William H. Saito has enjoyed many successes in his short career as an information technology entrepreneur, but he is keen to stress the importance of failure.
“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough,” Saito stresses in his fascinating autobiography, “An Unprogrammed Life.”
Yet Saito nearly learned the cost of mistakes to his peril, after a failed youthful experiment with nitroglycerin that fortunately exploded only some equipment rather than causing injury.
Learning from mistakes is a major theme of Saito’s book, which despite the author’s youth has much to teach entrepreneurs of any age.
Having created groundbreaking technologies, sold his company I/O Software to Microsoft at the age of 34 for (undisclosed) riches and became the youngest Asian in history to win the Ernst and Young (E&Y) Entrepreneur of the Year award, the 41-year-old Japanese-American has already had an eventful career to reflect upon.
Many management books fall into the trap of whitewashing history or patronizing readers with business jargon. Fortunately, Saito’s book does neither, being written in a concise, journalistic style that is easy to comprehend, supported by takeaway messages at the end of each chapter.
Ironically, the California native initially struggled with English despite being named after the famous playwright. His parents encouraged him in math instead, buying him one of the first personal computers (PCs) ever developed.
Saito quickly discovered his talent and one of his first part-time jobs was writing programs for U.S. securities giant Merrill Lynch. Those of his generation might enjoy some nostalgic value from his recollections of the early PCs, which crashed so often that a popular product was “PC-shaped pillows that you could punch when the stress level with your $5,000 investment got to be too much.”
The author credits his Catholic high school for instilling in him both debating skills and a spirit of volunteerism — an ethos that he applied following the March 11, 2011 disasters, when he worked to ensure foreign doctors and other rescue workers coming to Japan would not be blocked by bureaucratic red tape.
His impatience with obstacles has been a hallmark of his career, as shown by his early graduation from high school at just 16, allowing him to shave a year off medical school. At college, he set up a computer business from empty dorm rooms that became a supplier to Japanese giants NEC, Sony and Toshiba.
Rather than being motivated by a burning desire to conquer the world, the author writes that he simply “liked to do stuff, and the stuff I got to play with became more and more interesting as I went along.”
His big breakthrough came in 1998, after his company’s work with Sony in creating a fingerprint recognition system helped win him the entrepreneur award, among other industry acclaim.
His next big success was in biometric authentication, where he helped develop the global standard adopted by Microsoft, eventually leading to its takeover of his highly profitable company.
Saito subsequently moved to Tokyo where, after a quick lesson in Japanese corporate governance as an outside director (“in Japan the CEO runs the board of directors, not the other way around,” he notes), he set up a new company to invest in Japanese startups, as well as serving as a government advisor and educator.
Having judged more than 10,000 business plans around the world as part of the E&Y awards, Saito says the winning formula is relatively simple: “Age, background or nationality doesn’t matter … award-winning entrepreneurs all share a passion and the common desire to make a difference in the world with their product or service.”
The bilingual author recommends learning another language, stating that a global CEO is “not just somebody who reads the news from around the world,” but rather someone open to different perspectives.
For business-minded readers, much of Saito’s recommendations may appear cliched, such as the need to find your passion. Those looking for a guidebook to success will be disappointed, but that is not the aim of this work.
In the wake of 3/11, Japan needs entrepreneurship more than ever before, “There is an old Japanese saying, ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight,’ which should be inscribed on every entrepreneur’s forehead,” he writes. Japanese may be “taught to abhor failure,” he says, but Japanese youth should be given the same opportunities he was to try, fail and try again.
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