Mr. K

What’s in a letter? In the world of music, if that letter is K as in ” Mr. K”, or “Ikutaro Kakehashi”, founder of Roland Corporation and inventor of the legendary “808” drum machine, well, everything.

Kakehashi-san (whose name most appropriately translates to “Bridge”) passed away on April 1st at the age of 87. The worldwide outpouring of emotion and tremendous respect from musicians, inventors, competitors, and more has been awe-inspiring- there can be no doubt that his legacy will endure forever.

While most in the world of electronic music will be familiar with his all-in personal commitment to inspiring creativity and “designing the future”, Mr. K was, despite his humble watch repairman heritage, a commanding and world-class business leader. His vision, wisdom, and skill, gained as much through adversity and failure as by his countless successes, grew Roland into a global powerhouse corporation over four decades.

In my 25 years with Roland, I am fortunate to have spent many hours in the presence of Mr. K. To say that he was an influence would be an understatement of the highest order; the guiding principles that he etched into me and others shape my decisions and actions every day.

While by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few of my favourite life lessons, brought to you today by the letter K…

Value face time.

When I joined Roland Canada, it was common to see Mr. K in our Vancouver Headquarters once or twice each year. During these visits, he would take time to walk around and enter into casual conversation with team members (it was always a thrill when he stopped to speak with me!).

In the days after his passing, social media was filled with people from across the world- Roland colleagues, musicians, retailers, and more- all claiming a personal connection with Mr. K, and many recounting multiple in-person exchanges.

How did this man, operating on one lung for most of his adult life, achieve such personal connectivity? The answer is simple but not easy: he made it his priority and committed to it.

Having started his professional life operating a tiny watch and appliance repair shop in Osaka, I suspect that Mr. K learned the value of realtime personal connection early on, and this influenced his entire life (for those that knew him, think about how many times Mr. K talked about the concept of “realtime” when describing product designs!).

In his last years with Roland, even as his health prevented him from traveling outside of Japan, face-to-face was replaced with “the phone call”- not as effective as in-person, but somehow, Mr. K still managed to create a sense of immediacy and connection.

While I have championed new communications technologies and worn the wounds of a pioneer at times, with a nod to Mr. K, I will always encourage myself and others to prioritize “Real Face Time” whenever and wherever possible.

Respect the artist.

Being personally privileged to have participated in many R&D conversations with Mr. K, there were a few “Roland Truths” that we dared not challenge (usually). At the very top of the list was a ban on any design concept that would require the established musician to significantly modify their playing technique.

Simply put, Mr. K would say that the musician had spent most of his or her life learning their craft, and it was not our way to ask them to change- to walk towards us. To the contrary, Kakehashi-san would challenge us to deeply understand and respect the musicians technique, concluding that “Roland MUST approach the musician, not the other way around!”.

This principle connects directly with his personal value of face-to-face communications, as Mr. K devoted much of his life to meeting directly with (and learning from) musicians, and he truly did listen more than he talked, as was my experience. Many Roland colleagues will have fond memories of Mr. K holding court with guitar players, drummers, DJ’s, pianists, and more- none was safe!

Share vision and wisdom freely at every opportunity.

For myself and others, Mr. K was a teacher, and it seemed so clear to me that seeing his “students” succeed brought him incredible joy.

My own experience of Mr. K’s teaching was that he often (but not always!) left the details (the step-by-step) for others, choosing instead to focus on the big picture- the guiding principles that defined for him what it truly meant to be Roland. And, he would deliver his wisdom and insight freely both inside and outside of the company.

For me, this willingness to share what he had learned, to communicate his principles, may end up being his enduring legacy. Perhaps more than anyone I have ever met, Mr. K believed in bringing others along and partnering with intention; it was his firmly held belief that in this kind of culture, _everyone_ would benefit. The history of MIDI itself is but one example of this proving itself true…

Just start.

There have been many phrases turned around the concept of getting going, from Nike’s “Just Do It”, to Seth Godin’s “Ship It”, and more. Predating all of these for me were words from Mr. K that, for a long time, despite their seeming simplicity, I did not fully embrace (or, as Mr. K would say- “I had chewed, but I had not swallowed!).

Often introduced to some planning discussion that had either lost itself in endless detail or been hung up in the pursuit of a perfect plan, Mr. K would interject with: “Just start. JUST START!”.

This urge to “just start” should not be taken as a willingness by Mr. K to proceed without due consideration of risk and return, or the presence of critical details. Not at all. What Mr. K knew deeply was that, with the target properly identified and guiding principles deeply understood, “Just Starting” would allow us to build momentum towards the goal (even if it was slowly), and to make and learn from mistakes (and he completely accepted that mistakes would be made- there was no perfect plan!).

Roland history is full of examples where the first, and sometimes even the second and third versions of a new product were not well accepted, but the willingness to start, then learn from mistakes, eventually brought artistic and commercial success (V-Drums, V-Studio, and our current range of digital video solutions are but a few examples).

What’s in a letter? In the world of music, if that letter is K as in ” Mr. K”, or “Ikutaro Kakehashi”, founder of Roland Corporation and inventor of the legendary “808” drum machine, well, everything.

Postscript: As a result of his commitment to sharing freely, Kakehasi-san’s vision for a future of Inspired Creativity will live on through the efforts of thousands worldwide, hopefully including myself – PM

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