Casey Wahl: Western Entrepreneur in the East. Beyond the border

Casey Wahl is founder and CEO of Wahl & Case K.K., a professional recruitment and executive search firm headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. He is a long-term resident of Japan with fluent Japanese and also has an Executive MBA from IE Business School. He is also the author of The Quiet Comeback.

-----First of all, for those who are not familiar with you, allow us to know more about yourself. What did make you move to Japan and start business over there?

I wanted to take the path less traveled - Have an adventure. After graduating from University I wanted to work internationally. Having grown up in the Middle East I wanted to experience something new, I thought Europe was straightforward, Africa and South America weren’t on my radar, which left Asia as the most exotic, appealing location. Japan, being so unique, held the most attraction, and so I followed that path.

My initial plan was not to stay long in Japan. The idea was to stay for just a couple of years. But life happened, a career started, and I became a long-term resident of Japan.

My entrepreneurial journey only started after gaining experience in the industry for over 10 years. Starting a business in an industry you know with a growing market gives you the greatest chance of success. With these boxes were ticked, I wasn’t using my brain or developing my skills at the previous job, but I had a lot of ideas on how I could try to improve the recruitment industry in Japan that I was constrained from trying, so I launched a business.

-----You have published a book about startup companies in Japan. What was your main motivation and objective to publish it?

A few years ago I set up an angel investment and incubation company for tech startups in Tokyo. The motivation for that was to try to give back, help propel the then nascent startup community here. The model was a very active model, where we sourced the idea for the startup ourselves, recruited the CEO/Founder, had our development team create the product, and then invested angel capital and passed it over to the CEO. We created four companies like that, and, eventually, all of them would fail. They failed for different reasons. Those failures had a lot of pain attached - a lot of energy was spent, a lot of money was invested, a lot of emotions expended - and it felt all like that was spent to get an education on ‘doing a startup in Japan’. During that time there was very little public information on how to successfully grow a startup in Tokyo. It’s a tricky, intricate place. All the information was locked inside a few founders’ heads and there wasn’t a public resource like Quora where you could find out all the information you needed. So I wrote the book in order to inspire, and help would-be founders to launch and grow their companies successfully in Tokyo. The book was meant to be part “how-to” part “Chicken Soup for the Soul” for struggling entrepreneurs with inspirational yet approachable human stories.

-----Because of the language barrier and cultural difference, you may have experienced lots of difficulties. How did you overcome difficult situations and how did you control your mind?

I had lived in Japan a long time, and deeply understood the nuances of the culture and language before launching my startup. I had a lot of advantages. I thought more entrepreneurially, was willing to break more rules, and had more creative ideas than other Japanese competitors, yet still understood how to be successful in the market.

The failure ratio for foreign companies coming in to Japan is over 50% within two years. Often they don’t take the time to learn the intricacies of the local market. Japan is a relationship-driven, inefficient place in many ways, and foreign companies fail to allocate the time, with appropriate expectations, on how to successfully grow a company in Japan. Luckily, I could avoid that.

The fear of failure was a big motivator to overcome difficult situations as an entrepreneur. [worded this way or in this order sounds like an oxymoron.. I’d say ‘Overcoming the fear of failure was a big motivator for me as an entrepreneur’] During the early startup phase I found I had a depth of emotionally resiliencey deeper than I had known, and that I could bear a lot of mental pain and stress. Those strengths helped me get through the difficult early days.

-----If you had stayed your home country, the life would have been far much easier. Why do you select a challenging option? Did you have fears?

Things wouldn’t necessarily have been easier. Japan is a homogenous country and the population tends to think similarly, so if you can bring a different perspective, see different opportunities, then the chances for success can be much higher.

Choosing a challenging option is fun. For my work life, growing, developing, and learning can only be done through embracing challenges. Plateauing and settling is boring, a waste of life. Entrepreneurs tend to see risk differently so naturally they tend to minimize it in the thought process.

Fears? Yes, there was fear of failure, and shame, especially in Japan where failure is not tolerated, but turning that in to a motivating factor was pretty easy. Regret is a more intolerable emotion than fear.

-----Even in the 21st century, living in a country, especially where not so many people speak English, is quite challenging. What would be the most important thing to survive and establish yourself in that kind of situation?

Understanding the country first. Learning the language, and learning the culture are important. If you try to bring the West and overlay that on Japan it won’t work. You’ll be unhappy. Learning to accept is necessary for an emotionally balanced survival. The other aspect that is necessary is the willingness to embrace embarrassment. You will say and do many things as you learn a new country and you just have to let go of your pride, and embrace the humiliation. That is the only way to grow.

-----To create your own life-style, what would be the most important thing?

I didn’t create my company for a life-style choice [when you say life-style choice, do you mean ‘to have a certain life-style’? because although he answers that a life-style business is boring, I originally thought you were talking about the entrepreneurial life-style choice]. I founded it to be a world-class company, and to change the world of recruitment. There is a lot of inefficiency, friction, and laziness in the recruitment industry which builds up to a bad reputation for the industry as a whole. But the need for recruitment and talent is critical and is only becoming more so. So Building a company that can influence and fix those issues is my motivation. It doesn’t coincide with a life-style business. To me a life-style business is boring and not very interesting.

-----For you, what does success mean?

It changes as you get to different levels of achievement. In the early stages of being an entrepreneur, survival was the measure of success. As we grew and went on to the next stage, the definition changed.

Nowadays I get told often that I have built a successful business, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. The feeling of dissatisfaction because so much more can be done, runs deep.

The goal to change recruitment, restore its reputation, and innovate the next generation of recruitment services is an enormous task - the chances that I do not achieve it are high. It will take a long time, with many struggles, so in some sense I may always have a feeling of failure. So along the way working alongside great, highly-talented people who I can learn from, respect, and who possess a depth of integrity is the daily, on-going success in my life that I can savour.

-----When you try to do something completely different from what other people are doing, many people try to stop you from doing it. How do you deal with naysayers?

It motivates me. The overwhelming majority of people you encounter when starting out differently will be naysayers, but proving them wrong can be a huge motivational reserve for times you’re feeling down.

-----If you can make a call to 20-year-old Casey Wahl, what kind of advice you would give to him?

lol. Ha! Ha! - The list would be endless! Get a better haircut, don’t wear baggy skater clothes, stop eating McDonald’s, and the like would certainly be high on the list. The other advice would be to not worry so much about fitting in, you’ll find your niche, find successful in time, and be all the much happier because you are different.

-----If you can leave a message to make the world a better place, what message you would leave?

Do good and good will come back to you. Finish what you do, and do it with integrity - keep your word, and don’t give in to short-term emotions. Too many people do that in business and it harms not only themselves, but the environment around them, breeding negativity. Emotions and behaviours are highly contagious. The more we can all act better in the work environment, the better it will become in reality.

Edited by Jennifer Ann Garcia

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