At 34, She’s Gone From Goldman to Failed Artist to Startup Queen
- Hiring social network founder Naka also worked for Facebook
- Her startup, Wantedly, listed on Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2017
By the age of 34, Akiko Naka has already experienced more career-wise than most people do in a lifetime.
She started by getting hired by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., where she worked as an equity saleswoman. When she left that job, she tried to make it as a professional manga comic artist. When that didn’t work out, she landed a job at Facebook Inc.
And not content to leave it at that, she quit to establish her own company, a recruiting social network called Wantedly Inc. She took it public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange last year, and is one of the youngest women to head a Japanese listed company.
Naka is an example of a young Japanese person who’s shunning what was long a standard career path in Japan -- graduating from a top university and staking out a career at a major company. Instead, she’s going it alone, seeking to harness the power of social media -- and her own past experiences -- to try to reinvent how recruitment functions.
“All my failures were a chance to learn,” Naka said in an interview in Tokyo.
Wantedly, which is seen as a LinkedIn for millennials in Japan, is an online portal linking job seekers directly to companies. The platform, which also offers other services, is built around matching users and companies that have the same motivations, and it doesn’t allow job postings to mention salary or benefits. The focus is on what companies do, how they do it, and perhaps most importantly why.
“LinkedIn is from about two decades ago,” Naka said. The U.S. company was established in 2002. “It was born in the era of paper resumes, and matching salaries and skills,” she said. “What we’re aiming to do is to match a company’s direction, what they are doing something for, with the user’s direction, and having them work together so that everybody benefits.”
According to Naka, that focus on motivation, and the company’s service of giving prospective employees a chance to visit companies on more casual terms, will ultimately lead to better matches than the traditional model of rounds of formal job interviews.
“If both companies and job seekers put on makeup when they are seeking to match, both of them will be unhappy in the end,” Naka said.
Finding talented people is getting difficult in Japan, where a shrinking workforce is causing the tightest labor market in decades, giving job search companies an opportunity to expand their businesses. The market for recruitment information services grew to about $7.1 billion in fiscal 2016, up 7.5 percent from a year earlier, according to the Association of Job Information of Japan.
Naka speaks at the company office in Tokyo. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg
Wantedly had 2.4 million monthly active users, with 29,000 registered companies using the service, as of October, according to the company. Wantedly aims to increase monthly active users to about 10 million in Japan within about 10 years, Naka said.
It’s still a drop in the ocean compared to LinkedIn, which has more than 575 million members in 200 countries and territories worldwide, according to the company’s website.
Naka graduated from Kyoto University in 2008. During her time at the prestigious school, she helped establish a free campus newspaper that sold ad space to local shops and restaurants. She also worked on creating a beauty pageant, which never came to pass. As a child, her parents, who were academics, encouraged her to make things rather than play video games.
She joined Goldman Sachs in April 2008, where she worked for just less than two years selling equities to institutional investors. Naka said she left the company because she couldn’t see herself working in the industry for another 10 years.
Then she spent about six months pursuing her dream of being a professional manga artist. But she wasn’t suited to the role. “I learned that it wasn’t just about being good at drawing,” she said. “Above that, there’s your skill in creating stories, in making compositions and in creating characters.”
A chance encounter with Facebook’s Japan country manager got her in the door at Mark Zuckerberg’s company in July 2010. But within months, she founded the the predecessor of Wantedly. Originally, it was an online Q&A site.
“She’s very creative,” said Shogo Kawada, a famous Japanese angel investor, noting how Naka wrote the code to get the company off the ground, even though she’s not a specialist. Naka pitched to Kawada three times before he finally agreed to invest. The third time, he said, she changed everything and came up with the prototype for Wantedly’s current services. Kawada is now Wantedly’s third-biggest shareholder. Naka herself is the largest, with a 72 percent stake that’s worth about $159 million.
Wantedly listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Mothers market for startups in September last year. After surging to a high in October, the stock has since tailed off, but it still trades at more than twice its initial public offering price, with a market value of 24.8 billion ($221 million).
Valuations have gotten ahead of profits. The stock trades at almost 240 times earnings, and almost 40 times book value. Wantedly is the most-shorted company on the Mothers Index, with short interest standing at 36 percent of its free float, according to IHS Markit data.
But Naka has other things on her mind. She’s already launched Wantedly in markets including Hong Kong and Singapore, while it’s being test-run in Germany. She’s considering expanding the business in other English-speaking countries in Asia and Oceania, she says.
Kawada the angel investor says the company’s ability to expand overseas, and to attract more companies beyond startups at home, will be key.
“I want Wantedly to aim for a market capitalization of 100 billion yen,” he said. “Wantedly can have a standout existence among startup firms.”