Innovation necessary for global competitiveness, says Mariko Nishimura, founder of Heart Catch

Written by Taro Ishida Published on     4 mins read

Nishimura emphasizes the need for more investment, better language skills, adaptation, and innovation in the Japanese startup ecosystem.

Mariko Nishimura, founder of management consulting firm Heart Catch, started her career as an IT engineer at IBM Japan after graduating from International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan. Before launching Heart Catch in 2014, she also worked as a field marketing manager at Adobe Systems and as a producer at Bascule Inc. In 2020, Heart Catch expanded to Los Angeles, USA.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

KrASIA (Kr): What does HEART CATCH do? 

Mariko Nishimura (MN): HEART CATCH is a company that cross-pollinates. It connects established Japanese companies with startups, artists, and creators. Japanese culture is very focused on the legacy of a company. I want to change that perception. Cross-pollination is when you have companies and startups engaging in collaboration projects. Through this, bigger companies like IBM and Microsoft could look into collaborating with smaller businesses or artists, bringing a fresh perspective to them and giving a boost to startups.

I started this company because I thought that we could not stick to this rigidly capitalist economy. Pure financial growth should not be the key performance indicator (KPI) for the future. In 2014, I realized that we need to care about people and humanity, even in the business domain. It is about taking into account what a business is or can be passionate about.

Kr: How do you create business plans that balance both passion and revenue? 

MN: The most important thing is to have a budget. Then, I work with the client to see what their passion is. To do this, I engage them in an art-thinking workshop so that they are able to brainstorm and think of ideas they’re passionate about. For our service to work, clients have to gain a new perspective. I get a better idea of their direction, and am then able to engage an appropriate startup or independent artists that suits their needs. I understand that passion is critical, but it is also crucial to survive in this business domain.

Kr: Do old traditional Japanese concepts of design and aesthetics still influence the thinking of companies? 

MN: Concepts like Wabi-Sabi or minimalism are not at the forefront of the designing process. However, designers do subconsciously tend to keep them in mind. Mixing traditional concepts with modern elements is very natural for us. However, most startups and companies can’t solely use Wabi-Sabi or historical concepts to compete globally. There is a need to modernize and be on equal or better grounds with the startup economy.

Kr: In terms of product design and innovation, what are the strengths of Japanese products? 

MN: We need more unicorns in Japan. It is very difficult right now. Startups are booming in areas like the US, China, and Asia in general, but we need more Japanese startups. Regardless, one strength of Japan is its hardware engineering. Traditionally, Japanese manufacturers are really strong, but there’s a need to innovate. Cars, for example, are switching from gasoline to electric. Following this, Japanese car manufacturers have to adjust to new trends and deliver accordingly. The same goes for other industries. We need to find a way to survive in this new world.

Nishimura at the J-Startup Program, an initiative created by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) in 2018 to cultivate Japanese startups for global success. Courtesy of Mariko Nishimura.

Kr: What do you think will be the main driver for startups in Japan to establish themselves locally and, eventually, expanding overseas? 

MN: We need more global investors investing in Japanese startups. For that, we need to show up with better English to match the global standard. Right now, Japanese startups hire English speakers to present their solutions. But we have to challenge other companies on bigger scales, and thus we need to be covered in the global media more. English is necessary for exposure and export to the global market.

Kr: As a female founder working in the tech industry, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced throughout your career? 

MN: When I worked for companies like IBM and Adobe, there was obviously a glass ceiling. I couldn’t see myself in a managerial position. That’s one of the reasons I started my own company. I also wanted to live life according to how I wanted it to go. I could make my own policies that were considerate of both genders. I also think we should work professionally and respect everyone, and gender doesn’t have to play a part.

Kr: Is there a difference in attitudes regarding female workers’ treatment in Japan compared to global standards? 

MN: When it comes to outfits, yes. There is an expectation for women to be dressed elegantly and look put together all the time. Sometimes, you just want to be comfortable. Judging a person from their outward appearance is not a good model for a business. It’s not only for women, actually. There’s this expectation on males too, especially in top-down company culture.

Still, there has been distinct progress from ten to 20 years ago. There are opportunities for female entrepreneurs. There are many requests for female entrepreneurs to interview or attend conferences. I hope the younger generation will take these opportunities to increase the number of fellow female entrepreneurs. I hope to see more racial inclusion in the future as well.

Kr: How do you see innovation helping the growth and development of Japanese society? 

MN: Innovation is very important to break the walls. Startups can challenge on a global scale more smoothly; finance innovation can change the game. For example, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) can change the art market. Artists can now sell their art digitally. Innovations like this can help younger talent expand not just locally but globally as well. I want to welcome more innovative technologies.


Taro Ishida


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