The family I grew up in—all artists and engineers—really valued having multiple intellectual curiosities. My mother is an artist and a musician. My father is a structural engineer. Both of their interests are reflected over the course of my career. I worked for the enterprises Dassault Systemes and Accenture, the startups LendingClub and MySpace, for artists as a Hollywood assistant to Michael Mann on Miami Vice and other movies, and for myself as an entrepreneur and advisor at Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center advisory board.
When I was a kid, though, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was the first answer that came out of my mouth when any adult would ask that question. I studied everything in college, including astronomy and astrophysics. I ended up graduating from UC Berkeley in Business, but I did have one research paper for water on Mars cited by NASA. When I interviewed with Ken and Kaisei, they found it interesting—who’s this strange business marketing (crazy) guy who found water on Mars for NASA, you know? I knew that SmartNews might be a potential home for me when I saw that they also had that kind of intellectual curiosity.
In 2014, I led communications in the US following the US launch and our early funding announcements. I designed our San Francisco office and built it with Dennis in 2015 and then I designed our Palo Alto office together with Shoko in 2019. I carefully studied the work habits of our Tokyo coworkers as well as the unique needs of our US teams. For example, our US-based engineers preferred quieter spaces with less direct sunlight, while our Media and other teams wanted an open, creative space. Japanese toilets, jungle wallpaper, kotatsu tables, shoes-off areas and tatami, swinging chairs and record players, a bunk bed, and VR room are some examples of the east-meets-west, focus-versus-creative options we designed. Since we had a limited budget in those days, many of our furnishings were built by hand from junkyard scraps or modified IKEA hacks.
Later, I had the fun honor of taking our founders on a twenty-six-state road trip across the US during the 2016 elections and afterward. It is very rare that Japanese founders would want to go to the middle of the country to understand users. We visited farms. We went to rallies. We even met Obama in a parking lot and sat in the front row at the Trump inauguration. We asked factory workers, union organizers, veterans, and farmers, “what do you think of this app? How can we make it better? How can we fix the news problem?”
This resulted in the Dream Channels, a project to add more channels based on people’s hobbies and interests and go beyond traditional “hard news.” Then came the “News From All Sides” feature. We are the first app to have political balancing so you can see news from all sides. Then came real-time data features, such as election data, COVID data, local crime data, emergency weather maps, and more. The big lesson learned was to really listen to your users. We gained a renewed appreciation for the fact that the US is not just one country, but really fifty smaller countries—that is to say, states—and thousands of local cities, which we would later launch thousands of Local Channels for.
Back in 2014, there were a lot of other news apps in the US. A lot of them were acquired and many of them couldn’t make revenue. SmartNews is the only app still around from back then, and we’re extremely successful with publishers and users mostly because of the deep care we put into getting to know them and building for them based on our first-hand field research.
Working at SmartNews has been a very fun and interesting challenge because we have such a strong mission. Machine learning, polarization, fake news, discovery, information diet, the technology story, the media story, the political story—there are so many different facets to explore.
Our mission is “delivering the world’s quality information to the people who need it.” These days, it seems every company has a mission, and it’s usually something vague. But our mission is deeply nuanced and has evolved over the years that I’ve been at SmartNews. When I first joined in 2014, Eli Parisier coined the term “Filter Bubble” with his famous TED talk and book. We didn’t really understand how deep fake news was until the 2016 elections. Fast forward to 2020, and now we see the importance of election data, COVID data, wildfire data, local crime, and more.
SmartNews started off as just delivering the best articles and being the best aggregator. But now we’re trying to deliver information that is essential for your daily life instead of just news. We want to be the first to give that to you—and give you multiple viewpoints so you can evaluate it better for yourself. This is a very interesting engineering challenge. Finding quality information is harder than ever, so that’s why we’re trying our very best. All of our different teams contribute to the same mission, but from the areas where they can make the strongest contribution.
There have been so many things. Building really fun offices in the US and designing the Dungeons & Dragons room in Tokyo; flying the entire company to Tokyo for the Go Global event we did in 2018; the ONA events with Dan Rather and Carl Bernstein; and the road trip across America.
All those things were amazing accomplishments, but I think the biggest accomplishment was acquiring more than ten million users in the US. It wasn’t the biggest just because of our growth metrics or revenue, but because it was proof that we could make a difference in society.
On Election Night in New York City in 2016, Ken and I had to rely on other resources to find election data; we didn’t have it in SmartNews yet. So Ken’s big goal for 2020 was for SmartNews to win the battle against fake news and to provide people with quality, real-time election results and information that is balanced that lets them clearly examine issues on the Left and Right. Four years later, during the difficult circumstances of working from home during the COVID lockdowns and against a background of civil protests and the storming of the US Capital, we delivered the Elections features to our users, representing millions of US voters. We provided people with a quality resource to make sense of the information surrounding the 2020 election that didn’t exist in 2016. The entire global team delivered during extraordinary circumstances, and I’m very proud of everyone for that.
Just like any growth-stage startup, SmartNews works really hard towards its mission and growth. It’s completely unlike working at a traditional corporation where you have a standard nine to five. SmartNews is very flexible and supportive of people’s situations, especially during this current work-from-home situation. More than that, I think employees and managers support each other as we work towards our goals—it’s the results that matter. So, to anyone who’s never worked at a startup before: it really is an adventure. Don’t jump in to simply advance your career. Go for it because you really want to change the world. If you do that, you will look at your job a lot differently. The Culture Group is here to help ensure that everyone shares the spotlight when contributing to our global mission and to unite all of our different teams and countries—unified in direction, diverse as individuals—and to have fun while we’re doing it!
Fun fact: almost everybody here has a world-class hobby. They’re all really interesting to talk to. We also have excellent coffee and excellent natto in the US office! And of course, if you haven’t yet met our mascot Chikyu-kun, you will. SmartNews in many ways feels like college in so much that everyone is so intellectually curious and into so many different subjects, and it feels truly global. You will interact daily with people in different countries.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that I’m Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian—everything!—and that SmartNews is a diverse and multicultural place. We have an excellent translation team that helps our members from Japan, China, and the US communicate. Before the pandemic, we were always encouraged to visit all of the different offices to truly become global citizens and global employees.
I chose The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, one of the most accomplished dance choreographers in America.
People often tell me, “you’re so creative. I wish I could be more creative.” You can. It’s a process, a routine, but it is very hard. As Twyla teaches, it begins with an empty box, alone in an empty room, and you show up to rehearse there every day. When I designed the San Francisco office, we began with an empty space. I would sit on the old stained carpet with the lights off, watching the sun rise and set for a week, just observing and sipping coffee, imagining the space full of people, time traveling ten years forward in my mind. It wasn’t until I was immersed in the space that I could bring it to life. While this doesn’t follow the typical engineering sprint or OKR planning process, it is a way to go from 0 to 1.
The Creative Habit: Learn In and Use It for Life
Author: Twyla Tharp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year published: 2006
Overcoming differences in language, culture, and time with empathy for the mission
Creating autonomous engineering teams to achieve ambitious targets
Data-driven decision making at the center of SmartNews
From English teacher to engineering manager