Taro co-founded Fond (formerly AnyPerk) in 2012 and serves as the Chief Executive Officer. Born and raised in Tokyo, Taro is a Y Combinator graduate and part of the first Japanese team ever to be admitted into the program. He studied Law at Keio University in Tokyo and was named one of Business Insider’s “Silicon Valley 100: The Coolest People in Tech Right Now”. And yes, he helped found Fond in a Taco Bell parking lot.
How did the concept for Fond come about?
When I moved from Japan to San Francisco, I was shocked to hear that employees change their jobs every two years. In Japan, where I grew up, people tend to stay at their employers for their entire careers. The difference between the Japanese and U.S. markets really piqued my interest and that led me to do an in-depth study of the market. One of the most startling stats I came across showed that two-thirds of employees in the U.S. are either somewhat or totally disengaged at work. This finding motivated me to solve this challenge by building a company to help companies engage better with their employees.
How was the first year in business?
Like most start-ups, our first year in business (2012) was pretty scrappy. To gain initial client traction, we utilized our investor network for referrals and introductions. The corporate discounts business is a marketplace model that required that we scale both customers and perk providers. So we targeted each one of these groups to attract them to our platform to create a vibrant experience for buyers and sellers. Within no time, we were reaching out to literally 1,000 potential customers and perk providers every day until we got enough traction to launch a viable marketplace.
What was your marketing strategy?
We knew that we had one chance to earn our customers’ loyalty so we focused on customer satisfaction. This ended up being a core component of our marketing strategy. Marketplaces are classic “chicken and egg” constructs; once we’ve achieved a critical mass of active customers, the aggregate demand they represent would enable us to attract more and better perk providers to the platform. Having more perk providers on the platform made it easier to attract more customers. That form of network effect really helped us grow.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The business took off quickly and in no time we were experiencing growing pains. I remember at one point we didn’t have enough meeting rooms, and the team had to make client calls in hallways, stairwells, and even in the bathrooms!
How do you define success?
Our success is when, after our solution is implemented, employees of our customers find their companies to be greater places to work for than before Fond entered the picture.
What is the key to success?
Keep learning and challenging yourself to grow in order to accomplish your goals.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
What you wish to accomplish is more important than what you are actually able to accomplish today. In other words, don’t limit your dreams based on what you feel capable of doing today. Dream big, work hard, and you’ll find that your skills will expand to meet the challenge.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
During our initial period, we were a Y Combinator accelerator company. One day, the Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham told us we were the worst startup in the batch, among sixty-five other startups. Our ideas were not working and I could not speak English as well as I do today. Paul and I joke about it today, but that was one of the toughest days we’ve had.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When facing adversity, I’ve found that staying as close as possible to our customers is the best medicine. When I hear from them how they have improved their employees’ engagement by using our products, it always energizes me and gives me the extra impetus to work our way through whatever challenging situation we’re facing.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Always be vulnerable. As long as you are open to feedback, there will always be people around you who will help you move forward.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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