A forgotten classic that Entrepreneurs must Read: Made In Japan

1008101I had read Made in Japan in late 1990s and it inspired me then to become an entrepreneur. Strangely, the book doesn’t use the word at all but it has the impact. It was also one of the few times whenI felt bad about not going to an IIT. But I did what I could do then – went to an IIM. I picked it up recently and reread it. It’s a great book and worth reading once every year. Simply put, its the autobiography of Akio Morita who cofounded Sony and gave Walkman to the world

It’s an old book – written in 1986 where today’s heroes for entrepreneurs were still earning their stripes – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs etc. In fact, Steve Jobs idolized Akio Morita and wanted Apple to be the Sony of computers. So much so, that he adopted a uniform for Apple just because Morita told him so. There were very few takers for the uniform at Apple and in the end he was the only one wearing the uniform – black turtleneck and blue jeans; and it became part of his style. In fact, he had the same designer Issey Miyake to make it. The book had a massive impact on the business leaders of those times as well – it apparently prompted Sam Walton to name his biography Made in America!

It is important to understand why there was such an impact of this book and of Akio Morita. When Morita cofounded Sony, Japan was a bombed out nation (2 nuclear attacks!) with several cities completely leveled out and the entire country was occupied by the US. The rest of the world knew Japan for its paper umbrellas, kimonos etc and “Made in Japan” stood for low quality. Within Japan, business was dominated by old business empires where connections counted more than innovation. Sony started by taking technology from US and then improving it faster than US scientist themselves. So much so that their work on the transistor led to a Nobel prize later. Have you heard of a start up’s work getting the Nobel? I haven’t! The story did not end there. They brought in great design and churned out many great products that took over the world. This assault not only made the “Made in Japan” tag stand for quality but sparked off the phrase “trade war”. It was a war where US thought it was on the loosing side. It’s a massive turn around in less than 40 years! Surely, there were other Japanese companies innovating too – Toyota being the other disruptor, but it was Sony in the front. Most of the established larger companies were just content to copy Sony’s products and sell them cheaper.

So what does the book tell us? Here are some quotations directly from the book that may sound as if they come from Apple/Steve Jobs but are actually Sony/Akio Morita:

On need for own stores:

I came to realize from my earliest experience in trying to sell the tape recorder that marketing is really a form of communication…. but we realized from the beginning that (the existing distribution system) could not serve the needs of our company and its new, advanced technology products. Third or fourth parties simply could not have the same interest in or enthusiasm for our products and our ideas that we had. We had to educate our customers to the uses of our products. To do so we had to set up our own outlets and establish our own ways of getting goods into the market.

On product development strategy:

Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do. So instead of doing a lot of market research, we refine our thinking on a product and its use and try to create a market for it by educating and communicating with the public. Sometimes a product idea strikes me as natural.

However, Morita talks a bit about the how as well which is largely missing from Steve Jobs’ biography. Some examples:

Understanding customers:

Working on that showroom and trying to absorb the rhythm of American life, it struck me that if I were to really understand what life was like in America, and if we were going to be successful as a company in the giant American market, we would have to do more than establish our company on American soil. I would have to move my family to the United States and experience the life of an American. … I commuted to the office by bus every day, mingling with New Yorkers, listening to them talk, observing their habits almost like a sociologist. I was also selling our products, making calls on clients…

Success factor:

The key factor in industry is creativity… there are three creativities: creativity in technology, in product planning, and in marketing. To have any one of these without the others is self defeating

Prototyping:

… even at Bell Labs when they get an idea they try it out first on a computer. Here it is the normal reaction of a researcher to say, if the idea sounds good, “Let’s make one and see how it works!”

On the whole, the book is written in a conversational down-to-earth style. It may well be that Morita spoke and the other authors wrote down what came to be the book. I loved that Morita comes out a staunch nationalist and yet a pragmatist who is proud of country but not defensive of it’s shortcomings. He talks only a little about his life and a lot about his philosophy and Japan vs US. But over all, a great read with many takeaways. Only drawback I saw was that there is little coverage of Sony’s senior Founder Masaru Ibuka. He was the technology visionary while Morita was the “merchandiser”. In Morita’s own words:

In fact, the history of our company is the story of a group of people trying to help Ibuka make his dreams come true.

This book also reminded me of a chat I had with Clayton Christensen before he had joined the TCS board. Clay has studied disruptive innovation all his life and he in fact coined the term. He had a slide that showed disruptive innovations from Sony over the years. After a certain point, they continued innovating but none of their innovations were disruptive. They were only sustaining. He asked people at Sony and they pointed out that the year where things changed was the year that Akio Morita retired. I looked for the slide and instead found this article that reflects his updated thinking that Sony couldn’t disrupt itself. It’s an interesting point to wonder about. Will Apple follow Sony in this too now that the founder is no more or will it do differently?

Akio Morita was clear on this in his book. He says that sales force comes in the way of disrupting self and needs to be educated.

Highly recommended to any entrepreneur. In fact, its worth reading once every year.

5 Thoughts on “A forgotten classic that Entrepreneurs must Read: Made In Japan

  1. the book sounds interesting! thanks. Can you explain what the shortcuts IIT and IIM are?

  2. IIT is Indian Institute of Technology and IIM is Indian Institute of Management; respectively the most premier engineering and business schools in India

  3. “It’s an old book – written in 1986 where today’s heroes for entrepreneurs were still earning their stripes – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs etc.” This is a little bit sardonic, no? There are many “old” books which are just as relevant today, as they were the day they were published, so to refer to this book as old is well, a little more than incorrect. The principles of this book are just as sound now as they were back when they were first introduced. Everything in time, dates in one or another way, when circumstances invariably change. Other than that, thank you for sharing this post. I found it an interesting read. One day when it gets “old” I will still think it was a good post. ;)

  4. I didn’t mean old in a derogatory sense. I meant that it’s over quarter of century old and kind of forgotten. But yes it is very relevant and hence my post. By the way, you should look at another classic – My years with General Motors. While Morita influenced a young Steve Jobs, a young Bill Gates was influenced by this book. In fact the father of modern management, Peter Drucker, studied Sloan (whose autobiography is this book) and brought out his practices as modern management.

  5. I am not much of a book reader, but you got me excited. Just placed an order :)

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