High-school dropout's crowdfunding firm a hit

Teen, inspired by SoftBank's Son, builds a startup

by Komaki Ito


Yoichiro Mikami wanted to be the next Masayoshi Son, Japan’s second-richest man, so he dropped out of high school at 16 this year.

Now he’s devoting all his time to Gnex Ltd., a crowdfunding firm backed by six sponsors, including Son’s Yahoo Japan Inc. and the headhunting company Recruit Holdings Co.

Mikami’s startup helps raise money for student projects, including an application that provides information for university entrance exams and a social network for students to share timetables.

“Masayoshi Son has continued to invest in various businesses,” Mikami said in a recent interview. “His investments have reaped dividends for his firm, his employees and society. That’s the kind of entrepreneur I want to be.”

Son, the chief executive officer of SoftBank Corp. and chairman of Yahoo Japan, left high school in Japan at age 16 to attend an English-language school in California before building his Internet empire. Mikami also looks up to London teenager Nick D’Aloisio, who became a millionaire at 17 last year when Yahoo Inc. acquired his Summly mobile news-reading application.

“Teenagers are no longer looking for guidance from adults,” said Mika Kumahira, a part-time lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University’s Graduate School of International Management in Tokyo. “We’re going to see more of these teenage entrepreneurs.”

Since he started Gnex in his bedroom in March 2013, Mikami has built up his company to now include 13 high school and university friends spread across Japan to help him scour for opportunities. He reaches out to his staff, aged between 15 and 20, through Skype to find small student-led projects seeking backing.

He is targeting 100 sponsors by next March to raise as much as ¥20 million to expand his business, Mikami said.

Crowdfunding websites worldwide raised an estimated ¥549 billion in 2013, compared with ¥291 billion in 2012, according to Crowdsourcing LLC’s research website Massolution. The firms allow businesses too small to attract banks or venture capitalists to seek finance for specific projects and raise money from a large number of individual contributors.

One of Mikami’s early investments was in BridgeCamp, which provides students with capital, staff and office space.

“There were no means for young entrepreneurs to find people who have a common interest,” Mikami said. “That’s why I decided to include non-financial help through our website.”

For sponsors like Yahoo Japan and Recruit, Gnex allows them to access young talent at an early stage of the projects, Mikami said.

“We want to back up entrepreneurs from Japan who will be able to compete in the world,” said Akihiko Okamoto, who heads Recruit Technology Institute in Tokyo. “That’s why we decided to support BridgeCamp.”

Since he left school, Mikami typically starts his mornings checking his stock investments and works on his own until his friends finish school in the afternoons. He bought his first stocks, in a Japanese maker of solar power equipment, when he was 8 years old, after he read a book on investing that he found on his father’s bookshelf.

When he was 13, he came up with a business idea to match hotels with travelers and students studying abroad similar to San Francisco-based Airbnb Inc. He won ¥5 million in funding from Samurai Incubate Inc., a small Tokyo-based incubator.

The teenager, who counts reading among his hobbies, has also invested about ¥161,500 in six funds, including one that makes a wearable device that allows the user to control gestures in the air called “Ring,” through Kickstarter, the world’s largest crowdfunding website.

His father, who works at a Web-related consulting firm, and his stay-at-home mother, have supported Mikami, allowing him to forge his own career.

“I was in two minds when my son initially approached me,” said Junichi Mikami, 44. “I first rejected the plan, but he was persistent and somehow managed to clear all my doubts. There will be more kids like my son who will be able to contribute to society.”

The younger Mikami said Japan needs to relax hurdles for young entrepreneurs. Currently, children under 15 cannot register their own business, he said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is taking steps to create an entrepreneur-friendly environment, including a change in rules that allows crowdfunding organizations to raise equity capital.

“I respect someone like D’Aloisio, and I hope I can be like him to force some of the changes needed in Japan,” Mikami said.

Following Son’s footsteps, Mikami said he plans to apply for university next year, to study business administration. Son graduated with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in economics from the University of California, Berkeley.

“The world is not made up of only firefighters, police officers, florists and pet shop owners,” Mikami said. “My dream is to make a living by becoming a full-time investor. You only get one life. I don’t want to look back at my life with regrets.”