do you have any ask from our readers?

Please say hi to me on Twitter or LinkedIn – I’m always really keen to meet people.

If you’re interested in the travel or sustainability space, do reach out to me! 😉 

I’m also helping to organise this year’s upcoming ‘FuckUp Nights Tokyo’ events (a community of people who share the experiences and learnings from their business failures). If you’re interested to speak and share your story, or to sponsor the event, please get in touch!

Lastly – please check out mymizu and Socious.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, Lawrie!

Profile photo credit: Shawn Woody

Socious is hiring! Check out their open roles on my job board.

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