When the World Wide Web first became a big deal in the mid-1990s, Hiroshi Mikitani was a 31-year-old executive with a Harvard Business School degree striding down the traditional Japanese path to success at one of the country’s biggest banks.
As much as American entrepreneurs like to portray themselves as mavericks, the stricter bonds of loyalty that define Japanese corporate culture made Mikitani’s departure all the more radical. As was what he did next.
Mikitani launched e-commerce startup Rakuten in mid-1997, just before Amazon went public. But his vision of online shopping had little in common with the standard being set by Jeff Bezos.
From the start, Mikitani has shunned what he calls the “vending machine” model of e-commerce, the utilitarian, product-centered approach favored by Amazon. From the beginning, he has built Rakuten as a collection of individual digital shops branded and run by the merchants doing the selling. Mikitani believes shops foster a sense of human connectedness that makes shopping more fun.
It’s an instinct that’s paid off handsomely. Rakuten now handles more than one-quarter of all e-commerce business in Japan — more than twice as much as Amazon’s share in the country. Now in more than a dozen countries, the multi-billion–dollar company has expanded from shopping into a range of services, from travel to banking to e-readers (Rakuten owns Kobo). It could be the largest internet company you’ve never heard of.
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