In 1996, at the age of 31, I did the unthinkable. I quit my job at the Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ).
To say this broke a “rule” of traditional Japanese corporate behavior would be an understatement. The ladder of success in Japan is firmly established and has been long revered: succeed in school, secure a position at a prestigious company, work your way up, and tie your success to the company’s. This is the very definition of achievement in Japanese business.
I started down this road, but after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, I evaluated my life and career decisions and chose another path. I decided to start my own company. And here’s what I learned:
1. Trust your inspiration.
When I began researching ideas for my new company, I decided I would start something new in Japan: an Internet company, specifically Internet shopping. Many advised me against this. This was the '90s and many big companies had tried and failed to launch Internet malls. But I suspected the problem was not in the concept of online shopping — it was in the execution of the efforts made by those big companies. I knew the Internet was changing the world when my colleague started reading The Wall Street Journal online on the day it was published rather than his usual process of waiting until it arrived by mail a day later. Internet malls just needed another chance.
2. It’s fine to start slow and small.
When you step off the expected path of success (as I did when I left IBJ), there is a temptation to start your new project with a big bang — something that shows everyone how right you were. But I learned that it’s fine — even preferable — to start slow and small in your new project. When I started my company, I had a handful of employees. That was true for some time. We did everything ourselves, and I intentionally kept our ranks small. We built our own website and met with merchants throughout Japan face-to-face to convince them Internet shopping is the future. This was a way I felt I could build and refine our culture as a company — a culture that would serve as a backbone when we began to grow.
3. Be open to change along the way.
As committed and visionary as you may be, there will be new ideas, new processes that will be revealed. We started Rakuten with an initial pricing structure. We soon realized we had to revise it in order to achieve our goals. We have long been a company open to change — new technologies, new business categories, new countries. When you set out on the entrepreneurial road, expect there will be twists and turns along the way. Learn from them, and you will surely grow and succeed.
On the day I quit my job at IBJ, my manager told me: You’ll be back to us one day. But my father said: I thought you might do something like this. He knew I’d find my own road.