Business

Goldman Sachs to failed manga artist to startup queen: Akiko Naka's unique path to success

by Keiko Ujikane and Shingo Kawamoto

Bloomberg

By the age of 34, Akiko Naka has already experienced more career-wise than most people do in a lifetime.

She started by getting hired by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., where she worked as an equity saleswoman. When she left that job, she tried to make it as a professional manga artist. When that didn’t work out, she landed a job at Facebook Inc.

And not content to leave it at that, she quit to establish her own company, a recruiting social network called Wantedly Inc. She took it public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange last year, and is one of the youngest women to head a Japanese-listed company.

Naka is an example of a young person who’s shunning what was long a standard career path in Japan — graduating from a top university and staking out a career at a major company. Instead, she’s going it alone, seeking to harness the power of social media — and her own past experiences — to try to reinvent how recruitment functions.

“All my failures were a chance to learn,” Naka said in an interview in Tokyo.

Wantedly, which is seen as a LinkedIn for Japanese millennials, is an online portal linking job seekers directly to companies. The platform, which also offers other services, is built around matching users and companies that have the same motivations, and it doesn’t allow job postings to disclose salary or benefits. The focus is on what companies do, how they do it, and, perhaps most importantly, why.

Different era

“LinkedIn is from about two decades ago,” Naka said. The U.S. company was established in 2002. “It was born in the era of paper resumes, and matching salaries and skills,” she said. “What we’re aiming to do is to match a company’s direction, what they are doing something for, with the user’s direction, and having them work together so that everybody benefits.”

According to Naka, that focus on motivation, and the company’s service of giving prospective employees a chance to visit companies on more casual terms, will ultimately lead to better matches than the traditional model of rounds of formal job interviews.

“If both companies and job seekers put on makeup when they are seeking to match, both of them will be unhappy in the end,” Naka said.

Finding talented people is getting difficult in Japan amid the tightest labor market in decades, giving job search companies an opportunity to expand their businesses. The market for recruitment information services grew to about $7.1 billion in fiscal 2016, up 7.5 percent from a year earlier, according to the Association of Job Information of Japan.

Wantedly had 2.4 million monthly active users, with 29,000 registered companies using the service, as of October, according to the company. Wantedly aims to increase monthly active users to about 10 million nationwide within about 10 years, Naka said. That’s still a drop in the ocean compared to LinkedIn, which has more than 575 million members in 200 countries and territories worldwide, according to the company’s website.

Naka graduated from Kyoto University in 2008. During her time at the prestigious school, she helped establish a free campus newspaper that sold ad space to local shops and restaurants. She also worked on creating a beauty pageant, which never came to pass. As a child, her parents, who were academics, encouraged her to make things rather than play video games.

Goldman Experience

She joined Goldman Sachs in April 2008, where she worked for just under two years selling equities to institutional investors. Naka said she left the company because she couldn’t see herself working in the industry for another decade.

Then she spent about six months pursuing her dream of being a professional manga artist. But she wasn’t suited to the role. “I learned that it wasn’t just about being good at drawing,” she said. “Above that, there’s your skill in creating stories, in making compositions and in creating characters.”

A chance encounter with Facebook’s Japan manager got her in the door at Mark Zuckerberg’s company in July 2010. But within months, she founded the predecessor of Wantedly. Originally, it was an online Q&A site.

Angel investment

“She’s very creative,” said Shogo Kawada, a renowned angel investor, noting how Naka wrote the code to get the company off the ground, even though she’s not a specialist. Naka pitched to Kawada three times before he finally agreed to invest. The third time, he said, she changed everything and came up with the prototype for Wantedly’s current services. Kawada is now Wantedly’s third-biggest shareholder. Naka herself is the largest, with a 72 percent stake that’s worth about $159 million.

Wantedly listed on the TSE’s Mothers market for startups in September last year. After surging to a high in October, the stock has since tailed off, but it still trades at more than twice its initial public offering price, with a market value of ¥24.8 billion ($221 million).

But valuations have gotten ahead of profits: The stock trades at almost 240 times earnings, and almost 40 times book value. Wantedly is the most-shorted company on the Mothers index, with short interest standing at 36 percent of its free float, IHS Markit data shows.

But Naka has other things on her mind. She’s already launched Wantedly in markets including Hong Kong and Singapore and it’s being test-run in Germany. She’s considering expanding the business in other English-speaking countries in Asia and Oceania.

Kawada says the company’s ability to expand overseas, and to attract more companies beyond startups at home, will be key.

“I want Wantedly to aim for a market capitalization of ¥100 billion,” he said. “Wantedly can have a standout existence among startup firms.”

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