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East Meets West: A Japanese Founders' Guide to Unlocking US Venture Capital

Updated: Feb 5

Image showcasing the symbolic connection between Japanese startups and American venture capital

For Japanese startups considering accessing the global markets, tapping into American venture capital can offer the key to unlocking those ambitious, sky-high goals. However, bridging the significant gap between Japanese and Silicon Valley venture capital requires careful positioning.


While early-stage funding may be similar, obtaining investments tailored for aggressive international growth trajectories demands an understanding of contrasting cultural attitudes, risk tolerance, and the priorities of overseas investors at the highest levels.


This guide delves into the key differences in fundraising mentalities between Japan and the USA empowering Japanese startups to craft compelling cases that pique American venture interest. Success on the global stage awaits those who skillfully blend messages tailored for cross-border backers.


Read on to discover what it takes to bridge the gap between Japanese and Silicon Valley thinking and ignite excitement among American venture capitalists to invest in Japanese innovation.


The Japanese Venture Capital Landscape


Leading Tokyo VC firms include SoftBank, Coral Capital, JAFCO, Global Brain Corporation, East Ventures, SMBC Venture Capital, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, and direct billions into domestic startups. Since 2013, funds increased 5x to 810 while funding grew 10x to over $7 billion into local ventures. 

 

Deal sizes still average just $3.6 million versus $23 million in the US, but activity is accelerating under PM Kishida's target of 100 unicorns by 2027. Public-private partnerships are expanding, with banks encouraged to lend based on growth prospects rather than collateral. With high returns proven, Japan's VC-centered innovation ecosystem is poised for further growth.

 

Key Characteristics of Japanese VCs

 

Japanese VCs strategically concentrate capital into sectors aligning with national priorities around technology, healthcare and consumer products - contrasting with US preferences for riskier plays displaying hockey stick metrics. Corporate VC arms manage nearly half of aggregate fund assets, maintaining close integration guiding startups relevant to their parent firm's industry. Government partnerships further support ecosystem development.


  • Stellar Returns: Despite renowned risk avoidance, Japanese VCs delivered 18% average net IRR over the past decade, exceeding the 15% from US firms and outperforming domestic markets by around 7% - proving global competitiveness.

  • Strategic Alignment: Tight coordination with corporate parents and policymaker economic priorities funnels investments into sectors like electronics, robotics, biotech and ecommerce expected to drive sustainable national growth.

  • Corporate Involvement: Japan's VC landscape sees nearly half of assets controlled not by independent venture funds, but rather corporate VC subsidiaries like Toyota AI Ventures identifying strategic investment opportunities.


Cultural Aspects Influencing Japanese VCs

 

Relationships and consensus carry premium importance in Japanese dealmaking, with process-oriented diligence stressing interpersonal connections beyond pure data analysis that predominates in the US. Similarly, appetite for risk and toleration of failure run lower than American benchmarks, with preferences slanted towards relatively stable ventures displaying some proof-points.


  • Relationships and Trust Emphasized: Lengthy diligence processes focus on forging mutual understanding and rapport between investors and founders instead of rushing to score valuations.

  • Risk Aversion Preferences: Tend to shy away from capital-intensive moonshots with unproven economics, favoring investments in relatively mature startups demonstrating baseline traction and metrics suggesting higher probability of stability.


Venture Capital in the United States

 

The United States venture capital (VC) market is a dynamic and significant part of the global investment landscape. It's characterized by its large size and the substantial amount of capital invested in various sectors. In recent years, the US VC market has seen a trend of increasing investment sizes and valuations, with technology and healthcare sectors receiving significant attention.


  • Market Size and Growth: The US VC market is one of the largest in the world. In 2021, it reached a record high with over $330 billion invested across various sectors. This represents a significant increase from previous years, indicating a robust and growing market.

  • Sector Focus: Technology and healthcare are the primary sectors attracting VC investments. These sectors are seen as high-growth areas with the potential for substantial returns.

  • Geographical Concentration: The market is heavily concentrated in regions like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston, known for their innovation ecosystems and startup culture.

 

Key Characteristics of US VCs

 

US venture capitalists are known for their unique approach, which includes aggressive growth strategies and larger funding rounds compared to their global counterparts.


  • Aggressive Growth Strategies: US VCs often push for rapid scaling and market dominance. This approach can lead to high-risk, high-reward scenarios.

  • Larger Funding Rounds: Compared to other regions, US VCs tend to invest larger amounts in each funding round. This is partly due to the higher valuations of US-based startups and the competitive nature of the market.

  • Active Involvement: Many US VCs take an active role in the management and strategic direction of their portfolio companies, often securing board positions.

 

Emphasis on Innovation and Scalability in US VC Culture

 

Innovation and scalability are central themes in the US VC ecosystem. This culture is driven by a strong belief in the transformative power of technology and business models.


  • Innovation as a Core Value: US VCs are constantly seeking disruptive and innovative startups. There's a strong emphasis on groundbreaking technologies and business models.

  • Scalability and Global Ambitions: Startups that demonstrate potential for rapid scaling and global market penetration are highly favored. US VCs look for companies that can quickly expand their market footprint and generate substantial returns.

 

The US venture capital market continues to evolve, adapting to new technologies and market trends. Its focus on innovation, scalability, and aggressive growth strategies makes it a unique and influential player in the global investment landscape.


Comparative Analysis: Japanese Vs. US VC Funding

 

Now that we've covered the key differences between Japanese and US funding stages, let's dive deeper into how investment size and industry preferences play a role in these discrepancies. 


Funding Stages

 

Compared to the United States, the venture capital market in Japan is smaller, resulting in lower valuations and financing rounds. For instance, in 2021, the average financing round globally was approximately $10 million for Series A, $26 million for Series B, $52 million for Series C, and $109 million for Series D and beyond. In Japan, however, the corresponding figures were significantly lower, with series seed averaging around $707,000 and early-stage investments averaging around $1.1 million.

 

In Japan, most funds participate in later financing rounds, providing ticket sizes ranging from $10 million to $70 million, while the average financing round size in the US tends to be higher. To bolster the startup ecosystem, the Japanese government has made a promising commitment to provide enthusiastic support, aiming to increase annual startup investments tenfold to 10 trillion yen ($71.5 billion) by 2027.

 

Industry Preferences

 

Japanese and US venture capitalists have different sector focuses. In Japan, there is a significant number of VCs specializing in small seed and early-stage companies, primarily in the internet field. These VCs tend to prioritize sectors like AI, cybersecurity, DevOps, and digitization. Furthermore, an increasing number of independent Japanese VCs are collaborating with universities to commercialize promising technologies

 

On the other hand, US VCs have a broader sector focus, encompassing technology, healthcare, and consumer products. The divergence in focus stems from the varying maturity levels of the startup ecosystems in the two countries and the unique demands of their respective economies.

 

Decision-Making Factors

 

The decision-making processes of Japanese and American venture capitalists exhibit notable differences. In Japan, there is a strong emphasis on consensus management and the ringi system. This entails circulating proposals for comments and approval among various levels of management. Japanese VCs also prioritize long-term planning and tend to adopt a more cautious approach to investments. As a result, they often make smaller check-size investments and show a preference for startups with well-defined business plans and solid management teams.

 

In contrast, American VCs tend to be more myopic and individualistic in their decision-making approach. They prioritize short-term results and demonstrate a higher risk tolerance. American VCs also have a lengthier history of investing in startups and have achieved greater success in obtaining returns on their investments compared to their Japanese counterparts.

 

These differences in decision-making between Japanese and American VCs can be attributed to cultural factors and management practices. Japanese culture places a strong emphasis on interdependence and group harmony, which is reflected in the consensus-driven decision-making processes of Japanese VCs. On the other hand, American culture is more individualistic and places greater importance on competition and achievement, resulting in a more myopic and results-oriented decision-making approach among American VCs.

 

Risk Tolerance

 

Another key difference lies in the appetite for risk amongst Japanese VCs versus American VCs. Japanese VCs tend to be more risk-averse in their investment strategy. They prefer to invest in startups with proven business models and demonstrated traction, even if the upside potential is lower. Rapid iteration and pivots, common among early-stage startups funded by American VCs, are less tolerated.

 

In contrast, American VCs have a higher tolerance for risk and are willing to make early stage, seed investments in unproven startups. The emphasis is on higher risk, higher reward bets vs. lower risk but less disruptive opportunities. American VCs also require quick validation of product-market fit hypotheses, demanding evidence of traction or else withdrawal of funding.

 

This divergence in risk appetite stems from structural differences in the venture capital ecosystems. In Japan, venture capital emerged predominantly from within large, conservative corporations focused on later stage opportunities and slow burn growth. American venture capital however was shaped early on by pioneering individual investors willing to take big bets on unproven founders and ideas. These formative differences still echo in the prevailing investment mentalities seen today.

 

By understanding these variances in risk tolerance, Japanese startups can tailor their fundraising and growth strategies accordingly when engaging American versus domestic VCs. Conservative business plans may be required by Japanese investors but may be seen as lacking ambition by aggressive American funds accustomed to high pace experimentation and uncertainty.

Challenges and Opportunities for Japanese Startups Seeking US Funding

 

Japanese startups looking to raise funds from US investors face some unique challenges, but also significant opportunities if they can overcome certain barriers.

 

Overcoming Cultural and Communication Barriers

 

One major hurdle is bridging the cultural and communication divide between Japanese founders and US investors. Japanese business culture tends to be more formal and conservative compared to the very direct, fast-moving style common in US tech hubs like Silicon Valley. Japanese founders may need to adapt their pitch styles and presentation formats to appeal to US investor expectations. Building relationships and networks in the US startup community can help overcome these barriers.

 

Legal and Regulatory Considerations

 

Japanese startups seeking US funding also need to navigate cross-border legal and regulatory issues. This includes things like setting up the appropriate business entities, dealing with investment regulations, hiring visa considerations, and more. Getting the right legal advice early on is crucial when structuring these international deals.

 

Strategies for Attracting US Investors

 

Despite the barriers, US investor interest in Japanese startups is growing rapidly. By honing pitches for the US audience, proactively targeting relevant investors, participating in US startup events, and leveraging connections through accelerator programs, Japanese founders can effectively get on the radar of major US funds looking to add new geographies to their portfolios. Emphasizing innovations and assets unique to Japanese startups can attract particular investor attention.

 

The cross-border funding landscape brings challenges, but with the right strategies Japanese startups can thrive in accessing the sizable US venture capital ecosystem. Careful preparation for fundraising and being aware of the intercultural differences are key for successfully securing backing from US investors.


Success Stories and Case Studies


Japanese startups have shown increasing ability to tap into American venture capital and accelerate global growth. A deeper look at a few high-profile examples provides more context around the strategies and models behind their breakout journeys.

 

Preferred Networks (PN) stands out for its focus on specialized AI technology and strategic alignment with industry leaders. As a pioneer in applying deep learning to industrial automation and autonomous driving systems, PN developed cutting-edge capabilities before most. Their early backing of Toyota’s automated driving initiative and collaboration on critical technology built mutual trust and validation. This, coupled with early stage funding from US investor Intel Capital, established PN’s credentials and enabled rapid expansion of its industrial AI business, now one of the most advanced globally.

 

SmartNews took a different approach, identifying personalized news aggregation as an addressable market ripe for reinvention through machine learning. Where previous news apps took a one-size-fits-all approach, SmartNews’ algorithms learned reader preferences to deliver custom recommendations. This resonated equally with Japanese users and American early adopters, enabling SmartNews to achieve unicorn status in both markets with backing from top VCs like Atomico.

 

In e-commerce, Mercari effectively leveraged mobile-first design and USER focus to build Japan’s most successful peer-to-peer marketplace before expanding to the US. By zeroing in on an enjoyable user experience for second-hand commerce, Mercari made buying and selling dead simple via its smartphone app. This market-specific mobile strategy, refined through multiple iterations, helped Mercari consolidate in Japan before replicating its model for the US. Top investor Sequoia Capital saw early potential, helping fund Mercari’s path to Japan’s first tech IPO.

 

Finally in SaaS, Sansan demonstrated the potential of software innovation targeted at improving business productivity. Sansan tackled the addressable pain point of inefficient business contact management by digitizing networks on the cloud. After cementing category leadership in Japan due to the improved efficiency of its offering, Sansan caught the attention of VCs seeking beachheads into Asia. US-based DCM Ventures invested to back Sansan’s global ambitions.

 

Across these various breakout examples, we see consistent emphasis on product-market fit, user-centric design, software-based disruption, global visions, high-profile VC partnerships, and unrelenting focus on cutting-edge technology as the ingredients for global success. Japanese startups embracing these models continue marching toward international relevance backed by American money and marquee funds seeking paths into Asia.


Conclusion

 

For Japanese startups with global ambitions, securing funding from prominent US venture capital firms can provide the rocket fuel for achieving rapid international growth. However, effectively appealing to American investors requires nuanced positioning that bridges cultural divides.

 

Key Takeaways:


  • Understand US investor priorities around growth, risk tolerance and decision-making

  • Tailor pitches to emphasize ambitious expansion plans, innovation potential and openness to VC partnership

  • Balance appealing to US expectations while retaining authenticity around team connections

  • Specialist pitch support can help craft compelling materials tailored for cross-border audiences

  • Significant funding available from top tier US investors seeking global deal flow

 

By understanding key differences in priorities including growth orientation, risk tolerance and decision making norms, Japanese founders can tailor pitches for maximum appeal. Emphasizing cutting-edge innovation, plans for aggressive expansion into international markets and openness to input from VC partners are vital.

 

However, this must be balanced with acknowledgment of investors’ interests in backing teams they can establish strong interpersonal connections with. Authenticity in portraying ambitions is equally key.

 

The bar for capturing attention is high, but Japanese startups embracing the challenges can gain invaluable backing to scale globally. With careful navigation of both local norms and overseas expectations, securing funding from top Silicon Valley VCs is an achievable goal.

 

IGNITION Pitch Works: Bridging the Gap Between Japanese Founders and US Venture Capital


The journey from a promising idea to a globally recognized enterprise is fraught with unique challenges, especially when bridging cultural and business divides. This is where IGNITION Pitch Works supports Japanese founders as their strategic partner. Our expertise is not just in understanding the nuances of both Japanese and American venture capital ecosystems, but in seamlessly aligning business concepts with the expectations of US



investors. We specialize in both creating and refining pitches, and optimally communicating investor propositions to resonate in the competitive US market. Whether you're at the conceptual stage or gearing up for a major funding round, IGNITION Pitch Works is committed to transforming your vision into a compelling narrative that captivates the right investors. Connect with us to discuss how we can support your journey towards growth and success on a global stage.

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