Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I just finished reading Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein after seeing a post on Tokyo Mango about it. I rate it up there with the classic The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen and my more recents favorites Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr and Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan by Robert Whiting.

All of these books provide a thoughtful view of Japan from the perspective of a non-Japanese and I think are essential readings for anyone trying to understand modern Japanese history and culture. So much of the really important underlying context and culture isn't translated from Japanese into English and even if it were, it would be mostly incomprehensible without framing it in a Western context.

Jake Adelstein does a great job of making the book very fun to read, personal and accurate. His background as a professional Japanese journalist covering crime in Japan for the Japanese edition of Yomiuri, one of Japanese mammoth newspapers, adds a lot of credibility and cultural sensitivity that are lacking in most books about Japan that are written by non-Japanese.

I also liked the way that the book presented the perspective of the Japanese underground and Japanese culture through personal stories and narrative and didn't try to explain all of Japan. It's nearly impossible, even for Japanese, to understand why things are the way they are in Japan and it's only through experience and listening to stories like Jake's that you can begin to stitch together your version of Japan.

In The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, Watts describes that it is impossible to explain in English, all that is Zen. In fact, the Zen masters explain that Zen is beyond words. He describes how most Japanese Zen masters do not even try to "explain" Zen. He admits that although his Western background and his attempt to explain Zen in words by definition fails to capture the true core essence of Zen. However, he argues that because he lives between both worlds, he is able to describe Zen in words much more clearly than the masters might imagine.

That's what I think about the good books about Japan written by non-Japanese. Japanese often don't explain context or pretend that everyone knows what is going on. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding and the development of unspoken rules and culture shared only be small groups of people hidden in most part from the public. Publishers in Japan are also very sensitive about publishing books about taboo subjects in Japanese.

I highly recommend the book.

Whenever I get a chance to have a conversation with Seth, I take it. Recently Seth asked me if he could ask me a few questions on my blog. Here are the questions and my answers.

Seth: Tell us briefly about the entrepreneurial climate of where you're currently working -Singapore. What's making it work there for you?

Joi: Singapore has many interesting attributes. The nation state is small enough that the government is extremely well designed and can run Singapore in a very efficient and flexible way. They have a very open visa policy for smart people, are within a short direct flight to the Middle East, Africa, India, China and Japan, speak English, and the infrastructure is very good.

10 years ago, while I was running my first incubator company, we tried to work with Singapore but it was a bit early. Today, several things have changed. The technology has gotten better so fewer people can do more for less and development of consumer Internet companies has become a social thing and a global thing. The platforms are also much more global, Twitter, Facebook, Android, iPhone and the Blackberry being examples of global platforms. I think that Japan, the US and China tend to build companies that focus on their large local markets, but I think there is a great opportunity to build companies for the global market from the beginning.

They key is having multi-cultural high quality teams, which Singapore is perfect for. The government provides a great deal of support and I'm able to attract very high quality teams because Singapore has become so popular as a place to live and work. Currently, I'm working closely with Pivotal Labs, IDEO and others to put together projects that bring great agile product and development processes to Singapore.

I'm also setting up an "incubator" or ecosystem including Pivotal, IDEO and other companies doing work in Singapore to train local and immigrant talent and a small startup fund to invest in companies that emerge from this or in companies that want to transplant or startup in Singapore.

Seth: You've spent time all over the world- Dubai, Japan, California, etc. What's the key element that successful entrepreneurs have in common? In Linchpin, it's the person who takes a risk, who devotes energy and effort to the cause, someone who ships projects and executes with flair. Is it geographic? (I'm betting it's not).

Joi: It's not geographic, but communities help people learn, share and take risks. California has a great startup community and it's much easier to become and get support as an entrepreneur. On the other hand, the market is saturated with new products. There's still a tremendous amount of potential growth, but there is a lot of competition.

Japan has fewer entrepreneurs and the market is quite large, but there are other factors that cause friction and make Japan "tough". On the other hand, having the right relationships and information about Japan can make it much easier and personally, I enjoy helping entrepreneurs figure out Japan - but the community is very different from California.

Dubai and the Middle East have a tremendous amount of potential with a huge population of people who speak the same language, a very low average age and certain countries that have significant funds. However, I'm not sure exactly when and how it will "break" since real entrepreneurship in the Internet styles requires pieces of the ecosystem that don't exist yet. Conversely, it's too late to join the party after it's in full swing, so my interest here is to be here when Internet entrepreneurship really gets started. There are clear signs that this has already started - Yahoo recently bought Maktoob, an Arabic portal and there are more and more meetings of entrepreneurs and funds starting everyday.

I also think it depends a bit on the definition of entrepreneur. My personal opinion is that an entrepreneur is someone who questions authority and the status quo, thinks for him/herself and executes quickly and decisively on their decisions and plans. I think everyone has the potential for this but social elements, the community and the environment can encourage or discourage this. However, there are entrepreneurs in every geography and those who prevail in geographies where the factors are stacked against them have more risk, but also have much more to gain when they are successful. It's really these entrepreneurs who I'm excited about both helping and working with these days.

Seth: It seems you have a serene, knowing acceptance of technology and how it's changing our world, and you don't hold it back or push it forward -almost as though you immerse yourself in it. How has this weather-pattern approach to technology changed the way you work the system and see what's coming next?

Joi: My view is that things are so complex that it's very hard to rationally predict what's going to happen. It's much more important to be perceptive and sensitive to what's going on around you and react quickly than to think and think. Most great products are obvious only in retrospect. Most huge changes were not well predicted. The map is as complex as reality, so why not just live in reality?

Of course, planning is important and where you know the outcome, it's clearly beneficial to have a thesis about what's going to happen - but believing that thesis too strongly or making plans that are too inflexible leads to disasters. To have all of your sensors on in full blast, you have to spend a lot more time listening and playing and a lot less time forecasting and blabbing, in my opinion. If you do this, you can often find the butterfly before the hurricane comes. Somehow, you intuitively feel that "this is the butterfly."

Seth: How can people take advantage of an environment that allows for more smart, engaged and motivated people to make a difference than ever before? There's no gate or gatekeeper anymore, so how do we know what to do next?

Joi: As Timothy Leary often said: "Question Authority and Think For Yourself."

Then make sure you do something about it. I think we're taught and programmed to look for authority, but in this stage, the best thing a great authority can help you with is to coach you to be reflective and to think for yourself. The most important thing is that we need to deprogram ourselves and learn that we don't need an authority, we don't need to ask permission. This doesn't mean that you can become anti-social. It's sort of the opposite of that. In the past, you fought to get power and authority and then after that you could be boring, corrupt, but you'd often be permitted to stay in the center and in control.

In the work of open networks, you have to have compassion, communicate, create value, be decisive, be creative, be different to become and stay relevant. There is a new kind of authority that you get by developing your own network and your brand, but it's a very different kind of authority we have to navigate in than in more traditional hierarchical and closed networks that rely mostly on age, race, sex, creed, social context and financial power.

Seth: As an investor, what makes someone stand out an entrepreneur?

Joi: Different investors have different weightings for different attributes among entrepreneurs. Assuming that the basic product is compelling and makes sense - I only invest in and support entrepreneurs who I enjoy spending time with. The chemistry has to work. Human chemistry is not a one-dimensional thing and involves everything from sense of humor, ability to communicate, passion, resolve, neoteny. Often, I spend a great deal of time with my entrepreneurs and it's important that we enjoy communicating at a personal level.

I do think about the entrepreneur's ability to garner support from other people, but from the perspective of venture investing, the main group of people that the entrepreneur has to garner support from is the next round of investors. It turns out that I have the same test for my co-investors - I try to invest only with people I like and respect. While not 100%, my friends also have a similar taste in people.

What's important is that the entrepreneurs that I back are people that I would happily refer to my friends and associates and would be proud to be associated with.

As for the general public - I think that most of the communication with them is through the product. The entrepreneur needs to be able to express, in the product, a compelling reason for the public to be interested and must have a distribution plan that is engaging and viral.

Seth: How do you build and run high quality teams at work?

Joi: I look for people who are self-motivated, who I can communicate with easily and whose judgment in people I trust. I put them in charge, delegate and support them and allow them to build teams. Then I focus on troubleshooting, tweaking and supporting instead of running the whole contraption or trying to understand and keep track of the whole of it. This particular method suites my own personality so your mileage may vary.

Seth: One key element of a linchpin is that they ship -projects out the door and ideas into action. Without question your success is that you ship. Is that a learned or a natural inclination for you? How can others learn to operate in a similar manner?

Joi: I think the key is to get over the stage fright of shipping. Ship early, ship often, iterate and listen to all of the feedback. I think that if you have the courage to listen and the ability to take the feedback and iterate on your product, you will better off than waiting and trying to deliver something perfect. Imagining your product or project as a way of communicating with people and thinking of product development as a conversation might be one way to think about it.

Obviously, you have to have good designers and developers just like a public speaker has to have speaking skills and good delivery. There are methods like Ruby on Rails an Agile Development that make it much easier, just as presentation tools have started to improve. So, in addition to the courage and the ability to listen, you need to learn the right methods and practices. The good thing is that all most all of it is free, there are lots of people happy to teach and it's all online!

I apologize for the rather impersonal nature of a canned New Year's message, but the New Year's greeting is an essential part of Japanese etiquette and one which I feel compelled to preserve.

First of all, I want to thank all of the people in my life - my family, my co-workers, my friends as well as all of the animals and plants in my life for making this year yet another wonderfully stimulating and fulfilling year in my journey through life. I feel one year wiser and one year happier, looking forward to next year's challenges.

Working on Creative Commons and being part of an extremely successful year has been a joy. In the last year, we've seen the White House, Al Jazeera, Wikipedia and a wide variety of startup companies as well as established organizations begin using Creative Commons. The latest reports show over 350,000,000 pieces of content licensed under a Creative Commons license. In one of the most difficult financial environments yet, we've been able to meet our fund raising targets. The organization and the international network continues to grow in effectiveness and something that I am extremely proud to be affiliated with.

My new friends in the Middle East have helped to knock me out of my comfort zone and open my eyes to a whole culture and world view that had been completely missing from my consciousness and my life. The incredible generosity of my new network in the Middle East is humbling and inspiring.

My transition to Dubai is nearly complete having mostly finished moving into my apartment. I couldn't have done it without the help of all of my friends there and Mizuka's support. Dubai finally feels like home.

Although the credit crisis in Dubai is visible, I see a lot of opportunity in the Middle East and spending time and energy developing my network and understanding of the region feel "right" although it might seem contrarian to some.

I am also developing a wonderful relationship with the community of entrepreneurs in Singapore and the Singapore government and will be launching a bunch of activity there to try to help get the startup ecosystem going in Singapore. Singapore's a great meeting place for my friends from all over the world and I see it as a launch pad into the Middle East and Asia. I'll be setting up a small startup fund the first quarter of the year focusing on Singapore, the Middle East and Asia with some great partners including Pivotal Labs, IDEO, Digital Garage and my trusty new investment manager, James.

The company I co-founded and currently act as a board member for, Digital Garage, just moved out of our old digs that we've been in for the last 15 years into a shiny new building. (yay!) Digital Garage has been helping Twitter in Japan and working with the Twitter team to develop the market in Japan has been a joy and tremendously rewarding.

So, thank you again, my friends, for being there to inspire me and guild me through yet another great year and hope to see you all soon in Dubai or where ever our paths my cross.

Happy New Year.

I was part of an interesting conversation today about mentors and I described my mother as one of my mentors. My mother died 15 years ago after struggling with cancer for about 2 decades. Sitting here pondering the New Year and the past, my thoughts returned to my mother who was my friend, parent and mentor. I pulled up some entries from a diary that she kept on her computer. For some reason I feel compelled to share an excerpt from her diary.

I miss my mother very much but I still hear her voice clearly.

Slightly edited for brevity and grammar.

Momoko Ito

It is 2:20am. I just finished watching "Anatomy of Murder". Funny. I hardly watch TV, especially after having such evening!

I woke up feeling great this morning at 6:00am, cooked breakfast, ate a lot, cheerfully active all day until suddenly hit by nausea and dizziness. I had to skip Mimi's hearty dinner but now I'm feeling OK.

I was suddenly hit by this feeling of tremendous happiness and decided to start a diary just to leave my feelings in writing. I'll be as faithful as I can to continue it.

No matter how hard I examine my feelings, trying to find some fault in my strange sense of happiness which I've continued to feel through all my objectively-speaking hard life, can't find it. I am genuinely happy even under extreme physical discomfort. How do you explain that? I have no complaints, however.

At this moment as I'm about to go to sleep, the end of a day of funny ups and downs, I feel so happy that I have to write. I've always loved people - I love so intensely through my life. Tonight I feel I am so much loved by my beloved ones that the feeling is overwhelming. Every occasion I had to be together with you, though not often enough for me, I always had such excitement to discover that I can communicate with other human beings beyond language. With you I could share the understanding of the universe without knowing any scientific truth about it. You have been the confirmation of my many most fundamental thoughts. There are so many names I can't possibly write down here at 3:00am in the morning. I am supposed to be deadly tired. On the contrary I am so alert and excited. I feel I am surrounded by warm pink clouds of love!

Almighty power that controls the universe, I only have one wish. Please don't make my loved ones suffer when I go to the other side of life. Please let then know what a happy life I've had and will continue to be happy in "the other world" watching them, talking to them, feeling them. Assure them that they will feel me too. I will even be happier without pain and will be able to do a lot more for them and with them.

5/21/94(Sat.) clear and nice

Joi called at night. He seems to be fine but should control his schedule better. He seems much too busy.

6/2/94(Thur.) clear and nice

Joi is coming home tomorrow. Everybody is anxious to have him back.

This is a talk that I gave at TEDxDubai about open innovation in October. It's fairly similar to the talk I gave in Italy, but slightly longer and broader.

TEDx Dubai 2009 - Joichi Ito from Giorgio Ungania on Vimeo.

Following is the Prezi that I used.

PS : There is a section where I talked about Infoseek's original business model of trying to charge each user per search. It might sound like I was involved in the pivot to advertising when I said, "we were thinking". While I helped run Infoseek Japan later, at the time that decision was being made, I was just a user and I meant that "we" as a community were trying to figure out how to monetize. Just want to be clear and not take credit for things I didn't do. ;-)