Crafting e-commerce brands that showcase sustainable, high-grade Japanese items on the global stage

Founders Spotlight of forest: Akira Michael Takahashi

The company

In 2021, forest was founded by Shingo Yuhara, Akira Michael Takahashi, and Masafumi Nishizawa with the vision of "creating high quality, functional, and highly sustainable products, as well as “producing global brands originating from Japan.'' 

By building foundations for sustainable growth, forest was able to help e-commerce entrepreneurs solve business challenges and build comprehensive teams capable of supporting a wide range of business needs. 

With their core values being “Pioneer Spirit (失敗を恐れず、挑戦を楽しもう!), GRIT (多角的に考え、徹底的にやり抜こう!), and Respect All (素直、謙虚、感謝) “, their strategic approach includes optimizing marketing and advertising strategies on platforms like Amazon and Rakuten, expanding product offerings, streamlining supply chain operations, and actively engaging in cross-border e-commerce.

Why we invested in forest

"With forest, entrepreneurs can take their creations to the next level and capitalize on the hard work they have put into building their brands. We believe that Forest's innovative platform will be a catalyst for a more prosperous e-commerce ecosystem in Japan. By unlocking the potential of D2C brands, they will pave the way for a brighter future in which entrepreneurs can thrive and realize their dreams” - Akihiko Okamoto (Headline Asia Partner). 

(Left) Akira Michael Takahashi and (Right) Shingo Yuhara

The Genius behind the company 

Meet Akira Michael Takahashi (Co-founder and CFO) who was born in Japan with a Canadian heritage, his journey from aviation aspirations to a pivotal role in finance shaped his entrepreneurial spirit. Having gained insights from Softbank Group in managing their venture investments and balance sheet, Akira leads forest with a vision to showcase Japan's finest offerings globally. 

Now on to the Interview: 

1. Can you share a bit about your personal journey? What led you to become an entrepreneur, and what were some early experiences that shaped your spirit?

I was born in Japan to a Canadian mother and a Japanese father. After graduating from University in Canada, I returned to Japan to pursue an aviation career (I still have my pilot license). As life would have it, I found myself not in a cockpit but in the world of finance, building a career in investing. 

My last position in finance was working at Softbank Group, where I helped manage their venture investments and balance sheet to ensure that capital was available to invest in the future of AI.

It gave me a front-row seat in the world of late-stage growth investing and a newfound respect for entrepreneurship and founders. But more importantly, it also gave me insight into what “not” to do as a startup and taught me the importance of balance sheet management in a capital-intensive business. 

Looking back, I feel like I had been unconsciously building the experiences and friendships required to make forest - a success. Including my 10+ year friendship with Shingo, my co-founder and CEO of our company. 

2. Beyond your work, what are some of your hobbies and interests? How do these outside pursuits complement your role as a founder?

I always feel that my training as a pilot has helped me build my foundation as a business professional. 

As a pilot, you always train for the worst-case scenario, but training can only take you so far. Once something does go wrong on a plane, you often need to make split-second life-saving decisions. 

Although not entirely relatable, I do think, as a founder, you are faced with serious situations where you need to make prompt decisions in an uncertain environment without sufficient data. 

My experience as a pilot has taught me the importance of decision-making and that indecisiveness can be a death sentence, even for a startup. 

My experience as a pilot has taught me the importance of decision-making and that indecisiveness can be a death sentence, even for a startup. 

BRIDGE STORE Rakuten Ichiba, which sells forest brand Glass Samurai, has won the Rakuten Shop of the Year 2022 award.

3. What are some of your tips/advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? 

The first thing that I would say to an aspiring entrepreneur is “Are you sure?” [Akira laughs]. Not to deter anyone from entrepreneurship but I think people often underestimate the time and effort it takes to make a great company – often years or even decades. 

The true success of a founder is not determined by his or her capabilities but by whether they can convince others to join them on this arduous journey. 

If you’re unable to convince your close friends or colleagues, you should probably think twice. 

A founder’s journey is lonely but building a team and motivating others to work towards a common goal, I feel, is the true essence of entrepreneurship. 

4. What were the inspirations behind your visions “to create high-quality, functional, and highly sustainable products” and “produce many global brands originating in Japan”? 

Having a bicultural background and spending time both in Japan and overseas, I have always been bridging cultures; whether it be in my childhood home or as a professional helping Japanese companies expand overseas.
Having this unique background has given me a unique perspective on Japanese products, and I’ve always felt that there are so many things that are made in Japan, that are high-quality but are hidden away from the global market. 
With the advent of technology, we can now easily sell these products globally, but Shingo and I felt that there wasn’t a platform that permormed this effectively. 

forest is trying to be the answer to this problem. 

5. “We are a group of highly motivated professionals who are experts in various fields such as retail, investment/M&A, and marketing” - What is your company’s value and culture like? 

One of our core corporate values is “respect all.” 

Given the scope of our business, we come from a variety of backgrounds, and we’ve made it very clear that everyone should be “respected,” regardless of their background, education, professional experience, or age. 

We believe that the success of our business model is dependent upon operational excellence and a high level of execution. Having a culture that “respects” everyone and consciously works as “one team,” we believe, is critical to our success. 

6. What differentiates Forest from the rest of the competition? What's your USP?

Although there are multiple companies globally that are designated as “e-commerce aggregators,” we think we have taken a unique and “Japanese” approach to the business model. 

Shingo and I have spent over 15 years doing M&A in Japan, and we understand the importance of the business founder. The passion and drive a founder has for a business is impossible to replicate and the performance of a business most often declines post-acquisition if they decide to exit the business. 

To avoid this, we request that our business founders participate in some capacity after joining our portfolio. As a result, 90% of our founders are now part of our group, either as advisors or as shareholders of forest. 

7. Can you share how you met Headline and what your experience has been working with us?

I believe that we were discovered through Headline’s proprietary “Deepdive” system, and our initial touchpoint was with the Taiwan/global team.

I believe Headline is one of the very few investors in Japan that can help early start-ups expand globally. Since being part of their portfolio, Headline has been an amazing partner in helping us heighten our presence within the Japanese startup ecosystem and pursue our business expansion initiatives beyond Japan. 

8. What is your opinion on the market for Japanese brands expanding abroad/going global? 

I think Japanese brands had an enormous run in the 1970s and 1980s; Toyota, Sony, Nikon, and Toshiba come to mind.
Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, many Japanese brands have become complacent and made the easier choice of satisfying domestic customers rather than challenging the global market.
As a result, the Japanese workforce currently lacks the capabilities to compete with other globally-minded brands. However, I think we have reached a tipping point, and I personally have begun to see a shift in mindset, particularly amongst the younger generation, on the need to look beyond the domestic market.
I believe that forest is at the forefront of this shift, and we are consciously building a company with a culture and mentality that can help build brands that can compete on the global stage.  

forest launches e-commerce website “omakase” to accelerate cross-border business expansion.

I believe that forest is at the forefront of this shift, and we are consciously building a company with a culture and mentality that can help build brands that can compete on the global stage.  

9. What are your dream aspirations? And why? 

My dream is for our company to become an integral part of the Japanese e-commerce ecosystem; a company that brands can rely on to help them grow their online businesses both domestically and internationally. 

I also hope that forest becomes a company where everyone feels that they can be successful. Coming from a bicultural background, I understand the unseen barriers that exist for people who do not fit the Japanese corporate mold. 

Since our founding, we have been conscious of building a diverse team, and I hope that we truly represent “diversity” and not just be a catchphrase. 

10. What does the future hold for you and Forest? Are there any exciting projects or developments on the horizon that you can give us a sneak peek into?

The exciting news for us this year is that we are now profitable!  The investments we have made and the operational foundation we have built have borne fruit, and we believe that we are in an excellent position to take advantage of the market opportunity that exists in Japan to grow e-commerce brands both domestically and internationally.

As for exciting projects, we are expanding our sales channel beyond the traditional e-commerce malls (Amazon, Rakuten, etc.) to D-to-C and traditional brick-and-mortar stores (only 9% of Japanese consumption is conducted online). We are also looking at online services (logistic management systems, digital marketing firms, etc.) as potential acquisition targets given the underdevelopment of the Japanese e-commerce ecosystem. 

In conclusion, although we’re still a small company, we are very excited about what the future holds, and we look forward to the day that our company becomes a leading e-commerce company in Japan. 

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*This article was edited for clarity.