Founder name and position
Founder and CEO
Hailing from Oita Prefecture in southern Japan, Isshu Rakusai discovered his love for programming when he was twelve years old. At the age of eighteen, he coded his first commercial application, and his future as a tech entrepreneur was clear. Now, as the founder of Nota, Isshu is on a mission to produce software that eliminates the barriers that separate human creativity and technology.
How did you become interested in programming?
When I was 12 years old my father bought a computer, but he couldn’t understand how to use it. So, I started using my father’s computer all the time. I learned programming on my own using books from the library or checking out the programming community on the internet. Back then the community was small, and the amount of books available was limited.
I was motivated to make tools that even beginners could use. From that time until now I’ve always been extremely interested in user interfaces that make something easier—something where everyone can make creative content using a computer.
Can you describe your entrepreneurial journey?
My first commercial application was called Kamicopi. Kami means paper in Japanese and this was a note taking application. Microsoft Word was around back then, but you had to save and open files on your desktop or in folders. Instead, my software was kind of like the notebook application you find on Mac computers these days. There was no manual saving, so whenever you typed your work was automatically saved.
Back then, around 1997 or 1998, Windows 95 was so unstable. It often froze and users were left with just a blue screen. In that case, all the files that they created were gone. However, when people used my software that never happened. This software was a surprise success for me as a young programmer. At that time, I had never worked for a company and I didn’t have any advisors or mentors.
Eventually, I joined several startups in Japan because I was getting interested in entrepreneurship. Then I was able to meet Ken Suzuki, the CEO of SmartNews, who introduced me to Shogo Kawada, one of the cofounders of DeNa, who invested in me and became my mentor. All of this led me to move to Silicon Valley and start a company when I was 25 years old.
Kamicopi was a success in Japan, but I wanted to make products and services that were used globally—not just in the Japanese market. I also wanted to learn marketing and entrepreneurship from Silicon Valley tech companies. This is where I created Notaland.com, which was like a combination of Google Slides and Google Docs, allowing you to share and create multimedia pages online, synced automatically in real time.
What were some of the challenges you faced when starting your company and how did you overcome them?
While I was in Silicon Valley, I couldn’t attract enough users so after three years my company almost went bankrupt. That’s why I had to move back to Japan. We had about 10,000 users but that wasn’t enough to run a business.
Survival was very hard so I did some programming and consulting for other companies. The biggest company that I worked for was Dentsu—they needed a lot of designers to make creative products for their customers. That was a good opportunity for me to make money, but it was really hard. It wasn’t something I could scale.
Considering your situation, how did you revive the company in Kyoto?
Our screenshot-sharing application Gyazo started growing rapidly after about three years and we reached 3 million active users per month. Still, this wasn’t making us any money and it cost $3,000 per month just to run the servers. So I had to decide between closing the service down or monetizing it. That was when I decided to try to make money with Gyazo.
First, we added advertisements, and that helped us earn money little by little. Soon after that, we started offering a premium service, Gyazo Pro. This is a subscription that provides extra features for users. This simple screenshot tool helped us become a business once again. This allowed me to stop working for Dentsu and start developing our services again. Interestingly, Gyazo also attracted global users and now about eighty percent of our users live outside of Japan.
Can you tell me more about your current business model?
We are a SaaS company. As I mentioned, Gyazo is a B2C subscription service that helps customers share screenshots and videos. We also have several other products. Currently we’re focusing on Helpfeel, which is a subscription-based customer support system for businesses. It’s a tool that helps people quickly discover knowledge and insights. When it comes to software, most people can’t be bothered to deal with manuals and FAQ pages. Our system gives users the power to discover knowledge by searching with casual, everyday language.
As a company we focus on knowledge. We think of ourselves as a “whole-life knowledge company.” This means that we help you get the knowledge that you need throughout your life. That is our vision.
Our approach to development is also unique. We don’t focus on AI currently, but instead we focus on what we call AH: augmented humans. This is an important approach for whenever we develop something. This is connected to my original story—wanting to help my father use his computer.
With AI, people try to put human brains into computers. They try to simulate human intelligence in computers. But AH goes in the opposite direction. We want to make humans more robotic, in a way —kind of like a cyborg. This is a bit of an exaggeration though. We want to improve human weaknesses by adding algorithms that help them. We want to help people become stronger.
What was the best decision that you made during your entrepreneurial journey?
The best decision I made was not to abandon the company, even when I was failing in Silicon Valley. There were many alternative paths available to me at that time. I could have become a freelancer or abandoned entrepreneurship altogether. But I wanted to repay the investors and mentors that supported my company. I just stuck with it and believed in my vision to scale the business.
What mistakes did you make during the startup process?
My biggest mistake has to do with managing human resources. It was very tough to form good relationships with co-founders and initial employees. For example, I didn’t respond to personnel issues fast enough, and I don’t think I respected those issues enough.
Now, I know how critical it is to maintain great relationships with co-founders and employees. It’s important to quickly address any problems that come up. You need to care about multiple things when you start a company. You need to take care of your stockholders and your customers, but it’s also important to take care of your team.
What additional advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
In our company, we have a very important approach that we insist on. We call it dogfooding. This means that we should
create products and services that we also need and want to use. It’s really hard to make something for others,
especially for young entrepreneurs.. You’re not the customer, so you have to do a lot of market research to understand
what your customers need.
However, if you make something that you need then you become the customer and you can quickly discover your pain points. Then you can make a product that fits you perfectly and after that you can grow the market little by little. So in our company anyone who creates a service needs to use it themselves. That’s dogfooding—if you make food for your dog you need to be able to eat it too. If you know that you’re going to have to eat dog food then you’re going to get serious and make really good dog food.
Not only does this ensure that you understand your customers well, but it also generates motivation during difficult times. When you know that you’re solving your own pain points you can do what it takes to keep your business alive.
Tell me more about your company culture. What is it like to work for Nota?
As I mentioned before, dogfooding is important to our culture. Also, we work remotely. In fact we started as a remote company, and that’s a big part of our culture. We aren’t remote only, though. We do have an office.
Speaking of your office, what do you like about living and working in Kyoto?
This is a city that allows us to focus on software development and uniqueness. There are a lot of universities in this city, and ten percent of the population is made up of students. This is very unique when compared to other cities in Japan. There is also a research culture here and there are also a lot of special global companies such as Nintendo.
Actually you can find a lot of unique game companies here in Kyoto but they don’t often reveal themselves since they are working on secret projects. A lot of people from all around the world work at these companies so there’s a very diverse development community here.
Nota is a company that produces software designed to break down the technological barriers that stand between human thought and communication. Nota’s software suite includes team collaboration, screenshot sharing, and customer support solutions.
“We want to help humans become stronger.”
What are your top work essentials?
Scrapbox, our knowledge-base software.
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most used app?
That would be Scrapbox. I also use Slack.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Find good mentors.
What’s your greatest skill?
Discovering something unique and turning it into a business.
What do you do every morning (or night before) to prepare for the day ahead?
What book has most influenced your career?
Recently I’ve been reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
For the directory
Kawamoto Bldg. 5F
For the glossary
(Business-to-Consumer) The exchange of services, information and/or products from a business to a consumer.
Software as a service