Looking to Initiate a Game Change and Drive a Global Launch Unlike Anything Seen In the Past 10 Years—Meet Mercari’s Leaders, Vol. 6: Shunsuke Sako (Vice President of Cross Border)

“My job is not to make improvements, but to change the game.”

Shunsuke Sako (@sakoshun), Mercari’s Vice President of Cross Border, does not need to pause when he answers the question, “What do you think management’s role is?” As someone who has kept the goal of “changing the structure of society for the better” close to his heart throughout his career and continued to take on global-scale challenges, why did he choose Mercari as his base of operations for taking on new challenges? In his eyes, the role of management is to “change the game,” but what exactly does this mean? In this volume of the Meet Mercari’s Leaders series, we sat down with Shunsuke to ask him about the lessons his career has taught him and the business he aims to launch going forward.

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  • Shunsuke Sako

    In 2008, after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Shunsuke joined Mitsubishi Corporation. Following this, he joined Motherhouse Co. Ltd., where he launched new businesses and established the company’s bases overseas. In April 2014, he was appointed Representative Director & CEO of Minit Asia Pacific Co., Ltd. where he oversaw the launch of Mister Minit businesses in six APAC region countries. After serving as a Management Advisor for Unison Capital, Inc., he entered Mercari as a Vice President in November 2021 and was appointed Vice President of Cross Border in June 2023.

Establishing a foothold for the creation of a global marketplace with our crossborder project

— Could you tell us about the areas that you manage?

Sure. So, my mission is to turn Mercari into a global marketplace. In order to accomplish this, I’m now working on the global launch of our product through crossborder sales in my role as the Vice President of Cross Border.

For those readers who may not know, crossborder is a business that allows users located overseas to purchase items listed on Mercari. Mercari started our crossborder sales initiative in 2019, and since then the transaction amounts originating overseas have grown tremendously.

As a result of our past initiatives, GMV (gross merchandise value) has grown steadily, and we’ve seen that there are a lot of users around the world who are drawn to Mercari’s listings. We’ve seen very large transaction amounts in some countries and regions where I think it’s safe to say the potential for launching Mercari’s service is high. In this way, getting to know the markets and acquiring a user base through crossborder sales will give us knowledge that we can leverage when we eventually launch C2C businesses overseas. In other words, we believe that promoting crossborder projects will give us a foothold in creating a global marketplace.

Feeling ill-equipped as a member of Motherhouse management

— I understand that you have a consistent record of tackling the challenge of taking companies global. Could you walk us through some of the ups and downs you’ve experienced along your career path?

My drive for creating global businesses is something I’ve had since I was in university. I studied sociology at UCLA, which is where I started to think about how I wanted to improve the structure of our society. Early in my studies, I was aiming to become a sociologist, but I felt that business would probably allow me to have a bigger impact on society, and so I decided that I would look for work at a private company after graduation.

There was just one problem: UCLA’s graduation ceremony was in the summer, so I had nearly half a year before I would be able to join a company in Japan. This is when a friend of mine approached me and talked me into taking an internship at Motherhouse. Motherhouse had only been in business for about a year at the time, and there was only one employee. However, the company had a very ambitious vision: “Create a globally accepted brand originating in the developing world.” The organization was serious about making society better through business. I was smitten with the company after reading the blog of company CEO Eriko Yamaguchi, and I worked at Motherhouse as a full-time intern for about half a year.

Following that, I joined Mitsubishi Corporation as a new graduate. But I could not tear my mind away from the time I had spent working at Motherhouse, so I decided to return to the company. After I rejoined Motherhouse, I made the rounds of pretty much every possible avenue of experience of the retail industry: Business, marketing, finances, accounting, payroll, and sales; I did it all. One experience in particular that left an impression on me was when we created stores from scratch by ourselves. I apprenticed under a carpenter to learn their trade, drew up designs, bought the wood, put in the flooring, and installed the fixtures and furniture. In total, I built 15 retail spaces from scratch.

We worked late every night, feeling elated about our work and telling each other what our company would look like in three years time, in five years time; every day was like a party. What’s more, we also had a very tangible sense that we were making society better. We heard from one of our employees at the Bangladesh plant that before they joined Motherhouse, they were forced to do backbreaking labor. But since joining they now had regular days off, their salary had increased, and they were able to send their kids to school. Another said that joining Motherhouse changed their life. This confirmed for me that the existence of Motherhouse was changing society for the better.

— You say the work was fun and socially relevant. So then, why leave a company that you felt so passionate about?

The biggest factor was my own sense of feeling ill-equipped as a member of management. Out of the five years that I was employed at Motherhouse, I spent my last two years working in Taiwan as the company’s representative to launch our stores there. I worked hard for a solid two years to get our stores more or less up and running, but then I came to the realization that we still hadn’t accomplished our goal to create a globally recognized brand originating in the developing world.

Unfortunately, five years after all those late nights when my colleagues and I had shared our vision of what the company was supposed to look like in five years, we had fallen short. However, Motherhouse had not been wrong to conduct the business we were doing. It occurred to me that if the brand had not gotten off the ground, I didn’t have what it took to expand a company globally, and so I decided to change jobs to work at a company that would give me the experience I needed to do just that.

Figuring out how to change the game is the role of management

— After your time at Motherhouse, you joined Minit Asia Pacific, which runs Mister Minit, a comprehensive repair business that offers shoe repair, key cutting, and other services, correct?

That’s right. A friend of mine introduced me to a private equity fund, and I joined to take on the role of overseas manager at Minit Asia Pacific, which was part of the investment group of the PE fund; I was tasked with revitalizing the overseas arm of the business.

Immediately after I joined the company, I worked on revitalizing the Australia and New Zealand businesses as well as the Singapore and Malaysia businesses. After I gained that experience, I returned to Japan to work on revitalizing the Japan business too. At first, I worked as a division manager. But then, I learned that I couldn’t revitalize the business with only the types of improvements I was expected to make as division manager, so I negotiated with the fund that controlled the company and told them, “In order to truly change the company, I’d like to be made company president.” And so, a year after I had joined the company, I assumed the position of CEO of the entire group.

I’d say that the first six months of the job were grueling. I was just 29 years old at the time, and I had no experience being a company CEO, so there was no shortage of blowback internally either. However, I managed to make some inroads with the leadership working on the ground, and a year after I became the company representative, the situation at the company had improved. In my second year on the job, we managed to sell the business without any problems.

The experience I acquired in those two years shaped my approach as management. At the time I had two mentors. The first was Tatsuo Kawasaki, a shareholder and representative of the Unison Capital PE fund. The second one was Takashi Sawada, a former Vice President of Fast Retailing.

I still vividly remember the approach I learned from them as management professionals. They told me that the role of a manager is not to resolve issues and make improvements, but rather to change the game.

Mr. Sawada used the example of Uniqlo CEO Mr. Yanai to contextualize his lesson for me. Uniqlo used to be a company that existed on the outskirts of cities and sold bargain-priced clothing. However, when the company started selling fleece, they took the opportunity to blow the lid off their sales revenues. They brought down their unit prices by adopting the SPA (Specialty store retailer of Private label Apparel) business model and by mass producing a small product line, and then they launched stores not in the outskirts, but rather in city centers. All of these changes were ideas that differed from what Uniqlo had done up until that point. Mr. Yanai implemented unprecedented strategies, and in three years these changes grew the business tenfold and established Uniqlo’s position as a company that could compete globally.

I think that this is precisely what the role of management is. Improving daily operations is also important, but doing nothing more than that means the only future in store for a company is the current path that company is on. More than anything, this exhausts the employees on the ground. What management should do is not just try to make improvements to the status quo, but rather change the game itself. As a result of having this mindset in my role as management, we were able to greatly improve both business performance and growth expectations, so that we could sell Minit Asia Pacific in two years.

Taking a clear step toward becoming a global marketplace

— So with all this in mind, what made you decide to join Mercari?

After we sold the business, I stayed on as CEO. However, I started to feel like I wanted to do more to pursue my passion for working on global-minded projects.

That’s when I remembered my old friend Shintaro (Shintaro Yamada, Mercari, Inc. Representative Executive Officer and CEO). Even before he founded Mercari, Shintaro had advocated for a service that could be used globally, and Mercari was earnestly charging ahead with that goal in mind. I thought, if I work there, I’ll be able to commit fully to creating a global business, and so I decided to join Mercari.

— The area that you’re working on now is specifically for building a global business. What is your vision for the crossborder project? Where do you see it in a few years’ time?

Through the crossborder project, I’d like to get Mercari to the point where we can proudly say that we’re starting to look like a global marketplace. And what this means is that we’re getting closer to the idea Shintaro had when he established the company of people in Africa being able to purchase items located in Japan with a single tap. This won’t just involve our company expanding overseas, but rather will include forming partnerships with overseas companies and even acquiring others. I would like us to extend to the world the value circulation that we are engaged in here in Japan by pursuing our mission without trying to select any one method of expansion.

Also for this reason I intend to hold the position of Vice President of Cross Border while steadfastly fulfilling my role as management. Over the past ten years, Mercari’s global launches have consisted of starting businesses in places like the US and the UK. I personally believe that what is demanded of me is more than just executing our business strategies and making a few minor improvements to our business. My job is to create strategies that are completely different from anything we’ve ever done before and to initiate disruptive change that is far beyond imagining. As management, I want to be constantly mindful of how I can initiate a game change going forward.

— Finally, tell me about the types of people you would like to work with to realize this vision.

I know I’ve already said this a few times, but I want to work with people who want to change the game. In the context of Mercari’s values, you could say that the ideal Mercari member is a Go Bold person. If we really want to achieve Mercari’s mission, we can’t stick with the same path that we’ve been on for the past ten years. At some point, a game change is crucial. I’d be happy to work with colleagues who can and want to do this.

Bonus content: My Mercari hacks!

I have a garden at home where I grow figs, raspberries, blueberries, and other fruit as well. I like using Mercari to buy rare seeds that you don’t normally find at home improvement centers or gardening centers. I think one of the great things about Mercari is that it’s a platform where you can buy and sell items like fig tree saplings that have small but passionate fanbases. Currently, I have 25 varieties of figs and about ten varieties of raspberries, but in the future, I plan to grow more seedlings and list them on Mercari.

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