Startups, Sales, Advancement, and how Jiu-Jitsu can Impact it All

Explore how one man (Mike) has seen repeated success in his business carrier through practicing Jiu-Jitsu, from making clearer decisions to controlling stress to saving his startup’s financial goals

Location: Tokyo, Japan

“Trying to be a world champion in business is my top priority, and jiu-jitsu is what I do recreationally. So, for me, the “mat time” concept was very helpful both in business and jiu-jitsu.” – Mike Kim

Sales are tough. Salespeople are held accountable for meeting their numbers.

When you’re working for a growing startup, you’re visible to the people at the top: CEO, CFO, and head of sales. No pressure, right?

Mike Kim seems to have things figured out. He is the Head of Asia Pacific and Country Manager of Japan for Orbital Insight, a Silicon Valley startup backed by some of the top venture capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and Google Ventures. Their solution provides AI-based analysis for businesses using images obtained from various sources, such as satellites and mobile location data. For instance, their tech can analyze the number of cars going in and out of a shopping mall to predict future sales.

Photo by: Mike Kim

Business in Japan

Mike talked with us about the differences in conducting business in Japan, how jiu-jitsu helps him in his career, and taking “the last shot.”

Business in Japan moves slower than in the U.S., but it pays off for those willing to put in the time. This difference is often a sticking point for companies looking to grow their businesses in Japan. Mike explains:

I think that is one of the issues, and it’s accelerated or accentuated in U.S. startups because it’s all about your “number” for this quarter. No doubt about it, if you want revenue from Japan, if you want customers and partners, you need to invest time and energy to build the relationships, to build the trust. It comes down to a question of, “Do you want that revenue or not?” If you’re willing to invest, there’s an ROI, and it’s not a short-term thing. It takes time to build up, but once it does, we use long-term relationships as our annuities. I think some companies have a hard time thinking a little bit more long-term than just this quarter, but for the ones that have done it, I think they’re grateful. I feel like our company is happy about the revenue coming in from Japan.

Approach to Jiu-Jitsu

He has taken a similar approach to his jiu-jitsu training:

In my early days of jiu-jitsu, I’d be very caught up in my progress and wanting to be promoted and wanting to win. I think that was unhealthy because it put pressure on me and made me enjoy it less because then I’d leave [class] some days and just not be happy with how I’d performed. 

Once I came to be a little bit less judgmental about my own jiu-jitsu and just made it more about mat time and showing up, that changed things for me. So, not making it so much about “Who am I beating?”, “What’s my timeline to the next belt?” or “How am I performing?” Performing is always important, but more than that, it was healthier for me to just think about “mat time,” showing up, and hours on the mat. It made it more enjoyable for me, and it made it more sustainable in the long term.  

Now, if you’re a world competitor, that’s a different camp, but I’m trying to be a world champion in business as my top priority, and jiu-jitsu is what I do as recreation. So, for me, the “mat time” concept was very helpful both in business and jiu-jitsu. I think that applies to the business in Japan because it’s about showing up, putting the time in, being faithful, committed, and I do think you get rewarded for that in Japan.

DON’T Stop Jiu-Jitsu, Period!

Mike shared an important lesson he learned from an executive coach he worked with. This coach worked with people at the top of their game, like Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. Mike was at a stressful point in his life when the coach asked him, “Mike, are you exercising? Are you doing jiu-jitsu these days?” When he explained to the executive coach that he’d been busy with work, the executive coach said, “Mike, keep up with the jiu-jitsu,” and he never forgot that. The coach explained that we respond to stress, frustration, and pressure differently when we’re exercising and in shape compared to when we’re not. For Mike, the coach knew that jiu-jitsu was his main activity, so it was vital for him to keep up with it for his career.

Mike explained further:

As I read other research, it was consistent. Me being in shape, my self-esteem, my confidence, it affects how I respond to an aggressive person in the workplace. Being able to get aggression out on the mat, I don’t take it into the workplace. Just fitness, having good cardiovascular [health], sleeping better, eating better, all of that does help me perform better.  

It’s been ten some years, and I never forgot that. So, when I feel my jiu-jitsu sliding, I remember this executive coach’s voice saying, “You doing jiu-jitsu lately? Make sure you don’t slip on that because it’ll make a difference in your career.

Mental Toughness

The conversation shifted to whether or not Mike believed the mental toughness developed from jiu-jitsu helped him in a specific situation in business. He shared a story of when his company needed him to close a major deal to save the company’s quarterly results and his choice to rise to the occasion:

The CEO, head of sales, everybody told me, “Mike, if you can pull this deal off, you’ll be a hero.” I remember a moment when our CFO said, “Mike, we really need this Japan deal you’re working on, and it will make our quarter.”

I remember walking out of that meeting and thinking of competition, thinking of [Michael] Jordan, thinking, “Do I want the ball? Do I want the last shot? I started thinking I could go the easy route and not want the ball and not want the pressure, not want to have, literally, the final shot for the company for the quarter.  

I started thinking, “What are you made of?” We all know the Jordan quote, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.” I dug deep. Yeah, I want it. I want the ball. I want to take the last shot. I might miss it, but I want it.

That quarter, I was able to make that shot, and we signed the largest commercial deal of our company’s history. It was a three-year, multi-million-dollar contract, and because of it, we hit our quarter. That would be a specific example of me going through the drilling and mental exercise of mental toughness and competition, for sure.

Here is the complete quote from Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.”

Other Types of Training

We then spoke about workouts other than jiu-jitsu, and Mike shared some great advice from one of his first instructors when he was in L.A. training as a white belt.  

Mike had been doing jiu-jitsu three times a week but wanted to know how he could improve. His instructor told him to do fifty of something at home on the days he didn’t do jiu-jitsu, such as push-ups or burpees: 

I started to do that, and I saw my jiu-jitsu step up. Now, I just try to do one or two additional workouts. I’ll do runs or bodyweight exercises. I’ve been doing this fitness app Project Calisthenics by Simonster Strength, and I’m doing things like that to keep myself motivated. I’ll try to do a supplemental one to two workouts a week, on top of three to four jiu-jitsu sessions per week.

Photo by: Mike Kim

Don’t Stress… Train

People often talk about how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu helps them cope with stress. I have found that there is a correlation between training and work. If I’m stressing out at work, it’s often because I haven’t been training.

I asked Mike what changes he notices in his work performance when he hasn’t been training. This is what he had to say:

I think the big thing is how I respond to stress. If you work in a stressful environment, it’s daily, it’s weekly, it’s a part of our lives. Later in my career, I began to have the perspective that how you respond to stress in the workplace is a key skill and discipline that many people don’t know how to handle early on in their careers. As I really dig deeper into some of my role models in the workplace, they’re very good at responding to stress to that person, that situation, and doing it in a diplomatic way, in the right way, to exert the right amount of influence at the right times, and all those things are really important.  

It’s something I’ve been observing more and more later in my career. One of the practices I try to do now is if an email gets me worked up, I don’t respond till the morning. I might write a draft, and I don’t respond until the next day. Now, I pretty much do that 100% of the time, and it’s amazing. Lo and behold, the next day, my email is always different than what I would have sent the day before. It’s a key skill to work on, and I think people start to figure it out more later on in their career.

Discipline… How to Get Ahead in Life

Personally, I’m always curious about discipline and the routines people have. Mike shared with us an interesting story and how he incorporates its lesson into his life.

I don’t remember where I first heard it, but there’s a story of two men competing in the woods to saw down trees. One guy would work so hard, and the other guy would every so often just disappear, and the other guy thought he was taking a break. In the end, the guy who was taking the breaks beat the guy who was working hard, and then he asked him, “How did you beat me?” The other guy said, “Well, it’s simple. What I was doing was sharpening my saw.” 

I never forgot that story I learned many years ago, and I’m always constantly trying to sharpen my saw. One of the guys on my team put it really well. He talked about a decision-making matrix for what’s urgent versus what’s important. What’s urgent always gets done first, but what’s really important gets neglected many times. So, I’ve been thinking about that decision-making matrix and “sharpening my saw” through reading, learning, and listening. It’s important but not urgent, so those kinds of things can be neglected. I’m trying to be much more intentional to start to “sharpen my saw” through learning, particularly through reading great books I can directly apply to business.

I asked if he thought jiu-jitsu was one way he was “sharpening the saw.” He said:

I think of two tiers. In the first tier, there are things like reading business books, which is directly related to business. Then there are second-tier types of lifestyle choices that indirectly impact my career and are incredibly important. Jiu-Jitsu is definitely one of those things. I’m definitely a better person in many ways when I’m consistently training jiu-jitsu. It makes me a better employee, makes me a better leader, makes me a better husband.

Mike and his wife / Photo by: Mike Lee

Throughout the entire interview, one prevailing theme stuck out: Mike continuously works to improve everything he does. Whether it’s optimizing his work, being less stressed, taking on new challenges, advancing in jiu-jitsu, etc., he is always actively working to be a better man in every regard. And that, to me, is one of the keys to a successful, meaning-filled life. And what better area to shape this skill/choice of constantly improving than in jiu-jitsu, where improving each time you’re on the mats is one of the chief aims built into the culture of the art. Mike and his accomplishments are very inspiring, and I hope we can all sharpen our own skills through his advice. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *