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 Francisco?

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 as partners.

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 receiving?

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 different genres.

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 think?

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 TechWatch.

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