This is Part 2 of a two-part series based on our interview with Jeffrey Sandford, CTO of Minimal Technologies. Click here to read Part 1 and learn more about their services and the challenges of growing a startup in Japan.
2 — Overcome borders to bring on good fit: Hiring and managing in multicultural environment
Managing a multicultural company
How do you assess the company culture?
I would say a lot of it is organic, a lot of it just comes from myself and Takaharu. And as people joined us, they kind of integrated themselves into our culture. Also, we made a conscious decision that we want to create this kind of company. Especially for Takaharu, he focuses a lot on a flat structure.
We both came as engineers so we know that engineers tend to have a little bit more of a relaxed, laid-back schedule or requirements. We have a more flex time so that our staff can come and leave as they please.
“We don’t have some rules that we feel are not necessary to be productive but we would like you to have more responsibility. I’m not going to require you to be here from this time to this time but I do expect you to finish the work that we do every week.”
Do you see any difficulty managing a team with such a diverse background?
For myself, I always manage the team from an American perspective because that’s where I come from. The biggest challenge I had would be with some of our Japanese engineers. Now it’s better, but at the beginning, it’s just that the expectations are different, not just work expectation but also expectation about how our relationship works. If you’re working with somebody from the West, they’re going to expect you to be a little bit more on the friendly level. Whereas the Japanese staff would expect you to be a little more top and bottom. Part of it is the credit to our engineers that they’re able to work in a multicultural environment. But also, I’ve learned a lot about how to manage different types of people from different places. I’m not an expert but I’ve learned a few things (laugh).
Finding the right fit
You mentioned earlier that it’s difficult to attract people to work for startups in Japan because of their mindset. Besides that, do you have other difficulties in hiring?
I will start with foreigners. One of the difficulties is if they are not living in Japan, we’re taking a big risk by hiring a person we’ve never met before. If you hire a foreigner inside Japan, it’s not an issue.
Another problem is that it’s very hard to find somebody who would fit exactly what you need in your company. There are 2 parts of it, one is the skills and the experiences that you’re looking for and another big part is your company’s culture. They don’t really fit in your team, that can be really unproductive for your team to bring that person on. That’s not really only for Japan, I guess it’s general. The difficulties specific for Japan mostly have to do with the expectation of the people joining the company and then where they live, if it’s in Japan it’s not an issue.
We’ve hired 4 from overseas. One of them actually sent us a letter in the mail with his resume from France. What we did was just Skype calls and looking at the work he’s done. And it is really important to make that judgment call over Skype. It actually worked out great, he is really good.
Then we’ve got two Vietnamese engineers, one of them was in Ishikawa when we hired him so he wasn’t actually overseas. I think there’s another one but can’t recall now.
Taking a jump for greater experience and opportunities
What’s the biggest challenge that foreign staff usually face when living in Japan, especially for those who have never lived in Japan?
Finding an apartment without speaking Japanese is the biggest challenge. We don’t find apartments but we’ll make sure that they find somebody that you can work with in English or other languages.
I try to check in with the people who never lived here before like ‘how things are going, if you need any help, contact me and I’ll do what I can to help you’. I think is important here in a multicultural company to have people to explain to them. We get a lot of help from our Japanese representatives on those kinds of stuff.
What would you advise foreign engineers who would like to come to Japan to work or start a business?
That’s a good question. My answer would be to learn Japanese but that’s not really going to stick for everybody. And it’s not a quick fix since it takes a lot of time to learn it.
But really, you don’t need Japanese. You just need to be open-minded and also have a degree so you can get a visa and really work on your portfolio, work on your work experience.
I think there’s a lot of opportunities for foreign developers here. You just have to go for it, just trying is the biggest thing. Most people won’t even try to apply to a company like ours.
But when we do get applications from people in the States or Africa or anywhere and if they fit what our needs are, we’d definitely be interested in looking at them and hiring them.
“Just doing it is the biggest thing. I get a lot of people telling me like, “I thought about it; I’ve always wanted to but never took the step to do it.” I think it’s the same with a lot of things. You just have to … take a jump.”
What made you and other staff take the leap? Is it different for everyone?
It’s different for everyone. I’d say it falls into two groups. One of them is people who just want new experiences, they want to have the chance to live somewhere else. That would be me. One of our French engineers is the same.
The other engineers end up here because either somebody that they’re with, their wife or their girlfriend is Japanese or they are looking for more opportunities.
Both of our Vietnamese engineers are like that. One of them is looking for an opportunity to study Engineering and work with engineers outside Viet Nam to learn more and then maybe bring it back to Viet Nam. The other lives here with his wife and kid. His wife was studying in Japan and they had opportunities to work here and enjoyed it.
Our Chinese engineer is here with his wife. I think he told me he just wanted the opportunity to work somewhere outside of China where he could pursue his goals and dreams more easily.
“I think the opportunity is the big one. People moving from Southeast Asia or from China want to have a chance to work in a country like Japan where the economy creates so many opportunities for them.”
Do you have any plan to expand the business or hire more in the near future?
Yeah, definitely. Right now, we’re not on a hiring spree but we’re always hiring some positions. I think next year, around summer to fall, we’ll start hiring a lot more engineers. And then as the engineers grow, we’ll have to start growing the other departments as well. So that means support and business and sales.
And then, of course, we have plans to expand outside Japan to other offices too. Singapore’s what we’re looking at. And somewhere in Europe — probably London or maybe Paris. And somewhere in the US, probably in San Francisco area but we haven’t decided. So these are the things we’re always looking at and considering for the future.
Thank you much for your time.
Thank you for your time as well.
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Also published on Medium.