People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Satoru Naito: Starting up in San Francisco

A movie changed the life of Satoru “Steve” Naito.

While at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, the then economics undergraduate watched “The Social Network,” a biographical drama about Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook. Inspired — particularly because Zuckerberg was his age when he got the idea for the social networking site — Naito began dreaming of how he could create a similar global product that would impact the world.

He saw the greatest opportunities in IT and, after learning that Facebook, Twitter and Google were all developed in Silicon Valley, decided that was where he needed to be.

After graduation in 2013, aged 22 and with only $5,000 saved from part-time jobs, he packed up his life in Japan and headed for San Francisco, despite having no business plan or contacts on the ground.

Naito admits he felt “a mix of nervousness and excitement” on his “very uncertain, even risky” move, but was far from naive. He knew he faced a long, tough road to develop a global business and was driven by the thought of living in his “dream place.”

His first step on arrival was getting a revenue source that would enable him to explore business ideas. He set up a share house at $30 a night targeting Japanese students and entrepreneurs. Bookings quickly took off as the appeal was two-fold: a cheap price in an overpriced market and a Japanese-speaking environment.

Next, he worked on improving his network and English speaking skills by contributing articles to TechCrunch Japan, an online site that supports startups and publishes technology reports and news. He also launched TechWatch, a blog for which he interviewed more than 100 entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley about their experiences in business.

“When I arrived in San Francisco, I struggled to order coffee in Starbucks,” he says of his English ability. “I learned English by doing the interviews. I prepared the questions in advance so, although I couldn’t understand the responses, I could conduct the interview and listen to the recording afterwards, to learn new phrases and expressions.”

With growing resources, Naito kept seeking out and testing unique business ideas. Finding a feasible one was not easy; he spent two years in a trial-and-error process, trying not to grow weary.

“It was tough,” he says of those first two years. “I introduced myself as an entrepreneur, but I didn’t have a business. It was like saying ‘I’m a baseball player, but I don’t have a bat.’ The first time I failed, I was so sad, but then I realized that making a global product takes time and I should keep going.”

Then came a coincidence that changed everything.

In 2015, Naito was looking for a new place to rent and was frustrated by the need to sign long-term contracts, set up utilities and buy furniture. He wanted more flexible housing options and found none, which sparked his idea of living in a hotel long term. After contacting 100 hotels in San Francisco, three agreed to offer a discount for staying more than 30 consecutive nights, and the concept of Naito’s global business was born. He launched it as Instabed and later changed the name to Anyplace.

Today, Anyplace operates as an online platform, offering accommodation in co-living spaces, extended-stay hotels and fully furnished apartments in the United States, Europe and Asia. It’s designed primarily with digital nomads and remote workers in mind, as well as people who want a hassle-free, no-fuss lifestyle. He believes this growing target market will help the business continue to expand internationally.

Though Naito misses his Yamanashi Prefecture home and admits that Japan is “the best place to live in terms of quality of life,” he has no regrets about his move.

“For doing business, San Francisco is great. People always discuss creative stuff like how we can change the world,” he says. “Japanese entrepreneurs usually talk about how to make money or how good models from the U.S. can be copied for Japan. That’s not good or bad, I just don’t like it; I like the San Francisco style.”

Japan’s tendency to copy, albeit very effectively and even with improvement, was another push for Naito to leave his home. He couldn’t get excited about working on an existing idea. Instead he wanted to create something from scratch. By doing so, he says he can be at the cutting edge of the industry, rather than playing catch up.

Naito’s aspiration to be a founder and CEO straight from college also didn’t quite match the vertical hierarchy he had seen in his native Japan, where age is traditionally the main determinant for respect and seniority in a company.

“Younger people in Japan have to wait to move up (in business),” he says. “In Silicon Valley, young people have the same start line. They get respect because they usually create a new thing, like Facebook. There are so many in their teens and 20s doing business.”

At first, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ more open-minded approach to business left Naito a little lost. He found everything surprisingly casual, including approaches to clothing, meetings and doing business.

“Yes, I had culture shock,” he says with a laugh. “Business meetings here are short; 30 minutes is usual, and people don’t usually exchange business cards. In Japan, meetings are at least one hour and there’s a long time devoted to ice-breaking.”

Once accustomed to his new home’s practices, however, he embraced them. As a digital nomad himself, spending six months each year moving across Europe and Asia to acquire new property partners, he refers fondly to San Francisco’s business style as “really efficient” and praises the deference to substance over style. He likes that people talk about multimillion-dollar investments in hoodies and jeans over coffee in Starbucks.

With such get-up-and-go surroundings, 29-year-old Naito has no plans to leave his new home until he achieves his dream of creating a truly global product, like Airbnb.

For the past five years I’ve been preparing a base,” he says. “Now I have a great team, product and opportunity. I’m at the start line of the rest of my life — and I’m so excited to see what I will achieve.”

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