Twitter, Pinterest, Skype founders advise Japan entrepreneurs

A host of tech notables traveled to Tokyo to offer their views on 'disrupting' Japan's economy

A host of celebrity tech executives, including the founders of Twitter, Pinterest, Evernote and Android, converged in Tokyo this week, invited as part of an ambitious effort to modernize Japan's economy through entrepreneurship.

Their advice? Stay upbeat, because it's not going to be easy.

"Don't be afraid of failure, because usually that is the best learning experience," said Niklas Zennstrom, who founded failed file-sharing service Kazaa before launching the Skype platform.

Zennstrom and other attendees mingled with Japanese business leaders and top politicians, then gave advice to thousands of attendees at a conference in central Tokyo on Tuesday. Many shared early tales of woe at their creations, including Google executive Andy Rubin, who first founded Android as an operating system for digital cameras.

Ben Silbermann said he had early troubles with his firm Pinterest, now valued at US$2.5 billion. He initially ran the company out of the living room of a two-bedroom apartment.

"In the world of companies, it probably had one of the worst starts. Very, very few people used it, but one thing that was important for me was that it was a better start than any of the things that I tried before," Silbermann said.

The conference, called the "New Economy Summit," was hosted by Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO and founder of Rakuten, Japan's largest e-commerce firm. The Japanese executive has challenged his country's traditional business culture and was selected by current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to serve on a council to make the country more competitive internationally.

"In order for innovation to connect to economic growth, businesses with new technologies must be created, and industries must be renewed," said Abe in a pre-recorded video shown at the Tokyo conference.

Many of the attendees have seen strong success in Japan. Others have yet to launch Japanese versions of their services but are still indebted to the country, such as Pinterest, in which Rakuten is a major investor.

"We were extremely surprised by how quickly Japan took to Twitter, and I think a lot of it was due to the developers who were building their own interfaces on top of something that we had built, and made it more culturally relevant," said Jack Dorsey, who built the service.

Leaders of successful Japanese start-ups also presented their views, including Yoshikazu Tanaka, who founded the Gree mobile game network, and Akira Morikawa, the CEO of the Line chat platform, which has 45 million users in Japan and over 10 million in each of Taiwan, Thailand and Spain.

Many speakers were critical of Japan's manufacturing-based economy, which has struggled in recent years. Joichi Ito, who is the director of the MIT Media Lab and the founder of multiple successful companies including Infoseek Japan, said many in the country haven't been able to adapt to the less rigid world of Internet business.

"Japan was very strong at innovation before the Internet," said Joichi Ito. "We were able to innovate in revolutionizing manufacturing in terms of mass production."

Many executives posted impressive charts showing users flocking to their services in record numbers. But others were more circumspect.

"Part of the big increases are due to the nature of the Internet, which makes it easier for users to move around," said Yukihiro Matsumoto, who created the Ruby programming language.

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