Section 1―From Fearful to Functional

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.
— Georgia O'Keefe

I didn’t move to Japan with the ambition of starting a business―I came because I fell in love and wanted to follow my heart. I was full of optimism, but without much direction―and that for me was risky and very scary. Before starting my business, I had to get comfortable with uncertainty, get in touch with what I wanted and enjoyed, and then build a business from that vision. It turned out there was a lot of inspiration just on the other side of my comfort zone. That dark, scary, fear-and-panic-filled place was exactly where I needed to be. 

There was a period after arriving in Japan when I was utterly and completely lost. I had followed my heart. Now what?!

It took about six months of working through emotions before I felt comfortable enough with myself and my business plan to meet with a lawyer and incorporate. 

So how did I get from lost to incorporation?

It went something like this: panic / fear / confusion — liberation / inspiration — processing / sculpting — productive action.

Panic / Fear / Confusion

My reasons for being in Japan weren’t clear.

I didn’t have any goals other than being in Japan. 

And for the first time in my life, I was living without an expectation to attain something.

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

While folks were telling me how “brave” I was, I couldn’t accept it, because all I felt on the inside was scared.

There were two things I struggled with:

  1. What was my professional identity?
  2. How was I going to support myself?

I left my professional career behind in San Francisco to start over, not at a new company, but in a whole new country and without a job. I unintentionally had given myself a sabbatical and I was not comfortable with that. I was nervous that if I ever tried to go back, the time I spent away would count against me. 

I was also living off my savings, and that felt both selfish and foolish. That money was meant to go toward things like buying a house, emergencies, paying for kids—legitimate concerns. Looking back, the kids excuse seems particularly irrational. I’m not married or with a serious partner, and I now wonder if I was just grasping at straws trying to find reasons not to take a risk.

In order to work through my fears, I journaled. I made lists of my fears and wrote out what I would do if the worst were to occur (I learned this from a Creative Mornings talk). I also made a budget and gave myself a realistic timeline for how long I could live without a job. I gave myself a little structure by signing up for language school. I knew I wanted to learn Japanese and that whatever I ended up doing, speaking the language would help. Language school provided goals and accountability, creating structure under which I could thrive.

In my heart I knew I decided to move because I needed a change, and I sensed opportunity here. I just had to trust myself to figure the rest out. 

Once I accepted my insecurities, it was easy to live with them. They didn’t hold me back. They were still there, but they didn’t have an impact on my day-to-day progress. Since I wasn't spending so much time worrying, I had energy to take advantage of being in Japan, which is an incredible place to be!

Liberation to Live / Learn / Be 

Once I was okay just being here and saw it as part of the process, the world became my oyster. 

Inspiration was everywhere and I was insatiable.

  • I traveled. I followed my curiosity to places like Echigo Tsumari, Naoshima, Niseko, Yakushima.
  • I made new friends. I met amazing people through language school and the creative community in Tokyo.
  • I read—no, inhaled—so many books.  The most useful book I read during  this time was Springboard. It helped me re-examine my personal and professional definitions of success and to think about the lifestyle I wanted to create as I started this venture. It provided very holistic thinking about what role your work plays into your overall lifestyle. I made a workbook of my favorite activities you can download if you want! 
  • I did personal exercises and invited friends into my process. One of the highest-impact exercises for me was when I emailed 12 of my closest friends and asked them, “What is one thing I do well with relatively little effort?” I instructed them not to think too much and reply in one or two minutes. I received a range of responses back, but all affirmed strengths that I also saw in myself and knew I wanted to use in whatever company I started. I actually saved the responses in my “for a rainy day” folder; they were that meaningful and really made me feel seen as a person.
  • I interviewed people in industries I was interested in. To gain perspective, I sought out people working in those fields and asked if I could interview them. I am so grateful to everyone who jumped on Skype or a phone call or met me in person for coffee. 

In general, during this period of time I was having meaningful interactions with Japanese people and foreigners that were reinforcing my desire to live and work in Japan. 

Processing / Sculpting 

After a lot of conversations, emotionally impactful experiences, and thought-provoking books, I was ready to distill my inspiration into something tangible.

I had generated a list of businesses I could start. I picked one and worked on a business plan.

I researched regulations and requirements for starting a business in Japan.

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

And I looked at the competitive landscape—both what companies/services were available and what trends existed. I made a pitch deck for myself, which helped me distill my thoughts. I never intended to approach people for investment, but I appreciated the format for organizing myself.

My concept was to recreate an eye-opening trip to Japan I had experienced six months earlier, the trip that inspired me to move to Tokyo. The trip focused on connecting individuals through their interests and exploring areas of Japan that are not known as tourist destinations but have interesting communities living there. 

Having the idea for the business was one thing, but I needed to make sure there was product/market fit—that there were actually people out there that wanted what I was offering. 

Luckily, I'd had a steady stream of visitors coming to Japan ever since I moved. The first batch arrived from Hawaii three weeks after I landed. The second came from Australia six weeks in, and the third from San Francisco at eight weeks.  The visitors have continued to come since then. With each group, I was able to do research on their needs and test out different products I was thinking about offering. They provided feedback and insight into what they found valuable/meaningful and what they didn’t. It was an amazing feedback cycle and a safe space in which to test concepts. These experiences helped me answer the questions: Am I solving a real need? How am I uniquely qualified to solve this need?

These trials laid the groundwork for my business plan.

Productive Action

I don’t remember one specific day when I thought, “This is it! This is my million dollar idea! I must do this!” But I do remember feeling confident enough about my research and concept, and I knew I would learn a lot more by doing than I would by planning, so I moved forward.

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

From the offerings I had tested (itinerary planning, guiding, advice) I built a business plan. I took it to people I trusted (classmates from college, family, friends) and asked for their feedback. I built their feedback into the plan. And then over the New Year holiday, as I sat with my brother and sister around the kitchen table, I bought a URL and signed up for Squarespace to build my site. That made it real. It also meant it was time to approach lawyers and talk about incorporation.

I see the six months between arriving in Japan and actually establishing a company as an investment in myself. One that will hopefully enable me to have a meaningful day-to-day impact on others and grow as an individual. I won’t know the returns of this investment for quite some time. But even now, it feels worth it—if only because I gave myself permission to do it. 

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Mariel Lozano Villarreal

Country of Origin: Mexico

Company: Chalupa imports high-quality, craft goods from Mexico to Japan.

Years in Japan: 3+

Mariel originally came to Japan from Mexico for an internship at an architecture firm. She knew she wasn’t ready to leave when the internship ended, so she enrolled in a two-year language program. About three-quarters of the way through the program she decided to start an import business, Chalupa, which brings Mexican craft goods to Japan. Mariel had attended many fashion and design events and felt like the Mexican aesthetic was misrepresented. In her words, “it was all tequila and mariachi” and was completely missing Mexico’s design and craft renaissance. 

Mariel secured two partners in Mexico and together they founded the company. They incorporated in Mexico and set up a subsidiary in Japan. 

They wanted to have both an online and in-store presence. Building the online store was their biggest initial outlay at 1,300,000 JPY (13,000 USD). Chalupa just ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to help offset those costs and raised over 870,000 JPY (8,700 USD). They have also established partnerships with Archivando and T-site Art Corner to sell their products! 

Mariel is happy with what they’ve built so far and will continue to explore ways she can contribute to the design scene in Japan. When she isn’t running Chalupa she also does interior design work for stores and brands in Tokyo you can see her portfolio here.