We talk to Akiko Naka, founder of social recruiting platform Wantedly and the youngest woman to lead a publicly listed company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Akiko Naka has made it her life’s mission to create a world where people are actually excited about their work, a world where people and companies are connected based on shared passions and values, rather than simply money and benefits. Fast-forward eight years, and through her company Wantedly, the 33-year-old has single-handedly built Japan’s largest social recruiting platform, completely re-inventing the hiring process along the way. When she came to visit the Hive’s new location in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, we sat down with her to find out how and why she did it.
“When I first tried running a tech startup I was at university – and I failed miserably. At the time, there was a serious startup boom in Japan, and everyone wanted to start one, even university students. So you see, at the time I just didn’t have any purpose in running a startup, it was simply the cool thing to do,” begins Akiko. Demotivated and without a clear direction, she then quit and went the road most travelled by joining the investment banking rat race. “When my team fell apart and went their separate ways, I felt like I’d failed as a leader, and it hurt. I never thought I’d do a startup again.”
Her subsequent stint at Goldman Sachs unhappily coincided with the 2008 financial crisis, and whilst Akiko herself managed to avoid the dreaded chop, many of her friends and colleagues were less fortunate. Disillusioned by the internal politics involved in the various dismissals happening around her, she once again found herself at a fork in the road. This time, however, she chose to shake off societal expectations of her and instead set out to pursue her lifelong aspiration of becoming a – wait for it – manga artist. For about a year, Akiko drew manga day and night whilst isolated at her mother’s house. But with the competition in Japan too abundant and too fierce, Akiko had to give up on her pipe dream and accept that, in the game of supply and demand, her manga did not quite meet the demand and her supply wasn’t different enough to outrun the competition.
Disappointed but not discouraged, Akiko spent the next six months jumping from task to task at Facebook Japan. Equipped with her newfound skills in website design and inspired by the somewhat unconventional and innovation-driven working culture typical of Facebook, the then 24-year-old quickly set her sights even higher.
“I’ve always loved technology, but I never thought seriously about making a career of it. I built my first website when I was 12 years old, but, in Japan, the computer internet industry at the time had a kind of shady reputation. Before Facebook, there was another social networking service in Japan called Mixi. It was anonymous, meaning that you didn’t have to register with your real name or use real photos. The fact that people were concealing their real identities on the site further perpetuated the internet’s reputation as being a dark, kind of scary place. But then Facebook came, and it transformed people’s perception of the internet through its transparency and positive atmosphere and tone, whilst also giving a voice to individuals.”
Founded in 2010, Wantedly is a social hiring platform with one clear mission: to create a world where work drives passion. “Whenever I was riding the train as a kid, all around me I’d see grown-ups whose eyes looked like dead fish,” recalls Akiko. “Work, to them, was a chore, a necessity that paid the bills and nothing else. They were essentially trapped in their lives. I want to change that, and let people know that you can take control of your life and be excited about your job.” And that’s where Wantedly comes in.
In this day and age, the concept of a ‘job for life’ is becoming more and more obsolete as young people get used to the idea of a more fluid career trajectory. The digital age is changing the way people work, and Wantedly is leading the charge in helping candidates build a fulfilling career based on passion. Unlike traditional recruitment channels, Wantedly connects people to jobs based on passion and company culture. Instead of a formal interview, interested candidates are encouraged to schedule a casual office visit as a means of experiencing the company’s culture and work ethic firsthand. “I think, historically, jobs were all about trading your skill set and time for financial compensation. But this concept of trading skill sets for money is outdated. Life is short, and people today are looking for jobs with more meaning,” explains Akiko.
As Japan’s largest business networking platform, Wantedly currently boasts an impressive 25 thousand companies and 2.5 million active monthly users. Whilst the concept behind Wantedly is now old hat back home, it’s still finding its sea legs in the Hong Kong market, as Country Manager Bradford Chan expounds here: “Hong Kong is very traditional, especially when it comes to recruitment. Currently, Jobs DB is one of the main job-seeking channels in the city, and it’s extremely text heavy. We’re in the process of trying to educate companies that simply relying on information like their education and their skill set is imprudent, as it fails to take into account things that make the company unique; like cultural fit and team dynamics. Visiting and experiencing the company in a casual setting is crucial if you’re looking to hire candidates who are in for the long-term.”
This concept of encouraging interested candidates to visit prospective businesses on a very casual basis has been likened to the act of dating before taking the plunge into marriage – and it seems to work. Bradford recalls a time when a company back in Japan was going through some difficulties and was looking at a very uncertain future. Employees were told that if they wanted to leave they could and that they would get compensated. In the end, it was the employees hired through Wantedly that stuck by them through, as they say at the altar, richer and poorer. The Wantedly process, therefore, doesn’t only benefit the candidate, but the company too. In Japan, in particular, it’s incredibly hard to fire people due to regulations. So, given that every hire you make is a longstanding commitment, you want to make sure the candidate is a perfect fit and in for the long-term, and traditional interviews just don’t guarantee that.
When asked about how Wantedly inspires longevity amongst its own employees, Akiko replies, “First we give ownership, or autonomy, to each and every member. Second is mastery, meaning that we try and make sure that everyone is learning new things on a regular basis. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is purpose. You have to keep repeating what the values of the company are and point out what we’re trying to achieve. Be persistent about it. Even these days I make sure that I have review sessions with employees where I remind them about our company mission and direction.”
To end, Akiko elucidates her main motivation: to always be happy. “So much of our lifespan is taken up by work, so if your work sucks then your life sucks. I believe that if you’re truly passionate about your work, then you’re going to have a happy and fulfilled life – so that’s what I’m working towards, for both myself and everyone else.”