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Samurai entrepreneur matches global corporations with local influencers

His Singapore startup expects to have 400 employees by year-end

Kosuke Sogo started his own marketing agency when he realized information technology was about to conquer emerging Asian economies.

TOKYO -- Kosuke Sogo, the descendant of a high-ranking 16th century Sengoku samurai, is always ready to do battle. Ever since he graduated from university, he has been keen to expand his sales territory and take market share from his competitors.

His boss from his first job remembers being surprised at how quickly Sogo moved. "At first I thought he was just talking big," his old boss said. "But he was able to take action and could really sniff out opportunities."

Sogo, 30, is now the co-founder and CEO of the 2-year-old AnyMind Group, a fast-growing company based in Singapore that plays matchmaker between social media influencers and global corporations.

The rapid riser actually thought about starting his own business right out of college but gave up on the idea because he did not want to miss out on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of being recruited out of university.

Upon graduating, he went to work for MicroAd, an online company based in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. He was assigned to the company's newly set-up direct marketing section. "I will achieve four times the sales target," he would tell his boss every month, "so can you give me a raise?"

In eight months, Sogo's section became the company's key revenue source. Not only was Sogo the best-performer, he was bringing in nearly twice as much as the No. 2 salesperson.

Sogo realized that many new companies fresh off successful fundraising rounds want to spend on advertising. His strategy was to obtain information on such companies quickly, then get in touch with these potential customers before any of his competitors did. 

Successful marketing, Sogo realized, is a matter of when and where.

In his third year with MicroAd, Sogo was sent overseas to help set up units in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. "Sogo was able to quickly get things off the ground," said Otohiko Kozutsumi, who would go on to co-found AnyMind with Sogo. "And in only 10 months, he had the business running in the black."

Sogo had risen to be a senior executive at MicroAd when he realized that information technology was going to conquer emerging Asian economies. He knew it was time to move on.

So in 2016 and at the age of 29, Sogo launched a precursor to AnyMind. He chose to base it in Singapore, known for the welcome mat it rolls out for new businesses and a geographic location that makes it easy to expand into the rest of Southeast Asia.

AnyMind has matched airlines, foodmakers and myriad other kinds of corporations with influencers, people who have built large social media audiences.

The agency uses its pan-Asian operations to attract orders from big global players. The young business quickly blew by 1 billion yen ($9.47 million) in annual sales, a threshold that says a startup has achieved liftoff.

Today, the company has annual sales of 2.8 billion yen.

AnyMind has also expanded into Japan.

It is not easy to break into Japan's advertising market, but AnyMind pushed what Sogo calls "good, old-style" marketing practices and won orders from All Nippon Airways, sweets maker Ezaki Glico and other well-known companies.

For many entrepreneurs, fundraising is a big challenge. And it is one Sogo initially decided to forgo. He was confident enough in his business model that he did not feel it necessary to seek financial support.

Nevertheless, Jafco Investment (Asia Pacific), Gunosy and other investors offered funding to AnyMind, and Sogo has accepted about 1.5 billion yen. He said he appreciates the value these investors have placed in his company.

Sogo's strength -- a personality that allows him to make things happen fast -- has attracted talent, too. Jun Ogawa, who set up a marketing team for Google Japan, now heads up AnyMind's Japan operations. Akinori Nishiyama, a former MicroAd executive, is now AnyMind's chief human resource officer.

Sogo says he makes "many mistakes but I'm naturally superpositive and feel things will turn better."

His major concern right now is the large number of employees he suddenly has. Startup founders often feel some anxiety when they realize their companies have grown to such a size that they no longer know all of their employees. At 2-year-old AnyMind, this concern is compounded by the fact that Sogo's more than 270 employees are spread over 11 locations in 10 countries. Overseeing this workforce is becoming more and more difficult. And Sogo expects the head count to surpass 400 by the end of the year.

Sogo often visits three of these countries in a week. He'll hang around the office just to spend time with his employees. He often walks back to the office after a business dinner to exchange opinions with local managers. On weekends, he camps out in the office to explore future strategies.

One near-term goal is to take his company public. "I want to raise our company one step up," he said.

For inspiration, he looks to China's Alibaba Holding and Tencent Holdings, whose business strategies and corporate cultures he admires.

"My principle," he said, "is to finish what I start and not give up until I achieve my goal."

He sounds a bit like a samurai.

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