Paul: I met Misha Yurchenko for the first time a couple of years ago after coming across his excellent newsletter (you can find it and more of his writing at mishayurchenko.me). Misha had spent four years as a tech recruiter in Tokyo before moving into entrepreneurship and writing, and I was intrigued to hear his story.
Since then, Misha has moved to the Netherlands, set up a coaching business, published several books and got a cat. He joins me to talk about all of these and more.
Hi Misha. Thanks for joining me today. How would you describe yourself?
Misha: We all hold many identities at the same time, many which change throughout our lives. Right now I’m an entrepreneur, blogger, writer, traveler, husband, coach, runner, coffee-drinker, crypto-trader, friend, futurist, health-nut, sauna-lover, Japanophile, optimist, and cat owner. A few years ago when I was still living in Tokyo, my identity also included recruiter, drone pilot, and freelance writer. I currently live in Utrecht, a small city about 20 minutes southeast of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where I’m growing my career-coaching startup, Carrus.io.
How did you end up working in Tokyo?
I was raised in the U.S. but did a two year stint in France because of my parent’s work. When I was in middle school in France, I’d met a few Japanese guys who I befriended. They were different from the rest of the kids (and perhaps being a foreigner myself, I could relate) and sparked my interest in the country and language. When the opportunity came to do a 3-week study abroad program in Fukuoka, I jumped at the chance. That first trip was pivotal for me and really kick started my interest in living and working in Japan.
After graduating university in the U.S. (Austin, Texas), I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but did know one thing: I had to return to Japan. Although I got accepted into the JET Programme, an English-language program sponsored by the Japanese government, this was not the right choice for me. My sights were set on a job that would allow me to build a network, gain management experience, and make more money than an English teacher could. With few options available, I found myself interviewing at several recruitment companies.
A friend I met in the study abroad program recommended me to the company I eventually joined, Wahl and Case. One month after graduating from university, I said sayonara to my friends and family in the United States with a smile, and began a corporate recruitment job in Tokyo.
How did your career progress from there?
My career thus far can be summed up into three phases:
Phase 1: Recruiter in Tokyo: I joined the recruitment industry right out of college and it was one of the best decisions of my life. The step into recruitment provided a way for me to learn professional communication skills, save money, pay off student loans, learn about a specific industry in depth (tech), and gain management experience.
While there were definitely days when I thought about quitting and questioned whether this was the right path, after a few months the intense learning curve slowed and I was able to really get into my work. The company was extremely supportive and I slowly learned the ins and outs of business in Japan, such as exchanging business cards and negotiating contracts in Japanese. (I wrote a guide about how to get a recruitment job in Japan)
I worked with a lot of cool companies like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and Facebook. My 4.5 years of experience gave me a deep knowledge of HR and became the backbone for several eBooks I wrote and gave me the idea to start my latest career-coaching startup Carrus.io.
Phase 2: Freelancer/Traveler/Writer: I built a small business in Japan, after discovering a niche in the drone industry, renting drones to tourists and providing drone videography services to businesses. There was nothing new or innovative about this service, as there are plenty of similar companies both overseas and locally. But there were very few businesses seriously catering to the English-speaking market in Japan, which allowed me to corner the market. The lesson I learned is applicable to starting any business in Japan. You don’t have to do something spectacular and totally innovative, instead, you can find what works abroad and see if it is being done locally.
At the same time, I decided I wanted to spend time following my muse — so I travelled around South East Asia for a few months. I started a blog, newsletter and wrote profusely on Quora to record my thoughts and as a way to stay in touch with my network and the world. I was fortunate to have gotten into Bitcoin and Ethereum relatively early, so I had a few thousand dollars I could spend to travel and not worry too much about finances. This was an eye-opening time for me. I participated in a 10-day meditation retreat (my experience here), tried prolonged water-fasting, and saw some amazing places.
Phase 3: Entrepreneur: All of the travelling and writing led me to a couple of realizations. First, that community is important. I missed being surrounded by teammates and the feeling of working towards a common goal. Second, I loved writing and it’s a skill I could always fall back on, but it’s not something I wanted to build a full-time career out of. My goal had always been to start a business as a way to add value to the world, so that’s what I decided to do.
Why did you leave recruitment to become a writer and entrepreneur?
Four years flew by, and I found myself constantly calling in late to work and booking fake meetings in my calendar to spend time blogging, daydreaming and planning potential business ventures. I took this as a sign to quit my job and pursue a more entrepreneurial path. My visa was valid for two more years so I kept Japan as my base and travelled around Asia, started my own business and took time to explore other passions that I could not fulfil in my previous job. A lot of what I learned during my recruitment years and later freelancing/running a business in Japan came with the help of friends and mentors and coaches, many of whom I interviewed in my latest book, Making it Big in Japan.
I’ve just finished reading Making it Big in Japan. It’s a must-read for anyone overseas who is interested in living here and an entertaining read for those of us already here too.
You’re now based in Utrecht. Why the Netherlands and how did you go about getting a visa to live there?
My wife (who was born and raised in Japan) and I decided to get out of Japan for a bit and see what else the world had to offer — we don’t have kids and saw it as a fun opportunity to get work experience and live in a different society for a while. It was largely a lifestyle choice. Why the Netherlands specifically? The visa process was simple, setting up a company is easy, and people speak English. 🙂
Today I have a bit more insight into the ease of doing business in Europe, which makes me hesitate to start a business again in Japan. Japan can be a good place to start a business, but no matter how you spin it, there are still a lot of barriers to foreigners. There’s a reason you don’t see too many unicorns in Japan, and it’s not just because of a lack of funding — in fact, there’s a good amount of money floating around. It’s the bureaucracy, language barrier, payments and relative lack of software infrastructure that make it more challenging. The relative lack of risk-taking also makes it tough to bring something totally new to the market. On the other hand, getting past these hurdles makes it easier to build a “moat” around your business and can be extremely rewarding if you are patient. Life is always full of trade-offs.
More about the visa process in Japan vs. the Netherlands:
In Japan, to sponsor your visa as a business owner it requires you to put down a $50,000 investment to get a business visa or apply for the entrepreneur visa which has a very short leash (hire 2 people and make revenue within 6 months etc). Unless you have substantial capital and revenue coming in already, it’s a bit tough for a scrappy entrepreneur.
It’s much easier in the Netherlands. The self-employed visa is open to any freelancer or business owner who wants to register and do business in Holland. You just need to show that you have a business plan (a few pages long, including basic financial projections), and preferably show that you already have some existing contracts or ties that will contribute to the Dutch economy (you have a Dutch client). Lastly, the capital requirement is 4,500 euros that you must deposit into your bank account, and maintain that balance all times. That’s basically it.
Now if you are from the U.S. or Japan, you can also take advantage of favourable treaties that the Dutch government has with these two countries. For the US it’s the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty, and for Japan, it’s the Dutch Japanese Trade Treaty. If you are from these countries, the big difference is that you don’t need to show you have any clients in the Netherlands, and your business plan can be a lot shorter. The visa application is a lot faster, too. (I am a US citizen and did this myself, and I have a Japanese friend who just moved to Amsterdam using this strategy) Here’s a great guide on the process.
How is daily life in the Netherlands compared to Japan? I hear they drink a lot of milk.
And cheese. That’s why Dutch people are so tall. My diet has changed a bit since I moved to Holland and includes more dairy. There’s a local market we go to every week where we buy a giant hunk of Gatenkaas cheese and various cheese dips. Life here is what I’d describe as provincial. Not in a negative way, it’s just that we’re outside of the big city and there are lots of cows and goats. There are fewer people, so my general stress levels when I travel are lower, as I don’t have to worry about crowded trains. The saunas and spas here aren’t as cool as the onsens, but unlike the onsens, they are all mixed. The Dutch are quite progressive and it’s taken some time to get used to, but I enjoy being naked.
What does your typical working day look like?
- Wake up to a meowing cat around 7am.
- Feed cat.
- Get “primed” for the day: 100 jumps, 20 pushups, and a 30 minute meditation.
- 10 minutes Red-Light and Infrared Light Therapy on face and chest (check out the Joovv light)
- Dark-roasted coffee with a splash of milk and teaspoon of C8 MCT oil.
- Sit on the toilet for 10 minutes. Quick review of WhatsApp messages and Facebook messages from friends. Check crypto markets.
- A 7-10k run around the city by myself or with a friend (we have some nice parks here in Utrecht)
- Hot shower and cold shower, alternating.
- Another 10 minutes of RL therapy on my balls to boost testosterone.
- Deep work from 10:30am – 2pm. No checking emails. Includes: Planning strategy for the week, creating content for Carrus.io (blogs/newsletters/updates to team and coaches), thinking about product strategy, and drafting pitches to investors.
- Lunch around 1pm or 1:30pm. Four eggs, half an avocado, smoked salmon, handful of Macadamia nuts, tomatoes, olive oil, yoghurt. Low carb.
- Go to the co-working space (6-7 minute walk from my home) between 2pm-6pm. Respond to emails and Slack messages. Typically I have video meetings with our coaches (onboarding new coaches), team meetings, 1-1 meetings, and pitches to investors (we are fundraising right now).
- Cook dinner around 6:30pm. Usually fish or chicken with veggies and higher-carb. Recently I have been loving a Ukrainian childhood dish, steamed buckwheat with butter. Dinner w/ wife around 7:30pm.
- Play with cat, do a crossword puzzle, play Sherlock Holmes detective game. Avoid screens.
- Read a book in bed and fall asleep around 10:30 pm. Currently, I’m reading The Ministry for the Future: A Novel – Kim Stanley Robinson, a sci-fi novel about climate change. [Amazon Japan / Amazon US & other]
You’re certainly packing a lot into the day! What are your dreams or goals for the future?
My personal dream-big-or-go-home goal is to positively impact 1 billion people in my lifetime. That could be through a business I create and/or the spread of big ideas and writing.
– advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?
A quick note on regrets:
We all have regrets in life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though some people want you to believe you should “live with no regrets!” Regrets are another note in our lives that make the full song— along with happiness and sadness and love and joy and frustration — all part of a nuanced life full of emotions. Just imagine someone with no regrets: that person blasts through life doing exactly what they want, acting how they want, and somehow making a string of perfect choices that leaves them feeling 100% satisfied. Implicitly, a person with no regrets is a person that has stopped reflecting and stopped learning. Regrets can teach us a lot, and we should take note of the feeling when it pops up so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
My regret from the early years of my time in Japan: I would have either started a business sooner or stayed a full-time employee a bit longer. They say the best time to start a business is when you’ve got a job. I find this to be true. You want the financial security of a full-time job, which gives you the freedom to tinker with your startup or side project on the weekends. I started my first business about 6-7 months before I left my job, which was not long enough to get any sort of traction. While I had savings and money from crypto trading, it was still quite stressful. If I could rewind time, I would have stayed a bit longer until my startup was making enough to keep me afloat or I would have told my younger self to take risks sooner.
– how do you learn new skills?
I learn first by doing (trial and error) and second by having people smarter than me show me how to do things (usually by answering specific questions that I can’t wrap my head around). A prime example is how I built my coaching platform from the ground up with a fully distributed team – Carrus.io – and with no technical expertise myself. Specifically, I had to build the skill of finding a good developer.
When I first started Carrus, I initially went on Upwork and looked for developers – and had no idea what I was doing. I posted “want to build marketplace with x and y features.” I had no idea what front end/backend would be best for what I wanted to build. I found a guy who was a good communicator, and pretty friendly, so I got lucky on that front. He built half the product and went AWOL. No idea what happened to him – not sure if he’s still alive. Looking back, he wasn’t that great of a developer for what I wanted to build. And he disappeared… Well, shit happens sometimes. So I moved on. ($ spent: $800)
Then, I found another developer on Upwork with slightly more experience and more expensive. This time I blew $1,000 and basically, the result was nothing. He failed to give me any real updates except “I’m working on it, it’s taking time…” He was clever in making excuses, and I was too inexperienced to realize how I was getting screwed. Lesson learned: there are a lot of good and bad freelancers on Upwork, but without the proper skillset, I couldn’t really assess who was good or bad. At this stage, I had to get real. I’d been spending money with practically no result (this was the ‘learn by doing’ part). So…
I admitted to myself: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I went on LinkedIn and started looking for CTOs and senior product managers who had REAL experience working at startups and brand name companies. This was easy to find because they have titles at companies you’re familiar with and lots of recommendations on their LinkedIn profiles. I reached out to several in Tokyo, where I was at the time. I knew I couldn’t afford to hire them to code (nor would they want to, as they were too senior), but I could at least get their advice. I said “Hey I’m a first-time entrepreneur and need help/advice on building a product. Can we meet for coffee?”
A few got back to me. I met Ugo for coffee, who gave me super direct advice and ideas – and agreed to be my product advisor. With Ugo’s help, who interviewed developers and vetted code, I eventually found a great developer who rebuilt the whole platform from scratch. Both Ugo and the first developer I found, Hamish, ended up becoming co-founders!
– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?
Recent favourite movie: Captain Fantastic. This is heartwarming and funny and clever at the same time. It’s a movie about a family of 6 who is raised in the wilderness but has to leave paradise and return to the city. If you like the book Sapiens or Utopia for Realists, you might like this movie. It left a distinct feeling in me of “Maybe the way we’re living ain’t so great. Maybe there are other ways to live.”
Recent favourite book: Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design – Charles Montgomery [Amazon Japan / Amazon US & other]
Games: Sim City 4
– your favourite place to visit in Japan?
So many places! I love Shimoda beach. Lot’s of good memories there. Also, Manazuru is a really cool “power spot.” And it’s drone-friendly.
– what’s the best thing you’ve ever spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan or 100 Euro on in the Netherlands?
In the Netherlands, we recently adopted a cat from a shelter in Romania (or, you could say he adopted us :). He cost about 150 euros and was by far the best purchase of 2020! His name is Clooney and he’s one of the coolest cats I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. We’ve had so much fun just spending time playing catch the string and watching him run and jump around. When I’m working or trying to focus, he’ll come and jump on my lap or nudge me (or bite my hand), which gives me a necessary distraction that actually forces me to take a break. It’s no exaggeration to say that cats are good for your mental health — something that’s especially important to everyone right now.
Sounds like a cool cat! Thanks for joining me today, Misha. A very enjoyable conversation. Best of luck with all your endeavours!
mishayurchenko.me – Misha’s blog & newsletter.
Carrus.io – Misha’s coaching platform, connecting people with the best coaches.
Making it Big in Japan: Stories, Lessons and Advice from Expats Living the Dream – Misha’s latest book. I highly recommend it! [Amazon Japan / Amazon US & other]
How to Become a Recruiter in Japan: The Ultimate Guide – interested in becoming a recruiter in Japan? Misha has also written this informative and approachable guide that covers everything you’ll need to know. [Amazon Japan / Amazon US & other]
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