DK SugiyamaPresident & CEO, ILI Inc.
Global Business Producer 日本語
Invest in yourself in your 20s; invest in your network in your 30s; grow your business in your 40s.That’s DK Sugiyama’s recipe for success.The network you make along the way is a priceless resource to build your business and reach new heights in your career.
Global Business Producer
Born 1979 in Tokyo. Raised in New York, Sugiyama started his first business at the age of 19 and graduated from the Keio University Faculty of Policy Management. He later completed his MBA at the Keio Business School. As editor-in-chief of the interview series My Philosophy, he has met with industry leaders and executives for over a decade. Sugiyama is also the editor-in-chief of DOers, a digital platform that features interviews with high-performing businesspeople. He is the author of The Courage to Take Action: The First Step to a Future You Never Imagined Possible (Forest Publishing), Move Your Luck (Discover 21), and DDDD: Do, Do, Do, Do (Jiyukokuminsha). He has licenses to ride a motorcycle and operate a first-class small craft. Sugiyama is a busy father of four—three boys and one girl—and a global business producer who works with individuals to maximize their potential in the market, providing guidance and support while sharing the joys and returns of building a successful business. Vigorous, speedy, energetic, and global—these are all descriptors for Sugiyama’s approach to life and business.
2020 marks a pivotal year with corporate rebranding
In 2007, I founded Interliteracy, Inc. to solve communication problems. While “literacy” generally refers to reading and writing, it can also refer to extracting, synthesizing, and utilizing vital information. Many different types of literacy exist today and include things like financial literacy, environmental literacy, and information literacy.
The word “inter” means “mutual,” and I decided to build my company Interliteracy around the concept of growing a business with a strong identity and sound expertise by connecting literacies from different fields.
In July 2020, we rebranded as ILI.inc, short for INTER LITERACY INSTITUTE, to mark our transformation into an organization ready for full-scale overseas expansion from our headquarters in Japan. When I launched Interliteracy in 2007, I was so busy with the work itself that I didn’t have time to define a corporate philosophy. But at ILI, our mission is clear: “Do the Right Thing.” Since the very beginning, I’ve always put the client first and tried to do right by them.
As the word “institute” implies, ILI is a strategic research collective that uses creativity for research and execution in marketing, management, and new business development.
A head start in business at the age of 19
I was born in Tokyo but lived in New York from the ages of three to sixteen due to my father’s work. In 1995, shortly after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, we returned to Japan, and I enrolled in Tokyo Gakugei University-affiliated Oizumi High School.
After that, I went on to study at the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University, and at the age of 19, I started an educational consultancy with my former high school teacher. That marked the start of my business career. I continued to work two jobs until I graduated university, attending classes during the day and then going into the office in the evening, where I’d work until the last train.
I had always wanted to get my MBA, and I wanted to get proper management training, so after university, I enrolled in Keio University’s Graduate School of Business Administration (Keio Business School).
From 22 to 24, I was so busy with school and work that I never got more than three hours of sleep a night. Plus, I got married at 22, and my first son was born the following year, so I was really burning the candle at both ends. That said, I owe so much of my success in life to my wife. Her hard work and unwavering support are what helped me get through two difficult years of graduate school.
After completing my MBA, I established Interliteracy and took on all manner of business. In 2007, I started My Philosophy, a website and online interview series with opinion leaders about their values and beliefs. I built it to give readers insights into how these successful people have designed their lives. 99 people have appeared in the series to date, including world-leading architect Kengo Kuma, professional golfer Isao Aoki, Japanese Nihonga painter Hiroshi Senju, professional skier Yuichiro Miura, fashion designer Don Konishi, OMRON chairman Fumio Tateishi, and TAKIHYO chairman emeritus Tomio Taki.
Their life lessons and stories of hardship and success taught me the six powerful traits of high performers, which I presented as a TEDx talk and discussed in my third book, DDDD: Do, Do, Do, Do (Jiyukokuminsha). Each of these interviews has been a valuable experience that has allowed me to engage with leaders at the forefront of their respective fields.
Since 2018, I’ve also been the editor-in-chief of DOers, an online interview platform focused on business leaders in their thirties and forties.
I also started a new manga series Do-chan, which is currently available on note.com, a popular Japanese content streaming platform. It began as an idea with my friend and business associate Yohei Sadoshima to create a manga that both children and adults could enjoy. The story tells the importance of taking the initiative, which is synonymous with my outlook on life. We’ve also started selling merchandise based on the main character, Do-chan (seen above).
As the Japanese proverb goes: “Peach and chestnut seeds take three years to bear fruit; persimmons take eight.” And DK Sugiyama? He takes ten.
I worked at fever pitch throughout my twenties. Over the years, I’ve thought of my work in terms of bricklaying. Each job is a brick in the groundwork of my career, crafted and laid with exceptional care. A job well done leads to trust, so the more bricks you lay, the stronger your foundation becomes.
In your 20s and 30s, you’re building the foundation of your business—the trunk of your career tree, if you will. I owe my success to the groundwork that I laid back then. Even when things got hard and I couldn’t pay the bills, I never gave up or ran away. I would always remind myself of the Japanese proverb, “Peach and chestnut seeds take three years to bear fruit. Persimmons take eight.” And I’d say to myself, “It’s gonna take me ten.”
Midlife misery: Depression at forty
A life-changing experience I had at forty made me decide to change gears and transform my company. I suddenly became keenly aware that I had entered the second half of my life. But I never thought that someone like me could become depressed. Like the mighty tuna, which never stops swimming, I have a personality that never quits. I was someone who ran at life headfirst, touting mottos like “Do, Do, Do & Do” and “Do it now, do it relentlessly, do it until you make it.”
It was only when I turned 39 that I began to feel tired. I didn’t know how to rest, and before I knew it, the fatigue had built up and pushed me over the edge. In February 2019, I collapsed at home and lost consciousness, probably due to exhaustion from my busy schedule. My wife panicked and called an ambulance, but I refused to get in because of a big pitch I had that day. As you might expect, my big pitch went terribly and the deal didn’t happen.
I never did pass out again after that, but I was far from my usual energetic self. Hospital tests proved inconclusive, and with a clean bill of health, I was left with only the shock that I had collapsed. I would suddenly feel faint on the subway. I couldn’t get up in the morning and couldn’t sleep at night. My circadian rhythm was completely thrown off. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me: my face was pale and my eyes were lifeless. Until then, I had always lived in the moment, working hard on whatever was in front of me—to the detriment of my health. So even though I was fine physically, my mental health had deteriorated.
Even thoughts of suicide
Ever since I was in my early thirties, I’d been told that if I kept on going the way I was, that I’d suffer from depression someday. Friends said that detail-oriented individuals like me were more likely to become depressed, concerns that I would promptly dismiss and laugh off. But when I started suffering from depression, I realized that they were right. And at the same time, I was utterly stunned. It was as if someone had run through me with a knife. They say that if a man is stabbed, the wound itself may not kill him, but the shock of it will. That’s how serious mental damage can be.
I would wake up at three in the morning, unable to get out of bed until midday. I’d just lay there on my phone, searching the web for information on depression and watching videos of other people who were suffering. Even when my phone battery was down to 1%, I couldn’t muster the energy to go plug it in, even when the charger was right there. They say that you should listen to cheerful music when you are depressed, but that didn’t help at all.
Until then, I had never boarded a flight and thought to myself, “I hope the plane goes down.” But when I was depressed, I genuinely wanted my plane to crash and burn. Once when I was looking out of a skyscraper window during a meeting, I even thought about jumping. I thought that might solve my problem. In the end, I was depressed and immobile for nearly eight months. I do not doubt that my children felt anxious around me, and a gloomy aura hung about our home.
Saved by a fellow parent
At one of the lowest points of my depression, I managed to make it outside for a walk near my house one morning when an old lady cleaning a local temple called out to me: “Good morning!
Have a good day!” The sincerity of her greeting cut me like a knife, and no joke, I thought to myself, “Saying hello to people is so nice.” The Japanese word for greeting, aisatsu, literally means to open your heart and approach others. When this older woman spoke to me, I felt the power of her energy in such a simple phrase.
After my first book, The Courage to Take Action: The first step to a future you never imagined possible (Forest Publishing), was published in 2014, several readers asked to visit me at my office. They’d tell me that they were so glad to meet me, that I had given them the will to live. But now I was a shadow of that man. I was so depressed that even the simplest greeting had a profound impact on me.
Around that time, my wife was asked to be president of the PTA at my daughter’s kindergarten, the same one that all of my three sons had attended. But because of my health, she declined.
After a decade at this kindergarten, I had become a bit of a legend among the other parents. When they all found out that my depression was the reason why my wife turned down the position, the principal reached out to share that the same thing had happened to her husband. She said that depression often happens to people after they turn forty and that feisty people like me are the ones who suffer. She kindly introduced us to a hospital where I could get help. I’m so grateful to all of the people around me who reached out to make sure I was okay. Their compassion made all the difference.
The Kyoto Animation incident and death of Edward Suzuki
There was one incident, in particular, that was the catalyst for my recovery: the Kyoto Animation arson attack, which occurred in July of 2019, the year I became depressed. It came as a great shock to me that so many young people had lost their lives after the building was doused with gasoline and set on fire. I thought at the time that these people must have had all sorts of plans for the next day, the next week, the next month—yet they all vanished in the blaze. Reflecting on the people who died in the incident made me realize that I was still very much alive.
Then in September, the architect Edward Suzuki passed away. I was surprised at the sudden news of his death as I was supposed to meet with him the following week. I’m sure that Edward, too, must have had a lot of things planned, including some things that we wanted to do together. His passing truly saddened me, but at the same time, I was grateful that I still had a chance to do all of the things that I wanted to do, and that thought is what inspired me to regain the positivity I needed to get back up and do them.
“Don’t rely on drugs.”
“Don’t take medicine.” That’s what psychiatrist Rieko Matsuzono, an old acquaintance of mine, says in her book, Method of Soully Disease Healing. She explains that once you start taking medicine, it becomes a crutch, and you can become dependent on it.
I contacted her for help when I was in a very bad way and asked for her diagnosis. She advised me that while medication might make me feel better in the short term, I would never be able to give it up in the long term. She then taught me how to train my mind through her arugamama method—a way of learning to live with oneself—which I continued for about six months.
There is no quick recovery from depression. I often had times where I would feel good one day and awful the next. I would start to feel happy that I was getting better, only to be pulled back into my depression. Like the old Japanese saying goes, “where three days are cold, four days will be warm.” The body gradually recovers in a cycle of good and bad days.
I also have my eldest son to thank for my recovery. I had been a member of Gold’s Gym for over ten years, but I canceled my membership after I became ill. Once I quit working out, I became thinner, a shell of my former self. People who knew me would ask me if I had lost weight. I used to poke fun at my eldest son, telling him that he was as skinny as a rail. But now I was the skinny one. One day, he told me that he wanted to go to the gym with me, asking me to teach him how to work out. His invitation gave me just enough energy to say, “Okay, let’s do it!” And off to the gym we went. While the Kyoto Animation incident and Edward Suzuki helped me realize I had something worth living for, I attribute my eventual recovery to my psychiatrist’s sound advice and the encouragement of my eldest son.
A vital realization from depression
One of my peers had a big job that he wanted to give me, but seeing how listless I was in my depression, he approached someone else. Later, he asked me, “DK ask yourself: would you give a job to someone you knew was unwell?” Of course not, I said. But at the time, I still thought to myself that it’s really when you’re down and out that you want someone to give you a job, even if it’s out of pity.
Still, it’s natural to want to work with people who are positive and outgoing. So I began to think about how I could stay healthy and continue to enjoy my work, and now I always make sure to rest when I’m tired. Two years have passed since my bout with depression, and I can finally admit to myself that I was depressed, which I think is a very important sign of recovery.
At parties, people tell me that I’m ambitious, even aggressive. But when I tell them that I recently battled depression, a surprising number confide in me that they, too, have suffered from it. That’s one reason why I think it’s crucial for me to start a conversation around this illness. I’ve realized that if you are depressed, you need to seek help from those around you. Many managers become depressed because they are unable to express their weaknesses to others, but people can’t help unless they know. If you are in trouble, talk to someone. Be brave enough to say when you are in trouble and when you need help. I like the phrase “the courage to take action.” Courage means standing up for what’s right, saying sorry when you’re wrong, and telling the people you love how much you love them. There is no shame in asking for help. Many Japanese people commit suicide because they can’t get the help they need, so I think that admitting that you need help is the first step in the right direction.
If someone stops me and asks if they can talk to me for a minute, I’m always happy to listen. If you’re ever in trouble, just let me know. I can say that it’s important to stick to a routine, wake up at a decent time in the morning, get some sunshine, and sometimes even have a good long rest. In my experience battling depression, I learned that many people close to me had also experienced it. So many people around the world commit suicide because of mental health problems. I also learned that there are times when people just can’t muster the strength to move or feel joy, so I have become more attuned to their feelings. In the end, my struggle with depression, however terrible, also taught me valuable life lessons.
Use your qualifications to your advantage.
My company is still relatively small and unknown, so I’ve tried to obtain a variety of qualifications and certifications as a way to increase our market value. In addition to an MBA and native-level English proficiency, I’m certified to teach English to children through the Oxford Teaching Program. I have passed the Life Insurance Association of Japan’s general course exam and am a licensed insurance agent. In college, I studied bookkeeping during my long commute to school and passed the second grade of Japan’s official bookkeeping examination. I also have a large motorcycle license and boating license for first-class small craft. Being able to ride a motorcycle and pilot a boat has given me opportunities to engage with many business owners and expand my network.
My qualifications have also allowed me to teach English to children throughout my twenties. Every Saturday, I would take my kids or other local children to a community center and teach them English using my own original program. When the morning lessons finished, we would all eat lunch together and then have another lesson in the afternoon.
Education is meaningless without continuity. So when I started teaching English, I decided that I would do it for ten years, and I never missed a lesson. I once took the first train from Osaka and rushed back to Tokyo to make it to class. I eventually stopped teaching English when I went to work with Nobuyuki Idei, the former chairman of Sony. Still, I think that decade spent teaching is what made me so close to my children and their friends.
A child remembers all the times their parents played with them when they were little. But junior high school is too late to start making those memories. Some of the most important elements of parenting are playing, listening, and treating your child as an individual, regardless of their age. I play with my kids a lot, so much so that someone once mistook my oldest son and me for brothers even though we’re more than twenty years apart. Through the years, we have grown into a close-knit family that I am truly proud of.
Why people ask me what I do
“I’m a global business producer.” Whenever I introduce myself, people don’t seem to understand what I do. That’s probably because it’s hard to ascribe my position to any one industry.
If I were to say, “I teach English,” then you’d know that I’m an English teacher, but with all of the businesses I run, I don’t have an easy way to describe what I do.
“I’m the editor-in-chief of My Philosophy, where I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people.”
“I’m the editor-in-chief of DOers.”
“I’m the president of a web design company and the owner of a Nishikigoi fish hatchery and sales company.”
“I teach seminars and do interpreting.”
These are all elements of my work.
I am a son to my mother. A brother to my sisters. A husband to my wife and a father to my children. I’m a business partner to my clients and a boss to my employees. Just as many women are bosses at work and mothers at home, I, too, have many faces. I hope that my readers will reject being pigeonholed in one job and wear many hats to fulfill a variety of roles and purposes in society.
ILI rises to any challenge
In today’s society, complex issues are everywhere, and the ability to identify these issues and use tools to solve them is essential. The Faculty of Policy Management (SFC) at Keio University, where I studied, offers a diverse range of research fields, from politics, economics, literature, and sociology to architecture, programming, design, and art. Students are able to design their own curricula, and one of the defining features of the program is that students can take an interdisciplinary approach to learning, focusing on both problem identification and solution.
ILI’s business is modeled around a framework of problem identification, bespoke solutions, and execution (the actual “doing”) and is based on what I learned at SFC and business school. To me, the purpose of producing a business is to increase an individual’s value proposition in the world. At ILI, we offer a full range of support to develop businesses across disciplines, borders, and industries considering each client’s unique position.
A full range of services offered by ILI
If I were to sum up what we do at ILI, I might say that we are a “digital shosha,” a jack of all trades that can engage in a wide range of services across many different industries. Let’s take a look at our businesses in detail.
Value added creation
ILI is a group of professionals. The future will require businesses to create new value rather than simply retrace the steps of the past. We provide systematic consulting using a simple framework of problem identification, bespoke solutions, and execution, with essential organizational capabilities to help individuals fully realize their full potential.
|Mission||We value communication and always provide the best solutions for our client needs|
|Value proposition||Persuasion and speed that exceeds client expectations|
|Why clients choose us||Unique value proposition, cross-industry collaboration, and a can-do attitude|
Since the establishment of Interliteracy in 2007, we have built a successful business around the following three areas.
1. Business Production
We help Japanese companies expand overseas and help international companies succeed in Japan. We deliver an extensive network and problem-solving precision to facilitate smooth communication across different countries and cultures. We also provide mutual business matching services that leverage our clients’ product and service strengths.
New client acquisition/brokering services/brand consulting/business planning and execution, etc.
2. Visual Creation
Our creative department works with all types of print and digital media that include websites, photography, and video, as well as brochures and catalogs. We help our clients improve their brand image with innovative creations that break free of stereotypes.
Product development/event production/web production/graphic design/logo design/copywriting/editorial production, etc.
We accurately understand and analyze the needs of our clients and provide marketing consulting, planning, production, and execution. With an eye on the accelerated pace of globalization, we propose optimal solutions to enhance corporate value, with a particular focus on the foreign market in Japan.
Problem identification consulting/problem-solving presentations/performance analysis, sales analysis, online statistical analysis, etc.
In addition to our rebranding as ILI in 2020, I obtained an antique dealer permit to handle artwork and qualifications for recruiting and real estate transactions. As a company, we have also invested in the following ventures.
4. Real Estate
We match buyers and sellers regarding domestic and overseas real estate assets for unlisted and high-value properties of 100 million yen (900,000 USD) or more.
We promote talent mobility by matching employers with highly skilled employees for positions with an annual salary of 20 million yen (180,000 USD) or more.
6. Antique & Art Sales
We trade in artworks such as paintings as well as rare and valuable luxury cars worth 100 million yen (900,000 USD) or more.
7. Cost Reduction
We quantify indirect costs for offices and storefronts based on our proprietary database, and our staff negotiate prices on behalf of the client on a contingency basis.
Free diagnosis for cost reduction/thorough investigation of current financial position/negotiation services/sales promotion optimization/performance improvement reports
“Knowing who” is more important than “knowing how.”
I would like to position ILI as marketing to high-net-worth clients for our real estate, recruitment, and art businesses. Our real estate division handles unlisted properties since information on the best properties is not available online. It’s the same with recruitment and antique trading; you need to pound the pavement to make a sale.
My approach to sales is to greet people properly. Even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, not all interactions can take place online. If someone wants to sell a Picasso, I’ll fly to wherever they are, immediately, no matter the location. I believe in meeting face to face, even if it’s only for five or ten minutes.
In Japan, the mainstream business model proposes how to do business, but my policy is to propose with whom to do business. We focus more on knowing “who” than “how” because if you know who is good at what they do, they’ll know the best way to do business. Good information comes from good connections, so know-how is a precious commodity since you can’t network on the internet alone.
Design your life with backcasting
I’m a big proponent of backcasting. Backcasting is a way of thinking about the present based on the future that you desire. Instead of thinking about the future from the present, you can use the future as a starting point to find solutions for what you need to do today, based on what you want the future to look like.
Just as I continued teaching kids English classes for ten years, I’ve decided that whatever business I decide to take on, it has to be worth doing for a decade. It’s tough to achieve results in just a year or two with new businesses like real estate, recruitment, and art, but I believe that a decade of hard work will pay off in some form of success. If the “10,000-hour rule” applies over a 10-year period, each of these businesses will have grown significantly by the time I’m 50.
When I launched my first company at the age of 19, I backcasted for each decade: I invested in myself in my twenties, my network in my thirties, and I’m now growing my business in my forties. I am able to take on new business challenges like this now because of the careful groundwork I laid and the invaluable connections I made in my twenties and thirties.
By interviewing big names through the My Philosophy series, I learned how high performers thought and behaved. I did everything in-house without any kind of sponsorship, from arranging venues and photographers to handling web production, printing, and translation. Each of these interviews became a master class for life and business, and this self-investment has become the foundation of my current company. I have plans to ramp up my business growth as I look ahead to fifty.
The adventure continues
You could call my new ILI business a career change for me. While my title as founder and owner hasn’t changed, the scope of our corporate activities has broadened exponentially. I started out doing web design work and then became an editor-in-chief. Since then, I’ve started a nishikigoi breeding business and am engaged in real estate, recruitment, and art deals. In my twenties and thirties, I built up an invaluable network of capable associates who are extremely good at what they do. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like the old Japanese story of Momotaro using kibidango to find trusty companions and fight off evil demons. (laughs)
Armed with a proven track record and the longstanding trust we have built with our clients, I am committed to taking on new challenges long into the second half of my life.
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