From Japan start-ups
to start-ups of the world: An interview with 500 Startups’ Marvin Liao
by Satoru Naito
This time we had an
interview with Marvin Liao, who is a partner of one of the most well-known
accelerators in North America – 500 Startups. 500 Startups is an accelerator
program wherein startups from Japan like WHILL, Unda, and Appsocially were able
to participate. We were able to ask about the kind of support 500 Startups
offers, the important factors that they consider before choosing their participants,
and the reasons behind their setting up of a new batch in San Francisco.
An accelerator that’s more
international than any other
Q: Batch 8 was held
for the first time in San Francisco. Up until today, it is being held in
Mountain View. What was the intention of setting up the new batch in San
From the beginning,
our goal was to create great startups through our program. This time, in order
to reach that goal, we gambled a little. Not limited to Silicon Valley, San
Francisco has many great teams there and of course we thought of having many of
those talented people participate. Today the 500 Startups program has become
international with many people from overseas participating. For those people,
San Francisco is a city with easy access. This is a place in Silicon Valley
that will not lose to Mountain View, and that is what makes it charming.
Q: During the
selection, what kind of basis do you have for the teams you select?
We look at many
things. Most of all, the team! I think that the team is the number one most
important factor. In the struggle to achieve their goal, to find that
suitable balance in a team is fascinating. Having a founder from a business
background is not important. Of course we look at the business potential, but
it’s even better to see whether the business is the real thing with proof of
traction. The user numbers, growth rate of amounts sold, sales growth, and
whether or not it can be acquired are all things that we look at and stress on
Q: As I thought,
creating traction is an important point right?
A lot of start-ups
have a lot of ideas that they carry. Of course we cannot complain against the
businesses of those teams with 1M or 2M downloads with a monthly sales of $500,000.
Traction is being able to prove that you are the real thing by solving
problems, that’s the number one way of doing it. Even with a few number of
users, if they are able to pay money that’s a great thing. The signal is seeing
that there’s value in responding to problems.
Q: For those teams
participating in the 500 Startups batch, what kind of support will they be
For those teams that
are participating per batch, more than 200 people will be able to have access
to mentors. With each one having their own specialty, be it in UX/UI professional,
technology, marketing, or fundraising; these people have a lot of
experience in different areas and that covers a lot of ground. From user
acquisition to the different methods of setting up a start-up, you can ask
advice about many different things. With these kinds of specialists in our
network, teams who participate in the program that 500 offers will have access
to that at any time. However, we are not limiting it to only those in Silicon
Valley, we are also building our network around the world.
Also, we are able to
help out whether it be having excellent sales or recruiting people with skills
or talent. In addition, one of our weapons is the Distribution Team that we
have. Whether it be knowledge on customer or user acquisition, without a doubt,
we will be able to help out there. With no exaggeration, the distribution team
that 500 Startups has is our biggest selling point. Even if you have the best
product, not knowing how to sell or how to expand leads to nothing. In order
for that not to happen, the 500 is there to support with all our capabilities.
Q: Around how many
investors will be able to participate in Batch 8’s demo day?
For Batch 8’s demo day,
more than 300 investors will be participating. Although Batch 7 had a
significantly large number as well, Batch 8 will be the biggest group of
investors to participate to date.
Q: What is the
difference between 500 Startups and other accelerator programs?
Several accelerators have a specific focus, such as mobile or hardware, which
are very narrow areas. On the other hand, we are able to accept start-ups of
Also, our biggest
difference is that we are more international than any other accelerator
program. We accept participants from overseas who participate actively
and we take great care in having that diversity. We have a lot of female
founders too. And as I mentioned before, our focus on distribution is one of
our special features.
Q: There are a number
of Japanese start-ups that want to expand globally and they are thinking of
advancing by stepping into the American
market. However, they have the impression that they will have a tougher time
since they don’t have enough connections in the US. They also have a language
barrier. Does this mean that 500 Startups is a more suitable program for those
teams? What do you think?
I agree. Joining the 500 is an efficient way of expanding your business
globally. In a moment, you can get connected to a lot of networks. And as I
mentioned previously, you can access the knowledge of specialists from around
the world. Also, those from AppSocially, which was a participating team from
Japan that was aiming for the American market, felt the appeal of our program.
Their mindset was amazing.
However, I think that
for Japanese people, conquering English is indeed a challenge. If I were to
launch a product in China, my not being able to understand Chinese becomes a
disadvantage for me.
Q: If I wanted to
create a business that customers around the world would be able to use, would
it be more advantageous to start it in the Bay Area or Japan first? What do you
In my opinion, if you
wanted to start a global business, I don’t think that coming to the Bay Area is
something that needs to be done by all teams. Participating in our program is
very useful for global expansion, but I don’t think that coming here is a
requirement for those teams.
First of all, I think
that settling down and truly understanding your own business is
important. Having a B2C or B2B business are completely different things.
In my opinion, I think that having a service from Japan and expanding it on a
global scale is really difficult. On one hand, the B2B context is completely
different. Carrying out your business in Europe or in the US will definitely
lead to changes in your business. Right now, we have the amazing SaaS software
which is growing in Europe, Russia, Asia, and of course, in the US as well. However, in order to understand the cultural sphere of the customers, starting
out in a diverse country like the US is not a bad thing.
Q: Do you have any
tips on how we can break through and get selected in the program?
Filling up the Angel
List and application form correctly is something I want to stress on. There are
start-ups that cannot properly explain what they are engaging in or aiming to
do. Also, creating good relationships between the teams participating in the
500 Startups program is something we already put importance to. Getting
introduced to us by saying “That guy, I know him. He is a really great founder,” is a really useful way of finding good
teams. However, getting that introduction does not guarantee that you will be
selected. Other candidates also have a chance of standing out more as well.
Q: Do you plan to
expand your accelerator program to other cities or countries?
For now we just
expanded to San Francisco. We don’t know yet, but for our founder Dave, he is
already doing that proactively. He has already started a new batch outside the
country - in Mexico. Counting in Mountain View, San Francisco, and Mexico; that
becomes a total of 3 places. Even with just that we’re extremely busy now
(laughs). However, we want to expand our community even more. With mentors from
Japan, Korea, and around the world; we envision to expand that way.
Applying to the
500Startups Accelerator Program can be done here.
This article and picture is provided by
TechWatch. Article is translated in English by TechShake with approval from
You can refer to the original below Here.