Sony ex-boss seeks to boost start-ups

Once part of big biz, Idei plans capital fund for small ventures

by Jason Clenfield and Mariko Yasu

Bloomberg

Nobuyuki Idei once embodied Japan’s corporate establishment, the leader of technology giant Sony Corp. Now 75, he’s aiming to reinvent himself as a cross between a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Hollywood mogul.

The former Sony CEO describes himself as the “executive producer” behind a long list of projects, including a venture fund, a design consultancy and a salon for entrepreneurs. They’re all designed to boost start-ups in Japan, a country the World Bank ranks behind Ghana and Tanzania in ease of starting a business.

“We want to transform Japanese corporations and society because after Sony and Honda (Motor Co.), no big companies have been born except retailers,” said Idei, seated in front of a wall of windows at the offices of his Quantum Leaps Corp. in central Tokyo. “In Japan, the concept of patient risk money doesn’t exist.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Idei touched on everything from the difficulty domestic entrepreneurs have in finding investors to Nikolai Kondratiev’s obscure theories on technology cycles. He also said he had no regrets about his much-criticized stewardship of one of the nation’s most iconic companies.

“I don’t think I made any mistakes,” Idei said. “From the beginning I was just a company employee at Sony. I never dreamed that I would be the CEO of the Sony Corporation, but becoming a CEO is like riding a roller coaster. You have ups and downs, negative press is inevitable.”

Sony’s shares peaked at ¥16,300 in March 2000, about four months before Idei took over as chairman and CEO. By the time he stepped down in June 2005, Sony’s shares were trading at around ¥3,900.

Idei’s office sits several blocks from the Roppongi nightlife district and is cluttered with black leather sofas and chairs. A triptych behind his desk shows the Manhattan skyline; the sound of birds chirping wafts in from outside.

He retains the mane of swept-back hair that was his trademark at Sony. Dressed in blue slacks, he moves lightly across the office to tug papers from one of the many piles and then launches into an explanation of life after Sony.

Quantum Leaps, founded in 2006, has grown into a 10-person firm aimed at helping local entrepreneurs. Idei reeled off a list of about 20 start-ups to which he’s lent his time, and sometimes his money. His latest project — which he compared with a movie produced by the “Idei studio” — is a venture capital fund he is planning to finance by soliciting corporate sponsors.

Among the start-ups he’s backed are Dreamforest Corp., a maker of smartphone accessories that can help you fine-tune your golf swing, and Green Lord Motors Co., a maker of handcrafted electric sport cars he said might one day rival Tesla Motors Inc. The Kyoto-based start-up, in its fourth year of business, took orders for its first 36 vehicles this summer. They sell for about ¥8 million.

Focusing on start-ups is quite a switch for a man who was at the helm of a sprawling global conglomerate with more than 150,000 workers. The new tact reflects hard-learned lessons about how corporate bureaucracy stifles innovation, Idei said.

“I worked for Sony for many years and tried to transform it, but for a big company with something like $90 billion (in) sales, it’s really difficult to foster something with sales of $100 million within the group,” he said. “It’s just too big.”

During his tenure, Sony fell behind in the transition to flat-panel televisions and Apple Inc.’s iPod stole the market for personal music players away from the company that invented the Walkman. Apple followed that up with the iPhone, which helped make it the most valuable company in the world.

“Managing a company is a marathon race with no end,” said Idei. “I was in charge for nearly 10 years and I had two primary duties: one (was) to sow seeds for the future; the other was to manage today.”

To get Sony ready for the future, Idei said he built the Playstation business and started a mobile phone venture now bearing fruit.

Idei’s latest project is World Innovation Lab (WIL), a venture fund started in the last few months. The goal is to use his Rolodex to tap about 10 of Japan’s biggest companies for a few hundred million dollars. Fundraising should be completed by the end of December, Idei said, declining to name who he’d approached because “we’re in a critical stage now.”

“Big companies in Japan have everything — money, people, intellectual property — but they’re too big to make small, unique things happen,” he said. “So the idea of WIL is to try to attract investment from big corporations and carve out venture businesses.”

A lifetime spent climbing the corporate ladder makes Idei an unlikely savior for entrepreneurs, who need mentors with hands-on experience building businesses from nothing, according to Greg Tarr, managing partner at venture fund CrossPacific Capital in Palo Alto, California.

“The big question is: What qualifies a salaryman to actually be advising the few good entrepreneurs that are there?” Tarr said in an interview. “The way we do things in Silicon Valley is we want to work with people who have been in that battle zone going from zero to $10 million in revenue and have scar tissue.”

Japan remains a tough place to start a major business, though there are the rare exceptions, like Masayoshi Son’s Softbank Corp., which has become the second-largest company on the Nikkei 225 stock average by market value since its founding in 1981.

“There are a lot of risk-takers, but they have to be endorsed by money,” Idei said.

With most Japanese venture capital firms run by banks loath to take on risk, start-up funding was about $1.2 billion in the 12 months through March 2012, according to the most recent figures from Tokyo-based researcher Venture Enterprise Center. The U.S. market was $27 billion in 2012, data from the National Venture Capital Association show.

The World Bank ranks Japan 114th of 185 countries in terms of ease for entrepreneurs in starting businesses. The place with the fewest obstacles to getting off the ground is New Zealand. The U.S. ranks 13th.

“In Silicon Valley there is a kind of ecosystem starting with Stanford and Sequoia,” said Idei, referring to the university and venture firm Sequoia Capital. “They help each other. That environment doesn’t exist here in Japan.”