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The Amazing Surprises of Living in a Japanese Home

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The time-tested ways to get a quick exposure to a new country are to go grocery shopping and, if you are lucky enough, be invited to stay with a local. For example, a US grocery store visit quickly reveals national obsessions with teeth whitening, dieting, and red meat. A visit to a Japanese store reveals obsessions with germs, pickled ingredients, and adorably cute sweets in every possible form.

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This weekend in Tokyo I was fortunate to be invited to stay with a Rakuten colleague/HR executive for two nights. I asked her permission to photo my experiences. Being a designer, I really only focused on the appliances and products in her home. I would have to stay a lot longer than two nights to really know anything meaningful about how she lived.

But here goes. Chizy is 49 and has lived in France, Pakistan, Sudan and is currently dividing her time between Boston and Tokyo. A few years ago she bought a house in the same neighborhood where she lived after university. It’s a quiet and calm west Tokyo location called Nishiogikubo with many small crafts shops and tiny charming restaurants lining the narrow dense streets.

This is Chizy’s own street. In contrast to most of Tokyo, Nishiogikubo is markedly low rise and homey.

IMG_1390 This is her house, below, which she renovated after purchase. It’s probably about 1,500 square feet in size.

IMG_1389While relaxing alone in the living room–with the big grated window opened–I heard a grandfather singing to a baby, the whoosh of cycles passing, neighbors calling to each other, and children playing. As I quietly tapped on my computer a–dare I say–sense of Zen fell over me, being in the company of those soothing but untranslatable foreign sounds. I heard no cars, sirens or air traffic. The immediate neighbor behind Chizy’s house has a large yard so there were also lots of bird and cricket sounds and gentle breezes cooled the rooms.

Here is Chizy, serving cake after a small dinner gathering. It was interesting to me that she served a variety of store-bought small dishes as the dinner. It was kind of like an assemblage of appetizers, with one substantial dish in the form of roasted pork. I was happy for this efficiency as she had spent the Saturday in a training course and the last thing I wanted her to do was cook. It struck me that an American friend would probably have knocked herself out to prepare something homemade–and there would have been a great loss of conviviality sacrificed for that purpose. Chizy calmly served the array of tasty treats and was able to focus on the conversation rather than inventing a culinary extravaganza.

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Her home is full of strange wonders, many electronic. It reinforced my perception that much of Japan is just slightly over-engineered, or over-featured, or over-personalized.

Here’s an example (I think). I had some time in Chizy’s home by myself and had half a mind to do a load of laundry, being out of clean clothes. One look at this “jet engine” dashboard on the washing machine and I decided my dirty duds would have to do.

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As a business sidebar, this control panel reminds me of every Japanese PowerPoint I’ve ever seen. Japanese presentations are always ten times more complex than an American version. My Japanese colleagues seem totally comfortable with the density of information and I can only speculate that either 1) they fake that they understand their colleague’s work, or 2) they can take in complex visual information more easily than an English-language-reader, because at a young age they all learned to read a very complex pictographic alphabet, Kanji.

Speaking of complexity, any visitor to Japan knows the Ph.D it takes to use a toilet. Here is the wall-mounted control panel example from Chizy’s home. Just what button would you push to flush, anyway? (It’s not the orange one.)

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This was a really cool feature of her sanitary fixtures: there is a tiny hand-washing sink right on top of the tank that starts flowing the perfect amount of water after a flush. The blue thing is a sanitizer doo-hickey. One odd thing is that in both private and public restrooms I rarely see hand soap. That is not consonant with the whole germaphobe Japanese society.

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What is consonant is the ever-present pair of slippers in every Japanese bathroom. I am not quite sure their purpose and I forgot to ask. When I was raising young boys with bad aim though, I would have liked to follow that custom.

IMG_1385 While Chizy was preparing dinner I did ask her about the giant 7” diameter sink drain. She showed me a gauze “basket” under this drain that she periodically disposes and replaces. Chizy said she is constantly clogging the drain of her American apartment because it does not have this two-step sort of system to catch the big stuff before it flushes down. I neglected to ask her about the oh-so-tiny sponge scrubber next to the drain, but I saw them for sale in packs of eight or so. I can’t imagine why they are a good idea.

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Here is Chizy’s living area and kitchen. We had dinner gathered around the coffee table. Her “office” is the little desk behind the plant. I was pleased to see that Japanese women really do have giant stuffed animals in their homes (note the green one) because we launched this same Japanese company as a Grommet. I always pray that our Discovery team is not duped when a foreign manufacturer tells us “This is very popular in our country.” I fear someone selling us the Japanese or Spanish or Australian equivalent of say, a Cabbage Patch Doll or Spam.

IMG_1381Chizy’s windows were covered with a type of shade that filters the light, lets in air, but prevents people looking in. The windows and screens were engineered to within an inch of their lives, for easy operation.

IMG_1380Chizy lives very, very sparely. Even with such a small footprint house, most of the storage spaces were empty or uncrowded. Walls were largely bare and the furniture minimalist. I have no idea if this is typical but I know that when I stay in traditional Japanese inns there is a similar aesthetic. The simple but pleasing details of this staircase feel all the more luxurious for not competing with a great deal of ornamentation or décor.

IMG_1379Ascending the stairs I had two silent disappointments. One, the hard tiny pillows worried me, as a person who needs a good fluffy pillow, that I’d be up half the night with my head on a rock. This is not unusual—Japanese hotels usually have a small buckwheat pillow on the beds (alongside a soft Western one). I speculate that this practice keeps the Japanese tough, as there is zero comfort in laying your head down on those hard, unforgiving sacks. At Chizy’s I ended up wrapping the colorful little lozenges in the generous comforter and getting by just fine.

IMG_1387The other worry was the humidity and heat in the second floor room—it was positively oppressive on entry. We opened the windows and relief seemed possible but the coup de grace was this “air cleaner” appliance. It is some kind of combo dehumidifier and purifier and it works a charm. The room was soon very comfortable and I slept like the dead.

IMG_1388The next morning Chizy showed me the shower and I had to ignorantly ask “Where do I stand to use it?” The answer was that you sit on that little stool and basically the whole room turns into your shower.  OK then! It’s a lot like the shower set-up at a traditional public onsen bath. I should have known–I’ve been to at least ten.

IMG_1382I was curious about the cover on the bath and was surprised to roll it back and find the bath full of water, whose warmth was retained by the double walled insulated protection. Baths are religion in Japan so the various rituals and industries built around them clearly extend to the home.

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Chizy shared with me her precious supply of a fairly unusual breakfast treat: a paste made of sesame and honey, on toast. It was delicious. I wanted to bring some home as it is also meant to have health benefits. I also adore looking at the cartoony graphics. This new addition would complement my fanatical devotion to a weekend toast ritual. Below is what I usually have in the summer. (I love it so much I took a picture to remind me in the winter when I am stuck indoors with my Maine blueberry jam.)

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This is the neighborhood restaurant where I subsequently had a delightful solo lunch.  Re:gendo is in a very traditional building transported to this location and restored to a lustre. It’s operated by a cadre of sweet, pretty former housewives. In this singular place, I finally found my dream “local” Tokyo restaurant, nicely complemented by a small craft shop.

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Chizy says there is another restaurant in the neighborhood manned by older women– “grandmothers” who are very slow and often screw up your order. But their warm charm and steady conversation are the draws to the establishment, not speed or accuracy. In contrast there is a small local bar owned a silent bartender where Chizy says she goes if she is tired of talking and just wants to slam down two drinks in peace.

I’ve been to Japan five times since last year. I’ll be back many times and I am hopeful that I was a good guest to Chizy so I can return to her lovely abode. One of the secrets to surviving this kind of travel, according to my globe-trotting Japanese colleagues, is to establish firm routines around the flights you take, the food you eat, where you stay and the public transport routes, and preserving your personal exercise routines.

I’ve not managed to find that balance on prior trips but I can now see a way to create a little bit of home in Chizy’s neighborhood. And maybe next time I will brave operating the washing machine.

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About the Author

This article was written by Jules Pieri. Jules is the Co-Founder and CEO of the product launch platform The Grommet. The company’s Citizen Commerce™ movement is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. see more.

Callum Connects

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read, “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang

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Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang.

Jeff knows how to spot and groom good culture, as the book session was held in Zestfinance a company he invested in and now, “The Best Workplaces for Women” and for “The Best Workplaces for Tech”, by Fortune.

These are the questions during the Book Launch.

How to know if a hire including the founder is Startup material?
Jeff says to watch for these qualities.

First, do the hires think like an owner?
Second, do the hires test the limits, to see how things can it be done better?
Are they problem solvers and are biased toward action?
Do they like managing uncertainty and being comfortable with uncertainty? And comfortable with rapid decision-making?
Are they comfortable with flexible enough to take in a series of undefined roles and task?

How do we know if we are simply too corporate to be startup?

Corporate mindsets more interested in going deep into a particular functional area? These corporate beings are more comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control, and communication? They are more hesitant or unable to put in the extra effort because “it’s not my job”.

If you do still want to enter a startup despite the very small gains at the onset, Jeff offers a few key considerations on how to pick a right one.

He suggests you pick a city as each city has a different ecosystems stakeholders and funding sources and market strengths. You have to invest in the ecosystem and this is your due diligence. Understand it so you can find the best match when it arises.
Next, to pick a domain, research and solidify your understanding with every informational interview and discussion you begin. Then, pick a stage you are willing to enter at. They are usually 1)in the Jungle, 2) the Dirt Road or 3) the Highway. The Jungle has 1-50 staff and no clear path with distractions everywhere and very tough conditions. The Dirt Road gets clearer but is definitely bumpy and windy. Well the Highway speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Finally Please – Pick a winner!

Ask people on the inside – the Venture Capitalists, the lawyers, the recruiters and evaluate the team quality like any venture capitalists would. Would you want to work for the team again and again? And is the startup working in a massive market? Is there a clear recurring business model?

After you have picked a winning team and product, how would you get in through the door?

You need to know that warm introductions have to be done. That’s the way to get their attention. Startups value relationships and people as they need social capital to grow. If you have little experience or seemingly irrelevant experience, go bearing a gift. Jeff shared a story of a young ambitious and bright candidate with no tech experience who went and did a thorough customer survey of the users of the startup she intended to work with. She came with point-of-view and presented her findings, and they found in her, what they needed at that stage. She became their Director of Growth. Go in with the philosophy of adding value-add you can get any job you want.

And as any true advisor would do, Jeff did not mince his words, when he reminded the audience that, “If you can’t get introduced you may not be resourceful enough to be in startup.”

Startupland is not a Traditional Career or Learning Cycles

Remember to see your career stage as a runs of 5 years, 8 or 10 – it is not a life long career. In Startup land consider each startup as a single career for you.

Douglas Merrill, founder of Zestfinance added from his hard-earned experience that retention is a challenge. Startup Leaders to keep your people, do help them with the quick learning cycles. Essentially from Jungle to Dirt road, the transition can be rapid and so each communication model that starts and exists, gets changed quickly. Every twelve months, the communication model will have no choice but to break down and you have to reinvent the communication model. Be ready as a founder and be ready as a member of the startup.

Another suggestion was to have no titles for first two years. So that everyone was hands-on and also able to move as one entity.

Effective Startupland Leaders paint a Vision of the Future yet unseen.

What I really enjoyed and resonated with as a coach and psychologist was how Douglas at the 10th hire thought very carefully what he was promising each of his new team member. He was reminded that startups die at their 10th and their 100th hires. He took some mindful down time and reflected. He then wrote a story for each person in his own team and literally wrote out what the company would look like and their individual part in it. In He writing each of the team members’ stories into his vision and giving each person this story, it was a powerful communication piece. He definitely increased the touch points and communication here is the effective startup’s leverage.

Douglas and Jeff both suggested transparency from the onset.

If you think like an owner and if you think of your founding team as problem solvers. Then getting transparent about financials with your team is probably a good idea. As a member of a startup, you should insist on knowing these things
Such skills and domain knowledge will be valuable. There is now historical evidence of people leaving startups and being a successful founder themselves because they were in the financial trenches in their initial startup. Think Paypal and Facebook Mafia.

What drives people to enter a startup?

The whole nature of work is changing. Many are ready to pay to learn. Daniel Pink’s book Drive showed how people are motivated by certain qualities like Mastery, Autonomy and Where your work fits into big picture. Startups do that naturally. There is a huge amount of passion and the quality of team today and as it grows then the quality of company changes.

The Progress principle is in place, why people love their startup jobs is not money rather are my contributions being valued? Do I see a path of progress and do I have autonomy over work and am I treated well?

Find out more about StartupLand on Amazon

And learn from Zestfinance

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