The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“When I was a high school student, I wanted to be a pilot; but it turned out that I was too short. So, I changed my mind and decided that, perhaps, I could make a plane or a rocket. As both are based on computers, I decided to study computer science in college.”

This is the story that Miku Hirano, brimming with relaxed enthusiasm, tells The ACCJ Journal as she speaks with wide-eyed passion about her work and career.

A rare type of entrepreneur, she built her first company while still in college and—as a Millennial tech founder who is also the mother of two—is part of an elite group, not just in Japan but around the world.

Hirano is chief executive officer of Cinnamon Inc., an artificial intelligence (AI) company she co-founded in Singapore with Hajime Hotta in 2012.

Cinnamon creates AI-enabled products that automate time-consuming and repetitive tasks, such as reading and extracting information from documents. The company has a lofty goal: to reduce—and then eliminate—repetitive and troublesome work.

In doing so, Hirano hopes to change the way we do our jobs, thereby freeing people to focus on creative and more meaningful activities.

Hirano speaks at a 2018 academic conference in Okinawa.

TECH SAVVY
Today, Hirano is a regular speaker on the global tech conference circuit, but her seemingly meteoric rise in the start­up universe was not always obvious.

People such as Hirano were a rare sight in the computer science (CS) department at the University of Tokyo, where she did her graduate research in AI. Less than 1 percent of the students in the program were women.

So, did she choose CS or did CS choose her?

“I wasn’t very good at languages or history or those typical subjects that girls should be good at,” Hirano confessed with a hearty laugh. “I was really good at math and physics and subjects like that.”

Her research at the time was similar to that used in PageRank—an algorithm co-created by Google Inc. co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996. PageRank is used by Google search to rank websites.

Page and Brin created the algorithm while they were still research students—a fact not lost on Hirano and her peers. Indeed, they looked to Page and Brin for inspiration in the new internet economy.

Cinnamon‘s first Vietnam office, in Hanoi.

EARLY PROMISE
It didn’t take long for Hirano and Hotta to be recognized for their potential. While in graduate school from 2005 to 2006, they were recipients of the Innovative Software Creative Program—Super Creator Award, a prize given by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Information-technology Promotion Agency, Japan.

Also called the MITOU Target Program, the $200,000 award is given to innovators in next-wave tech fields who have a goal of launching a company.

The prize allowed Hirano and Hotta to establish Naked Technology Inc., a company that developed middleware for apps used in feature phones and—later—iOS and Android devices.

The early going was less than stellar for Naked Technology, Hirano said. When the company was formed in 2005, social media was still in its infancy in Japan. There were only two real players in the industry: social media platforms Mixi, Inc. and GREE Inc.

Mixi had about 300,000 users back then. “Today, that number would be considered small, but, at that time, I felt that social media was a super-interesting area, and that it would change people’s lives dramatically.”

PRODUCT/MARKET FIT
The mid-2000s in Japan was a time before Big Data, meaning there was not enough information on the internet for effective marketing campaigns, Hirano explained.

“We didn’t have enough data to work out what people were interested in, so we thought a social graph would be able to help with that. Friends tend to have similar interests, so, even if there is not enough data on an individual, we can still get a lot of data about them from their friends’ networks.”

Naked Technology’s first product was an AI-enabled, social graph-based marketing engine. But the company struggled early on to commercialize it.

“We wanted to sell that marketing engine for the social graph, but we didn’t sell at all. The technology was definitely too early. We failed and struggled a lot.”

Not finding a product/market fit (PMF) was an issue, but so was a lack of experience. “I was very shocked that we couldn’t find a PMF, especially as I was still only a student. I didn’t know how to do business. Actually, I didn’t even think that I would start a company.”

Burning through their MITOU cash, Naked Technology abandoned their AI-based business model and pivoted to technologies for mobile devices. This was the zenith of the feature phone era. “We felt that the user interface was very poor. So, we created technology for feature phones that had a rich inter­face like on computers.”

Having spent about three years on research and development, Naked Technology began making money.

UNICORN?
But no sooner had the company hit its stride than it got tripped up by the emergence of a new era in mobile techno­logies: the smartphone.

With revenues dipping, Naked Technology was compelled to pivot once again, this time adapting their middleware technology to smart­phones. That move proved to be timely.

“Our decision was validated, and we started to make revenue again. And, as Mixi showed an interest in the technology, we sold our company to them in 2011.”

After a year at Mixi, Hirano and Hotta founded Cinnamon, where Hotta is also the chief technology officer. In spring of this year, Cinnamon successfully managed almost $9 million through a Series B fundraising round and debt finance.

The company has offices in Tokyo, as well as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. New offices are planned for Taipei and New York City.

Hirano at the University of Tokyo in 2009

INTO HER OWN
Looking back on her entrepreneurial journey, Hirano is sanguine. “I think I finally found out how to do business, even after having struggled for eight years or so,” she said. “The most difficult thing for entrepreneurs is to find PMF,” she continued. Even if you have a good idea, you cannot sell it if there is no need in the market.”

This explains Cinnamon’s turn in 2016 from mobile back to their origins of AI-based products and services. The AI market was finally fit for prime time.

The company has carved out a global niche in the AI-powered optical character recognition (AI-OCR) industry and created software that can read hand-written messages as well as other kinds of text and images. Real-time voice-recognition software is next.

CHAMPIONS OF GRIT
But there is more to Hirano’s success, explained in part by an entre­preneurial zeal that was nurtured by her family.

“A lot of my friends went to work for large companies when they graduated. But my mom and grandma said they were really happy when I founded my own company.”

Much of her success can also be explained by a never-say-die attitude. This was especially so during her darkest days—when her loss-making company pivoted at the same time as she started a family. “I had to make revenue while struggling with morning sickness. I think it was the toughest year of my life.”

How did she get through it? “I just gambarimashita. I worked hard. Without grit, I may have given up and settled for being only a mother.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
The technology was definitely too early. We failed and struggled a lot.