When the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, few would have expected that a 23-year-old in their first year of graduate school would create a technology startup in the aftermath. Yet Haruka Mera did just that, launching crowdfunding platform Readyfor Inc. only a few days after the disaster.
In hindsight, it seems reasonable to imagine that a company such as Readyfor would appear at such a moment. In the months following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, communities across Japan were deeply affected, leading to a need for social impact initiatives as well as crowd-sourced funding for recovery.
But hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at her journey, it’s clear that Mera’s road to success has been a winding one. And it has been far from smooth.
Her most-recent challenges—including a personal, life-threatening medical scare—have been some of the most difficult to overcome.
Speaking to The ACCJ Journal, Mera strikes a calm and joyful tone—even when recalling some of her darkest days.
Going forward, she is optimistic that Readyfor will expand its reach beyond supporting small and medium-sized crowdfunding projects for individuals, local governments, and corporations.
She expects that, in the future, the platform will support large-scale funding initiatives in such areas as basic science research, and will explore emerging technologies such as blockchain.
A native of Tokyo, Mera founded Readyfor in 2011, but the seeds of the company were first planted in her mind a year earlier, while she was still a graduate student at Keio University.
In the summer of 2010, Mera had the opportunity to visit the United States, in particular Silicon Valley and Stanford University, where she joined a computer-programming boot camp.
In addition to new technical skills, she gained something on that trip that would change her life forever: the entrepreneurial spirit.
“When I went to Stanford, I met many entrepreneurs, and they all had their own dreams. I found that inspiring. So, I thought I would like to become like them, and decided to make my own company.”
For a 23-year-old with little-to-no business or life experiences, that realization was as daunting as it was exciting. It hardly helped that she hailed from Japan, a country with a reputation for risk aversion.
Unlike those in Silicon Valley or Stanford, “not many people in Japan have their own dreams; they just aspire to work to earn money for their family,” Mera confessed.
Silicon Valley helped Mera break the mold. Having eaten of the forbidden fruit of risk-taking—and finding herself in the shadow of one of Japan’s bleakest moments—she embarked on her entrepreneurial journey.
Readyfor was Japan’s first crowdfunding platform. Mera’s eureka moment for creating the company, on her return to Japan, happened when she ran a Google search for “kuraudofandingu”—“crowdfunding” written in katakana, one of the three writing scripts used in Japanese. The search returned zero hits.
The company’s origins lie in internet-enabled payments. Before her life-changing visit to Stanford, Mera had a meeting with Yutaka Matsuo, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo and an artificial intelligence expert.
Inspired by the Professor, Mera had the initial idea for a company that revolved around data mining, payments, and internet-based donations.
“When I met Professor Matsuo, he was working on web mining. I was interested in that, too. At that time, I thought we could create a service based on web mining.”
Back in the early 2010s, there were a number of payment platforms, such as PayPal, that were making headlines.
“And almost anyone could raise small amounts of money via such platforms. That’s where I first came to that idea and decided to create a donation service based on the internet.”
Initially, however, the donation-service business model failed to catch on. It was only after her stint at Stanford—and being introduced to crowdfunding models—that her company started gaining traction.
Although Readyfor was founded in the wake of the earthquake, the platform’s initial target users were not social entrepreneurs, corporates, or local government. Rather, Mera’s first users were startup founders and creatives looking to fund their passion projects.
“But as the timing was just after the earthquake, we included social entrepreneurs early on.”
And this was at a time when crowdfunding in Japan was still a very novel concept. Indeed, “almost zero percent of people knew about crowdfunding.”
Today, according to research by Readyfor, some 50 percent of the population is aware of crowdfunding platforms.
What’s more, Readyfor hosts a myriad personal crowdfunding projects and initiatives. And it’s not just individuals who are taking advantage of the crowd to raise funds.
Local governments are also jumping on the Readyfor bandwagon, including initiatives where a Japan resident can remit some of their local taxes to support projects in their hometown. Large companies have also been able to raise funds via the platform.
At the same time, Readyfor has taken stock of technological changes in crowdfunding and alternative investments, in particular blockchain platforms and token- or cryptocurrency-based fundraising—areas the company is actively investigating.
LONG AND WINDING ROAD
So, has the entrepreneurial journey been smooth sailing for Mera? Not at all. She started Readyfor at a tender age and having had “no experience working in a big company.” Actually, one of her earliest challenges was not knowing whom to hire or how to do it.
Another difficulty was not knowing how to raise money, especially seed funding, or who to trust.
It was her good fortune to have a trusted angel investor and advisor in Professor Matsuo. But it is not uncommon for young entrepreneurs to feel taken advantage of by an investor, she warns, especially when it comes to parsing equity when venture capital is taken on.
And yet, despite those early trials, nothing could have prepared Mera for arguably her toughest test so far, which struck late in 2017.
“I found out that I had cancer in the fall of last year, so I took a break for six months. It was a tough time for me and the company, but my team members visited me in the hospital, and actually did a lot to make the company better during that time.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Is there any advice she would give her younger self? Yes. Her first thoughts turn to funding.
“Our company has only raised funds via angel investors. During our early-stage, we should have raised some funds via venture capital. But, in my twenties, I didn’t have the courage to make my company bigger.”
Beyond youth and inexperience, was there another reason for her lack of courage?
“In Japan, there are not many women entrepreneurs. We don’t have the role models. So, it’s very difficult to imagine yourself in that way.”
Now in her thirties, Mera says she has the courage to grow her business.
Today, she is in good health—and so is the company. About ¥7 billion has been raised for 8,700 projects via Readyfor since its founding. This stands in stark contrast to the ¥10 million raised in the company’s first year.
That said, “I think that—in Japan alone—there are challenges still left. So, we would like to continue as the platform that connects funds to those challenges.”
Mera points to basic medical research and issues surrounding the aging society as areas in which Readyfor can make a real, long-term difference.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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