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‘Playful Ants’ that Change the World

Ryota Matsuzaki (Founder / Chief Momotaro, Kibidango, Inc.)

‘Connecting Small Forces to Create
New Values to the World’

Yasuhiro Karakawa, leader of the "Playful Ants Incubator” introduces people in Japan who are creating new values in the world via their unique lifestyles and work styles.


Playful Ant 06 – Ryota Matsuzaki (Founder/ Kibidango, Inc.)

Everyone is familiar with the folk tale of Momotaro. Momotaro (“Peach Boy”), born from a peach, set out on a journey to exterminate demons. As a return for helping him battle and defeat the demons he gave his fellow accomplices (a dog, a monkey and a pheasant) kibidangos (“millet dumpling”).  

Mr. Matsuzaki, is the representative of a Tokyo-based crowdfunding company with an unusual name “Kibidango.” Also, he has an unusual title “Chief Momotaro”. What was his motivation for starting such a company and holding such a title?

Supporting people’s ideas through “money with color”

Mr. Matsuzaki: Simply put, Kibidango provides a service that supports people who are engaged in business by connecting the power of money from the people through a system called crowdfunding.

Originally, I started my career at the Industrial Bank of Japan and later joined Rakuten, a company founded by Hiroshi Mikitani, who was then my senior at the bank. Mr. Mikitani came up with the vision of Rakuten, an e-commerce company, and actually founded it, many people said that there was no way such an Internet business buying and selling goods in a virtual marketplace would work, but Mr. Mikitani has driven Rakuten to success without being bound by the noise and common sense of people around him. However, as Rakuten grew from a few dozen people when I joined the company to more than 10,000 people, I felt my desire to create the value that only I could provide and decided to graduate from Rakuten.

For a while, I was running a consulting business as a sole proprietor to support my client companies, but I came to wonder whether that was really a value that only I could provide or not. Rather, I was just selling off my experience and knowledge without an inspiring vision… I began to spend my days in a somewhat agonized state. Then one day I was hit by a flashback. 

When I was at the Industrial Bank of Japan, I was in charge of project finance, which involved evaluating large-scale overseas projects and deciding whether or not to lend huge amounts of money. While I felt that I was gaining an exciting experience with a large monetary impact, I always felt that the money handled by the bank had no color. That’s because we investment bankers had to calmly and objectively assess the profitability of the project in order to make the right decision, not being based on individuals’ passion to support the project.

After looking at the world again with such a memory, I realized that various e-commerce systems such as Rakuten, Amazon and Yahoo! Auctions have existed on the basis that the most important service is to help anyone buy what they want at any time, cheaply and quickly. But then I thought, “Is that really the end game? Isn’t there another way?”

It was during this time that I met Kickstarter, a crowdfunding company born in the U.S., and was attracted by the potential of crowdfunding. When I had a chance to talk with the founders of Kickstarter, they said to me, “Why don’t you start your own crowdfunding company in Japan if you are so interested in crowdfunding?” And so I decided to take their advice and started my own business. In response to someone’s passionate desire and dream to spread such a product to the world, people who don’t know each other become supporters one after another by offering support in the form of small amounts of money in order to achieve a common goal. I thought that crowdfunding is just like the world of Momotaro, and I decided to use “kibidango” as the company name because it was an important item for sharing dreams with supporters and achieving goals together. I also wanted to continue to be a passionate leader in supporting projects that help people achieve their goals, so I decided to call myself “Chief Momotaro.” I’m still a little embarrassed when the bank receptionist calls me “Kibidango-sama” at the bank.

The first project we Kibidango helped with was a wine making project in Niigata. This project was initiated by my ex-colleague at the Industrial Bank of Japan, who moved on when he was about to reach his forties. He wanted to start making the first Pinot Noir wine in his native Niigata. The project successfully achieved the target amount although the amount itself was not a lot. However, we got comments such as “Counting from the cultivation of grapes, it will be a few years before the wine is ready so I would like to have a way to enjoy the wait time. And, “My child will be an adult in a few years, so I look forward to opening the wine that will arrive at that time with my child”. These comments and working on the wine project led me to strongly feel that “money entrusted with empathy from individuals had a solid color.” All of the projects that Kibidango has worked on with respective owners have been very meaningful to me, but this first project gave me a strong sense of the appeal of “money with color.”

I myself have supported several projects through Kibidango. Honestly, the value proposed by the projects I have supported is not so much for practicality, but more for playfulness such as “Although it’s not essential for everyday life, it would make my time a little more enjoyable if I had it.” As the business category of crowdfunding becomes more and more popular, what kind of goals does Kibidango hope to achieve going into the future?

Co-creating new value with demons rather than defeating them

Ms. Matsuzaki: I would like to focus not on the “size of the support” (how much money was raised), but on the “social impact” (what kind of unique value is provided to the people of the world). It has been several years since we launched Kibidango, and thankfully, we have been able to create many successful projects. At the same time, looking at the world, the number of companies offering crowdfunding is increasing. Rather than aiming to become the “number one player” in the crowdfunding world, I would like to do things that people think are too troublesome therefore haven’t been able to get a handle on. That’s where we have the chance to become the “only one player” and I’m excited about realizing it.

Conventional crowdfunding aims to inform a large number of people about the project idea, recruit supporters among them and achieve the target amount. In the story of Momotaro, the goal was to gather the power of everyone, including a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, and accomplish the mission of exterminating the demons of Onigashima. Once the demon was defeated, that was the end of the story.

However, we believe that reaching the target amount is not the goal, but rather the start. To be more specific, we want to continue to grow our fan base by informing as many people as possible about the ideas that have been supported by others. And for the project owners, we want to act as their e-commerce partner, responsible for handling retail sales, inventory management, fulfillment, and customer support. In other words, we will take on a new role as a “crowdfunding e-commerce site.”

We don’t want to end the story just by defeating the demons. Instead, we want to make even the demons our allies and continue to create new value together with them. We want to explore new ways of doing things that no one has ever done. Of course, this vision takes a lot of time and effort, and we must believe our love bringing new ideas to the world as a partner with the owners. But I feel that if we can continue to evolve with our passion, we have the potential to become even more unique.

Looking back, the origin of my desire to remain unique may have something to do with the classical music I have been exposed to since I was a child and my hobby of listening to orchestras . In the world of orchestras, there is no such thing as the one and only organization that is absolutely good. Every orchestra has its own uniqueness, such as “this part, here is good” or “that part, there is good.” I feel that by having such a view for our own value, we can create our own unique appeal different from that of strong and large players.

Mr. Matsuzaki is also a senior alumni at the Graduate School of Management, Cornell University which I also attended. It was about 10 years ago when I first met Mr. Matsuzaki through a mutual acquaintance. At that time, Mr. Matsuzaki was an executive at Rakuten, and when I saw him, I thought he would be a cool guy with an elite air of knowing the international setting. However, my prediction was wrong in a good way. Whenever I invited Mr. Matsuzaki to a hands-on training camp on Sado Island or a gathering of acquaintances from different industries which I planned, he was always quick and positive to participate and really enjoyed the experience, despite his busy schedule. What is the driving force that keeps him trying not to miss such small opportunities?

Keep making small efforts to stay under the shelf

Mr. Matsuzaki: It was a long time ago, but when I was in high school, one of my teachers told me to be careful not to narrow myself on my own. Don’t be bound by the norms we create or by our past experiences. These words still stick in my mind like a small bone of a fish in the throat. Maybe I was born with a strong sense of curiosity, but I was also influenced by those words. With both, I think I have a very strong motivation to “try to get my foot in the door of what I don’t know.” That’s why I have a very strong interest in people who might know something I don’t know.

There is a proverb saying “A botamochi (a Japanese confection) falls down from a shelf” this means to get a lucky break. But I personally interpret that it is very important to always make efforts to stay under the shelf, even if you don’t know whether the rice cake will fall or not. I found the same thing in Dr. Richard Weissman’s “The Luck Factor.”

The other day, I was casually looking at my calendar from 2015 calendar.  I realized that, compared to how busy I was six or seven years ago, I have not been very proactive over the past couple of years… Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was restricted from traveling around the country and abroad and physically meeting people. But more than that, I realized that maybe I hadn’t actively tried to create the time to encounter new things and gain new insight.

Do not neglect to make efforts to create time that may seem to be wasteful. Have the courage to step out of your comfort zone and consciously try to seize opportunities where we might happen to notice something or encounter something. I believe that many things can be influenced by these small actions and attitudes in everyday life.

As a human being, or rather as a playful ant, I wonder how Mr. Matsuzaki plans to lead his life from now on. Does he have any big goals in mind? 

Seize the day and keep growing

Mr. Matsuzaki: Once I was interviewed for a TV program. When I was talking about my thoughts on crowdfunding and entrepreneurship, I was repeatedly asked “Please say something bigger! (laughs).” After the interview, as I was thinking about where this inexplicable feeling of discomfort came from, I realized that the TV station was interested in conveying how successful this person was and how much this person was trying to be successful whereas I was actually interested in considering how to navigate each of project owners to success. 

Of course, I have respect for successful people, and I am envious of them, too. But more than that, I think I want to always grow. And at the same time, I also believe that people cannot grow without failures.

One thing I learned from Mr. Mikitani’s behavior is the message that we live only once. As we live only once, if there is something we want to do, it is better to take the plunge, even if there is a risk of failure. Of course, the results of what we do may not always turn out well, and in some cases we cannot regain what we have lost. That’s why I think the important thing is not whether the result will be successful or not, but whether we can make our own decision about whether we want to do it or not, and whether we can justify that decision regardless of the result.

Our time to remain healthy is limited. Live each day with care. If we have this feeling, even if we fail at something, we will be able to turn it into a power that leads to growth, and we will always be able to move forward in the direction we want to go without hesitation.

Post-Interview Reflection

It has been seven or eight years since I first became interested in the existence of the playful ants. As I mentioned above, my first impression of Mr. Matsuzaki when I met him 10 years ago was “super elite,” but as I got to know him better, I became more and more convinced that he was exactly the representative of the playful ant, as I saw how he was enjoying creating his own value while stepping into the unknown. 

I am very happy to be able to introduce Mr. Matsuzaki in this sixth interview series. Of course, he doesn’t dabble in everything carelessly, and I’m sure he analyzes many things dispassionately, but at the root of it all is the simple idea of “Carpe Diem” (live in the moment to the fullest). I believe if we can focus on this one step right now, we can avoid being caught up in the past and not be too afraid of the future. 
Stay Playful. 

Attention please. I’ve been working on a book about the playful ant, and I’m currently working on finalizing the manuscript. I’m working hard to get it published before the ants come out of hibernation next spring. I’m also very happy that this series of articles on the playful ants gave me the opportunity to publish the book in collaboration with PAPERSKY. Thank you, Lucas! 

And I hope you’ll all enjoy reading it, too!

『The Playful Ants that change the world』

In an ant society, you can easily identify the herd of “Worker Ants”—the textbook definition of ants, the ones who continuously carry the food. If you take a closer look, you may notice that there’s a different group of ants walking about playfully in their own world. These are “Playful Ants”—ants and thanks to their curiosity, they at times stumble across an unexpected feeding ground or detect sudden threats in advance allowing them to warn the colony of danger in advance.

In this interview series, I introduce interesting lifestyles and work styles of different “Playful Ants”, in order to help incubate them into this world.

Each human being is as small as an ant. However, if each ant pursues his or her own path purposefully and playfully, that path can connect to an opportunity to explore and create something new. That can turn into the power to change the world in its own way. I’ve come to believe so after spending many years on designing and leading practical innovation projects, and working with many global and Japanese corporations as a consultant. 

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Playful Ants Incubator)
With a purpose of “incubating Playful Ants both in the corporations and the society” Yasu has been leading practical innovation projects with global corporations in more than 10 countries while also serving as a strategy advisor and a guest lecturer.