Toshi Yamamoto – Founder and CEO of ChatWork

In Japanese, it’s called “Gen-in Jibunron,” and the English translation means, “Blame yourself, not others.” When things go wrong, I take accountability, because blaming others instead wouldn’t allow me to improve myself.

As Founder and CEO, Toshi Yamamoto oversees the day-to-day operations of ChatWork, the group chat tool for global teams based in Silicon Valley and Japan. Inspired by his father, a successful Japanese businessman, Toshi, together with his younger brother, Masaki, founded their first web marketing and software sales company, EC studio, in 2000. Although Toshi is the CEO of ChatWork, a technology company, his specific experience and talents are not rooted in tech skills like designing software, coding, or creating PowerPoint presentations. However, Masaki is an engineering whiz, so the pair greatly complement one another. Toshi as the thought leader and businessman who heads up key areas for the company, like sales and marketing, and Masaki as the product developer and right-hand CTO. In 2012, the company decided to dedicate all of its resources to growing its internal group chat tool and soon rebranded the company to “ChatWork.” Toshi then made a decision to move to Silicon Valley to expand the ChatWork brand to global markets. As Toshi manages both U.S. and Japan companies, he uses the ChatWork product to manage his remote employees.

Toshi is a best-selling author on fostering employee satisfaction, and ChatWork was twice ranked the best company to work for in Japan.

Toshi’s company, ChatWork helps more than 100,000 companies across 205 countries and regions communicate, collaborate and increase productivity. ChatWork received $2.5 million in Series A funding from GMO Venture Partners in April 2015 and $12.5 million in Series B funding from JAFCO and other investors in January 2016.

Where did the idea for ChatWork come from?

Toshi launched EC studio in 2000, a company dedicated to helping Japanese SMBs grow sales by helping them develop better websites. To help facilitate communication between his employees and their many clients, Toshi invented a chat platform. Built to organize and streamline internal communication for B2B companies, the sleek platform changed everything. As the business landscape shifted and companies grew more sophisticated about the internet, the need for webpage consulting subsided, but the need for real-time, efficient communication grew.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I start my days with my family – taking our children to school together with my wife. I make my days as efficient as possible by maximizing technology. One example is catching an Uber to and from work so my wife has the car on a more flexible schedule to do what she needs.

Also, segmenting my days into sections helps me focus on what’s important for the business. After taking care of priority chat messages early in the morning, I carve out late mornings to discuss product plans and updates. I maximize my lunches through networking and mentoring meetups I’ve scheduled with fellow entrepreneurs. I often share with them my experience developing and growing ChatWork – what I learned as an entrepreneur in Japan and then, most importantly, about making the transition to Silicon Valley and what it takes to succeed here and scale the business globally. During my evenings I’m able to connect with my international ChatWork teams located in Japan at the times that fit their schedules best. We use our own product to communicate, usually by video conference, sharing files and short messages through the group chat channels, etc.

How do you bring ideas to life?

By using simple, real-time tools including chat, video conferencing, VOIP calling, screen sharing, file sharing and recording screencasts. I’m also a big fan of mind mapping in the cloud. Having all of these collaborative tools accessible on desktop and mobile via one platform is key to seeing my ideas take shape and being able to shape them further with my team. Also, there’s just no substitute to in-person connections as well, which is why I regularly fly between our U.S. and Japan offices and encourage my teams to do this, too, when needed.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Connecting customers to one another to solve real-world business problems. The term I use for this trend is “business matchmaking,” and there are so many ideas around this that I’m excited about when it comes to creating win/win opportunities for our users and ChatWork. They’ll add more value to the ChatWork customer experience. With chat (as opposed to email) customers can get connected in real-time to talk about partnership ideas, business deals, ask questions and share mutually beneficial contacts. Matches can be completely customized by criteria like service or product relevancy, need, timeframe, geographic location, price, etc. We’ve had organic success with this in Japan so that’s a nice “proof of concept” for me for other markets.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It’s what we call in Japanese, “Mochi wa Mochiya.” Being an entrepreneur, I tend to share this habit with my fellow entrepreneurs striving for success. In English, the phrase is best translated as: “Mochi should only be made at Mochi shops” or in other words, “leave it to the specialists.” I feel so strongly about this habit that I actually adopted it as my personal motto. I lead from this perspective of letting my employees do what they do best and delegating the tasks they’re not as strong in to others who do specialize in them. I also think it’s important to meet one-on-one with employees to determine their specializations so I know how to delegate tasks appropriately.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The hardest time I went through was about three years ago. At the time, I did not expect that the number of users for my chat platform would dramatically increase in rapid time. When the data server reached its limit, it could no longer support the increased amount of information that came with user gains, and it went down. While it was only down for a brief amount of time, the office was flooded with complaints and a need to restore it quickly. From this experience, I learned that when working in a SaaS business, you need to have the most robust infrastructure in place ahead of time so it can scale exactly when and as rapidly as you need it to. Chat apps are very viral, and users who joined ChatWork invited more of their contacts more quickly than I thought they would. Also, when managing a product like ours, that’s used in 205 countries and regions around the world, there can be a large number of users in ChatWork at any time of day – infrastructure stability and keeping the service up 24/7 is crucial.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I had to start over, I wouldn’t change anything. Each decision I made and each action I took helped me to develop ChatWork into what it is today. The only key part about the idea of starting over would be increased efficiency. In that situation, I’d be able to skip the learning process and apply what I’ve already learned – accelerating business growth even more quickly.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

It’s more of a lesson I learned and then implemented for myself at ChatWork. In Japanese, it’s called “Gen-in Jibunron,” and the English translation means, “Blame yourself, not others.” When things go wrong, I take accountability, because blaming others instead wouldn’t allow me to improve myself. I recommend others adopt this philosophy too because when you take accountability for something, it causes you to think before you implement changes and that prevents future problems. If you blame others, sure, it’s easier for you at the moment but over time you could find yourself in the similar situation of attempting to fix a problem that should have already been remedied.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Conducting a SWOT analysis of my (former) company, EC studio, and identifying internal communication as one of our weaknesses. I knew at that point that I had the experience and skills to develop my own solution to the problem instead of relying on an outside solution. I ended up building the product, ChatWork, to solve the problem. It turned out to be what we needed – and what hundreds of thousands of others needed in hindsight, too.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

When I first founded my company, I was young and did not have the best management style because I lacked experience in this area. I lead with what I call a “military style management.” Soon, though, I started to get negative feedback from employees. They started complaining of stomachaches and headaches. Some took ample sick days and in about four months many began to quit. At first, I saw it as their fault. I thought because I was invested in them that they should work hard for the salaries I was paying them, but after I gave it more thought, I realized I, as the company leader, was actually to blame and I made a conscious decision to seize the opportunity to improve the ChatWork company culture.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

We’re replicating a partner program which proved to be a very successful model for us in Japan. I think replicating this in the U.S. will be a win/win because we’re giving ChatWork Inc. a new sales team, and in the process of recruiting and building relationships with these partners, we also get our foot in the door introducing them to ChatWork. To successfully sell ChatWork, the partner must create an account, learn how to use it, invite his or her colleagues, etc. Users make the best educators for prospective customers.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Fees to use the ride service provider, Uber, to commute to and from the office. It gives me some spare time and moments of peace where I can block out the world and concentrate on things like developing new ideas and replying to high-priority messages.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Besides ChatWork, there are three software tools I rely heavily on. The first is a cloud-based mind mapping tool called MindMeister. I’m a visual learner and capturing, seeing and sharing information with my team visually, in a mind map, is a more intuitive way, I believe, to process large amounts of information and see the relationships that exist within each piece. We conduct our weekly team meetings at ChatWork in MindMeister and everyone gets the big picture of what’s going on in any given week and what still needs to be done. Mind maps also allow you to store all of that information in one place where it’s always easily accessible afterwards. I know where to go to find everything I need to know or be reminded of, and so does everyone else on my team.

The next two tools I use in combination – they are Snagit with YouTube. I manage a global team and many of my employees are overseas in Japan. Given the time differences in Japan and here in Silicon Valley, using a screen capture tool with video, like SnagIt, I can respond to messages in a more detailed and personal way, share ideas and provide project and budget approvals as needed. I then upload these SnagIt videos to YouTube in private viewing mode and share links with relevant employees. It’s a more personal way to communicate when live video conferencing and audio isn’t possible given our differing time zones.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

A book called “The Path: Find Fulfillment through prosperity from Japan’s Father of Management.” It was originally written in Japanese by Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, and this link has the English translated version. The book taught me to take challenges with my business and in the way I manage it. The book also taught me how to innovate at every level, get through tough times and to trust in my employees tapping into their individual strengths.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

It’s actually a very large group of people – 1,000 CEOs, to be exact. When I was 25 years old and still learning how to be a CEO, I set a goal to motivate myself: meet with 1,000 successful and tenured CEOs to learn how to identify a great one from a mediocre or bad one. I learned so many lessons through the experience. Most importantly, I learned how to take accountability for my company and what happens to it. In other words, not to project negative outcomes onto my employees.


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