Recently, I came across a Japanese book called ‘IKIGAI - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.’ Combining the words 生 き (IKI: to live or exist) and 甲 斐 (GAI: meaning), the phrase refers to having a direction or purpose in life.
In other words, it describes a reason for being. The book itself focuses on living a meaningful, long and happy life in accordance with the principles of IKIGAI and explains how to achieve it. The below diagram illustrates the concept.
In reality, it is difficult to find the perfect balance where your passions and skills converge with what the world needs and is willing to pay for. But the Japanese have proven that while it's hard, it is worth finding your IKIGAI - the reason to wake up every morning.
Not only is Japan the country with the highest life expectancy in the world (83.8 years), but it is also home to some of the world's longest operating companies. According to WorldAtlas, top five of the world's oldest companies hail from Japan.
The list is by no means exhaustive. Nintendo, a game company that was founded in 1889 and is now 131 years old, is another example.
There is plenty of research suggesting that the reason for such longevity is Japan's tradition of hereditary ideology in which the descendants inherit their careers from their forefathers. My hypothesis is different, however: each individual who has found his or her IKIGAI will create a company with IKIGAI.
As these founders and their teams pursue IKIGAI, they gradually figure out the purpose of the business. Everything else simply follows from there: tackling the issues at hand, maintaining the team's motivation and happiness and focusing on long-term development.
Finding IKIGAI is particularly important at a time like today when COVID-19 has put the existence of many startups under acute threat. It is clear now that there is no quick solution and that short-term prospects are bleak with many young companies going under and laying off staff.
Therefore, I believe founders of struggling companies should start with finding the balance between the spiritual and the practical in their lives. Only once they have found the purpose of their own existence will they be able to define the reason why their company exists. Finding all four ingredients of a happy life will help them create an IKIGAI-shaped covid shield.
1. Work that you love
Does your startup allow you to pursue your passion? Does it bring value to society and help you pursue a meaningful mission or vision?
In one of my previous articles, I explain the importance for a startup to have a clear Vision/Mission, as it distills the founder's passions and beliefs while explaining his or her motivation.
At the peak of the first wave of COVID-19, Homedy's founder Nguyen Ba Duc, one of the startups Genesia Ventures chose to invest in, wrote a letter to Homediers (as Homedy staff are known ). In it, he was urging to revive everyone's "fighting spirit" and reaffirm the values critical to the company's survival.
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2. Doing what you are good at
What is it that you are confident you can do well or better than others? What are the preeminent capabilities and competitive advantages of your startup?
If when answering these questions your startup's current product comes up as an answer, congratulations! Remain focused on refining that product. If not, keep tweaking your current offering until it's the best in the market.
One example of how this can be achieved is the strategy deployed by Luxstay, an online booking platform. Faced with rapidly decreasing revenues due to covid-related travel restrictions, the startup spinned off a travel media service called TravelMag, tapping into Luxstay's core expertise.
Steven Nguyen, the founder of Luxstay, is also the founder of a large media company called Netlink. After successfully selling Netlink to Yeah1, he founded what we today know as Luxstay.
A media outlet that was launched as an emergency response measure has since come into its own demonstrating an impressive and consistent increase in engagement.
3. Work that the world needs
Does your product serve the needs of your target audience? Are those needs urgent, without or with few optimal solutions? Are your customers happier using your product? Does your product need to constantly change in lockstep with the changing needs of your customers?
I will give Kamereo as an example here. One of the startups I've invested in, Kamereo was originally a wholesale ordering platform for restaurants and F&B businesses.
At the start of the outbreak, the platform's revenues dipped as restaurants were first ordered to close and later struggled to stay afloat.
At the same time, online grocery shopping soared. Noticing the trend, Kamereo started serving consumers via a new service called KameMart. An online grocery store, it offers restaurant-quality products at corner store prices.
Thanks to the pivot, the number of daily users has been growing steadily.
4. Work you can be paid for
Is your product convincing enough for customers to agree to pay for it? How much is your product worth? Will your customers still be happy after paying and using it? Will your customers buy it again next time?
If the answer to all these questions is 'yes' then you should give yourself a pat on the back as such a result is rarely seen in startups. Especially these days, with customers uncertain about their future income and watching every penny. Having new and especially repeat customers in today's uncertain times is an impressive feat.
If the answer is 'not yet', start with conducting a market survey by interviewing existing and potential customers about their expectations when buying a product and how much they are willing to pay.
These four circles of IKIGAI is what founders should focus on to ensure a continued existence of their companies. COVID-19 is certainly a test for survival, but it is also an opportunity for startups to recalibrate and find their footing in this new uncertain world.