Letter From Silicon Valley

Shocking pink. Icy violet. Emerald green. Those are some of the colors Zen Ohashi is authorized to wear.

Zen, my old friend and former business partner, moved to Japan last year, following our near-simultaneous departure from Gazooba Corp., the viral-marketing company we had cofounded. On a recent trip there I met him in the Tokyo shopping district of Ginza, at a cafÉ where even the ice in the iced coffee is made from coffee. After comparing notes on our windsurfing progress (neither of us had yet perfected a carving jibe), Zen pulled the color swatches out of his wallet. "My image consultant says they complement my winter-type face," he explained.

Zen needs an image consultant because he is on a mission. The guy who chose the name Gazooba because he figured it was goofy enough to piss off his father-in-law is determined to become Japan's first and foremost U.S.-style management coach.

How did Zen get started on such an ambitious enterprise? By writing a book, of course. The Japanese-language Gazooba! The Ups and Downs of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, published in August 2000, tells essentially the same story that I've been recounting in these columns for the past two years. I say "essentially," because in Zen's version it was he -- not I -- who recruited our friend Shanti to be Gazooba's third founder by asking, "Hey, are you ready to throw away your career?" It was he -- not I -- who sold a domain name for a month's worth of operating cash. I'm assuming that those and similar errors crept into the story during the editing process. Either that or Zen forgot that I'm proficient in kanji and would be able to read the thing.

Historical revisions aside, in November 2000, Zen promoted Gazooba! in a series of talks in Japan. His standard speech addressed three topics covered in the book: venture capital, the Silicon Valley practice of outsourcing everything, and Howard Goldman. "After the speech, people came up and asked me, 'Can you introduce me to this Howard guy?" Zen told me.

Howard is a Silicon Valley­based management consultant whom I hired in Gazooba's early days to help us make tough strategic decisions, such as whether we should brand our service or go private label. He installed in our company what he calls his "high-performance operating system," a process for agreeing on goals and taking action to achieve them. More than anyone else at Gazooba, Zen absorbed Howard's teachings and incorporated them into his work.

Before meeting Howard, for instance, Zen was at a loss about how to deal with Dan, a guy on his engineering team whom we had strong-armed into assuming managerial duties. "Dan was smiling less, and I felt so bad not knowing how to help that I began to avoid eye contact," Zen recalled in the cafÉ. "But with Howard's systematic approach to solving problems, we worked it out. It was a huge relief." Zen eventually got his whole department speaking Howard's language of requests, proposals, and commitments.

Upon his return to the United States, Zen took Howard and Howard's wife, Lisa -- also a management consultant -- to dinner and told them about Howard's new status in Japan. Howard agreed to go there for a few days to test the market, and he and Zen signed a contract to split any consulting revenues that might result. Zen then E-mailed 20 Japanese companies, pitching Howard-led seminars. Within a week he had sold four daylong slots in January 2001 at $5,000 a pop. "I was so proud of my ability to sell," said Zen. "And you know what Howard said to me? 'Shit, we underpriced it."

They doubled the fee and sold out a week of seminars in February. Suddenly, Zen was faced with a decision. Should he stay in the Bay Area and start another company -- with me and Shanti perhaps? Or should he return to Japan, his homeland, and try his luck as an independent management consultant in a place where that term -- when used at all -- can connote a certified public accountant? "Japan has a lot of problems," I told Zen when he asked for my advice. "And if there is one person who fix can them, it is you."

Zen knew I was right. In the 1970s, Japanese companies could make anything, and it was almost guaranteed to sell. Now that the economy had slowed, businesses were hurting for the kind of management skills and openness to change that Zen had absorbed in Silicon Valley. The business sector needed someone to waken the troops from their lifetime-employment slumber and stir them to "unreasonable action" (another Howard phrase).

So last July, Zen became an official licensee of the Howard Goldman methodology and moved his wife and daughter back to Japan. It meant that we wouldn't be working together for the foreseeable future. I was sad to see him go.

Zen is turning the coaching techniques on himself. He showed me a piece of paper with the words "I will be a kick-ass management coach by March 31, 2002" written in Japanese.

In the months that followed, Zen networked like crazy and gave more speeches to try to attract POs. (In Zen-speak, purchase order means paying client.) In addition to the image consultant, he hired a public-relations guy and an assistant, all freelance.

Over our nondiluted coffee drinks, Zen told me about his first client, Daishinsha, a 250-employee catalog-printing company in Osaka. Invited to speak to customers and stockholders at its 50th-anniversary event last August, Zen asked the CEO what he hoped the attendees would take away from his talk. The CEO said he wanted them to think of Daishinsha as a marketing company, not a printer.

Zen explained that that was too much to expect from a single speech and proposed a package of management-coaching services. "He bought it on the spot," Zen said. "Four days over two months at 20 grand." Suddenly, my freelance-writing career seemed less attractive.

Shuttling to Osaka by plane and bullet train, Zen met with six twenty- and thirtysomething guys who make up Daishinsha's new consulting group. "I help them realize they have to listen to what their customers want to achieve and what's stopping them from achieving it," Zen said. "So now I am about 40% done teaching them how to use coaching with their customers." He has also done work for the Japanese office of PricewaterhouseCoopers and for Nissen, a mail-order house with revenues of more than $1 billion.

Zen is turning Howard's coaching techniques on himself as well. He opened his notebook and showed me a piece of paper with the words "I will be a kick-ass management coach by March 31, 2002" written in Japanese. He has drawn up a list of 20 top Japanese CEOs with whom he wants to work and routinely asks his clients if they can provide referrals to anyone on it. Even high-powered CEOs stand to add a few million dollars to their bottom lines with his services, Zen believes.

"There are a lot of hardworking people in Japan, but what's missing is the intention to achieve," he said, sounding more like Howard every day. "Japan is world-class when it comes to manufacturing technology, but now white-collar management technology has to be imported and used."

A few days later Zen and I met again -- this time for sushi at a Tokyo station. We were looking for a restaurant that's famous for enforcing turnover by requiring patrons to order two pieces every three minutes. Unable to find the place, we inquired at a corner police station. The cops hadn't heard of it, which made Zen mad.

"There was a time when the police took pride in this kind of neighborhood knowledge and made it their mission to help people," he said. "Maybe these guys can buy my service."

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.) and a contributing writer at Inc. His favorite blue shirt has too much white in it, according to an up-and-coming Japanese management coach.

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Published on: Feb 1, 2002