Café Wifi helps digital nomads find place to work, now adds P2P seat reserve function

Many cafes in Shibuya, Tokyo are registered with Café Wifi

See the original story in Japanese.

There are an increasing number of people working in cafes, even among my own companions. In the past, often startups that did not have their own office space would start their business with a co-working space while startups with just a few employees would use cafes. However, recently it does not matter whether companies have office spaces or not, the number of people choosing to “cafe hop” is by no means low, and the position of co-working spaces seems to be changing with WeWork’s entry into Japan.

In fact, even I, despite having an office, spend more time working in cafes. I do not want to get writer’s block as my work requires me to think and write, and it also means I have to move around to access primary information. When going someplace new, I usually do a fair amount of research into cafes with power sources and WiFi, and then about six months ago I came across the eye-opening app Café Wifi.

Users launch the app while at a cafe and check in, then information such as the presence or absence of power supply, pictures showing the atmosphere of the shop, and additionally, if it is equipped with WiFi, and what’s more the actual measured communication speed, can all be posted together. When other users use the app to find a cafe near their whereabouts, the cafes that are easiest to do nomad work (based on high scores) are displayed in descending order.

The Dilemma of Crowding in Popular Cafes

Café Wifi’s check-in screen (left) and the function for transferring private seats (right)

Because a cafe is crowded with customers, the term “popular” may apply, but cafes that are user-friendly and in a convenient location are always crowded. As the number of nomad workers increases, the rotation rate of the seats drops, so it takes time before a seat becomes available even if you wait. A new feature released in November that may eliminate this dilemma has been made available to some users from version 0.9.42.

The new function allows users to transfer the seat they currently occupy to someone else. When this function is turned on, they can receive notifications from the person who wants to take over the seat and updates on how many minutes until they arrive. It can be used as a way to reserve seats for those that want to use a cafe, and those users that hand over their seats can accept small fees via Apple Pay, etc. Also, the app can act as a reservation function for potential customers when cafe owners make use of it.

With respect to the seats being owned by the shop, there is some resistance remaining concerning the user’s right to transfer and buy seats when the shop does not intervene. However, the role that the cafe plays will change with the times. Each cafe has a management strategy, but if you look at chain stores in the city center that do not have power supply or WiFi, it feels as if they have not caught up with the demands of the times. If the number of nomad workers increases, and the turnover rate of customers drops putting pressure on business, it may be necessary to find a new price plan and business model.

The “Host” function that allows for the concession of seats is an invitation only limited function which can be used solely in Tokyo at the present time. To receive an invitation users must be invited by someone already using Host, or must request to be added to the system on the Café Wifi website. As Café Wifi’s functions improve and community building progresses, it is expected that the Host function will become available to the public in the future.

Tokyo: Ideal place to launch a startup?

L to R: Remote Work co-founders Ben Guild, Philip Bergqvist. Remote Work develops the Café Wifi app.
Image credit: Masaru Ikeda

Bostonian native Ben Guild and his Swedish mate Philip Bergqvist established Remote Work, the startup behind Café Wifi. After launching last December and participating in the 14th batch of Open Network Lab’s Seed Accelerator Program this year, they continue to develop services while cafe hopping around Tokyo and doing nomad work.

Originally, I thought that they came to Japan to participate in the Open Network Lab program, but it turns out both of them had been staying in Japan preparing for entrepreneurship even before that. Their reason for choosing Tokyo is simply that Tokyo is an easy place to launch a startup.

Bergqvist says:

Food here is good, and the city is compact and convenient to do anything. Despite a well-developed city, Tokyo is cheaper than San Francisco, New York City, and London in living expenses.

It’s not so cheap as Bangkok, but urban convenience and affordability of living expenses co-exist in this city. However, my number one reason why I do startup here is food quality (laugh).

On the other hand, Guild points out that Tokyo has weak points from the view of foreign entrepreneurs.

Guild continued:

It’s unfortunate that we have to have a registered office though our company encourages nomad working style. If we were Japanese, having a real address would be pretty enough to register a company. But for foreigners like us, we have to set up an environment where we can always work to prepare for the possibility that officials may come and check. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

the process to incorporate a company is very troublesome and difficult, but once you make it, Tokyo is very convenient to do a startup than any other city. Once I learned the procedure to launch a company here, I even could help a new foreign entrepreneur launch his or her startup in Japan (laugh).

The Remote Work team received seed money when participating in Open Network Lab’s Seed Accelerator Program, but currently it is in the process of steadily improving functions and community building and is not taking steps toward further financing at this moment. Although the company is not actively developing its marketing, it has gathered profiles of more than 100,000 cafes in 2,000 cities around the world. This amount is around 30 times more than the accumulated info half a year prior.

In the future and while continuing to improve functions, the company will add a function that will serve as a means of marketing for cafes, and it also plans to release an Android version in addition to the current iOS version. In Tokyo there is no big entrepreneurs’ hubs like Google Campus or Station F, but if foreign entrepreneurs doing nomad work flood the cafes, it could be the appearance of another unique form of a startup hub unlike what we’ve seen in Silicon Valley or Tech City in London.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda