Paul Speed is the co-founder and CEO of the Kyoto Brewing Co., a Japanese craft beer company.
My mother is originally from Seoul and my father is from East Yorkshire. They met in Korea before coming over to Canada, and I was born in Calgary. My dad worked as a mining engineer and so throughout my childhood we were constantly travelling all over the country.
In university, I majored in Asian Pacific studies. To meet my course requirements, I needed to study at least one Asian language and I chose Japanese. I quickly fell in love with the language, the politics, the economics, the history, and everything just spun out from there.
After university I knew I wanted to spend time in Japan, so I went through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. I was placed in a town of 8,000 people in northern Japan. I worked in the local town hall, and at the same time I was teaching English classes for elementary school kids and locals.
When the JET program was wrapping up two years later, I knew I didn’t want to go home. One thing led to another, and I ended up working as a headhunter for IT-Finance. I did that stint for about one year. During that year, I met a lot of people in the industry, and because I had gumption and technical skills I was able to land a job at Morgan Stanley.
Eventually, I decided to focus more on improving my Japanese. I got a full-time scholarship for an intensive program run by Stanford, so I quit my job at Morgan Stanley. But after the March, 2011, earthquake and tsunami happened, Stanford closed the program prematurely.
At the time, Lehman Brothers had been purchased by Nomura, and I decided to apply to work there. I thought it would be a great place for me because it was a Japanese environment that suddenly had a lot of foreigners in its midst. After my interviews, I was selected to work in the high-frequency trading division of the company.
High-frequency trading itself is extremely niche. And so the learning curve on everything in that team was incredible. I was planning on pursuing my MBA at McGill, but I began questioning whether going to McGill at that point in time would be the right decision, given how much I was already learning. But because I made a promise to my mother that I would go back to school, I decided to stay true to my word and get my MBA.
During my MBA, I took a class on entrepreneurial enterprise and I was completely blown away. After that course I decided that it would be great to start my own company. One of my friends started getting into home-brewing, to the point where it began taking over his life. One day he sent my other friend and me some of his beer, and when we tried it we were completely blown away. Soon after, the three of us decided to start a craft beer company together. We saw all of the craft breweries in the United States and Britain growing phenomenally, and we thought maybe we could do the same thing here in Japan.
In order to do research, we went on a road trip on the West Coast of the United States. We started out in San Francisco and went up to Seattle. Even though we were strangers, everyone we met spent so much time welcoming us and taking us around their breweries. I was blown away by the hospitality of the industry and how everyone was so willing to share. It was the exact opposite of what’s happening in high-frequency trading, where your algorithm is your secret sauce.
In Japan, people typically want to look for a safe job in a big company. At the same time, a lot of people want a different opportunity. The fact that we are three Japanese-speaking foreigners has put a spotlight on Kyoto Brewing Co., and it’s helped us get people applying to our company.
At the end of the day, in finance – especially for what I was doing – you’re basically taking your algorithm and competing against someone else. You’re competing for the same size of a pie, which is a lot of fun and extremely exhilarating because you are working with so many smart people. But with beer, you’re making a product where the more people consume your product the more it brings them closer together. That’s something you just don’t have in finance and it’s been a really big pleasure to have in this industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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