Meanwhile, around 1983, he had begun “playing around with computer networking,” as he later put it, using the teleterminals and early personal computers of the era to send digital messages back and forth on early computer-based conferencing systems.
During this period, a mutual Japanese friend introduced him to Timothy Leary, the former Harvard psychologist and psychedelic evangelist who was anxious to learn more about Japanese youth culture. “I hijacked the situation,” Mr. Ito later wrote on his blog. “After dinner I grabbed Tim and took him on a whirlwind tour of the Tokyo club scene. Tim got excited; he called these new funky Japanese kids ‘the new breed.’ He changed the ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ [slogan] to ‘tune in, turn on, take over.’” Dr. Leary, after years as a counterculture avatar, had retreated into a relatively staid life as a well-networked pundit in Hollywood and San Francisco technology and media circles. He recruited Mr. Ito as a godson, as he did with anyone he found sufficiently interesting, and introduced him and his mother to the media and technology players he knew in Los Angeles and San Francisco, including John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and early defender of online free speech, privacy, and consumer rights. Mr. Ito returned the favor when Dr. Leary visited Tokyo, and the two at one point attempted to write a book together.
Around 1987, Mr. Ito first demonstrated his propensity to start businesses that cross-pollinate ideas and push media into new realms. He launched two computer companies in Tokyo: a digital graphics business, and a distributor of a group-based communications software package called Caucus. He also tried to launch a franchise of MacZone, a retailer of Apple products, in Japan, but that failed. Then, when he moved with his mother and sister to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, Mr. Barlow introduced Mr. Ito to John Markoff, a technology reporter for the New York Times. Mr. Markoff gave Joi Ito a copy of MacPPP, the original Internet client software for the Macintosh. To Mr. Ito, that simple program demonstrated how the Internet was about to transform from a scientist and engineer’s tool into a mass media platform. “I got the ‘aha’: This would be a big change for media and much more quickly than anyone thought,” says Mr. Ito.
Soon after, he met the founders of Intercon International KK, an American company trying to offer commercial Internet service in Japan. They couldn’t find space to rent, “so I lent them my wash closet and my bathtub,” Mr. Ito recalls. “We put their router and their connection there and I gave them the room in exchange for free access. I served as CEO of PSINet Japan [the company that acquired IIKK] for a year and eventually helped get them out of my bathroom and into a real office.”
After leaving PSINet, Mr. Ito launched Digital Garage, a Japanese Web solution provider and incubator, which he took public in 1999. Digital Garage split into 12 independent companies, six of which are publicly traded today. He also built Infoseek Japan, which was acquired by Infoseek, which was then acquired by Disney. Today, Infoseek Japan is the third-largest portal in Japan (after Yahoo and MSN), it is profitable, and it continues to grow. “He was really the first of a whole new generation of Japanese entrepreneurs: very international,” says Paul Saffo, director of the Palo Alto–based Institute for the Future, and a member of Mr. Ito’s ever-expanding network.
In late 1999, Mr. Ito’s emerging track record prompted the venture firms J.H. Whitney and PSI Ventures to seed his firm Neoteny (the word means “retention of childlike attributes in adulthood”) with $20 million, to serve as an incubator for new infotech companies. When incubators fell out of favor with the bursting of the Internet bubble, Mr. Ito attempted to transform Neoteny into a traditional venture fund, but he was never entirely comfortable with that role. After funding Six Apart, the blog company, he decided to return the remaining cash to the shareholders and focus Neoteny’s resources on building Six Apart Japan. Since then, besides his involvement with Technorati, Mr. Ito has made personal investments in Socialtext (a wiki for enterprise), Flickr (the photo community site), and other Web-based startups that seek to ease and democratize the creation and distribution of media.