Taro Fukuyama, came from Japan with a suitcase and a belief that the streets were lined with investors. He also believed it would be easy to get a visa. Neither of course are true, but with persistence he got both. Taro co-founded and is CEO of AnyPerk, a fast growing provider of pre-negotiated perks to over 2,500 companies. After reading about Taro in Fast Company Magazine’s “7 People Under 30 Who Are Changing Our World”, I set out to meet him. I discovered that Taro while he has achieved so much, has not fulfilled the other reason he came to America: to meet the ten time Major League Baseball All Star winner, Ichiro Suzuki.
Taro Fukuyama, came from Japan with a suitcase and a belief that the streets were lined with investors. He also believed it would be easy to get a visa. Neither of course are true, but with persistence he got both. Taro co-founded and is CEO of AnyPerk, a fast growing provider of pre-negotiated perks to over 2,500 companies. After reading about Taro in Fast Company Magazine’s 7 people under 30 who are changing our world, and set out to meet him. I discovered that Taro while he has achieved so much, has not fulfilled the other reason he came to America: to meet the ten time Major League Baseball All Star winner, Ichiro Suzuki.
Taro Fukuyama lived in America for one year, during his high school years. The other kids did not give Taro much notice, but he noticed they loved Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese baseball player, a former Yankees outfielder, currently a right fielder for the Miami Marlins.
Taro realized that America was a country that respected accomplishment.
Taro returned to Japan, to attend law school at Keio University (which ranks third in the world in having alumni serving as CEOs of Fortune Global 500 Companies). After graduating, he wanted to return to the land of Ichiro. Because he could not get a visa, he ended up in Singapore for almost two years, but in 2011 came to San Francisco looking for investors for his new business idea.
He soon ran out of money. He lived in car in a Taco Bell parking lot. Then in a cheap $10 per night hotel in San Francisco’s Mission District. He was sad. He gave up. There was one more day before he had to return to Japan.
He hustled his way into the Disrupt Conference, put on my TechCrunch, as a translator. As YC Combinator founder Paul Grahm walked the aisle after his speech, Taro with limited English made his pitch.
With a one percent chance of success, AnyPerk ultimately received a $1.45 million investment from YC Combinator, with follow-up investments from Gary Vaynerchuk, AJ Vaynerchuk, James Lin and Tim Fong, and VC firms.
Taro talks about the challenges of coming here without a perfect plan, how his ignorance of many legal or practical obstacles proved an advantage, getting his visa, and his most important skill set. He lays out his advice for new entrepreneurs, as he was just four years ago.
Kent ([1:24]): So Taro you are living in San Francisco now. Is that right?
Kent: How do you like living there?
Taro: It’s alright. It’s a little expensive. I miss food in Tokyo, but I say this is one of the best places to run a company, so I am very happy to be here.
Kent: What is your best memory Taro of your hometown, Tokyo?
Taro: I would say the food is really good. Every time you go to a sushi place, the service is good and the food itself is good, the drink is good. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Kent: How are the prices for sushi in Japan compared to here?
Taro: I would say the same or a little cheaper than here. Between 50-100 bucks per person is a kind of reference to a good sushi place.
Kent ([2:03]): So when you were thinking about leaving Japan, where you thinking of a variety of countries or were you just thinking California?
Taro: I was thinking a variety, but I would say I wanted to build something that can be used, that can change the lives of a lot of people in the US as well. I thought coming to California was kind of the best way to achieve that. I was thinking other areas as well, but I would say California is always the top choice for me.
Kent ([2:28]): Taro you attended Keio, one of the top Universities in Japan. What city is that located in?
Tarot: It’s in Tokyo.
Kent: What part of Tokyo?
Taro: They have a few campuses, but one of them is called Tamachi.
Kent: What did you study in Keio?
Kent: Was that a good major for you?
Taro: Yeah. I think what I learned there helped me a lot for what I am doing today. Sometimes I wish I learned engineering or computer science there as well.
Kent ([3:00]): Were you reading thinkers or thought leaders that influenced that?
Taro: Not really, but less on that kind of industry that I am in right now, but more like when I saw Ichiro doing well in baseball, that kind. I wanted to come to the US and do the same challenge.
Kent: When you left Japan, did you leave with friends or you came by yourself?
Taro: I had one co-founder so there were two of us and we came here.
Kent: What happened when you came to California?
Taro: Me and Sunny was a co-founder. I started this company in summer 2011. We were initially in Tokyo and we felt that if you want to do big things, you have to come to San Francisco at the valley. We came here and we really felt that, if you come to San Francisco you can raise money because that is what I read on TechCrunch or other tech articles. We came here with no money, no hotels, no product, no customers, or anything like that. We really felt that if you come here you can just raise money. Of course that’s not true. We met hundreds of investors, but no one gave us money. We had no money, so we had to sleep in Taco Bell parking lot or sleep in a super cheap hotel. That was kind of how we started in 2011.
Kent ([4:12]): Wait, I am sorry, you had to sleep where?
Taro: Taco bell Parking lot.
Kent: Why did you sleep in the Taco Bell parking lot?
Taro: Well, we got a car from a friend. That was the only thing we had. We decided to sleep in there because we realized it was free, but we felt sleeping on the street is dangerous so we felt that if we go to Taco Bell it is open 24/7 so it is more secure than the street.
Kent ([4:41]): What part of San Francisco were you in?
Taro: The parking lot was in Redwood City and then we moved in a motel that was Mission 16th because that was the cheapest motel we could find.
Kent: You are talking to investors about; what idea are you talking to them about?
Taro: Initially we were working on an idea that was a dating site. It is completely different, what we are doing today.
Kent ([5:05]): Talk about how you got from there to what you are doing today.
Taro: The first two months, because our visas were limited, we had only two or three months that we could stay at that moment. We went to talk to say, 100-200 investors when I was staying there, however no one gave us money. It was kind of obvious because we had no customers, no products, no revenue at all. We were actually disappointed and sad. We decided to go back to Tokyo, because we felt it was too hard for us to raise money in San Francisco as well. On the last day there was a conference called TechCrunch disrupt and we thought right, it is the last day anyway, let’s have fun to meet other entrepreneurs as well. We went there, but they are like, you guys didn’t register, you guys didn’t prepay the fee, so you have to pay $2000 to get in. I felt $2000 is a big bill for us because we were staying at the motel that was $10 a night for three people, so there was no way we could pay, but we saw some of the Japanese people come into that conference, so I told the entrance that alright, some Japanese people are coming from Japan and they are paying a lot of money for the flight and hotels and everything, but the problem was that they did not speak English and they won’t have fun, because they can’t talk to anybody so they will not come back. But if there is one person who can help them who can speak both Japanese and English then they will have fun and they will probably come back. Eventually it would be a great investment for your conference as well. Let me in for free and hire me as a translator so that I can do that for you. They were like, alright you guys are hustling now so you guys should come in for free. We got in for free and Paul Graham, who was a partner of y-Combinator accelerator was speaking there. After the speaking session he was walking down the aisle. I felt that right this is actually the last investor that we can pitch to, so let’s just go talk to him. We went there and said, hey Paul, we are here from Japan. Can you give us money? He was like, alright. You guys are maybe interesting, but Tokyo is probably a pretty big market, so you should start there and come back to the US when it actually scales. It won’t be too late for you guys. He is pretty famous of the fact that he writes a lot of essays and blogs. One of the blogs said that, if you want to do really big things, you have to come to the Bay area because that is the place to start a company. So I used that and I said, Alright Paul, the reason I came here was because I read your blog saying you have to come here to do big things, so I think it is time for you to take responsibility, because you are the one who told me to come here. He was like, “alright, you guys are funny and dedicated enough so you should probably try to apply to Y-Combinator and we can help you.” That was the game changer. We applied and got into YC. That changed everything. That was January, 2012.
Kent ([8:04]): That day at TechCrunch, have you spoken to other investors as well?
Taro: Yeah. There was Ron Conway and other guest speakers there as well, but Paul was one of the few that really listened to what I was trying to say and really tried to help. That’s when I said this is one of the investors that I knew before and felt was an investor that actually cared about entrepreneurs who are not famous.
Kent ([8:29]): All you had now was a chance to pitch to Y-Combinator. Nothing is guaranteed. I don’t know what the ratio is from how many make pitches to how many are allowed to YC.
Taro: It is 1 percent. I heard the math and it is harder to get into Harvard or Stanford.
Kent: Definitely. I think that is around 10% actually. Now is there a fee when you apply?
Taro: No, but at the time we were in Tokyo so we had to fly to San Francisco and they could not cover the entire fee.
Kent: So now you are giving a pitch to YC and you gave them the pitch on the dating website.
Taro: We were still working on that website.
Kent ([9:22]): And you got into YC with that.
Taro: Fact. That kind of really changed everything. Initially when we first came to San Francisco, for example we were using some co working spaces, but they didn’t even care about what we do because that is some random startup from Asia. We went back to the space and told them that we got into Y-Combinator and they were like, oh I am so proud of you! You guys can stay another three months for free. There was no way we were going to use this place ever again. I mean the fact that there are so many startups in San Francisco and it’s really hard to be outstanding and get attention from others, but raising money from great investors is a way to prove, it’s kind of a social proof that you have something that is going on. When we came we had nothing like that and Y Combinator was one of the best things that could change that as well.
Kent ([10:27]): An incredible brand. Going back to Japan for a second, were your parents entrepreneurs?
Taro: No. My grandfather started a company and my dad kind of runs it right now, but my parents are not entrepreneurs.
Kent: So where do you think that came from? This kind of urge to venture overseas and put yourself out there.
Taro: It goes back to my experience in high school. I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Tokyo as well, but I decided to study abroad for one year in the US and ended up studying in Missouri for one year and at that moment I thought, coming from Tokyo was a cool thing because we have technology and all that cool stuff. I thought people were going to respect me, because I was from Tokyo or something like that. The fact was that they may have been joking, but they were like, oh, do you guys still have samurai on the street or PlayStation 9 or 10. They were kind of making fun of me and I was still a high school student, so I was very frustrated by the fact that they were making fun of me. At the same time, Ichiro and Godzilla Matsui were doing really well in baseball and those same people were screaming their names on TV like, Oh Ichiro you are doing great. That made me feel that, this is a country that if you do great things regardless of where you are from, they will really respect you and admire you. That made me feel like, maybe it’s too late for me to play baseball, but probably I can do something for my industry when I grow up. I don’t know if entrepreneurship was my only option I had at the moment, but that was what I was thinking that, when I grew up, I really wanted to come back to the US and challenge something.
Kent ([12:09]): Did you get to meet Ichiro yet?
Taro: No, can you help me?
Kent: It’s a great story. They take baseball very seriously in Japan right? Like in elementary school or high school.
Taro: Yeah they do.
Kent ([12:25]): What about taking that leap to come to America, that immigrant perspective helps you succeed to getting AnyPerk started?
Taro: Yeah, I would say Visa issues were one of the hardest things we had to overcome when we started. When I graduated I actually wanted to come to the US to work on some tech companies. I got some offers, but the problem was that they were all saying, we can hire you, but not issue a visa, so you have to work in Tokyo, which I didn’t want to do. I had to actually go to Singapore, which was a lot easier to get a Visa as a worker from Tokyo. When I started this company after that, it was still hard to get a Visa. To be short it took 1 and a half years to get me a Visa to legally work here. That was one of the hardest things we had to work on.
Kent ([13:12]): You went from Tokyo to Singapore and back to Tokyo and back to America. Is that right?
Taro: Right. In 2010 I graduated college and I had wanted to come to the US, but it didn’t happen so I went to Singapore which was easier to get a visa. After one year of working there I came back to San Francisco.
Kent ([13:33]): Through your experience of taking the challenge and the leap to come to America, how do you think that helped you work through or persist through or push through?
Taro: Most likely the reason why we were so persistent to get that was probably A, we didn’t know anything about the visa. I thought it was kind of easy to get it if you just start a company. I really didn’t know how hard it was. If I come back 5 years ago and if I had to advise some other companies, I would say it’s really hard. I don’t know if it’s worth trying even. At the moment I was so ignorant. I really didn’t know anything, so that was probably the first reason. B, I had a really big passion that I wanted to start and build a really great company in San Francisco as well. Those two really helped me to keep working on the visa issue even though it took such a long time.
Kent ([14:21]): Besides that, what has your biggest challenge been?
Taro: I would say a lot of things. The biggest challenge I would say is, this is my first company in the US. I have never worked in any company in the US as well. I don’t know anything about the culture and I don’t know anything about common sense here as well. To realize the fact that I don’t know anything about running a company in the US was the first challenge I had to overcome.
Kent ([14:50]): What is the biggest change in mindset since you came here?
Taro: The mindset was similar that I realized that I don’t know anything. Let’s just acknowledge the fact and let’s hire the right people who can tell me and who know how to do things here. Try to make sure the fact that you don’t know anything so you can really absorb and understand a lot of things that you work with. That was the biggest mindset I could have starting a company in the US. If I had to start in Japan then I felt like, oh I know a lot of things in Japan so, maybe I become arrogant or overconfident and those kind of stuff which I didn’t need to have because I started in the US.
Kent ([15:33]): Talk about AnyPerk. What do you do and why would a small company want to contract with AnyPerk?
Taro: The biggest problem when we started was, we felt employee happiness was undervalued today. We started a company that help companies create a place where employees love to work. A really good solution for that is what I was thinking when we started in 2012. Right now, what we do is provide employee perks and rewards to companies. A lot of companies are competing and challenge each other to try to make sure employees are happy so they stay at the companies. We help companies provide high quality perks and rewards so they can say, hey thanks for working at this company, thanks for being awesome at this company, here is a way that you can save money on your lifestyle or you can receive some of the rewards the company gives as well. That’s why a lot of companies are excited to start doing that, because they know employee happiness is one of the biggest issues for them. In the last few years we got over 1000 clients including large companies like, Salesforce, Virgin America, and startups like Pinterest and square as well.
Kent ([16:48]): Wow congratulations. Talk about some of the perks. What are some of the more popular perks?
Taro: We have almost 850 perks on our platform right now. I would say the main categories why companies are excited are gym, entertainment, shopping, and travel are the four main categories. We have a lot of major gym chains like, Equinox, 24 Fitness, LA fitness, you can save 10 to 40% every month for membership.
Kent ([17:15]): When you began AnyPerk, did you begin by approaching the vendors, the providers of the services or did you begin by approaching the employers?
Taro: Both. This is kind of a marketplace model that you need to have customers who use perks to negotiate the vendors to give the perks. You need to have perks to get customers excited to sign up, so it is a common chicken and egg problem that a lot of companies have. We had to do both. There is no simple answer to focus one or the other?
Kent ([17:45]): What did that look like? How did you actually start getting the first customers?
Taro: One of the lessons that we learned at Y-Combinator was that they told us, alright one of the lessons we can teach you is sell, before you actually build. You don’t need to wait for the product to be built to start selling. Meaning you can just build a mockup or a design of the future version and start talking to customers like, hey we are building this, it will probably take another 3-4 months, but after 4 months I will be committed to build this, would you sign up today so we can give you a discount and negotiate better perks for you or something. What we did was, we went to both partners and customers and said, this is what we are building. We need your help, but if you do, then I am confident that we can create a really good product for you guys.
Kent ([18:31]): How did you actually do that? Did you walk in and talk to people, did you telephone, did you email people? How did you approach your first customers?
Taro: All the channels. I had no connections because I just came from Tokyo, so I emailed everybody that you can find a contact on the internet. I called everyone I knew and I asked an intro for everyone I know, I don’t think there was one way that was working, I wish there were, but we were just hustling all the way. I was sending a thousand emails every week or every day to see at least one or two replies to start things happening.
Kent ([19:06]): So what is your Japanese secret sauce?
Taro: I don’t know. I wish there was some secret sauce that I brought from Tokyo. One of the things, especially in this product, in Japan there are two public companies doing the same thing as AnyPerk in the Japanese market. In the US there is no public company or market leader yet that is doing something that I felt, alright, this is something that I know how those successful companies are doing in Japan that no other people in the US know that I can bring from Tokyo to the US market and then solve the problems in the US as well. The fact that there are successful cases in Japan, that was not yet in the US, was the advantage that I had.
Kent ([19:52]): That is a great point for immigrants. Coming from another marketplace, they may have something unique that is not going here. To bring that and adapt, did you have to make some adaptations or did you study it a lot or was it kind of just the basic idea that you thought, oh here is an idea.
Taro: Honestly, we didn’t start this company because we knew there were successful companies in Japan. It is more like, when we started, we researched it also. We saw that oh, that actually works in Japan so let’s start moving forward and keep researching at the same time as well. We were doing both at the same time and validating every day to make sure this actually works or not. Even though there are successful companies, it’s still a different culture going to different countries. It is more or keep building and keep researching and hopefully there is one day that moves forward.
Kent ([20:44]): What is going on with the entrepreneur culture? Is there a Silicon Valley in Japan?
Taro: So far I hate to say there is a Silicon Valley in Tokyo. I would say it is getting much better and more companies are starting, more investors are there, more IPOs are there, more acquisitions are there. I would say it’s getting better, but still by far Silicon Valley is the best place to start a company.
Kent ([21:07]): What differences would you observe?
Taro: The biggest difference is the number of companies starting every day. The number of people who start a company is the biggest difference. If enough people start in Japan, then some of the companies will be successful and those people will become investors and those people will acquire other companies and some people will get wealthy and become angel investors and more companies will start a company there. I think the ecosystem will start by more people starting a company. That is the biggest difference between Silicon Valley versus any other country and any other place not only Tokyo.
Kent ([21:46]): It is not a matter of individuals, it is more a matter of the ecosystem itself, just having that mass.
Taro: To start the ecosystem, individuals need to be inspired and excited to start a company as well. It is a chicken and egg problem, but I would say the first problem we have to solve is to excite people to start more companies than today. The goal is to create another Silicon Valley.
Kent ([22:09]): So you came out of law school, you are not really an engineer, you are not a technologist. Is that right?
Taro: Correct, but the biggest skill that I have is the passion and hustle that I would do everything to make things move forward.
Kent: Is that the role you are still playing right now with your company?
Taro: I am trying to. There are some CEO work I have to do, but that is something I will never lose.
Kent ([22:35]): What advice do you have for other immigrant entrepreneurs?
Taro: I would say that, the fact that even I started a company and even I have 50 people here and have a lot of customers here is a fact that you don’t need to have big talent or you don’t need to be a genius to start a company in the US. I think a lot of people want to be perfect before they come to the US to challenge this. I would say, nobody is perfect and trying is the best way to learn how to be better. I would suggest coming here and start a company if you are interested in it.
Kent ([23:10]): What inspires you today in terms of books or people or resources.
Taro: People that I am working with at AnyPerk is the biggest resource that inspire me. Silicon Valley has a great ecosystem that, you can hire people that are much smarter and experienced than we have today. We have a lot of people that have a lot more experience than I do and they are the people who can tell me, alright Taro this is one of the ways we can go, this is one advice that I learned from other companies. Those people are keeping me apt to be a better CEO and the biggest inspiring factor that I have today.
Kent ([23:48]): You didn’t have resources when you came. How did you move forward without resources?
Taro: In the beginning you start a company with founders so you don’t know anybody. We are lucky that we had investors investing in us. They introduced us to some people that might be a good fit for us as well. That is kind of how we started. So investors connections, recruiters, Y-Combinator network, we used everything we could use to get things going.
Kent ([24:16]): So what is your dream now?
Taro: There are a bunch of things we want to do as a company, but my personal goal is, if I can be one of the role models for future kids and generations of Japanese people and they get inspired by the fact that even Taro can do this, then they feel alright, then I can do this, probably more entrepreneurs would start a company in the future. I really am focused on building a successful company here so that it would probably help future generations especially in Tokyo to start more companies.
Kent ([24:52]): Do you have any other dream?
Taro: I think the fact that Ichiro inspired me is really good. I have never met him in person as well, so in the future I would love to see him and say hi and thank you.
Kent ([25:08]): Taro, what is the best way for people to get a hold of you?
Taro: I am on twitter; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org so if you have any questions feel free email me or mention me on twitter.