Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

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 really like the third question, and the answer too. I always wonder how you are in the right place/time, with the right people to catch the right butterfly :)

Inspiring and uplifting replies... Thanks for sharing, it was a great read! I agree 100% with your views on planning - to me it can easily be a waste of time.

I have been thinking about this quote a lot lately, "Question Authority and Think For Yourself." I definitely do the latter but I don't think I do the former enough or I at least sugar coat my feelings because I put myself in a position where I think it will harm my career. I regret that I do that and that's not a good head space to be in.


Regarding the "weather-pattern approach to technology," from what you're saying it appears that the pundits and prognosticators (the predictors) maintain their distance from the current environment, in order to analyze ("think and think"), missing the very subtle indicators that only living in this reality will bring. These are the weathermen who never get rained on.

It seems that the entrepreneurs have to follow their instincts, trusting their abilities to overcome any changes that may occur, and convincing their angels that they have these abilities.

seems I'm not the first to appreciate the 'weather-pattern approach' and 'find the butterfly before the hurricane comes' analogies.

hope I'm not the last

Great post Joi.

Like you said, what makes the states so great is that they have created a great "ecosystem" for startups. First time entrepreneurs have so many great resources to seek mentorship (ie. Y-Combinator, TechStars, etc). Those entrepreneurs build great companies and go back to mentor other entrepreneurs or even acquires/invests younger startups.

It may be difficult to build such ecosystem in country like Japan, where the population is aging and culturally risk averse. I really want to build the startup ecosystem in Japan.

Do you think it is possible?

Great and inspiring interview. I would be interested to know your opinion of Japanese as entrepreneurs. Have you had any experience working with Japanese entrepreneurs ( not Japanese businessmen)?

Well, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey from 1999 showed that 90% of Japanese answered "no" to the question "people around you respect entrepreneurs". Almost 100% of the people interviewed in Spain and about 80% in the US answered "yes".

Japan is still very much a risk-adverse non-entrepreneur friendly environment. Most successful entrepreneurs in Japan are highly motivated and big risk-takers as a result... but there are fewer of them.

"Japan is still very much a risk-adverse non-entrepreneur friendly environment. "

I'm currently living in Japan, and I can attest to that. I'm a struggling entrepreneur (I'm a foreign national living in Japan), and most of my Japanese friends think I'm nuts. It's most certainly not easy, and from the 200 odd friends and aquaintances I have here in Tokyo, NONE are entrepreneurs, so that gives you an idea of the numbers. Then again, perhaps I'm just hanging out with the wrong

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