Kara Swisher

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Rakuten’s CEO Mikitani Talks About Future of E-Commerce and Why He Made That $50 Million Pinterest Bet (Video)

Last week — when he was visiting San Francisco, including for a new HQ party at Pinterest — I got to sit down and have a video chat with Hiroshi Mikitani.

As CEO of Tokyo-based Rakuten, the soft-spoken exec heads one of the globe’s most important online retail players.

Unlike Amazon, to which it is often incorrectly compared, Rakuten has an “omotenashi,” or “empowerment”, philosophy, aiming to be a facilitator of commerce, much like its shopping-mall metaphor beginnings. The approach is to aid merchants, rather than compete with them.

As I have written, it’s a little eBay, a little Alibaba, some Etsy and even a little Amazon Web Services mixed in — all on a more global scale.

But what got Mikitani a lot of notice, of course, was the $50 million he recently invested in Pinterest, the hot social and visual bookmarking site, at a lofty valuation of $1.5 billion.

As I wrote then: “There’s no question that every venture capitalist within 100 miles of Silicon Valley wanted to squeeze their khaki-clad selves into what had become tech’s hottest deal of late.”

But a strong rapport with Pinterest’s quirky founder landed the deal for Mikitani.

Rakuten certainly has the heft to make such a bet, as one of the largest online commerce companies in the world, with a flagship site, Rakuten Ichiba, among others. It was founded in 1997, and had revenue of $4.7 billion in 2011.

Mikitani, whose better-known nickname is Mickey, is one of the richest men in Japan and also one of the best-known entrepreneurs there. He has been described as “Richard Branson meets Jeff Bezos.”

I found him much less flashy than either of those entrepreneurs, but equally interesting.

Here’s the video interview:

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work