We heard from folks at Rovio Entertainment when they set up a Japan office early last year. If you are a resident in the startup community here in Tokyo, you may have seen their Japan country manager Antti Sonninen more than a few times.
Yesterday was the last chance where we could see him wearing a red Angry Birds sweatshirt. It’s because Sonninen joined a new startup today. Tokyo-based Beatrobo, the startup best known for its smartphone-enabled small gadget PlugAir, announced today that Sonninnen joined their team as COO.
Beatrobo has been led by their co-founder and CEO Hiroshi Asaeda since its launch in 2011. Upon Sonninen’s joining the team, they expect to strengthen the globalization efforts in their business operations.
From global gaming giant to Japanese startup
Sonninen has been serving Rovio as Japan country manager for more than a year. Since joining the company in Finland back in 2011, he has been seeing rapid growth for over three years. When he joined Rovio, their entire headcount was about 70, but it has been grown up to 900 to date. In a response to my question about why he joins Beatrobo at this time, Sonninen explained:
I’ve seen my colleagues establishing local Rovio offices in Korea and China. I think Rovio will keep growing. I’d love to put myself in an early-stage startup. And I’d love to do what only I can do.
Prior to joining Rovio, Sonninen was running a startup providing a social network platform, which focused on helping non-governmental organizations coordinate their operations with each others in developing countries. So he should be called an entrepreneur rather than a businessperson, and we can understand he wants to put himself in an environment which has a great potential in making a successful leap.
Beatrobo fundraised from Lawson HMV Entertainment in April. At that time, I had a chance to see Asaeda and we were jestingly talking, wondering if we could work together. But this talk has turned into reality.
Sonninen understands what a country manager or a local office for a startup is required to do in its global operations. Upon his experience as a country manager at Rovio, Sonninen will focus on embarking on a global expansion strategy and addressing issues around these business operations.
What globalization means for Beatrobo
Beatrobo partnered with American mixture band Linkin Park and LA-based creative thinktank Makeshop late last year. Comparing to typical Japanese startups, Beatrobo is going steps ahead on globalization.
What does globalization mean for Beatrobo? The company’s CEO Asaeda shared an interesting story that their corporate culture started changing after Sonninen started appearing regularly at the office a short while ago:
With Antti’s joining as a trigger, we changed the language we use in our regular meeting to English. When we started it, nobody could speak nor understand and this made little sense. However, we kept doing it for four weeks, and our members finally became able to articulate about what they are thinking about.
While Asaeda is bilingual and Sonninen can speak Finnish, English and Japanese, that doesn’t mean their company is global because their entire team has to understand what their global users in the world really want. Asaeda continued:
At a typical Japanese company, its management thinks only of the Japanese domestic market and their overseas department cares for international businesses. The overseas department is usually positioned in the same level with business development or system development departments in the company’s hierarchy, so it will be difficult for the overseas department to transfer feedback from users to these other departments. Hence, whether or not a startup can become globalized depends on whether its management has a global perspective on business.
Once a company has formed an organization structure to target the domestic market, it is more unlikely to change it to fit global operations later on. So if you started preparing for global operations after acquiring market share in the domestic market, that would be usually too late. So now you can recall that Taizo Son, founder of Tokyo-based incubator Movida Japan, has revealed an entrepreneur should start developing the English version first before the Japanese version (Beatrobo graudated from the forth batch of Movida Japan’s incubation program).
Whether or not we have an overseas office doesn’t matter for our globalization. We’re a seven-person team but don’t have to work apart each others yet, so we all are based at our Tokyo office. When we feel the necessity, we’ll consider setting up an overseas office.
Five people at Beatrobo excluding Asaeda are all engineers. Considering a scale of a startup like Beatrobo, support personnel for every function will be needed. However, they haven’t hired any people other than engineers, and Asaeda has been handling all other back-office operations.
Asaeda explained why they haven’t hire non-engineers to date:
We can afford to hire support personnel. But once we hire them, we need to give them a position where they are willing to keep working in addition to supporting my tasks. I thought that was difficult so I’ve been doing all other tasks.
Upon Antti’s joining the team, I’d like to be more focused on better managing or facilitating our team. I think Antti knows that point much better, so there will be so many things that I can learn from him.
Asaeda revealed that they will more focus on hiring new people regardless of their nationality. As the team is now ready for hiring new people upon Sonninen’s joining the team, they started receiving applications for new positions like business development, product development as well as interns. If they can succeed in acquiring good global human resources, we can see their new product soon following their social music player product Beatrobo and content-sharing gadget PlugAir.