5 Questions with Yuki Shirato, Managing Director of Techstars Tokyo Accelerator powered by JETRO and Mitsui Fudosan

Jun 06, 2024

Yuki Shirato is a three-time founder and a startup enthusiast. He has advised dozens of startups, venture capital funds and angel investors on legal, strategy and financing matters drawing on his experience as a management consultant and a corporate lawyer in 5 different countries. Individually and through his Tokyo-based angel investment syndicate platform, Yakumi, he has collectively invested in more than 50 startups.

1. What are you looking for in the startups for the Tokyo Accelerator? 

I am looking for the right founders. Every startup begins with an idea, but ideas are only the first step. I want to see founders who believe deeply in their idea and who can demonstrate their passion and commitment to building a business around it.

I want to see that the founders actually care, which is a simple test. If a problem they are tackling does not get solved, how does that make them feel? It does not mean obsessing about a potentially small problem 24/7, but it does mean that they would be so frustrated about the lack of good solutions, that they would constantly approach it from many different angles over and over.

In my mind, creativity does not come about through an impulsive one-off discovery but is rather gradually developed by months of persistent curiosity, research and experience. This is how founders generate insights for all of the elements around their idea, such as the potential beneficiaries (market), customer pain points (traction) or alternative solutions (competition).

Finally, I expect companies with one of these two goals to be driven to our program:

  • Startups coming from within Japan that demonstrate realistic paths to go beyond the Japanese market and are looking to take advantage of Techstars’ global network

  • Startups coming from abroad that are looking to target the Japanese market, or to find Japanese business partners (suppliers or clients) or talent

2. What is your favorite thing about the Tokyo and Japanese startup scene? 

Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world yet lags behind so many much smaller cities in most metrics when it comes to startups (e.g., per capita investment amount in startups, numbers of acquisitions or unicorns). On the flip side, given the city’s immense market size and talent pool, there is a significant potential for it to grow.

I am of course biased because I was born and grew up in this beautiful, historic and yet always-on city. Japan is the land of Shōgun and Hello Kitty after all. Few cities can boast art, culture, food, history, architecture, finance, engineering, gaming and business at the same time. 

Eight years ago, when I was still living overseas and just before I returned to Japan, I wrote a hopeful article about indicators of change in Tokyo and Japan, such as efforts to attract diverse and global talent. I feel it is finally happening. 

The world is currently experiencing radical change, from geopolitics to technological advancement. This seismic change means humanity is at a crossroads, presenting an interesting opportunity for a stable city like Tokyo, based in Asia with a unique position with the rest of the world superpowers, to provide an alternative home for startups.

3. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars MD?

From my 20+ years of experience in corporate law, management consulting, entrepreneurship and business operations in 5 different countries (U.S., Canada, U.K., UAE and Japan), I have learnt from, witnessed and experienced first-hand many successes and failures at all stages of companies across many different industries. Although there are significant variations, over time, I have managed to see certain patterns and early indicators of both success and failure, which I hope would be helpful as a MD for Techstars, which is the most active pre-seed investor and accelerator in the world.

Throughout my career, my biggest learning is that “common sense” prevails. When confronted with an issue, founders should step back from it, consider the causal relationships and use common sense to simply ask “why?” Founders often get influenced and consumed by unexpected events whether it be a new business opportunity, a founders’ fallout or an emerging competitor. When faced with such challenges, I’ve found it most helpful for founders to lean into common sense and go back to their original vision, asking themselves relevant questions – why they started their company or why anyone wants their product or service. In these situations, navigating how to approach things differently can be hard. This is where top-quality advisors and mentors come in to help the founders identify the issues and the ideal paths more clearly.

4. What do our partners, Mitsui Fudosan and JETRO, bring to Techstars Tokyo?

Mitsui Fudosan is Japan’s largest real estate company, with many innovative projects in Japan and abroad. In my opinion, it represents the ideal mix of the preservation of traditional Japanese culture (the Mitsui family started the business 350 years ago and it has fueled Japan’s economy ever since) and the pursuit of new frontiers (such as its investments into fusion energy, space and carbon neutrality).

As for JETRO, an important part of its mission as a governmental agency is to support Japanese startups to scale globally and to invite promising global startups to Japan. This completely aligns with the mission of the Techstars Tokyo Accelerator program where the first cohort of 12 startups will be a mix of Japanese and overseas startups. 

Both Mitsui Fudosan and JETRO see great potential in supporting and working with Techstars because they appreciate how important startups are to both their, and also Japan’s, future growth. I am convinced that Techstars has found two truly excellent partners to embark on this entrepreneurial journey. 

5. What advice would you give to people who are thinking of becoming a startup founder? 

Everyone (should) know being an entrepreneur is a long journey requiring dedicated commitment of your time and resources. This naturally means not everyone can or should be a founder. Someone looking to start their own business needs to weigh the commitments against their life circumstances. This does not necessarily mean their age. One of the misconceptions about startups is that the founders need to be young or even college dropouts — I have seen many examples to prove founders can be successful at any point of their life.

I think one of the most dangerous things is to conflate luck with capability. Some entrepreneurs simply get lucky and make a lot of money without any differentiable idea, product or team, whereas others struggle even with a novel idea, an amazing team and solution. Being financially successful must never compromise intellectual integrity, which should be a fundamental pillar of any startup. In other words, if you just want to get rich, becoming an entrepreneur is not the best idea.

The first thing you need to do is to think long and hard about a problem you want to solve or an idea you want to develop. It’s a good practice to start with a goal or vision and think backwards to achieve it. This thought process will become important, because alternative ways or logics you consider during the first series of decisions may help you pivot if necessary in the future. 

Lastly, you should not be afraid of bigger guys. The two most important advantages of startups over large companies are speed and a different perspective with no vested interest. Scarcity of resources inevitably makes you think more strategically and move quickly — embrace this.