Alumni Voices: Meet Philip Nguyen, an entrepreneur scholar

Philip graduated from UCLA in Earth and Environmental Science and continued to a Master’s and PhD program at Kyoto University under the MEXT scholarship program via university recommendation. Currently, he is the CEO and Co-founder of Gochiso – a platform that connects nonprofits, restaurants, and users to enable donations through every meal at no extra cost.

*This article has been edited from the original interview for brevity and clarity.

Did you participate in any student association or student communities while studying?

The first semester of my master’s course was the only time I spent time at the university campus. After the first semester, I moved to the countryside near Kansai airport since my research institution was located there. During the first semester, I joined some activities held by the international students community on campus and also joined the street dance circle, Egoistic Dancers. The dance circle is open for people to practice at all times so it’s easy to just join and practice with members.

Did you have other activities and any one of them lead you to the idea of your start-up?

I did private English teaching as a part-time job. Realizing that there was a big need for teaching language and creativity for Japanese elementary school students, some of my friends and I decided to build a program to teach English and theatre and performing arts to children. We tried to incorporate the program with public schools in Japan as an after school program, but faced many difficulties in setting up the program and dealing with public schools so it came to a stop. Through these activities however, I got the experience and the chance to meet many NPO groups, so I had better understanding about the NPO industry. I saw that it’s a relatively young and growing industry, so there is opportunity to help this growth. Later, I was also introduced to the start-up community in Osaka through an event called HackOsaka in 2015. The inspiration and connections that I got through the event helped get me started on developing my own startup.

During my study program, I did an internship in Austria for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Working at a large organization such as the IAEA made me realize that smaller organizations have the ability to move faster. After that experience, I became more interested in smaller organizations such as nonprofits and startups. 

Since my background is in environmental science, when getting involved in the startup community, I wanted to help solve the problem of food waste. I saw the problem of food waste from the restaurant side which led me to think about how to optimize the yield for restaurants at certain times. Since restaurants needed incentives to fill in seats at off peak times such as during early hours or late hours or on weeknights in order to maximize their utilization, they can offer donations to social and environmental activities that need funding. Knowing the needs of nonprofits for fundraising and the trend of conscious consumers among the youth who have less money but want to create positive impact through their daily actions and choices, I decided to build Gochiso.

Did you ever do job-seeking in Japan?

After successfully finding a backer, I took the chance of starting a business, instead of going back to the states. For me, it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to try to do this business at this time, and that if I were to go back to the states, the business will never be realized. I decided not to continue job seeking in the states, but to build my own business in Japan.

When and how did you start to prepare for your start-up? 

During the summer of 2016, we showed an early concept-market fit for our start-up and I began to do presentations to venture capitalists. Our investors helped us whenever possible by connecting us to the right people to help develop our business, such as in registering the company and applying for visas.

Could you share with us, what were the challenges for you in starting a business in Japan?

One of the difficulties I had faced while being an entrepreneur here, and still now, is the visa problem. I applied for a business manager’s visa, and the procedure was complicated. I was only given a one year visa and I must renew my visa every year..

Could you share with us your option about startup scene in Japan?

I can only share my thoughts about the scene in Osaka. I think there are many talented students and graduates in the area, both Japanese and foreigners. After graduation, however, most of them go to Tokyo for work for large companies. Startups in Osaka are growing and there will be even better opportunities in the near future. The GDP of Osaka is 40% of Tokyo, but venture capital investments in startups or new businesses in Osaka is just about 15% of Tokyo. I think there is potential for investments in Osaka to more than double. With a strong talent pool, low living costs, and potential for investments, there are good opportunities to start a business in Osaka or the Kansai area. 

Any words of advice for current scholars who are thinking about starting their own business in Japan

  • Get more involved in your area and talk to many people to get feedback for your idea earlier on, including feedback from knowledgeable people in the field related to your idea. 
  • Go outside and be around your customer/end-users often, to listen to the real problems they mention instead of sticking with the problems you think they have.
  • Don’t think that you must startup right after graduation. Financing may be a big problem, but you can start your life by working for a company while developing your business idea part time. If the idea is related to the industry of your work especially, you can get better feedback and have the right connections. You may gather many skills doing business by joining your company’s intrapreneur programs as well. Once you feel confident in your product or service, you can take a leap from going part time to doing the startup full time.

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Interviewer: Nar Nguyen



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