Interview with William Saito, Founder of IntecurSeptember 27, 2018
William Saito invented a software company in his dorm room at the University of California, Riverside. It was the kind of company that drew the attention of Microsoft and in 2000, Microsoft bought the firmware rights to the technology, securing Saito firmly as an authority in the the technology industry.
Since that time, he has been instrumental in developing and investing in over 25 companies at the start-up phase. He enjoys helping companies build their way from the ground up and utilizes his expertise as a venture capitalist and political adviser to do exactly that.
William Saito has an extensive background in international business both as an IT strategist, and as a Venture capitalist. He is well known for being both likeable and efficient. He’s brought an extensive array of leadership to the field of technology within many different facets including cyber technology, international technology, and cyber security.
In 2016 William Saito was awarded the Japanese Medal of Honor for his involvement with the cleanup and recovery efforts for the people of Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. He also founded Japan’s first independent accident investigation into the events leading to the disaster from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
William Saito has also served as an advisor to Pricewaterhousecoopers, the Chertoff Group, and the World Economic Forum. He’s built and maintained relationships with thought leaders, innovators, and stakeholders across the board, proving vital to the cohesive and collaborative nature of the industry.
Saito transcends politics and technology and has influenced several government leaders, advising them on topics including network security and technology strategies. William Saito even served as special advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet. During the years of 2013 – 2017 he used his extensive knowledge of cyber security to aid in the improvement of Japan’s cyber security defense system.
He’s been advisor to Japanese Airlines as well as several other technology companies. In 2998 NASDAQ, Ernst & Young, and the USA today named William Saito, “Entrepreneur of the Year!”
He has multiple degrees from multiple universities including Harvard, Yale, and the University of California, Riverside, where he has also served as a visiting professor in business management. He’s also taught at the UCLA School of Management.
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?
I’ve always been curious about how things work. I couldn’t just be satisfied by understanding how to use a computer, I needed to know how it was built and I would take them apart to understand the inner workings, all the way down to the microchip level. Then I would switch gears and learn how to build an entire computer from scratch. Then I would need to learn how to build the programming from scratch. My curiosity and need to understand the inner workings of machines has always been at the forefront of my success.
I’ve been involved in the technology industry since it’s early inception and almost every step of the way has been due to a result of other people believing in my talent, ability, and ingenuity. By seeing the potential in what I’m capable of doing, I had the support of people who would embrace my talent, it and nurture it either through job opportunities, investments, or through helping me to create a company.
How do you make money?
My business is built around the idea of finding start up companies that are looking for investors to back their efforts. I spend a lot of time meeting with potential clients and companies, hearing pitches, developing concepts with them, and then ultimately debating if this is a partnership that can be mutually beneficial.
Most companies have one of two things: Passion for their industry or intricate knowledge of the field they are creating within. It’s rare to find a person or a company that has a combination of both of these and, yet, both are essential to success. So much so, that one cannot operate without the other for very long.
My approach is always to take a step back and examine with a fine toothed comb what a company’s most essential assets are. When I invest in a company it’s my goal to help them come up with a product that can maximize the value of their assets at a rock bottom cost to the client.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
I’ve been working in and out of the technology sector since I was in Jr. High School, and I’ve been profitable at nearly every stage of the game, often accidentally.
It took several years for me to build capital and understand how to run a profitable company, but at every stage of the game I was able to turn at least a little bit of a profit. Enough for me to take the money and re-invest in whatever project was next on my list.
At one point in College I was designing a software and selling it for what amounts to pennies, but it cost so little to make that I was actually turning around enough of a profit to invest in more computers to make more software.
And I’d take that money and turn it around into investing in additional technology. Whatever I would make I’d utilize to create something new. I was never satisfied with the project I was working on until it could lead me or my team into a new project. I also knew that through each experience I was becoming better and more skilled in the technology and the nuances of building an industry.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I believe in the life transformative process of failing, so yes, I actually hoped that it wouldn’t work! I looked forward to and embraced that doubt and fear and used it as fuel to create! That is to say that one of the most crucial parts of my process is figuring out how quickly I can fail. I find the most revealing information about a project, a concept, or an idea comes from it’s breakpoints. Once you know what that point is it can provide a ton of useful information and help you assess exactly what steps to take to make the product, idea, or concept better, stronger, and ultimately, build a success.
So I am actively seeking for a moment of watching everything I’ve worked for completely fall apart. And until I achieve that moment, I know the project cannot be complete.
I think a lot of this drive to fail comes from my experience in culinary school, which many of my colleagues find curious. I spent four summers learning from the best chefs in France.
It was here that I truly honed my ability to improvise and adapt from failures. I also could rarely stick to a recipe. I tend to go off book in so many areas of my life, and cooking was no exception. So for example, if I overcooked a chicken, I’d somehow turn it into a stew. If I forgot an ingredient, I’d revise the whole recipe so that I could use a different one.
I’d often cook Thanksgiving dinner for 80 or so of my friends, and I’d cook every single element of it without any of the help of anyone else. I enjoyed the process as much as the delicious meal that I’d create.
This is a lot like business for me, and the process and journey is as fun for me as the success is.
How did you get your first investor?
I’ve been working for companies designing programs and building software and computers since I was 12 years old. So this question is a bit difficult to answer, because each of those companies could technically be considered an investor. In fact my first software programming job was for Merrill Lynch, and I helped them compute their numbers. I’d program their computers on the weekend and my dad would drive me to and from the office.
It’s also possible we could consider my parents the original investors of me and of my future, as they were the first to introduce and provide a real computer to me when I was 10 years old. At the time it cost them $2,000 (what would be about $5,000 today) and did so solely on the advice of my teacher who saw a talent for this kind of work within me.
But when it comes to more formal investors, I was able to sell my first software company to Microsoft when I was a sophomore in college. I think that was a big tipping point in establishing both me, my business, and my expertise.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
InTecur is my platform that I utilize to manage my investments in startup companies. I have a need to pay forward the opportunities I was given when I was young to new and ambitious companies within this industry. While I have invested in over a dozen young companies over the course of my career, choosing which companies deserve my time and my money can be a truly difficult process.
I don’t simply find a company that I can step back and say, “Oh yes, on paper, I really like this idea!” Or that I think the creator has potential so therefore they should have the capital. For me to be involved, I am all in. I sit on the board, I sit in on meetings occasionally, I help them in all facets of the creation of their product or company. I invest my money and my time. So I have to be extremely choosy during this process.
At the most basic level I tend to look for small companies that have an unusual idea or a technology that is in need of both funding and guidance. And to make sure I’m choosing the right company I have four basic criteria that they must meet:
1) The technology must be applicable on a global level
2) The company must be formed by a team. In my experience utilizing a team is by and large preferred to a single owner/designer/operator/creator. I simply don’t trust one-person shows. I believe a good leader recognizes the value of talented people and uses this strength to help complement weaknesses.
3) The business must not rely on a temporary advantage in core technology, something like a faster CPU speed, higher bandwidth, faster speed etc. These are commodities that will depreciate rapidly in the coming years along with any capital I choose to invest.
4) The business founders must have experienced failure at some point in their career.
While it seems like it should be a pretty easy list, you’d be surprised how many businesses don’t meet one of these qualifications, although they will try to convince me of all the reasons why their company will be different and why I should make exceptions to the rules. However, wisdom and experience have taught me otherwise.
So it’s not one decision that I’ve made that’s been particularly difficult, it’s assessing several qualifications time and again. And it never gets easier. But when I do find a unicorn of a company worth my time and money, it’s electric and the energy and excitement is a great tipping point to launch our partnership. Then we get to work.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
Failure and my open embrace of all things related to it have made me successful in nearly every avenue of my life. This combined with an almost insatiable need to understand how things work have driven most of my success.
Also, I’ve always been pretty good at faking it till I make it. When I was in college my best friend and I started a software company. We were hired by a Japanese investment company called NEC to perform some major software translations to incorporate American software into the budding Japanese technology.
They had no idea that we were a couple of college kids doing most of this work in between our classes, fueled by pizza and caffeine. At one point we learned that some of the team from Japan was coming to California for a conference and wanted to drop in and meet us formally. As a Japanese American, I knew that this was not just a simple “meet and greet.” This was an evaluation of who we are as a company, and would confirm if they continue working with us. We needed to do something drastic to make the appearance of a real company become a reality.
In town for Interpol World 2017, William Saito, special adviser to Japan’s cabinet, talks about the Japan-EU trade deal and the third arrow in Abenomics.
In the span of a few days we rented office space, staffed desks with computers we “borrowed” from the school, invited our friends and their girlfriends to sit at the desks and fill out the office. The NEC representatives bought it.
As a result it opened many more doors to opportunities, including actually having a legit business incorporated taking us from the rinky dorm room software programming company to a legitimate business with an office space and a paid staff.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Having worked with young start-ups has always been enormously gratifying. I enjoy the energy of young entrepreneurs and their hope for what is possible. Helping to nurture that is pure joy.
I also have enjoyed the process of teaching young entrepreneurs on the college level. It’s gratifying in a different way as it allows me to help shape the minds that will go out and create, invent, invest, and ultimately, hopefully, change the world. There’s a satisfying feeling that what I’m sharing with my students will benefit more people down the line. I often can’t wait to see what they will come up with. It’s truly rewarding.
I’ve also been honored to be a judge for the Entrepreneur of the Year program and during that time I’ve been able to review close to 10,000 business plans. There’s nothing quite like the experience of evaluating a ton of data on a topic, such as a business plan.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: Nothing will ever go to plan. Not one single successful business has ever been based on a perfectly thought out business plan, but on the ability of those involved with the company to adapt, evolve, and understand the changing tides of their industry.
What is a primary way that you generate new business?
I’m kind of an anomaly in the tech and computer world in that I actually like people, I like working with them, I like talking to them. Many people who get into this industry enjoy the solitude of tinkering with a project. Don’t’ get me wrong, I love that facet as well, but I also enjoy working and collaborating with people.
I think that this ability to connect has proven a successful strategy to my ability to meet and acquire new clients. I’ve built a reputation of being generous and resourceful and clients tend to want to work with people like that.
Connect with William Saito on Levo.com