Entrepreneurial Lessons from Soichiro Honda [They Beat the Odds #2]

Soichiro Honda - Founder of Honda Motor Company Successful people don’t expect or wait around for the perfect conditions; instead they stay focused on their hopes and dreams. They persist in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. They don’t achieve greatness because of their optimal surroundings; they achieve it in spite of all of the challenges they face.

Grit and entrepreneurial mindset are lessons from the life of Soichiro Honda (1906–91,) the iconic founder of the Honda Motor Company.

Early Influences Can Open up the Future

Soichiro was born in 1906, just as Japan’s pre-war agricultural economy was shifting towards manufacturing. He inherited from his blacksmith-father an inborn manual dexterity and curiosity about machineries. Even in childhood, Soichiro developed a keen interest in the new engines, pumps, airplanes, and machines that were creating Japan’s nascent industrial base. A Ford Model T motor car that had visited his village when he was a toddler enthused him to no end; in later life he often recalled running behind the car in excitement and never forgot the smell of oil that had dripped from the engine.

Like his lifelong hero, American inventor Thomas Edison, Soichiro had barely any formal education and even less interest in conventional wisdom. He developed a carefree, disobedient personality: once, when a teacher berated him for not finishing a school assignment, Honda angrily retorted that the school’s diploma had less value than a ticket to the movies.

Honda A-Type Auxiliary Bicycle Engine

Obsessive Attention to Detail

With no interest in book learning, Soichiro plunged into hands-on work with cars and engines. He abandoned school at age 15 to seek work as an automotive mechanic in Tokyo. His first job was scarcely promising: for a year, he cared for an infant baby of his boss’s family. With the baby in tow, he often meandered the garage, observed the mechanics at work, and gave suggestions. Soichiro also tinkered with engines in between diaper changes and bottle feedings. He developed a passion for rebuilding engines, and just six years later, opened his own repair shop in his native Hamamatsu. At the same time, he began building and driving racecars. He also developed a fondness for reckless behavior especially with racing cars and sporadically overindulged in sake.

By 1937, Soichiro had more than 100 patents to his name and perfected a technique for making piston rings for Toyota. He started his own company called Tokai Seiki, but was forced to switch to building engines for the Imperial Navy’s boats and planes to support the growing Japanese military.

During World War II, the Allies bombed and leveled his factory; Honda adroitly built his own alcohol-distilling stills and ran a brewery.

It’s Important to Do What You Love

Soichiro Honda Riding the Honda Dream C70 In 1948, Soichiro returned to his true love: building engines. He started Honda Motor Company in a wooden shack. He focused on engineering and production. He found the administrative aspects of running the company boring and delegated them to his partner, Honda Motor Company’s co-founder Takeo Fujisawa.

Honda’s first motorized bicycle, Bata-Bata, became a huge hit in impoverished Japan. The ever-popular Dream motorcycle followed it. By 1959, Honda had become the world’s leading maker of motorcycles.

Soichiro spent long hours in the shop with engineers and focused on superior handling, fuel efficiency, and reliability. In 1957, Honda introduced its first car, the N360. Honda’s big hit came with the revolutionary CVCC engine that burned a leaner mix of gasoline. The Japanese government unsuccessfully tried to restrain his startup and coerced Honda into merging his company with one of Japan’s stronger, bigger automakers.

In 1972, Honda introduced Civic, a compact car with a clean-burning engine that fit the miles-per-gallon mood of the time. The Civic took the U.S. by storm and created as much resentment in Tokyo as it did in Detroit. When the Big Three lobbied to get limitations on imports, Honda started building cars in the U.S. Within a few years, Honda’s Civic and Accord models became the cars of choice for millions of middle-class Americans.

Honda Motor Company Founders Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa

Entrepreneurs Are Non-Conformists

'Japan's Emergence as a Global Power' by James I. Matray (ISBN 0313299722) The nonconformist Soichiro eschewed conventional Japanese managerial traditions by promoting “the Honda Way,” which relied on personal initiative coupled with a close relationship between workers and management. Soichiro’s obsessive attention to detail prompted him to personally test new car and motorcycle models.

Even after retirement from the company presidency in 1973, Soichiro took the title of “supreme adviser.” He made an 18-month driving tour of Japan, visited Honda’s 700 production factories and car dealerships, and reported his findings to the corporate headquarters.

Soichiro Honda died of liver failure in 1991. In building a company that epitomizes Japan’s Emergence as a Global Power as a leader in automobile production, Soichiro was a radical freethinker in a nation that valued conformity. He is renowned for his defiant spirit as an entrepreneur and fabulous creativity as an engineer.

Idea for Impact: Stop waiting for the perfect conditions and get to work. Maintain optimism during difficult times; take action that moves you closer to your goals, day after day after day.

Reference: Soichiro Honda and His Philosophy of Entrepreneurship, Koshi Oizumi’s 2003 Ph.D. dissertation at California State University

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