“That will never work. It’s crazy!”

I hear it a lot.

Even as CEO, there are plenty of times when someone looked at me and told me that the thing I’ve just said — a deadline, a goal, a new idea — is simply nuts.

I’m used to it. What’s more, I have a tried-and-true plan to combat it. Whenever I propose an outlandish idea, I volunteer to go first.

So when I announced to my Tokyo-based company in 2010 that from this point on, the official language of Rakuten would be English, I listened while everyone said I was making a huge mistake and it wouldn’t work. And then I went first.

All my meetings, all my interactions in the company, were conducted in English. This was not easy. In the early years of using English there was quite a variance in language skills within the company. Many times in the middle of senior level meetings someone would turn to me and say: “This next part is difficult so can I just say it in Japanese?”

Certainly I wanted to hear what my team had to say. But I stayed firm. What good is a bold new idea if I’m not willing to do it myself? If we want everyone in this company to speak English, then that means me, too. Even with my senior leadership team. Even when it is difficult. I gave the “crazy” order and I was willing to go first.

Last year, when we introduced mandatory programming training for all new grads, some of our young recruits were undoubtedly nervous. However, they embraced the challenge head-on with the knowledge that I myself had learned to code during the early days of the company.


This is my standard practice. When I decided it would be a good team bonding exercise to climb Mount Tanigawa (local nickname: Mountain of Death), I went up in the first group. When, some years ago, I decided it would be a good idea for Rakuten to adopt a formal dress code until we improved our e-commerce performance, I was the first to show up in a suit. As Rakuten Mobile began to rollout the radio antenna base stations crucial to the new network launch, I made sure to be on the ground checking new installations at locations across the country.

This willingness to go first — to do the work you ask others to do — is a critical element of leadership. And it is particularly important when you’re asking people to do something that has never been done before. Often, people are apprehensive when faced with a new idea or direction. It’s scary to think that the boss may be leading the company into uncharted territory. So it’s an important inspiration to be willing to get out in front and go first.

This doesn’t only apply to those in the corner office. When new recruits join Rakuten, they are treated to an early lesson on this topic. One which many refer to by an old advertising adage: Eat your own dog food. That means, when you are a part of Rakuten, you should be comfortable using all the services in the Rakuten ecosystem. By playing around with our digital content services like Rakuten TV or our global messaging app Viber, new discoveries can be made. If we want customers to follow us, we must be willing to go first.


Going first is an important inspirational process, but it is also an important yardstick for my own creative process. I have new ideas all the time. As I turn them around in my head, I think of many things. Will this be profitable? Will this provide a benefit to society? Will this reflect positively on the Rakuten brand? But in my process I must also consider: Would I do this myself? Am I willing to be Customer No. 1? Next time you have a business idea, perhaps you can ask yourself the same questions.

There are many benefits to going first. It allows me to gain critical firsthand intelligence. It helps inspire others in the company to embrace something different and challenging, regardless of how unusual it can initially seem. And of course, when the idea is successful, it allows me to be the first to say: I told you so.

This article was originally published on Rakuten.today and also appeared on LinkedIn.com

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  • Mickey Mikitani

    Founder, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten, Inc.

    Mickey (Hiroshi) Mikitani is the founder, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, Inc. Founded in Japan in 1997 with the mission to contribute to society by creating value through innovation and entrepreneurship, Rakuten has grown to become one of the world's leading internet services companies. Rakuten has a dynamic ecosystem of more than 70 services, spanning e-commerce, fintech, digital content and communications, bringing the joy of discovery to more than 1.3 billion members around the world. Rakuten also become Japan’s newest mobile network operator in 2019. In July 2017, Rakuten became the Main Global Partner and first-ever Global Innovation & Entertainment Partner of one of the world’s most admired soccer clubs, FC Barcelona, and, in September of the same year, became the first-ever jersey partner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Born in Kobe, Mikitani was educated at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, began his career in investment banking, and earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. In 2012, he was awarded the HBS Alumni Achievement Award, one of the school’s highest honors. Mikitani is also a recipient of the Legion of Honour, awarded by the French government in recognition of contributions to the economy and culture of France. In 2011, he was appointed Chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, which has the longest history and tradition of any orchestra in Japan, and serves as Representative Director of the Japan Association of New Economy (JANE). In 2015, Mikitani was appointed to the Board of Directors at Lyft, Inc.. In 2016, he was appointed Chairman and Director of Rakuten Medical, Inc. (formerly Aspyrian Therapeutics, Inc.), a biotechnology company developing a proprietary precision-targeted anti-cancer treatment platform, Rakuten Medical’s lluminoxTM, and also took up the role of CEO in 2018.