In a tiny, picturesque valley, nestled in the southern alps of Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, lies a traditional Japanese hot spring hotel, or onsen.
It’s not big. There are fewer than 40 rooms. Unlike other typical onsens, which operate during certain hours, the baths at this onsen are open 24 hours a day to serve its patrons.
The water is of the highest quality: pure, alkaline, neither artificially heated nor treated.
The meals served aim to "balance taste, texture, appearance and the season". Fresh, seasonal ingredients are used, foraged and caught in the nearby mountains and river. The finished dishes have an art-like quality, garnished with leaves and flowers, served on plates and trays highlighting the quality produce, its preparation and its seasonal theme.
The staff are hardworking, courteous and have an absolute commitment to providing exemplary hospitality. They are the embodiments of omotenashi - best summed up as the spirit of selfless service, humble hospitality. Anticipating guests’ needs is at the heart of the concept, as is attention to even the most minor detail. With an understanding that each of those they serve has different needs, there is a desire, a commitment, to put them first, personalise their experience, and exceed all expectations.
There is no internet at the onsen. But there are hot springs and trees and mountains and rivers and tatami mats and a sense of calm and tranquility, and the staff with their spirit of absolute service, of dedication. A staff who, imbued with their spirit of omotenashi, work not to reach the top of the corporate hospitality ladder, but instead to protect the onsen, to help it thrive and keep it for years to come. They do this year after year after year.
Over 1,300 years in fact. This onsen, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, is the oldest company in the world. Established in 705 AD.
At the time this onsen opened, it was the Western Middle Ages; before Charlemagne; before the Islamic Conquest of Spain; it was 1000 years before the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
At the time the onsen opened, my country of birth, New Zealand, had not yet been discovered by our Maori ancestors.
And in all that time, it has been operated by the same family. The same family operating the same onsen for over 1,300 years.
It is currently in its 52nd generation of continuous management. Some of the staff are from families who’ve held the same post for generations, passing it from parent to child, child to grandchild, grandchild to great grandchild.
This onsen has stayed small. They know what they do. They do what they know. Their focus on service is relentless; their team of employees is family - stronger than family possibly - for it is unified, united in its mission to protect, to nurture, to tend to, to keep alive.
They have successfully achieved a delicate balance of continuation, innovation and dedication. 52 generations. 1,300+ years.
Several months ago I came across an article written by a start up advisor and mentor. This article was about the exit, which the author said, is the end goal of any start up.
This article reflects what appears to be a widely accepted attitude that to be an entrepreneur, one must have an exit strategy. To focus on it as their end goal. Encouraged by investors to build towards the big pay out - even if that means abandoning their customers, who helped them achieve that which made them attractive to the investor in the first place. The acquirer may then shut the business down, or more commonly, shift focus and neglect that je ne sais quoi, oh so very special, that made the company and service what it was.
Entrepreneur is a French word, for one who undertakes. It is a person who "sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risk in the hope of profit". It is a person “who organises and manages an enterprise, usually with considerable initiative”, talent, and a lot of hard work.
Would Fujiwara Mahito, founder of the onsen, and surely by this definition an entrepreneur, have considered the exit strategy as his end goal back in 705AD?
I wonder if Fujiwara Mahito’s child, or his child’s child, or his child’s grandchild, or his child’s great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandchild considered their exit strategy?
I can’t imagine they did.
I imagine they focused, not on an exit strategy, but on an exist strategy, a strategy built on sticking around; a strategy not for a buy-out, but for a handing down, a passing along.
I wonder what decisions we would make differently if we inherited the work we do?
I wonder what decisions we would make differently if our duty was to pass on the work we do?
Over the past few months, as I’ve sat in my little office, in the house I call home, working on Webstock, I’ve thought how beautiful it would be to have my older daughter, or my younger daughter, or my youngest son, or both my daughters and my son, all working alongside me. To have my children share in the love and passion of Webstock, and for the people Webstock works for; to have them want to protect it, nurture it, nourish it, tend to it, craft it, feel grateful for it, and to try to keep it going for a long time, for themselves, for future generations.
What if our “exits” were bestowing upon someone you love, the thing you have created and crafted with love?
What if, instead of focusing on exits, we focused on sticking around?
What if the focus wasn’t on selling up and moving on, but instead was on handing down and passing on?
I wonder what our decisions would look like if that were the ultimate goal?
What would our businesses be like?
What would our communities be like?
And if such thinking were truly celebrated in business, what would its overflow effect elsewhere be?
What would our governments be like?
What would our planet be like?
I think of this as longtrepreneurial thinking. Entrepreneurialism, but rather than expansion and acquisition as primary goals, with the long game - and the concept of omotenashi - as the focus.
Success, surely, needn’t be measured only by the hockey stick or the exit sign.
We can choose to remain small. We can choose to devote ourselves to something, and to those we serve. We can choose to do our small things in small ways, which over a period of time, can build upon themselves.
Surely this is success too.
Interact meaningfully with the people we serve. I love that.
Not eyeballs. Not users. But people. The people we serve.
The spirit of service: continuous, continual, selfless service - of omotenashi - is something that sits somewhat oddly at the table with a focus wholly on the exit strategy.
What could we do for ourselves, and each other, and those we serve if our goal was the long, or at least, the longer, term?
Not five or 10 years but 20 or 50 years, 100, 150, more...
What would longtrepreneurial thinking do for how we worked, who we worked for, what we created, and for the communities of which we are a part?