The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

If there is a piece of advice Chiaki Hayashi would give to burgeoning entrepreneurs, it is this: “Follow your heart. Just go for it. Take the risk and see how it turns out.”

Hayashi knows a thing or two about risk-taking. When it seemed that she had not an entrepreneurial bone in her body, she gave up a career in journalism in 2000 to co-found Loftwork Inc., a creative agency based in Tokyo.

Fourteen years later, she co-founded a sister company, FabCafe LLP, where do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts can drink and dine while using the tools provided by the café to bring their ideas to life.

From humble beginnings in an apartment in the Shinsen area of Shibuya Ward, Loftwork and FabCafe straddle six floors in a multistory building in Dogenzaka, just up the road.

Today, the company’s network comprises two fabrication cafés in Japan (Tokyo and Hida), two in France (Strasbourg and Toulouse), and locations in Bangkok, Barcelona, Singapore, and Taipei.

Hayashi is the Japan representative of MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her mentor, Joi Ito, is the director and a professor. Hayashi is taking on new projects this year—including co-creating a new 100-person space for entrepreneurs in Tokyo.

“Throughout my career, there have been many people who helped me to succeed. I feel it is my turn to pay that forward to the next generation,” she told The Journal about the upcoming venture.

On top of that, she has established a company to engage the forestry and mountain management sector in Hida City, Gifu Prefecture.

Born in Japan, Hayashi grew up in the United Arab Emirates owing to her father’s work in the energy sector. Shortly after graduating from Waseda University, she joined a Japanese cosmetics company where she worked for three years as a marketeer.

While she enjoyed the experience, there was a nagging feeling that her talents might be better employed elsewhere.

“The company I worked at created lots of good products, but I felt that there was no need to increase the amount of products in society,” Hayashi recalled.

What was needed back in the late 1990s, she thought, was helpful information about such things as how to design a career path and how to successfully fulfill one’s aspirations.

“I realized that a lot of people in Japan did not know how to design a fulfilling career—especially women, including myself, who were the consumers of products from my previous job.

“So instead of creating new cosmetic lines, I decided to go into a profession where I could provide people with good information about how to live better, creative lives.”

Determined to find new meaning in her life, Hayashi relocated to the United States and enrolled in a master’s degree program in journalism at Boston University.

Upon graduation, she worked the business beat for a Japanese newswire agency with offices in New York. It was an experience that exposed her to entrepreneurs, and the stories she relayed had as much effect on her as they did on her readers.

“I really think it was the atmosphere of the United States that was encouraging. Starting a new business there seemed like nothing; it seemed like anyone could do it.”

That was from 1998 to 2000, Hayashi recalls, “a time when many big companies such as Google were just being born. It was an exciting time, and I was able to meet a lot of entrepreneurs from whom I learnt about taking risks and following your dreams.”

Hayashi’s boss in the news agency asked: “Instead of writing articles about entrepreneurs, why don’t you become one yourself?”

Not long after, Hayashi came back to Japan and, with her co-founder Mitsuhiro Suwa, pitched an idea for a creative agency.

Founded in 2000, Loftwork offers co-working office space for creators and facilitates creative collaboration between members and the academic, corporate, and governmental sectors. The company also manages FabCafe.

A key goal is to marry technology and design—via digital fabrication tools—to projects that are personal and local. Rather than focusing on profit or scalability, Loftwork encourages low-key individual or collaborative projects that deal with location-specific concerns. “We believe in the power of design and technology combined to effect change at the local and individual level,” Hayashi explained.

Members use the company’s co-working space for creative projects like web design and content creation.

Over two floors in the Tokyo office, for instance, creators have access to digital fabrication services and tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and ultraviolet—or UV—printers. With these tools, they can make products such as 3D art, figurines, and designs based on human–computer interactions.

An air of collaboration inspired by the Creative Commons movement—which allows open source sharing and access to ideas—pervades the space.

That said, Loftwork collaborates not just with individual creators, but also with partner companies of all sizes.

FabCafe, meanwhile, is a self-sustaining craft-café where diners rub shoulders with creators. Established in 2012, the casual space acts as an ice-breaker between customers and makers.

FabCafe can be thought of as an “experiment by creative people for creative people”—an ecosystem that “allows creatives to design the future for themselves.”

Loftwork is in the black, but it took four years after the company was founded before it became profitable. Loftwork has a mix of income streams that includes membership dues, sponsored workshops and events, and fees for using services and equipment.

Meetups and hackathons—events at which programmers, designers, and others collaborate and explore—many sponsored by multinational companies wishing to engage directly with the creative community, are typical events hosted by the company.

“Our corporate partners love the community because they are innovative. Creators here have opinions and ideas that companies are looking for,” Hayashi explained, “companies can also get feedback on their products and services via our members.”

FabCafe, meanwhile, is a self-sustaining standalone entity. There is overlap, however, between the space and its sister cafes, which share common values and a corporate identity.

Making a success of their agency did not come without a struggle for Hayashi and Suwa.

“When we talked about establishing a creative network and matching them with clients, almost everyone said it wouldn’t work,” Hayashi recalls.

Venture capitalist Joi Ito was an exception.

“He has been a great mentor. Instead of telling me what to do, he inspired me with his passion about creativity.”

As Hayashi recalls, conversations with Ito in those early days centered on his passion for the latest Internet-based tech—such as blogging sites—or relatively new ideas at the time, such as Creative Commons.

Armed with angel funding and a solid mentor, Hayashi and Suwa built their first website and invited 500 people—many of them family and friends—to create profiles on the platform.

The burgeoning community sent photos, which the pair photocopied and uploaded to create user profiles. Users then created greeting cards for marketing, which the co-founders took to an on-demand printing company for printing and distribution.

That printer in turn recommended them to companies in need of creative input. Gradually, one client at a time, new orders for services came in.

“We still make those greeting cards,” Hayashi said with a smile. “They remind us of our origins.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
Follow your heart. Just go for it. Take the risk and see how it turns out.