Japan, last in startups, needs Masa the super angel

If Masayoshi Son is to set up another $100 billion Vision Fund, he should use it to tackle Japan’s low birth rate.

Not of humans – though it would be great if he could solve that problem. It’s the nation’s position dead last in global entrepreneurship that would be a better cause than pouring money into multibillion-dollar firms.

With a Global Entrepreneurial Spirit Index score of -0.95 last year, Japan ranked behind, well, everybody. Topping the list was Saudi Arabia at 0.87 points, with Indonesia, Vietnam and the US all in positive territory. India and Taiwan were among the other laggards.

I wrote about this topic two years ago when I noted the birth of a rare Japanese unicorn, Mercari Inc. 

Things haven’t improved much since. Across the many data points collated by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor over the past 17 years, Japan consistently ranks among the worst.

In 2017, it was last in the area of perceived entrepreneurial capability. In other words, Japanese people don’t think they have what it takes to open a startup. Japan is also last in perceived opportunities, and entrepreneurial intentions, and near the bottom in early-stage entrepreneurial activity.

So rather than use a second Vision Fund to pump money into established names like ARM Holdings Plc, Nvidia Corp. and Flipkart Online Services Pvt, I’m calling upon SoftBank Group Corp.’s Son to become a Super Angel. He should start dishing out money, training and support to don’t-wannabe entrepreneurs in Japan, Taiwan, India and elsewhere.

US outfits Y Combinator Inc. and 500 Startups are good examples of the seed-accelerator model. But these offer elementary-level education whereas reticent Japanese and Taiwanese have yet to graduate kindergarten.

One part of the problem is that fear of failure (FOFA) exceeds fear of missing out (FOMO), such that startups don’t sprout. If that equation can be reversed, then new businesses should flourish.

Masa clearly doesn’t fear failure. But millions of his countrymen do, and so do millions more around the region. SoftBank Vision Institutes could provide livable stipends, practical training and counseling support (don't scoff, burnout and psychological issues are rife in the startup world). This could provide enough of a safety net to spur smart thinkers that are wasting away in their stable corporate jobs to take the leap.

A $100 billion wad of angel funding would go a long way toward reshaping perceptions about risk-taking and ability, and provide the vision many parts of Asia so badly need.

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