On June 19, 2019, cloud-based contact management firm Sansan made its debut on the Tokyo Stock market, becoming one of Japan’s most successful IPOs that year. Edward Senju, now the company’s ASEAN CEO, was there to witness the moment after spending more than ten years at Sansan in different roles.
Back in 2009, when Sansan had only celebrated its second anniversary, the firm welcomed Senju, a Japanese man born in Mexico but raised in the US, as its employee number 21. Senju left his previous job at Oracle as he wanted to try a new experience at a startup, he told KrASIA in a previous interview. He had had enough of the big corporate culture in Japan and wanted a different challenge.
During his time at Sansan, Senju went from a supporting role—overseeing pretty much everything from HR, finance, to legal and accounting, to becoming the firm’s regional CEO for the ASEAN region in little more than a decade.
Oasis recently sat down with Senju to discuss how he adjusted to a fast-changing startup environment, as he also grew up professionally to become the CEO.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): Coming from a very large corporate company, what were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make after joining Sansan?
Edward Senju (ES): When I joined Sansan I was employee number 21. Oracle, my previous company, was much larger—their headquarters in Japan had around 1,000 to 2,000 people. I really enjoyed the difference because, at Sansan, everything you do needs accountability. When I was at Oracle, I was a salesperson, and if I couldn’t sell the product to customers, other salespeople wouldn’t mind. Only the bosses might have struggled with me not selling.
I joined Sansan as a back-office team member, taking care of finance and HR. We weren’t selling a lot then, so it was painful every month for the company. If our sales team didn’t sell, we wouldn’t get any revenue. Since we were a small company, that means we wouldn’t get paid.
Even though it wasn’t my job, I couldn’t just sit there and wait for things to happen, so I started creating documents to share tips about my previous sales experience at Oracle. My idea was to help the sales team members at Sansan understand the best sales strategies. Not just me, but everyone was going beyond what they should do to support other members. The culture was super different compared to Oracle. You feel your value, and you can challenge yourself to figure out what you can do for the team.
OS: Did you feel uncomfortable when you first started?
ES: It was very stressful. I joined in February 2009, which was right in the middle of the global financial crisis. When I jumped in, there were only two orders. That means we only had about USD 150 coming in as new revenue that month. It was easy to understand that we would soon run out of cash.
Eventually, the pressure made a physical difference. If someone’s stressed, sometimes your hair starts to fall out, and that’s what happened to me. I had a big bald patch on my head.
OS: Once your company got past the difficult period and started growing quickly, reaching unicorn status, what were some of the challenges you faced?
ES: When we started to grow really fast, going from a team of 20 to a team of 80, we questioned our own capacity to grow properly. No one had the experience to manage 100 people, so we were always questioning how to become more independent in our roles.
There were several times when I felt unprepared to accomplish the things that I was required to do. An example was when I moved from the corporate team to start a new service called Eight. I didn’t have experience making a new product or doing the marketing for new products. However, I didn’t try to copy things that were already done in the market; instead, I tried to explore and start from zero with the things that needed to be solved first.
OS: Do you feel like a natural leader? Or is it something that you developed throughout the last few years at Sansan?
ES: I think my time spent in the US really influenced my leadership role. In the US, you’re taught that everyone has a chance to become a president. I thought that to become a president, you needed to express your feelings or thoughts to other people. I also played soccer in my younger days, and I’ve always tried to become a captain—that gave me the initial idea of becoming a leader.
Once at Sansan, I asked myself what kind of leadership I could bring. Sansan was very small, and initially, I wasn’t a manager. However, I realized that I had to take a leadership role to better contribute to the company’s growth.
OS: How did you develop your leadership skills over the years? What kind of leader are you?
ES: I always questioned myself about how I can use my uniqueness to take the company forward. As a result, I always tried to put myself into new areas that no other members were taking care of. I try to be a “first penguin” all the time for the company.
I took the sales marketing side while everything was pretty new. When I took the role to open the market in India, no other person had any idea of working outside Japan. I think I’m trying to be brave in that sense—that’s the philosophy I always have.
I’m not a manager who can take care of 200 or 400 people under me, but if you want to crack the first hole, I think I’m pretty good at it, so I’ll try to put myself in those kinds of situations.
OS: Coming from Japan to a foreign country to open new markets for Sansan, were there any personal changes you had to make to fit in?
ES: When I go to a new environment, I always try to join the team’s community to learn about the local culture. But once I get used to the environment, I always take a step back and think about my own uniqueness—how to use my strengths within the given environment.
Differences are always there, but my leadership style won’t change.