Many of us in the UK (home of the Pocketblog) and the US may harbour the false belief that online global commercial domination is a purely US-centred phenomenon. After all, Amazon, Google, Facebook and eBay’s only online competitors in revenue terms are the more insular Chinese businesses JD and Tencent. But kicking at their heels, and with equally large ambitions, is a name that I suspect will become more familiar in the coming years: Rakuten. It was founded by Japanese entrepreneur, Hiroshi Mikitani.
Very Short Biography
Hiroshi Mikitani was born in 1965, in Kobe, Japan. His father is an economist (Professor at Yale and Emeritus Professor at Kobe University) and his mother was in business. After graduating from Hitotsubashi University in 1988, Mikitani gained a place with the prestigious Industrial Bank of Japan and there he may have been expected to stay, had he not bucked the trend of Japanese culture. But a posting in the US led him to apply for a Harvard MBA, which he earned in 1993. There he was exposed to more of the entrepreneurial culture he had experienced when his father had moved to Yale and, in 1997, at the start of the internet as commercial platform, he left the bank.
He started the business now trading simply as Rakuten and, whilst it has been acquisitive and so has he personally (acquiring a range two sports teams and more latterly, gaining senior cultural appointments), Rakuten is the platform for his business interests and philosophy of business.
Rakuten is a Japanese-based e-commerce business working in a different model from most of its large US competitors. Currently, with a 2014 revenue of US$5.6 Bn, it is the tenth largest online business in the world by revenue, and fifth largest e-commerce trader. Rakuten’s model is unlike others in that it trades by selling trading space to small and medium businesses – a bazaar model. Unlike Amazon’s market place, however, Rakuten’s traders can customise their stores entirely, allowing them to personalise their shoppers’ experiences. Rakuten’s strapline is ‘Shopping is entertainment!’ Mikitani likes exclamation marks!
I think Rakuten will continue to grow, so Mikitani’s philosophy is worth studying. Let’s look at a few strands.
Mikitani is driving all Rakuten operations globally to work entirely in English – even at home in Japan. Now, a global English speaking culture is not surprising in many of the large global corporates, headquartered in the US, but Rakuten is Japanese owned and managed. So this is a big deal that has attracted criticism and scorn from some of Mikitani’s peers among Japanese business leaders. His response is to say ‘English is not an advantage anymore – it is a requirement.’ He believes the friction in doing business between different Rakuten offices around the world is so reduced that it makes the policy the right one – even at the cost of not promoting non-English speaking corporate staff.
Readers may have barely heard of Rakuten, but you may well know some of the names it has acquired in its rapid global expansion. Mikitani seems bent on globalising his business and dominating online retailing. And one of Rakuten’s five principles for success is ‘Speed!! Speed!! Speed!!’ The double exclamation marks are theirs, not mine.
Mikitani has a real sense of mission about his desire to allow businesses to trade in the way they choose, rather than creating a corporate template for everyone to conform to. His Business-to-Business-to-Consumer (B2B2C) model pre-dates Amazon’s use of its marketplace and FBA trading, and sticks resolutely to his original vision of boutique trading.
The Web as the Bazaar
Perhaps the strongest indication of Mikitani’s commitment to global web commerce is the announcement, in March 2015, that Rakuten will soon accept Bitcoin across all of its global marketplaces. This involves a massive investment in Bitnet, a startup payment system that Rakuten will start by integrating into its U.S. marketplace to allow customers to pay in Bitcoins.
In his own words
Mikitani has written two books, Marketplace 3.0: Rewriting the Rules of Borderless Business (2013) and The Power to Compete: An Economist and an Entrepreneur on Revitalizing Japan in the Global Economy (2014, written with his father, Ryoichi Mikitani). He is also a LinkedIn Influencer, where his short articles are frequently pithy and insightful.