I hardly remember when I first met Takeshi. I think I was brushing my teeth in the communal bathroom of my new social apartment when I barely acknowledged the gentle “konbanwa” of the unassuming young Japanese guy next to me. Later, somebody told me the CEO of Global Agents was living in the same apartment and pointed to Takeshi. I couldn’t believe it. “That guy?” I asked. Yes, that guy.
Takeshi Yamasaki left the intensely profit-driven world of Goldman Sachs real-estate investment to form his own investment company. Today, Yamasaki’s chief concern is in making sure that his company is ‘doing good for society’ rather than just doing what makes profit.
Not to be confused with “social housing,” Yamasaki’s social apartments are modern, well-appointed buildings with communal areas for residents to interact. They are made affordable not through government subsidies, but by the very nature of their communal and social atmosphere, and as such are often full of young, energetic people.
Sociecity’s Sonya Poller interviews Takeshi in Tokyo, Japan…
What inspired you to set up your company?
Well, I lived in London for six months when I was 19 and I shared a flat with other people. I found that this residential style was pretty fun. It’s not common in Japan; at least it wasn’t at the time. After that I started to think about business ideas. I heard that social networking sites were expanding such as Mixi or Gree (popular in Japan), so then I thought about demand which was socializing or connecting with people through the Internet. I thought there should be the same thing in real life so that people can socialize where they live.
It’s one thing to have an idea and another thing to actually do it – how did you make the transition?
Two main things. One was to find sponsors. The other was to find the right properties to be converted into social apartments. So, almost all of my first year was focused on these two things. Actually finding a sponsor was not really difficult. The most difficult thing was to find the right properties.
What reaction did the sponsors give a 22 year old student?
Well of course it was just a student’s idea. I wondered if they were really committed. But they thought it was kind of interesting and said “if you find a good property, we are going to support you.”
They took you seriously from the beginning?
Yes, but after that it was very, very hard. At first the board members were pretty skeptical about future demands. As CEO I needed to present properties with profit – definitely no loss. So in terms of that it was really hard. I think I saw 3000 properties, out of that I visited about 100 properties in about six months. We closed two properties. I was lucky.
Only two out of 3000 properties? What kept you going during that time?
Belief in myself, actually. I really thought that I could find good properties – that is the only thing that kept me going. I just want to provide those kind of properties and environments for people. I want to expand these things into Japanese society, to make Japan more global.
Now you are operating 10 properties. What is your goal in five or 10 years?
In five years I want to expand to more properties, to like 40 or 50 throughout Tokyo, and Japan… of course I want to go outside Japan and expand the social network throughout the world: America, Singapore, London… and then it will be easier to do house exchanges.
I want to create a real social network among the social apartments so that people can enjoy communicating – not just inside one property but among all residents.
I was surprised that you live in a social apartment, why do you choose to live there?
It’s a new type of apartment so I need to live there. Also I enjoy it. It is important for me to see for myself, what is good, what is bad, what needs improvement, from the tiny things to the big things.
I don’t think too many 28 year olds are doing what you are doing. How do you think you were able to succeed at such a young age?
Actually we are not successful yet. (Silence) I try to make an effort. Of course taking risks is very important, but not too much! Meeting many people, gathering many perspectives and knowledge has been very beneficial for me… but I am really not successful yet.
What does success mean for you?
Well I don’t know, actually I am pretty satisfied with what I am doing. Of course sometimes I face very difficult situations and I really think I cannot do something well. Sometimes, people may feel troubled, because of me, so as long as I feel something like this I cannot say I am successful.
How do you survive the difficult days?
As long as I am doing good things my actions won’t betray me. If I were doing something bad I might not get anywhere, I might be dead already. What I am doing, I think, is the right thing and our business definitely makes society better. As long I believe this, I try to think that society will return the feeling back.
What are some of the mistakes that you have made?
Many mistakes…really! It’s hard. I mean if I knew in advance maybe I wouldn’t make any mistakes. Of course I try not to repeat a mistake. I learn from every mistake, but sometimes it is too late but it’s human and humans cannot be completely perfect.
What about your mentors?
Recently I see how important having a mentor is. Asking people, looking for a mentor, that is a sign of change for me. I was not a person who liked asking people but I realize it is very important. Three or four years ago, the company was very small so I could say the company was mine, but now there are 10 people…just 10 people but also 10 people, you know… and shareholders. I realize that the company is not mine any longer. So I have to change.
What would you say to somebody who also has a dream of starting a business?
I think Japanese people tend to be bound by the current situation; they like things to be the same. Don’t be afraid to change your environment. If you don’t think about anything, I think that is the biggest risk, you can’t change. You have to be accustomed to taking risks. Taking risks is actually low risk, compared with people who don’t think about their situation.
It seems to me that you have a unique attitude. Why do you like taking risks?
Actually my family was really poor, so being in the same environment would not be good. I needed to change, I needed to get better and meet with people. I started to think about these kinds of things when I was about 17 or 18. Before that I was of course ordinary, even now I am ordinary, but at that time I was even more ordinary. I didn’t study at all. I just played mahjong every night.
How do your parents feel about what you do now?
Well good and bad. I worked for Goldman Sachs after graduating university for three years and I think from my parent’s point of view, working for Goldman was good with not very bad pay. But when I went back to my company, I got paid almost nothing. They wondered why I chose this kind of life.
Goldman was really interesting but it was about trading, buying properties at a low price and then selling them at a high price, that’s it.
It is not creative, it doesn’t create any market. Interesting and fun, but not fun in a different sense. What I wanted to do most was create new ideas, new lifestyles, kind of a new culture in society.
Who do you look up to?
The original investor of this company. He is the person I respect the most. He is kind of a genius, so creative with many good and new ideas. He gave my life a direction. Because of him I started to get interested in investment. Originally I didn’t like investment, I studied biotechnology in university. As I said, my family was poor so I had to make money for my family. I didn’t have time to think about many things. But somehow I started to get interested in finance, and then I had the opportunity to intern at a company involved in investment funds. He taught me the philosophy of investment, about culture and of course life. I was really shocked, culture shocked. I was impressed and inspired. I decided to forget about biotechnology. If I hadn’t met him, maybe my life would be different.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Every situation, even if it is a hard. I actually enjoy working during the hard times. It is difficult to think that it’s enjoyable but I think things will definitely get better, so I can get through it. Then it is studying time, learning time. Experiencing hard things is definitely good for the future. I try to think about that. When I face a bad problem, I try to enjoy it, not really ‘enjoying’ but enjoying trying to be good. Any situation, good or bad, it definitely makes you better.
Takeshi’s 10 Keys to Success
1. Take risks
2. Be creative
3. Do the right/ethical thing for society
4. Meet with as many people as possible
5. Believe in yourself
6. Believe in your team
7. Look at the long-term (not just the short-term)
8. Think and act (“There should be a balance- perhaps 70% thinking and 30% action is good. Don’t think too much but don’t act so fast.”)
9. Follow your intuition
10. Enjoy yourself – even in bad situations
For More on Takeshi’s Social Apartment Project, Visit…
Social Apartments Website (English/Japanese)