How GREE Began
Making the world a better place through the power of the Internet.
I was born in 1977. My junior high school and high school years were in the 1990s, so I was starting to form an understanding of the world at a time when Japan had just finished a period of growth and slipped into a cycle of stagnation and decline. Maybe that was where it all began: only knowing Japan, a country that was contracting by the day, never having myself experienced a period of economic growth. As the nineties began, I had a sense that there was something wrong with the prevailing mood of the times. It didn't matter how hard an effort you made, it had no meaning. All that mattered is how much of a good time you could have. Nothing would ever change, so it was foolish to go on trying. Pessimism and cynicism reigned; being constructive or optimistic was stupid. In that atmosphere you could criticize society and others again and again without ever taking responsibility or taking action toward a solution.
Despite my doubts about all this negativity, I didn't have an answer of my own. Then I found out about Silicon Valley and the Internet and that discovery changed my life.
The first thing that really surprised me was the people living in Silicon Valley, their way of life, and the way the philosophy and values of the place supported them. Right when I was struggling with doubt, all of this presented me with a way forward.
At the time, the Internet had not become widespread at all, not even in America. The networked society we have now with the web and email everywhere was the stuff of dreams, like flying cars. But Silicon Valley had bet on the potential of the Internet, and as Netscape and Yahoo! emerged as businesses I kept my eyes on the news.
Most of the companies in Silicon Valley were full of young people who even to me at the time seemed young and unready, inexperienced, unproven and unstable. Their lifestyles seemed, by normal standards, unbearably tough and harsh. They worked until midnight in cramped offices, had dull dinners of cold pizza and soda each day, and slept at their desks in shabby clothes. But in their eyes there was a light that shone out in contrast to their surroundings, a light that I’d never seen before.
These young people spoke with passion about changing society and the world, about products the world needed, about creating a society in which anyone could use the Internet. They spoke about effecting a turning point in human history, about transforming communication and information the way that the inventions of the printing press and the telephone had done. Until then I had thought that rather than being fun, work was something you had to resign yourself to doing, that business was full of shady moneygrubbers, and that corporations were bad; but here was a set of values that was completely different.
The values and philosophy of Silicon Valley had me mesmerized: this way of working with a purpose, creating a new business and putting your own efforts toward the society of the future; the idea of doing whatever it takes, taking on every challenge required to achieve your vision. I felt a powerful, irresistible urge to lead that kind of life myself. I went through university, entered the workforce, and I set up my own company, and all through those years and the years since, the feeling hasn’t changed. For me, it’s what gives life meaning.
I learned more from Silicon Valley than just how to live. I also learned about emerging technology and services, and their power to change the world.
After Netscape and Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay started out as businesses, staking all on a future in which online retail shopping would become popular. Shopping online is something we take for granted now, but at the time, the Internet itself had not spread at all, so it was like creating a business around charging stations on the premise that in the future electric vehicles would become mainstream—a seemingly absurd idea. Whoever you asked, you would get persuasive arguments as to why this would never work: you bought goods in a shop, and there was no way you would buy goods from a shop you’d never been to before, because you had no way of trusting the seller. But these pioneers paid no notice and went on working to create a new world. If anyone could shop online, even homemakers with kids who couldn't leave the house, or people who were sick and unable to go out shopping would be able to buy the things they need. If anyone could use online auctions, then unused items that would before have been thrown out could now be put to use by somebody else. Today these ideas seem like common sense. But behind each of these services is a history of people who had the audacity to take on the challenge of creating new technologies and services that would change the world. I was fascinated by this philosophy and set of values of Silicon Valley. By producing new technologies and spreading innovative products, it was possible to expand people’s potential as individuals, to help make society more efficient, to enrich and bring fun into people’s daily lives; that this was without question something truly amazing that was achievable through our own efforts.
Throughout the history of the Internet, it has been little hunches that have triggered innovation—hunches that the world needs something like this or if only there was something like that. Even Yahoo! and Google started out from personal hobbies and small-scale research.
In the same way, my own service GREE was born from a small idea I had one day in 2003 of creating a new way of communicating and a new community. I started it as a personal hobby on a voluntary basis out of the feeling that I wanted to do something, however small, to make the world a better place.
After starting GREE, I immersed myself in it, using most of my income and occasionally borrowing money, spending all my days off and spare time on it. My friends and many others I knew would ask me again and again why I was carrying on with this meaningless pursuit that was running at a loss, questioning what there was to be gained from it.
But still I felt I wanted to do something to make the world a better place, however that small my contribution might be. I was just putting into practice what I had learned, that the Internet could change the world. In Silicon Valley, after Amazon and eBay, Google transformed search; the iPod and iTunes transformed music; and the iPhone transformed mobile phones. Other services like YouTube and Facebook continue to change the world to this day.
One of the other important things I learned from Silicon Valley was the importance of taking on new challenges as a team, and persisting until you succeed.
When I was operating GREE as an individual and the number of users topped 100,000 people, the scale went beyond something that I could handle on my own, both in terms of funding and time. I worked every night without sleeping, unsure of what I should do next. There were many times when I wanted to run away from it all. But amid all that, I had the feeling that with so many people using this service, I couldn’t simply bring it to an end. I would have to keep it going. So I decided to create a company and maintain it that way.
The new technologies and products that have emerged from Silicon Valley were not created by individuals working singlehandedly. They were produced by forming teams as companies, and they were the outcome of many hours of work by large numbers of people. In the same way, I decided that I too would need to create a team capable of bringing something new into the world.
You might think that you start a company and everything goes smoothly from Day One in a way it never had done when you were working alone, with amazing products emerging one after another. But that is simply not how it works. It doesn't matter how hard you've worked at creating something, if you can’t create products better than your competitors, no one will see any need for what you produce. Even after setting up the company, I wasn't able to create products that people would use right from the beginning and I was acutely aware of it all the time. But I didn't throw it all away and give up because I understood the history of Silicon Valley.
There we were, taking on a challenge with no guarantee of success, starting something reckless without a plan, a team with no particular expertise in this new area, never stopping our efforts. We believed that the path to success had to be there somewhere, but each day endured the uncertainty of not knowing whether we would succeed. That was a time when many people looked at us and thought GREE had no future and no value, and they wondered how long it would be before it disappeared.
The companies achieving things in the world today did not shine continuously right from the very beginning until now. Knowing this was what got us through times when it felt like we could easily fall into a crushing despair, days when we couldn't see a way forward. No matter how bad things got, we never completely lost that vision of the future, that hope.
If you take on a new challenge you will clock up many times more mistakes than someone who doesn’t try at all. With anything unknown, there will be times when you can’t find the solution no matter how much research you do, and you are stumped. If you do something different from what others are doing you will experience loneliness, and day by day people will say what you’re doing is stupid, that it’s a wasted effort, that it will never work. At times of failure you’ll encounter emptiness, when it feels like all your work was in vain and you might find yourself looking for others to blame, or feeling resentment toward your peers.
But creating something new has only ever been achieved by those willing to go on in spite of all this. Those are the people who have changed the world, who have built the society and the lifestyles that we have today.
The Internet will change everything and we are right at the gateway. Rather than being a bystander looking on at that change, or passing through it as a sightseer, I want to be someone who thinks for himself about the new era, and play an active role in making it a reality.
History has been shaped by people working to build the society of the future. Having learned from them, I want to make my own contribution to society, to make the world a better place through the power of the Internet.
Founder, Chairman and CEO Yoshikazu Tanaka