Many people today, millennials in particular, have slash careers being involved professionally in multiple activities. In the new economy where large companies are being shaken up by technological change, the government has responded to the demands of the jobs market by introducing new rules of employment. Today’s young generation is facing the challenges of adapting to the new world of work.

Meanwhile, there are young people who say they don’t have a clear purpose and prefer stability over pursuing dream goals. How should we approach building a career then in the environment of enduring low interest rates with lifetime employment system becoming outdated?

We talk to Yusuke Hirata, the head of Repro Inc., a company which develops web and app based marketing platforms, about how he sees the current challenges and future of work for the millennial generation.

Yusuke Hirata
Head of Repro Inc.
Born in Tokyo in 1980. A serial entrepreneur following a career as a strategic consultant.
Joins a major consulting company; involved in projects on strategic management and growth of manufacturing companies. Involved in multiple start-up projects from 2011, and in 2014, founds Repro Inc., a company which has developed the eponymous web and app based marketing platform currently used in 59 countries across the world by more than 6,000 clients.

Goal setting as a first step

Today we would like to hear your thoughts on the topic of “the future of work for the millennial generation.” Could you tell us about your student years?

Hirata: Hoping to get into a high school of my choice, I studied incredibly hard. However, I lost faith in my academic abilities when did not pass the entrance exams. Then, I enrolled in Keio Senior High School where pupils can proceed to study at university without taking entrance examinations.

Upon becoming a senior high school student, I set two goals for myself. The first goal was to take an approach quite different from my junior high school years and have as much fun as possible. The second goal was to set a direction in life even if it was tentative. I wanted a glimpse into the future to see what I would become in my fifties and sixties.

In my second year at school, at the age of 17, I headed to Europe for travel, spending 500 thousand yen ($4,600) I had saved working part-time. While travelling I found real joy in exploring new territories.

I wrote a diary every day reflecting on my life and concluded that my major life goal is to be an explorer until I find anything more inspiring. Such epiphany meant life as a salaryman was not an option.

A weekly magazine published at the time the ranking list of star companies’ lifetime salaries, the highest amount comprising over 600 million yen (around $5.5 million). Although I thought it to be a reasonable amount, I felt that pursuing my goal as an explorer after retirement might be unrealistic.

Accomplishing the goal I set for myself at 17 would have required resources such as funds and time, so I made a decision to become an entrepreneur.

You started entrepreneurial projects already in college, didn’t you?

Hirata: Yes, I did. I used to resell merchandise for a music band which was popular overseas at the time, and with that business alone I saved up to ten million yen. I invested half of that amount in the FX market and increased the funds by six times. I focused on opportunities hoping to gain experience in doing business.

At the same time, I was strongly motivated not to follow a conventional path upon graduating from college. So while other fresh graduates were attending job fairs, I decided to skip job-hunting activities. As I had made profit with my previous business undertakings, I somehow felt confident about my decision.

Grasping the basics and learning from failure

Yet later, you decided to become a salaryman.

Hirata: Yes, this is true. After graduating from college, I spent two years travelling around the world. One day I met my former classmates for a drink, and was astounded by how much they had changed since college. Reserved guys in college became ambitious salarymen and I started lamenting my own choices.

I sought advice from mates with life experience and their reaction pointing that I was just “a small fish” in the business world was a rude awakening. As I wanted to grow fast in a short period of time, they suggested pursuing a career in strategic consulting. Following their advice, I was accepted into a company in the industry.

Working for a company was a humbling experience and made me realize how little I knew about doing business. It took me five years to build self-confidence and by the age of 28 I finally felt to have grasped the basics.

My original intention was to start a business when I felt ready. However, after failing two times in a row, I thought a lot about whether I should give myself another chance.

While I earned around 10 million yen ($92,000) as a consultant, running a business at its early stages meant a reduced income of 100-150 thousand yen ($900 to $1,400). I had to plan my finances carefully as by that time I had children and relied on savings to support my family.

I think that having a goal which I set for myself at the age of 17 encouraged me to take a third chance on succeeding as an entrepreneur. At heart I didn’t wish to return to my previous life as a salaryman. I discussed the issue with my family and we agreed this would be my last attempt at starting a business. This is how I embarked on a journey of building Repro.

Why we need to set medium to long-term goals

Looking back at your career path, what kind of advice would you give to your younger peers?

Hirata: I would advise not to follow my example of a two-year-long self-discovery journey after college. It feels awkward to say this because I had chosen to take a journey myself, but based on my experience, such a choice is an excuse for being unproductive.

Meanwhile, I would recommend setting a medium to long-term goal. Such advice may not agree with the thinking of the millennial generation, and there are exceptionally talented people doing business without clearly defined goals.

But I belong to the camp of businesspeople who believe that setting a goal helps to smooth the vicissitudes while navigating a ship. A technical glitch may occur during the sail but one can still arrive at the destination by watching the sun for directions. Similar reasoning can be applied in business when one learns from mistakes and does not divert from the path.

I say to young colleagues at Repro to decide lightheartedly. Values may change over the years and then one can make adjustments or set a different goal. However, personally, I would only make adjustments in the upwards direction so as to benefit from changes.

I pursued my own happiness when I set a goal at 17 but even now I still can navigate towards that goal.

As for the goals at Repro, I have made an upward adjustment aiming to gain a foothold in the overseas market. Not many Japanese software companies are selling their products and services overseas but I aim to win a market share however small at the initial stage.

I think it is appropriate to make adjustments this way based on the phase of business.

Working towards higher resolution

How one should approach the goal-setting task?

Hirata: Setting a goal could be compared to writing a novel about your own life. We all have a certain idea about how we wish to live. Some people want to live by the sea or visit places like Machu Picchu, others wish to settle in Kamakura after retirement. By having an image of our lives, we can work on turning ideas into reality.

Once you have an image of your goal, you can set a tentative time limit, for example, goals to achieve before the age of 45. Then, start the work by adding upward adjustments when necessary. I liken the process to upgrading the image resolution. This way, a blurred picture is shaped step by step into a high resolution image.

This is a continual process and one can progress faster by setting realistic goals.

Let’s teach our kids by example

Yet many young people today seem to be struggling to find a passion.

Hirata: I have certainly noticed that kids today lack the spark that older generations had at a similar age. The other day I interviewed a freshman at Keio University and was surprised to find out that he is applying for an internship at our company even before deciding on his college courses. In response to my puzzled reaction, he explained: “Anybody can graduate college. By joining Repro, I hope to develop survival skills which I find most important for myself.” When asked about life goals, he responded: “I do not have a life goal at the moment, but I might have in the future. When that time comes I would need skills so as not to miss my chances. I hope to learn such skills while working at Repro.”

Talking to other interns convinced me that lack of aspirations among young generation reflects what is happening in society today. Older generations at a similar age witnessed the worldwide success of Japanese companies. The achievements of superstar companies such as Sony could be compared to Apple’s success today. Young people then could not wait to join companies which inspired them.

Meanwhile, the millennial generation today has to adapt to new realities when established companies are struggling to navigate disruptions in the global economy. With doom and gloom all around, the mood among the youth could be described as “a self-preservation instinct at work” which is understandable in the climate of uncertainty.

This topic is very personal to me. As a father of three children, I would like to see our youth looking into the future bright-eyed and excited about taking on the challenges. We have to teach our kids by example by refusing to follow an exit strategy and instead leading a start-up towards winning its share in the global market.

Find a path to follow your dreams

Earlier you cited a student’s wish about learning survival skills. Would you advise young people to become entrepreneurs?

Hirata: I would advise young people to follow their dreams. Many people today are working freelance. A talented person may start a first job as a freelancer but few years later decide to join a start-up or large corporation. Freelancers can earn a living by doing various gig work, but based on my experience, to accomplish big goals one needs to work within a team.

Young people can take on diverse challenges whether it is a freelance work, starting a company or working for a major corporation.

Meanwhile, I strongly disagree with idleness. By setting a goal, even when one veers from the path, it is always possible to return to it. I encourage our youth to find a way to grow and improve.

Using a compass to navigate towards success

What advice would you give to young people who are about to start their careers?

Hirata: I would advise young people to have a clearly defined goal when deciding one’s professional path. Life can be described as a timeline for making decisions. Therefore, I suggest developing a hypothesis to test decisions made on the path to achieving one’s goal. Without using complex terms such as “hypothesis”, put simply, asking questions such as “Why do I want to join this company?”, “How long would I work there?”, and “What do I intend to gain by working there?” helps to evaluate one’s progress towards a goal.

I wouldn’t judge a person’s decision to part ways with a company after a half-year period if the decision had been made based on sound reasoning. If a workplace does not help to achieve one’s goals, it is wise to consider a next move at earlier stages. My advice is to use a compass, or in other words, test your hypothesis, to navigate towards success.

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