I have gone through some challenging times earlier in my career. My advice — that I constantly follow myself — is to always try new things to reach your goal. Use technology, use branding, find something different from your competitor. Find your “thing” that’s truly yours. Something others can never duplicate successfully. Also, keep in mind that there’s no such thing as failure, you can pick yourself back up and learn from it. Successful people have always failed…it’s what you do next is what separates those who succeed and those who don’t.
I had the pleasure of interviewing, Taka Tanaka, CEO of AUTEC, a commercial sushi robot company. Before graduating from Pitzer Liberal Arts College in 2005 and founding AUTEC USA and Canada, Taka immersed himself in the non-profit world by supporting American and South American communities through educational and business training programs. Prior to AUTEC, he worked in the Japanese food and beverage industry that began his passion to share with the world Japan’s food culture. Taka began as a sales representative of AUTEC Japan, then established a demand in the U.S. market which turned the brand around by increasing overall revenues of more than 500%. This success lead to the founding and 100% share of AUTEC USA (then AUTEC Canada in 2018), followed by the creation the company’s most popular sushi robot, ASM865A, a rice sheet maker for sushi rolls, sushi burrito, and sushi pizza. Taka still carries a passion for the non-profit world and continues his efforts through participation in movements such as One Young World.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! My journey began when I came to the United States in order to attend college 18 years ago. I knew instantly that I’d like to live here but didn’t have a clear direction of my career goals yet. It wasn’t until after I worked at American non-profits that helped others achieve their goals and worked with the family business to realize what I wanted to do in life. I thought to myself, Japan has so much to offer the world…I need to make it my mission to spread Japanese culture with products that can help people achieve their goals. That’s when I began working at AUTEC and knew sushi robot would be the way.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When we first introduced our sushi robots to the American market, we didn’t get the reaction and results that we had hoped for. One of the first challenges we faced was the rice and rice equipment. American short grain rice and rice cookers were so different from Japan, our sushi robots weren’t producing quality rice balls or sheet/rolls as it should have been. Another challenge we faced was that back in 2005, there wasn’t as many entrepreneurs interested in carrying sushi as it was a specialty cuisine. They believed only a veteran sushi chef could succeed in serving such a delicate traditional dish. We had to figure how to overcome these hurdles if we were going to last in the U.S. and I knew it could be done but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My dream of spreading my country’s cuisine and my passion to help people succeed. I knew the restaurant industry would benefit from this technological solution and it was my job to show them the way. I was also determined to do this the right way by respecting the tradition of sushi and that’s always been our company motto.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
With much determination, I engrossed myself in the American food service industry by working closely with restaurant owners. I was there every step of the way from dealing with general-contractors, public health inspectors, and building inspectors to connecting them with distributors, restaurant designers, food suppliers, and real-estate agencies. This helped me understand what their needs and concerns were on top of acquiring invaluable lessons and knowledge.
We worked with Japan to solve the rice and rice cooker challenge. Since AUTEC was born from Audio Technica, the company had technological resources on-site to do scientific research for the robots to produce the best possible sushi using ingredients and methods available in America.
A combination of problem solving, restructuring the distribution system, a new strategy of adding in branding and marketing (which was an opposite strategic direction from Japan and our competitors) I was able to bring the company back from a 7-year revenue loss.
Side note — I also believe that the technology of iPhones assisted in the continued success of AUTEC and changed the business, in a positive way. It made me reassess how things could be sold, how to utilize the internet and how to capture the public’s attention.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
I’m doing great today, thanks for asking!
As for our business, we continue to raise our expectations for success each year and reach them. But we know this won’t last forever as the world changes. We make it a point to keep track of how the restaurant industry’s way of business changes with technologies like AI and smart systems.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was young and I thought in order to get as many sales as possible, I should speak with owners from every popular restaurant category in America. One of those were Mexican restaurants. The conversation on how our robots could help their restaurant really turned comical when they thought our rice sheet maker could help aid in making tortillas or if our rollers can roll tortillas to make taquitos. In concept I guess it made sense for them to assume this when they looked at this strange looking machine. I realized that I should slow down and do my homework before blazing into the world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We not only look at who could be our clients but also look at who could be our partners even if we aren’t in the same industry. If these partners have the same goal to spread Japanese culture around the world, I know we would be able to create a partnership that’s successful. I believe this is a different way of thinking in this business. We look out for one another.
Through our relationships, we’ve been able to partner in amazing events such as Summit LA18. This is an event that I know our competitors would never think to take part in as it’s not your traditional B2B attendees. However, we believe it’s important not just for business owners to understand that AUTEC robots makes delicious sushi, but for the public to accept this technological way of producing sushi by experiencing it themselves. This way of thinking outside the box is what makes us different.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I have gone through some challenging times earlier in my career. My advice — that I constantly follow myself — is to always try new things to reach your goal. Use technology, use branding, find something different from your competitor. Find your “thing” that’s truly yours. Something others can never duplicate successfully.
Also, keep in mind that there’s no such thing as failure, you can pick yourself back up and learn from it. Successful people have always failed…it’s what you do next is what separates those who succeed and those who don’t.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Audio Technica’s CEO, Kazuo Matsushita. He taught me to give everyone a chance, even though in society’s standards, they’re not “qualified” to bring great ideas. Our brand began in Tokyo Japan as an audio-equipment manufacturer with a focus on phonograph needles. As the company faced a rapid adoption of digital technology in the music industry, we had to act fast. We had to figure out a new strategic direction within the capacity of our manufacturing. That’s where Mr. Matsushita had the idea to hold an employee contest. He thought it would be good for moral and believed this method would drive employees to be invested in the chosen product to succeed. He was right. The outcome was a home use sushi maker which its popularity lead to the beginning of commercial sushi robots. Till this day, we keep this tradition and encourage our employees to think outside the box. You never know what will come out of it!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve been in this business for close to 14 years and have seen all the challenges people face and the solutions to help solve it. I have used this experience and knowledge to give the support our customers need to turn their dreams into reality.
I encourage my staff to do the same. We don’t just sell a product to businesses. We’re their support group, their confidant; we want them to succeed and we will use everything we have to do so.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Branding is important:
In the beginning all I worried about was the cash flow because I believed that was the only thing I should be concerned with as a B2B company. It wasn’t. As I learned from my mentor, you’ve got to have a solid vision on how you want your company to be seen as. Have the right messaging that’s in line with your brand. Always ask yourself from product design to customer service, does this represent the brand the way I envisioned it?
2. Create that demand:
When I first began in the U.S., the plan was to sell what was popular in Japan. I quickly learned that was a mistake. What I should have done was market research…figure out what the American food service needs were and create that demand. I even changed the design of the sushi robots geared towards the American market senses.
3. You can’t do this alone:
As a leader of a company your job is to create the vision of the company. Leave the details to your staff, that’s why you hired them. I wanted to manage both the cash flow and the vision of the company. Then one day my sales manager said to me, “You have to trust me to make sure the business will move to success or I don’t know why I’m here.” He was right. That’s another lesson to learn to succeed as a leader, you need humility. You’re not always going to be right and that’s ok. It’s what you do with that information is what matters.
4. Believe in your ideas:
Don’t ever let naysayers crush what you truly believe in. I faced challenges with Japan in the beginning on how to move forward in the American market. They didn’t like the change and they didn’t understand. I gave in and moved forward as instructed but eventually I pushed back. Because I took this chance is how I turned around the 7-year loss.
5. Ignite passion:
When I introduced the idea of re-designing our sushi robots to fit the American market, the engineers in Japan weren’t too enthusiastic about it. They believed in their product design and rightfully so, it was perfect for the Japanese market. I needed them understand why a change in design was necessary and why this would create a demand for the American market. In order to do this, I knew I had to somehow ignite the passion in my engineers to create this new sushi robot by thinking outside the box.
I decided the way to accomplish this was to get them out of the office, into a plane and experience first-hand the challenges the American food service industry faced. I believed that by having the engineers speak with the customers directly, they would feel compassion towards the customer’s challenges and initiate the desire to help them. After the trip, the engineers understood, and they made it their mission to design a sushi robot that the American market would want and need.
Without igniting passion like this, you won’t get needle moving results.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe there’s a gap between Japan and seafood sustainability in the sushi industry. I’d like to fill that gap by joining forces with unlikely industries like fashion, art and music while still preserving our tradition. I believe it will take something different like partnering with art industry for people to pay attention and make that change. What that movement is, I haven’t quite figured out but I’m working on it!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@autecsushirobots is where I live for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me! This was a fun experience.