Sony Ex-CEO Idei Thinks He Didn't Make Any Mistakes

Photographer: Tom Wagner/Corbis

Nobuyuki Idei, shown with the Aibo robot dog in 2000, wants to help Japanese startups get off the ground. Close

Nobuyuki Idei, shown with the Aibo robot dog in 2000, wants to help Japanese startups get off the ground.

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Photographer: Tom Wagner/Corbis

Nobuyuki Idei, shown with the Aibo robot dog in 2000, wants to help Japanese startups get off the ground.

During a visit last week to his swanky, glass-walled office in Tokyo's Roppongi neighborhood, Nobuyuki Idei said his tenure as Sony CEO had taught him at least one thing: Innovation doesn't come from the big guys.

Midway through the second act of a long, long career, the 75-year-old who described himself as the "Steven Spielberg'' of Japan's venture capital world reeled off a bewildering list of projects that he sponsors as head of his company, Quantum Leaps: a hedge fund for rich Japanese families, an entrepreneur's forum, a design company and a new seed fund that's looking to raise a few hundred million dollars from some of Japan's corporate giants.

Delusions of grandeur aside, the goal is a worthy one: to help get some venture companies off the ground in a country that ranks behind Ghana and Tanzania in terms of the ease of launching a business, according to the World Bank. Startup funding in Japan was $1.2 billion in 2012, compared with $27 billion in the U.S., figures from research firms show.

"We want to transform Japanese corporations and Japanese society, because after Sony and Honda, no big companies have been born except retailers,” he said.

During his tenure at Sony, Idei was often criticized for being long on abstraction and short on execution -- he came up with the slogan "digital dream kids" and then was slow to shift Sony into flat panel TVs -- but he's still philosophizing.

He touched on everything from the difficulty Japanese entrepreneurs have in finding investors to rogue economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s obscure theories on technology cycles. Most surprising, he said he had no regrets about his stewardship at Sony.

"I don’t think I made any mistakes," he said. "From the beginning I was just a company employee at Sony. I never dreamed that I would be the CEO of the Sony Corporation, but becoming a CEO is like riding a roller coaster. You have ups and downs; negative press is inevitable."

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