Naoaki Sakata (M.03)
Tokyo. Naoaki’s company, Santeplus, is in Kobe, but he came to Tokyo for a business meeting and for an interview with a big bag and a strange cushion. Even if we knew he was an inventor, we were quite surprised, but Naoaki just brought his products. This passionate man has been totally free and fulfilled by his work since he started his own company and sold his own products. They both come from two of his hobbies: sumo and opera. A story of passion and dedication.
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Naoaki-san ! Let’s start with our little Chinese portrait! So if you were… a color?
N: Sky blue.
HU: An animal?
N: A pig! Because I was born during the pig year! (laughs)
HU: A meal?
N: Sushi! Especially tuna and salmon.
HU: A song?
N: John Lennon, Imagine. I love peace, and with peace, everybody can be happy.
HU: A movie?
N: There is a movie in Japan called Shiko Funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t in English), which is about about my sumo team, Rikkyo University, so I love that film. It’s a very famous movie in Japan.
HU: An object?
N: I want to be Kabuki Glasses! (laughs)
HU: If you were a sport or a game?
HU: A book?
N: I love the book Konosuke Matsushita, by the founder of Panasonic. I like the story of how he became an entrepreneur and how he succeeded in the business.
HU: A (super)hero?
N: There is a student champion of sumo wrestling who was the head coach of our sumo team. He became a sumo champion 55 years ago. I have great respect for him, Mr Moriguchi.
“I heard things like “Oh you are giving your career up! You start something but it is not going to be business!” But I was too passionate so I started anyway.”
HU: Thank you for all these very personal answers. Now comes the biggest challenge of this interview, can you try to sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?
N: After graduating from Rikkyo University in Tokyo, I started my career at Panasonic, where I spent 5 years. I spent 2 years in Russia and I also went to St Petersburg University to learn the Russian language. Then I went to HEC Paris for my MBA. During my MBA I made an internship at Renault. After that I worked for Michelin during three years: 6 months in France in Clermont-Ferrand and then In Tokyo. In 2006 I started my own company called SantéPlus: it is a health business, but also a binocular business.
HU: Why did you start your own business? What are the products your are selling?
N: I used to wrestle sumo and I coach my university sumo team and I was always asking myself: “Why aren’t people doing sumo exercise for health purpose?” Everybody was training in the Western way but no one was doing the sumo exercise. (Naoaki stands up to show us what he is talking about). This is traditional sumo exercise and I wanted people to try it and to be as comfortable as I was, thanks to it. I wanted to prevail those exercises to the world and especially to Japan. This is really what I wanted to do.
HU: Was it easy to do?
N: No many people thought it was a terrible idea! I heard things like “Oh you are giving your career up! You start something but it is not going to be business!” But I was too passionate so I started anyway.
So I developed my sumo exercises and I proposed it to health clubs in Japan and in the US. But I also developed a product called “Flexcushion” which is used for stretching. Sumo is composed of 4 different exercises (Naoaki presents physically the 3 first exercises, too hard to describe). The fourth exercise is stretching and I knew that everyone had trouble stretching properly, even athletes. I made this product, the Flexcushion, to allow people to stretch well. It was the beginning.
But my clients only wanted to buy my product and not the sumo exercise! So even if I was a bit disappointed, I changed my business to focus on manufacturing and selling this product to health clubs and sport teams.
“My work and my hobbies are the same! I wanted these two products and I invented them myself.”
HU: How did it work?
N: Nowadays, many top level athletes, sport teams and health clubs are using my product and I also developed programs using this product for yoga, pilates and stretching.
HU: But you also invented another product right?
N: The second product is called the Kabuki Glasses.
Usually, binoculars, or sometime called opera glasses, but as I was manufacturing everything in Japan, I named my binoculars Kabuki glasses because Kabuki is Japanese opera.
They are autofocus and hands-free binocular for theatre and sports. I sell them in Luxury department stores, In Japan Airlines stores and at some places like the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
HU: How did you get this idea???
N: When I was in Russia I fell in love with theatre, ballet and opera. But I always wanted to upgrade my seat so I was carrying binoculars, but the classical ones were disappointing: it was shaking, you can’t focus well, and you have to hold them all the time… I decided to create my own idea of binoculars, the Kabuki Glasses.
HU: Is the fact that you invented and now sell two very personal products that make you happy to go to work every morning?
N: I am very happy to work for SantéPlus, my company. Everything I do is part of my hobbies. My work and my hobbies are the same! I wanted these two products and I invented them myself.
I am also very happy to be an entrepreneur because I can decide everything by myself: color, design, marketing, pricing… I am free!
I realized my dream so I am very happy to go to work every morning! (laughs)
HU: Do you have another product in the pipe?
N: I want to develop a product in the future, but it’s a secret for now! (laughs)
HU: What does this inspiration come from?
N: From my life. Sometimes you are not satisfied with a situation, product or service. It was my case and thought it was a good opportunity to develop something new.
HU: Are your products patented? If yes, why do you think it is a cost-effective approach?
N: When you develop a new product, I think you absolutely need to apply for a patent even before developing the product! I applied for the design and trademark patents for both my products. It’s long, time-consuming and there is a lot of paperwork, but it is very important. I also applied for international patents in the US and in Europe.
HU: Have they already protected you?
N: Actually yes!
HU: What is your typical working day?
N: I wake up at 7:15am, I have breakfast with my wife and kids, and then I watch TV news in the morning. I have 40 minutes of commute by train to go to my company. I arrive at my office at 9:00am. I have lunch around 12:00am and in the afternoon I often visit my clients. I also have dinner with them once or twice a week. This is very important in Japan to build good relationships and to exchange information.
HU: Let’s talk a bit about Tokyo now. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?
N: I live in Kobe actually! I come very often for business to Tokyo and I lived there for many days but I moved to Kobe 3 years ago. On Sunday afternoons, I like to play with my kids. My son is 8 years old and my daughter is 6 years old. I like to go to the park with them, where we play baseball or try to fish in a river. They also love to watch trains so I do that with them too, we have fun. I love spending time with my family. We like to travel in Japan, so we go for one-day trips together
When in was living in Tokyo I also was coaching my university sumo wrestling team on Sundays.
“Many words in the Russian theatre vocabulary are French words. It is just an example of the huge influence that France has over the Russian culture. That’s the reason why I wanted to come to France.”
HU: What are your favorite places in Tokyo?
N: Ryogoku, where you have sumo’s national stadium. It’s a nice place during tournaments and I love its atmosphere. This is my favourite place. I like the Tokyo Dome too, where you have all the baseball games, because I am a huge fan of baseball. Kagurazaka is a very beautiful place in Tokyo, a nice and old neighbourhood. It’s a mix of tradition and modernity and there is a unique atmosphere there. I recommend that place.
HU: What do you like about people from Tokyo?
N: People from Tokyo enjoy life. There are many sports centers or theatres, so you can enjoy anything. The influential people, who are making Japan moving, are here. It’s a fantastic place.
HU: What is Japan’s challenge that matter the most to you?
N: We have a stagnant economy in Japan today, like in Europe, and people talk about it all the time… I think it’s normal. It’s natural because Japan’ living standard is already high and there is not much room to grow. The only thing we need to focus on is quality of life.
“I played rugby, I played table tennis, I was part of the team and we went to play against Centrale and other schools and I also joined the Karate team.”
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. When did you do your MBA?
N: I entered HEC in September 2001.
HU: Why did you choose HEC?
N: When I was in Russia I fell in love with theatres, opera, ballet and I noticed something very interesting. Many words in the Russian theatre vocabulary are French words. It is just an example of the huge influence that France has over the Russian culture. That’s the reason why I wanted to come to France. As I wanted to do an MBA and at the same time to go to Paris to enjoy the French culture, my dream was to go to a Parisian school for my MBA!
I visited several schools in Paris and around Paris and I was really fascinated by HEC, its huge campus and its great atmosphere. I thought: “this is where I want to live”.
HU: What was your favorite place on this campus?
N: The sports fileds! What’s good about HEC is that you can make a lot of sport everyday.
I played rugby, I played table tennis, I was part of the team and we went to play against Centrale and other schools and I also joined the Karate team. I still remember Mr Nakata, HEC’s Karate professor, who had lived in France for more than 30 years. After classes, I used to attend many sports activities, so I loved those places! It was fun!
I also loved the piano bar, where all the MBA drinking parties take place. We could socialize with a lot of people there, it was a central place.
“My company has no activity in Europe today, but I am looking for good retail partners in Europe and I will use HEC’s network to go to the European market!”
HU: Would you advise someone to do an MBA at HEC? Why?
N: Yes, because the balance is perfect! The curriculum is good, of course, but you can also enjoy Paris’ culture! You just drive 25 minutes and you are in Paris. You can enjoy all the sports activities on campus. You can travel in France and Europe very easily. And the participants are very diversifies too.
This time I spent on the HEC campus and in France is one of the best parts of my life…. And the network is great!
HU: How do you use this network?
N: First of all, I made many friends at HEC, and making friends at the age of 30 is not always easy. When you enter a company at the age of 22 or 23, it’s very difficult to make friends later. Your colleagues are not always your friends. Today, when I go to business trips in the USA or elsewhere, I have friends! Don’t you think it’s great?
HU: Has HEC allowed you to do things you could not do before?
N: It gave me credibility. When I visit Europe, HEC gives me credibility and I can also use HEC’s vast network there. My company has no activity in Europe today, but I am looking for good retail partners in Europe and I will use HEC’s network to go to the European market!
HEC also allowed me to become an entrepreneur, for two reasons. First, I learnt to look at things from a macro-economical point of view. Before this MBA, when I was in big companies, I was only focusing on my own job. But all the classes in HEC taught me to look at a business from above and to have a global view of it. And second, HEC gave me a lot a confidence. Even if I fail in my business, the HEC label will help me get another job. So when I started my business, I had the impression of taking no risk! HEC made it easy to become an entrepreneur.
HU: What would you advise to a young HEC who would like to become an inventor or an entrepreneur?
N: Everybody has something is his mind and can be no. 1 in his own field. For example it can be: “I like Pokemons, and I want to have this kind of product”, or “I love watches but I want to have those functionalities” or “I want this design in my tie” or anything! If you want it to exist from the bottom of your heart, you become passionate about it and you naturally start acting. If you have a specific dream, start acting, the rest will come because you are passionate about it.
HU: HEC’s motto is “The more you know, the more you dare”. What’s yours?
N: I have two mottos. My first motto is “Act first and then be flexible.” Too much thinking before acting is not good. If you want to do something, act first! You will have time to adapt later, so you also need to stay flexible and not to stick to what you thought in the first place.
My second motto is: “Avec Kiai”. I learnt this motto from HEC’s karate teacher, Mr Nakata! Kiai is a Japanese word that be translated into “spirit of combat”. So it’s a kind of “Yes I will do!” spirit.
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