Phil Libin, former CEO of Evernote in Shibuya City Fireside Chat
On November 9th Shiho Watabe, CEO of Shibuya Startups, met with Phil Libin — well-known entrepreneur, former CEO of Evernote, and co-founder and CEO of All Turtles and mmhmm — for a Shibuya Fireside Chat.
Co-hosted by Shibuya City and All Turtles, the fireside chat was held at Shibuya Bridge, home of Shibuya City's startup initiative, Shibuya Startup Support. The turnout exceeded expectations, extending well beyond the scheduled time. The dialogue covered topics including Shibuya's distinctive culture, generative AI, the future of work, and insights into “scaling culture”. Following the event, we had the opportunity to sit down with Shiho Watabe for a post-event discussion.
Shiho Watabe is dedicated to nurturing international startups in Shibuya City, drawing from her background at Google, Mercari, Morgan Stanley, and a host of startups worldwide. She has been advising Shibuya City since 2021, and has been in her current role since February 2023. Her current project is spearheading Shibuya’s UP program.
UP by Shibuya, the global accelerator in Shibuya City
Hi Shiho, could you share more about UP by Shibuya Startups and how it supports global, early-stage startups?
UP is a startup acceleration program by Shibuya Startups, a company supported by the Shibuya City Government, GMO Internet Group, Tokyu Corporation, and Tokyu Land Corporation. We are dedicated to assisting early-stage startups with Go-to-Market strategies and growth. Since August 2023, the program has supported approximately twenty global startups in areas including: Proof of concept, partnerships, strategy consultations, hiring assistance, and PR.
Focus on Japan’s strengths to tackle the ‘global niche’
Which specific areas does the program focus on?
The UP program works with a range of sectors, supporting both domestic and international startups. With an emphasis on Japan’s unique strengths, the program spans across areas such as the aging society, anime/game IPs, disaster relief, tourism, culinary culture, and fashion/street culture. Its aim is to assist startups in identifying ‘global niche’ market segments and tackling global-scale challenges from within Japan.
Uniquely positioned as a public-private hybrid accelerator with over 50% female founders
What makes this program unique compared to others?
In the UP program, over 50% of the founders are women, a notably higher proportion compared to other startup acceleration programs. This can be linked to the prominent female representation in both the Care Economy and the Fandom Economy. For instance, ~75% of senior caretakers are women, ~98% of childcare professionals are women, and in Japan, ~85% of the ‘patron economy’ is sustained by women. While maintaining the gender balance can be challenging and could easily shift towards a higher percentage of male founders, we will continue to champion female founders.
Additionally, we are uniquely positioned in the space because of our close collaboration with the Shibuya City’s startups support program (with its program for visa, bank account setup, co-working space, etc.)
Japan’s Resilience, Compassion, Fortitude: A Timeless Charm in Contrast to Silicon Valley’s Hustle
During our talk with Phil, you touched on Japan’s uniqueness, and the topic of resilience emerged as a strength of Japan. Could you share more about that?
If Japan’s spirit could be summed up in a single word, it would be ‘resilience.’ Resilience stands in stark contrast to the “go fast, break things, innovate” mantra often associated with Silicon Valley.
My own experience during the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake solidified this observation. The early morning tremor, registering a terrifying magnitude 8, left Kobe in ruins. Looking at the city, the thought that struck me was, “We lost everything overnight.” Yet, amidst the wreckage, a different picture emerged: the remarkable resilience of the community. Despite losing homes and basic necessities, people banded together. Patience replaced panic as residents queued at broken convenience stores, with no cashiers in sight, simply to buy what they needed. Strangers left coins at public phones for others to make calls. Calm determination replaced chaos, showcasing the profound resilience ingrained in Japanese culture.
Now, how does this experience relate to the startup and business context? The earthquake offered a brutal but invaluable lesson: true strength lies not in conquering challenges quickly, but in persevering through them with unity, compassion, and unwavering spirit. Resilience isn’t just about weathering storms; it’s about rebuilding, evolving, and emerging stronger.
Also, perseverance (not losing your ‘core’) becomes the pathway to agility and successful pivoting in challenging times. These qualities are essential for adapting to evolving circumstances. My hope is that UP companies will embrace the Japanese spirit of resilience in their entrepreneurial journey.
Saturate in your global niche market
How do you perceive the transformation of the market, now posing increased challenges for startups compared to the earlier ease in securing funding?
Over the years, there has been a significant emphasis on ‘blitzscaling’ in the industry. However, the crucial aspect is not merely achieving massive growth; it lies in establishing genuine connections with core users and serving their needs in depth. Saturating your bull’s-eye target audience (preferably global niche, not stuck in one country) with meaningful value is a sustainable approach, signifying a lasting impact and legacies.
Welcome to Shibuya, the city of unconventional creativity
You have experience in Silicon Valley, but you were also raised in Shibuya. How do you perceive Shibuya and what are your hopes or visions for Shibuya’s future?
As a local, I see Shibuya as a neighborhood that embraces diversity. Growing up here in the ’80s and ‘90s, I witnessed Shibuya, especially Harajuku, become a breeding ground of global trends. Shibuya has always made individuality and diversity a seamless part of everyday life. Shibuya has always been a place where everyone can express themselves and live authentically.
I think Hollywood and Silicon Valley are like “values” beyond place names. For example, people might call Mumbai the Hollywood of India (‘Bollywood’). I wonder what universal concepts Shibuya could embody.
During my student years, I delved into International Relations and explored Joseph Nye’s Soft Power theory in my thesis. While military power and diplomatic policies fall under Hard Power, Soft Power, encompassing elements like pop culture or innovation, can enhance a nation’s strength. I aspire to see the creations emerging from Shibuya contribute to Japan’s Soft Power, adding to its cultural influence and innovation on the global stage.
Personally, I think Shibuya exudes a spirit of unconventional creativity. Akin to Paris’ romantic charm. The experience of strolling through Shibuya at night is truly special to me. The vibrant atmosphere, with people reveling or simply enjoying themselves, cultivates a unique, unspoken unity within the community. Navigating the streets of Shibuya, I am immersed in a distinctive blend of tranquility and exhilaration.
When envisioning Shibuya’s future, it transcends its geographical confines. It’s about fostering a hub that not only embraces diversity but also evolves into a nucleus of innovation and cultural impact, drawing parallels to the esteemed values embodied by Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
UP by Shibuya Startup Support is seeking startups ready to leverage Japan and Shibuya’s unique features to make a global impact. If you are interested in joining their program, make sure to visit their website for more information.
UP by Shibuya Startup Support: https://upshibuya.com/
Find out more about their portfolio companies: https://shibuya-startup-support.jp/topics/shibuya-startups-announces-initial-lineup-of-11-companies.html