Fukuoka City Sets Its Sights on Becoming Japan’s Startup Hub

“Broadening the base of start-ups; a space where anyone can feel free to get entrepreneurial consultation.” That is the objective of the Fukuoka City Startup Cafe. As part of its growth strategy the government has set a target to increase new business formation from the current rate of 5% to 10%. In Fukuoka City, the business formation rate rose from 6.2% in 2012 to 7.0% in fiscal 2014, due to enterprises such as the Start-up Café. What is the Café’s secret behind achieving this remarkable growth in such a short time, and how does it keep attracting entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs?We spoke with Toshiharu Okazaki of the Enterprise Establishment and University Collaboration Division at Fukuoka City Hall to find out.img_2353-768x404The Fukuoka Start-up Café comprises innovative measures such as a one-stop consultation desk and resident concierge. What was the deciding factor in its establishment?Toshiharu Okazaki (below, Okazaki): The main objective was ‘lowering the barriers to entrepreneurial consultation’. Originally there was little recognition for Fukuoka’s entrepreneurial consultation desk and entrepreneurs based in the city referred to “consultation difficulty”. The Café was set up as a way to help alleviate these difficulties. According to one study, both the rate of enterprise establishment and the rate of startup-to-business conversion are very high in Fukuoka compared with cities across the rest of Japan. So, even though few people used the official city consultation service, it seems they were consulting with friends and acquaintances.As a way to facilitate engagement with the private sector, Fukuoka Start-up Café was established as a ‘place where you can feel free to come for entrepreneurial consultation’; making it easy for young people to go there, too. To be more specific, it provides information about start-ups, consultation with experts, support for enterprise establishment procedures, and even a human resources matching service – all in a single one-stop location. The Café brings people who are aiming to become entrepreneurs together with people who want to support entrepreneurship, creating ‘connections’ here and there. I’ve heard many people say “it’s easy to casually drop by” because in addition to offering the consultation service until 9 p.m., the Café is also open on Saturday and Sunday. What’s the current situation with the start-up scene in Fukuoka City?Okazaki: Currently Fukuoka is classified as a National Strategic Special Zone after being evaluated for its network support measures aimed at establishing global venture enterprises in the city. Coupled with the high communication skills of Mayor Takashima, experts from public office and private companies are working together to support entrepreneurs, and has built up momentum. In addition there is an increase in the businesses relocating to the suburbs, as new innovation decreases the necessity to set up base in the city center. A recent resident satisfaction survey highlighted that Fukuoka’s ease of living is a key factor. There is also an increase in people who leave Fukuoka (or other areas) for study, later choosing to return with the intention of working or starting a business in Fukuoka.In recent years there has also been an increase in entrepreneurial consultation for foreigners. In anticipation of global expansion, start-ups in Fukuoka benefit from the geographical advantage of its close proximity to other Asian countries, which has seen Fukuoka receiving increased attention as a base for Asian expansion. Thus after the establishment of the Start-up Café, the number of entrepreneurial consultations increased from around 300 per year to over 1,500.We are grateful to the 30+ companies from the private sector with an interest in Fukuoka’s potential and who sponsored us by registering as “Start-up Club Members”. They provided us with start-up support tools and services, such as a cloud payment service. People and companies around the country are paying more and more attention to Fukuoka. What are the benefits of using the Fukuoka Start-up Café?Mr. Masashi Tomita (below, Tomita): One of the main benefits is that the concierge is a thorough and attentive in implementing business plans. I say “business plan” instead of “entrepreneurship” because the latter term consists of many kinds of consultation. Here consultation is given even to those without a business plan. It is the concierge’s policy to consult on which resources are lacking in order to implement the business and what the figures say about the business’ financial health.Okazaki: I received feedback from one user, who told me; “When I was opening a business I didn’t even know that that I needed a representative seal (signature stamp), but thanks to the public notary concierge teaching me from scratch about procedural flow and considerations, I was able to launch my company smoothly.”The second advantage is that you can meet people on site and get your start-up connected, due to the variety of entrepreneurs, companies and experts coming and going and mingling there. After all, the most effective way to put a business on track comes down to the relationships and connections between people. So the biggest advantage is in the network created through bringing people face-to-face. Can you tell us about the measures that you want to focus on in future in order to further develop the startup eco-system in Fukuoka?Tomita: First of all I want to continue to strengthen the human resource matching service. The ‘Human Resource Matching Center’ opened at the end of March, 2016 and usage is free of charge. Promising start-ups require excellent talent acquisition, which is why we are giving a boost to job seekers building good relationships with start-ups. In addition, start-ups have many different goals, and which ones are given priority depends on a variety of factors. To maximize those possibilities, I believe it is important to create a real meeting place for managers who want to engage and collaborate with with start-ups, managers looking for talent and managers who can recognise the value of a product or service to society. Furthermore, to give Fukuoka start-ups the opportunity to be connect with the outside, we plan to develop more measures that will encourage visits from overseas start-ups, and streamline the human resource matching service.In the future, we would like to accelerate the development of the start-up eco-system, with Fukuoka at the eye of the storm.