The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Akiko Naka, CEO and founder of Wantedly

Akiko Naka,CEO and founder of Wantedly

When the Lehman Brothers empire started crumbling in 2008, Akiko Naka was sitting at her desk at Goldman Sachs Japan, where she sold Japanese equities to institutional investors.

As the shock waves of the Lehman collapse spread, financial companies began to shed staff. Almost as quickly, the atmosphere at work changed, and Naka had to take a long, hard look at her career.

Shortly thereafter, the recent graduate decided to leave the world of finance, and pursue her childhood dream—to become a manga-ka (manga artist).

Everyday, for some six months, she was bent double drawing manga and sending off story ideas to the hundreds of manga competitions that exist in Japan. But competition was fierce and the expected commissions did not materialize.

An entrepreneur since her university days, when she had had a number of side businesses, Naka decided to create her own startup, called magajin. The website allowed manga artists from around the world to share their creations.

Magajin caused a slight stir in the community. More importantly, it allowed the budding entrepreneur to enter the world of startups and founders.

At an industry event, Naka met a member of Facebook, which was newly expanding into the Japanese market—and which also happened to need a bilingual, talented recruit.

Less than a year after joining the social media company, Naka had an idea of her own: what if she could incorporate a crowdsourcing platform like Quora and Facebook’s “real identity social graph” to create a job-search medium, such as LinkedIn?

The result was Wantedly Inc—now Japan’s largest social recruiting platform.

A keen manga-ka, Naka’s first startup was a company called Magajin.

A keen manga-ka, Naka’s first startup was a company called Magajin.

In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with The Journal, Naka speaks about her upbringing, innovative ideas on which Wantedly is working, and the state of entrepreneurship in Japan.

As CEO and founder of a company with a particular vision, she also speaks about how Wantedly is trying to change the corporate culture here, and to fulfill its goal of creating a world where “people are excited about their work.”

Can you tell us something about yourself?
I was born and raised in Chiba Prefecture, but I spent a year in the United States when I was about five or six years old. After a year, my family returned to Japan, where my sister and I joined an elementary school. And although my high school years were spent in New Zealand, I enrolled in Kyoto University, where I majored in economics.

Like many Japanese students, I didn’t study much at college. Instead, I did a number of side jobs—I created websites for clients, conducted interviews, and created a free magazine. I guess I was always fascinated with business.

Why did you leave the world of finance to become an entrepreneur?
It was 2008 when I joined Goldman Sachs. Shortly after that, the Lehman shock hit the market—every sector was influenced, and many people were laid off. That’s also when the atmosphere changed at the office.

Following that event, I asked myself whether this was the industry that I wanted to be in for the next 10 to 15 years of my life. I decided that I wanted to do something more exciting.

In a nutshell, I would say that there are two types of jobs: zero to one, and one to 10. Zero to one is creating things from scratch; one to 10 is scaling things—making an existing business even larger. Goldman Sachs was the latter. But I wanted to create something from scratch.

Have you always been an entrepreneur?
I’ve always liked creating things, including drawings. It may sound odd, but I always wanted to become a manga artist. This may sound strange to foreigners, but I think the sense of manga is different for Japanese people.

In Japan, a manga-ka or artist is really looked up to. And many manga-ka make tons of money. They are super rock stars and they have a huge influence on many young people. Even grownups read manga here. After I left Goldman Sachs, I drew manga everyday for about half a year. I also applied to many manga contests—which is usual if you want to become a manga artist.

Well, the industry was really competitive, and after doing it for about six to seven months, I decided to create magajin. Eventually, the website was featured on Tech Crunch in the United States. So it did quite well, and created some buzz, even though I ran it only for about half a year.

How did working at Facebook shape your ideas?
I joined Facebook in 2010, where I learned a lot of things. In finance, for example, the sales team was the center of the organization—they were called the “front.” They had engineers, of course, but they were at the back-end.

At Facebook, it was the engineers that made most of the decisions, and they were prioritized over the sales and marketing teams. Also, the Facebook team in Japan was quite small when I joined—there were only three Japanese, including me, and some three engineers from San Francisco.

I learned that some Facebook engineers had stock options in the company, when it had about 100 employees, and when the company became fully listed, many of them retired millionaires. They were in their mid-twenties. My reaction was, “Wow. This couldn’t happen in Japan.”

Here, we are taught to work hard, and to join a profession or a large organization—to become a doctor, lawyer, or civil servant. You can’t really imagine joining a startup and becoming a billionaire or retiring at age 26. That was an eye-opening experience that changed my concept of how to be an entrepreneur.

I also learned how websites work—that it is, how to create a business plan that is scalable. I realized then that my magajin website had been really lame, so I shut it down. I saw, too, how Facebook was expanding in Japan by making exciting alliances with established companies here.

So when it came to creating my own company, I knew it had to be based on Facebook’s model, and on social networks—this was a time when some websites relied on tools such as Facebook Connect, or your Facebook account, to let users log onto their websites.

You didn’t have to type in your password or email every time you visited their site, and you could post messages on someone else’s news feed or pull information, such as photos, from their profile.

This was also when the 2011 earthquake had just hit, and the importance of social media became clear as people relied on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and devices like smartphones to communicate. So I knew my website had to have scalability and a social networking capability.

What were some of the challenges of creating the Wantedly platform?
At first, I didn’t really have any engineers with me, so I taught myself how to write code. I then developed a prototype of the new platform, and it worked. But it was slow and not really scalable, as the code was really messy. Still, it worked. And it was featured in Tech Crunch in Japan.

Wantedly’s platform combines social networks, the vision of companies, and the aspirations of individuals to create new opportunities.

Wantedly’s platform combines social networks, the vision of companies, and the aspirations of individuals to create new opportunities.

I was by myself at the beginning, so I closed the site for a while, until an ex-colleague joined me. We then hired an engineer to re-write the code. And we have raised funds three times since then, in addition to expanding the team and moving into a new office.

Can you elaborate on how you initially came by the idea for the platform?
I get a lot of inspiration from people in other industries. When you think about YouTube, for example, you see that it was not a video site in the beginning—it was a dating website. Twitter, too, was not a tweeting site in the beginning; they were part of another site. And the same can be said of Instagram—which was part of a mobile game—and other platforms.

Which means that a successful product is not always the same as it was in the beginning. You have to pivot into a new industry or product, you have to change and adjust to meet customer needs.

In the beginning, I was trying to create a service similar to Quora—a community-sourced question-and-answer website. I thought it was a cool site and wanted to create a Japanese version.

After I rolled out my prototype, the feedback I received was that there were only so many things that could be asked on such a site. I narrowed these down to questions about people. For instance, you may ask, “My sister is looking for a tutor, do you know anyone?” You can then search for such a person through the online the community.

So there are two main features in Wantedly now. One is matching of candidates and companies based on the company’s “vision.” The other aspect is the social networking feature.

Let me talk about the first—the matching feature. Although it is a job-matching feature, we distinguish ourselves from other services in Japan by not allowing companies to describe salaries or the conditions of the job on our site.

We only want client companies to focus on why they do what they do: their vision. That allows even small startups to compete with large companies. When you think about it, a startup may not be able to pay much at the beginning, but if they grow fast, they will be able to pay more.

So by only placing their vision on our sites, both small and large companies can find candidates who fit that vision.

When one of our users finds a company whose vision they connect with, both the user and the company can begin a conversation via our platform, which can lead to a site visit—when the user meets someone from the company.

The meeting can be a casual conversation over coffee. As we like to say, “You don’t get married before dating. You first have to go on a few dates, and then get married.” In that way, you can avoid any surprises in the marriage. The same should apply to entering a new company or hiring someone.

As you can see when you use our main app, you can browse through a number of job listings. If you are interested in a particular company, you can actually see who works there, as some of their employees have profiles on our platform.

And if you wish to know more about the person, you can actually see the publicly available feature of their Facebook page, which is also linked to their profile on Wantedly. You can also see if you and the client company or any of their employees have any mutual friends—and can seek a recommendation about either the company or the individual.

So we use a combination of Facebook and our own social graph to connect users to client companies, even individual employees in the company, and their wider social network—be it Twitter, LinkedIn, GitHub, or other sites.

What’s more, our app gives you a number of options where you can share your current career goals with client companies, such as: “Want to visit,” “Want to work together now,” “I’d like to talk first,” or “Just interested.”

From our dashboard, you can see a lot of things, such as who just got hired, who tapped the “Just interested” button for a particular company. You can also see some conversations between users and client companies and employees.

And you can connect with other people, send them messages, and tag them in a conversation. This is all part of the social networking experience that we offer users and clients: we want to match people and start a conversation using the Wantedly platform; and then to get them into work.

Our ultimate aim is to make people happy with their work. In Japanese we say, shigoto de kokoro odoru (“People are excited by their work.”) Which is to say, we want to match the right people to the right employers to make the world a happier place for people to work.

How does Wantedly differ from other recruiters?
One of the big differences is that people simply drop by the office for a casual conversation. Moreover, even if you don’t have a profile on Wantedly, you can get a reference from a friend about a client company; and that company can also get a reference about you.

Even if you have a flashy resume, with Wantedly, you still have to rely on the social network to get a recommendation based on the people around you. But there is a bigger difference, which is about how we view work itself.

You may be aware of author Daniel Pink and his idea of Motivation 2.0 and 3.0. Pink claims that there are three types of motivation: 1, 2, and 3. The important ones are 2 and 3.

Motivation 2 is based on external incentives, things such as money—the more money you get, the harder you work.

Motivation 3 is internal [incentives]. These are personal incentives, such as personal growth, or having a strong affinity with the direction or vision of a company.

Pink also identifies two kinds of work: one is routine work and the other is creative work. Routine work fits well with the monetary incentive of Motivation 2.0.

With creative work, however, the more money you get, the less creative you become, apparently. So if I ask you to draw something, you may well say yes, and draw something really good.

But if I then ask you to draw something worth ¥1,000, you will draw what you think is worth that amount—the money will limit or narrowly define your creativity. Which is to say, it is hard to put a price on creativity.

That’s why at Wantedly, we match people based on a company’s vision, and we see ourselves as aligned with the concept of Motivation 3.0.

Can you say something about the people who use your platform?
We have two main categories: clients and users. We have about 12,000 clients using our services already. Some 40 percent of them are startups. Lately, our client base has grown to include large corporations such as multinationals, banks, and broadcasting companies.

We also have a number of institutions such as nursing homes, schools, research institutes, hospitals, and even local governments on our client list. As for users, we have about 600,000 monthly, active users. Most them are actually employed already, and mainly come from the web-based industries—engineers, designers, product designers, and so on. University students comprise about 20 percent of the total users.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Our focus for this fiscal year, which for us began in September, is on three “I”s: international, internship, and infrastructure. For international, we are expanding our services into Southeast Asia—we have 5,000 users and 300 clients already in Jakarta, Indonesia. Our goal is to make our platform usable around the world.

We are also trying to increase the level of internships that we offer to students this year. Internships are rare in Japan, perhaps due to a legacy of recruitment practices during the bubble years of the 1980s, when large companies could afford to hire hundreds of new graduates year on year.

This is the system of shushoku katsudo (graduate recruitment), which remains today and has become a huge event where, every year, at the same time, recent graduates seek work and companies hire new recruits.

But this system does not incentivize students to think about their careers before the recruitment period; nor has there been a system here that supports internships. As Japan is really not growing anymore, this system is out of date.

We have created an app—for iOS and Android—focusing on student internship opportunities: we are trying to match students and companies so students can experience the work environment before they graduate.

Lastly, we have infrastructure. From October, we will have a Wantedly [application program interface or] API, with three buttons: “I want to drop by your office,” “Company Feed Back,” and “Auto Fill.” The API will allow third parties to access Wantedly’s database and conveninently provide candidates work-related information. Wantedly will then become an intersection for working and soon-to-be working people and companies.

As for the future, we eventually plan to go public, but that will depend on market conditions. Given our talented team, with great engineers at the core, we are really confident of our ability to do great R&D and to produce great new products.

What can you say about the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Japan?
I think it has improved a lot in recent years. In my case, I received a lot of great and priceless advice from entrepreneurs and CEOs of large companies.

Can I just say that, if you want to start a new business, you need cash, a team, and a mentor. I think all of those elements are now available for entrepreneurs in Japan, more so than in the past.

When I started the business in 2010, raising $5 million from [venture companies or] VCs was thought of as a big deal. But in 2014, many startups raised that ammount, and it was not news.

So the scale has grown a lot, and there are more VCs in the country. So money-wise, the situation has improved a lot. Mentor-wise, the first stream of entrepreneurs is now in a position to give advice—which I think is the most precious thing—to the next generation.

As for team members, I would say that the Internet industry in Japan, even three years ago, was generally thought to be a really shady area for smart people—the belief was still that bright kids should become doctors and lawyers. But with every Internet success story, and films such as [the 2010 US movie,] The Social Network, that is beginning to change.

I don’t think a Mark Zuckerberg-type story will happen in Japan, but smaller versions of it are beginning to appear. For example, have you heard of a small company called Mery.jp—it is an information platform for girls. Mery is a small company acquired by DeNA. And the guy who created the company was about 25 or 26 years old when it was acquired for 20 to 30 million of dollars.

What drives you as an entrepreneur?
I like creating things, as you can tell: I draw manga, I build websites, and . . . I get very excited when I see how we can impact the world by what we create. So my happiness comes when we create something really cool and people are not only excited, but also use our creations to change their lives.

What can you say to young entrepreneurs thinking of creating a startup?
I think timing, the team that you have, and the passion that you bring are very important. So they have to wait until they have all three, if they want to create something that truly impacts the world.

In my case, these all came together in 2010 and 2011: social network services grew and smartphones penetrated the market. I also received a lot of great advice from people who had been in the tech industry for many years, and they could see this wave coming. One of them pointed out three waves.

The first was the tech bubble of the late ’90s to 2000s, when the Internet was new and companies like Rakuten, Yahoo! Japan, CyberAgent and Softbank expanded.

The second wave came around 2005, when the likes of Mixi and DeNA went public. And that was when feature phones were the game-changer. The wave of the last few years, the third wave, has been smartphones and social media. I realized this a few years ago, after someone with experience in the industry told me. So timing is really important.

[Besides timing,] another important thing is to have a great team. Although I was not the team player type before, one of the reasons the company has been able to scale so fast is the really great team we have built.

Finally, you need to have passion. Back in college, I didn’t have much cause in what I did for clients, so I struggled to maintain my motivation, and the team I was with eventually fell apart. I decided then that if I created my own startup, I would do something that I was passionate about.

Wantedly’s headquarters in Shirokane, Tokyo

Wantedly’s headquarters in Shirokane, Tokyo

Our ultimate aim is to make people happy with their work.