The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


December 2013

Founder reveals how one of Japan’s top internet companies exists today

By Megan Waters
ACCJ Journal editor-in-chief

Tomoko Namba, founder and board member of DeNA Co., Ltd.—one of the biggest and most exciting internet companies in Japan—took a risk in 1999 when she left her prominent position at McKinsey & Company, Inc. to start a mobile portal and e-commerce business.

Attendees of the ACCJ Information, Communications, and Technology Committee “Entrepreneurial Success Story—How Tomoko Namba Built DeNA into One of Japan’s Most Exciting New Companies” luncheon at the Tokyo American Club on November 1, heard how Namba turned her start-up into one of Japan’s most profitable companies.

Frustrated with giving advice to, and developing business models for, Japanese companies in the internet-related industry, the Harvard Business School graduate started DeNA with two former colleagues.

“Sometimes just being involved wasn’t enough. I wanted to lead an organization and felt that I could do far better than other CEOs,” Namba said.

Initially an online auction site with a staff of three, working in a 20m2apartment, the company now has 2,000 employees, of whom 1,100 are based in Tokyo.

According to Namba, for the first several years, the operation didn’t go quite as planned. “The company was a total mess. I think I made every and any mistake you can think of,” she admitted.

“Everything went wrong and we were labeled as losers. Nobody believed that we were going to make it as a company.”

To achieve the goal of becoming the number one company in Japan’s internet industry, DeNA shifted its focus from conducting online auctions to providing an online shopping mall, which brought profitability and growth. Then, in 2004, the company moved from desktop to mobile phone services, and finally became number one in mobile auction services.

“Because of our history—of always trying to add new services and new growth entities—we have diversified. Our portfolio includes e-commerce services, a B2B marketplace, a social networking service, music services, and user-generated content services,” she explained.

According to Namba, the most important role of a company leader is to set unreasonably high goals—both quantitative and qualitative—to excite the interest of employees.

“It’s important to make people believe the goals are doable. I made people believe we could achieve them by helping them to imagine and visualize the future,” she said.

Another important factor in establishing a successful company, Namba believes, is building a cohesive, stimulated team.

“Find out what motivates your employees. Your team will not fall apart if there is a sense of excitement from the achievement of the team’s goal.”

However, the main reason DeNA exists today is because the company never compromised on the quality of its employees. Rather than rely on employees’ specific expertise, Namba believes it is important to find individuals who are competent, flexible, and able to both adapt to change and transform themselves. At the same time, they should have creative and leadership qualities.

Tomoko Namba (left), founder and board member of DeNA Co., Ltd., and Darren McKellin, co-chair of the ACCJ Information, Communications and Technology Committee.

Tomoko Namba (left), founder and board member of DeNA Co., Ltd., and Darren McKellin, co-chair of the ACCJ Information, Communications and Technology Committee.