THE BRIDGE

Takeshi Hirano

Takeshi Hirano

Takeshi is a Japanese tech blogger and a co-founder of The Bridge, and is also the CEO for bootupAsia, Inc. He started his career as a web designer.

Articles

Japan-based design site Creatty launches e-commerce channels

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See the original story in Japanese. Creatty is a website that allows creators to show off their work online. Connehito, the Japan-based startup that operates the service, recently announced an e-commerce channel called Creatty Store, where creators can sell their works online without inventory. Since its launch back in April of 2012, the website has acquired more than 20,000 fine arts and crafts items from creators. The service is available to access for free on PC, iOS, and Android platforms. On this new e-commerce channel, the startup plans to feature standout designs posted on the platform and help creators to manufacture them for sale. At the time of launch, items available include skins for smartphone handsets and t-shirts only. The startup will take care of manufacturing and shipping, and pay a commission (upon sale) to those who have designed the products. This is a somewhat unusual approach to its business scheme. For many C2C market sites dealing in handmade crafts (such as Etsy), users sell their works online and the platform will take a commission afterwards. The startup originally considered a concept similar to what other C2C services are doing, but instead they stand in the middle between creators and…

creatty-store

See the original story in Japanese.

Creatty is a website that allows creators to show off their work online. Connehito, the Japan-based startup that operates the service, recently announced an e-commerce channel called Creatty Store, where creators can sell their works online without inventory.

Since its launch back in April of 2012, the website has acquired more than 20,000 fine arts and crafts items from creators. The service is available to access for free on PC, iOS, and Android platforms. On this new e-commerce channel, the startup plans to feature standout designs posted on the platform and help creators to manufacture them for sale. At the time of launch, items available include skins for smartphone handsets and t-shirts only.

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The startup will take care of manufacturing and shipping, and pay a commission (upon sale) to those who have designed the products. This is a somewhat unusual approach to its business scheme. For many C2C market sites dealing in handmade crafts (such as Etsy), users sell their works online and the platform will take a commission afterwards. The startup originally considered a concept similar to what other C2C services are doing, but instead they stand in the middle between creators and buyers. We asked CEO Shunsuke Oyu about why he chose this scheme. He explained:

For craft creators, we thought it would be very simple to photograph the works they produce and simply sell them online. That was our original concept. We developed a web app for selling them online, but very few people used it. We learned the market was not quite mature [enough]. And it was probably hard for them to make goods by themselves.

Typical creators using the service are generally folks into fine arts. And it’s likely difficult for them to manage an inventory of products like experienced e-commerce merchandisers.

Mr. Oyu explains that the startup will add more creators on e-commerce channels with plans to have up to 50 creators in the coming months. They are expecting to start dealing with canvas prints and fashion items as well.

Japan’s Street Academy raises $420,000

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See the original story in Japanese. IntheStreet, the startup behind private lesson marketplace Street Academy, announced today that it has raised 40 million yen (approximately $420,000) from CyberAgent Ventures, Genuine Startups [1], and other angel investors. The service gives users an opportunity to teach something to someone else. By listing the topic that you can teach, you can then easily create a page announcing your lecture. When you teach your lesson, you will receive a fee from the student, and pay 15% as a commission to the startup. The startup’s CEO Takashi Fujimoto started his carrier as an engineer, and he was involved in major projects at an investment fund company. As AirBnB-like offline services have emerged, he wanted to launch a long-tail C2C business by himself. As he started exploring how he could execute his business, the learning community site Skillshare was launched in the US in 2011. Mr. Fujimoto explains: I thought this is it. We are told that the private lesson market is worth 2 trillion yen ($21 billon) in Japan. My wife provides a lesson where she’s teaching how to bake a cake, but she has a problem in terms of acquiring students. Small cooking schools…

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See the original story in Japanese.

IntheStreet, the startup behind private lesson marketplace Street Academy, announced today that it has raised 40 million yen (approximately $420,000) from CyberAgent Ventures, Genuine Startups [1], and other angel investors.

The service gives users an opportunity to teach something to someone else. By listing the topic that you can teach, you can then easily create a page announcing your lecture. When you teach your lesson, you will receive a fee from the student, and pay 15% as a commission to the startup.

The startup’s CEO Takashi Fujimoto started his carrier as an engineer, and he was involved in major projects at an investment fund company. As AirBnB-like offline services have emerged, he wanted to launch a long-tail C2C business by himself. As he started exploring how he could execute his business, the learning community site Skillshare was launched in the US in 2011.

Mr. Fujimoto explains:

I thought this is it. We are told that the private lesson market is worth 2 trillion yen ($21 billon) in Japan. My wife provides a lesson where she’s teaching how to bake a cake, but she has a problem in terms of acquiring students. Small cooking schools still rely on distributing hand-outs for their promotion. This caused me to launch the startup.

In terms of marketplace sites connecting users with private lessons, Cyta.jp is still ahead of Street Academy. What’s the difference between the two services? Street Academy does not check whether teachers can provide the lessons/skills they claim. In contrast to that, Cyta.jp allows teachers to post the description after an interview, in an effort to verify the quality of lessons presented on the website. Fujimoto adds:

In terms of managing quality, our service relies on market principles, which is similar to what Tabelog (a Japanese restaurant review site) is doing. We understand it’s really hard to catch up with our competitors. However, we expect to overcome this by giving users more useful information such as what they have learned in the past, and what background a teacher has.

With these funds, the startup plans to intensify its marketing efforts with the goal of acquiring more than 10,000 students in a year.


  1. Genuine Startups is an investment fund spun off from Tokyo-based startup incubator Movida Japan.

Japanese news curation app Vingow boasts 250% growth in two months

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See the original story in Japanese. A recent survey by Japanese ad agency Hakuhodo indicated that consumers in Tokyo have very saturated contact with media these days. So perhaps it’s no wonder that online news curation services are getting lots of attention recently. The technology behind these services seems to be only getting better. Tokyo-based startup JXPress is providing one such service, a news curation app called Vingow. Earlier this week, the startup added an interesting new feature to its iOS app, pulling the lead portion of curated news articles, creating handy abstracts for users. The startup’s founder and CEO Katsuhiro Yoneshige explained: If you look at a service like Summly, they’re doing this pretty easily (creating abstracts from curated articles), because in English and they can detect which part of the article is the lead, by finding key nouns, verbs, and finding the frequency of spaces or finding a period in a sentence. However, this process is very difficult to do in Japanese. To solve this problem, they needed to use natural language processing technology. The team initially thought this would take a lot of time, but things proceeded far better than they expected. Some of our readers may…

See the original story in Japanese.

A recent survey by Japanese ad agency Hakuhodo indicated that consumers in Tokyo have very saturated contact with media these days. So perhaps it’s no wonder that online news curation services are getting lots of attention recently. The technology behind these services seems to be only getting better. Tokyo-based startup JXPress is providing one such service, a news curation app called Vingow.

Earlier this week, the startup added an interesting new feature to its iOS app, pulling the lead portion of curated news articles, creating handy abstracts for users.

vingow_iosapp_screenshots

The startup’s founder and CEO Katsuhiro Yoneshige explained:

If you look at a service like Summly, they’re doing this pretty easily (creating abstracts from curated articles), because in English and they can detect which part of the article is the lead, by finding key nouns, verbs, and finding the frequency of spaces or finding a period in a sentence. However, this process is very difficult to do in Japanese.

To solve this problem, they needed to use natural language processing technology. The team initially thought this would take a lot of time, but things proceeded far better than they expected.

Some of our readers may recall that Yahoo has recently acquired the aforementioned news curation app Summly, which was developed by a 17-year-old in UK. The Vingow app was developed by students attending Waseda University, and is very similar to the Summly app, not only in function but also in that it was created by young developers.

In order to prevent possible copyright issues (which sometimes occur with news curation apps) the team is discussing with their legal advisor and news media companies.

Since their launch back October of 2012, the app has been growing well, seeing a 250% increase in downloads over the last two months. Their users read as many as 22 articles at a time on average. Yoneshige adds:

In terms of duration of visits, a typical user will stay on general news sites for a few minutes. But on our app they stay for as long as 40 minutes. […] Since our launch last year, we’ve been tagging articles to improve accuracy, giving better recommendations to users. From now, we’ll focus on making it easier to find interesting articles. These two approaches will definitely help our users save their time.

JX Press was founded back in 2008, and introduced the first edition of the Vingow app in 2011. The startup has previously received investments from Cyber Agent, NetAge, Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, and others.

In the Japanese media landscape, they will definitely be one to watch moving forward.

Changing gears: How Japan’s Nulab pulled off the slow pivot

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See the original story in Japanese. Nulab is a startup based in Japan’s western city of Fukuoka, which has developed web-based collaborative tools for use with remote workers. You may be familiar with their diagram sharing tool Cacoo or their task tracking and management tool Backlog. In terms of business management style, Nulab does things a little differently than typical startups. Their method is incrementally progressive, similar to what typical SMEs do. They don’t show off so much, but their services are pretty great, and Cacoo in particular has a wide following around the world. We recently had a chance to hear from the startup’s CEO, Masanori Hashimoto, who told us a little more about their progress to date. Developing Backlog The startup’s primary revenue early on came from developing mobile and web apps for its clients. That’s how Backlog was invented. Hashimoto: We launched back in 2004 and started our business doing software development for clients. So we were working on web productions for our clients in Fukuoka, system developments for securities companies, or even consulting work. In such processes, we had no system for tracking bugs and managing fixes. So we developed our own. That was the beginning…

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From the left, Nulab’s co-founders and board members:
Shinsuke Tabata (managing director),
Toshitaka Agata (managing director), and Masanori Hashimoto (CEO)

See the original story in Japanese.

Nulab is a startup based in Japan’s western city of Fukuoka, which has developed web-based collaborative tools for use with remote workers. You may be familiar with their diagram sharing tool Cacoo or their task tracking and management tool Backlog.

In terms of business management style, Nulab does things a little differently than typical startups. Their method is incrementally progressive, similar to what typical SMEs do. They don’t show off so much, but their services are pretty great, and Cacoo in particular has a wide following around the world. We recently had a chance to hear from the startup’s CEO, Masanori Hashimoto, who told us a little more about their progress to date.

Developing Backlog

The startup’s primary revenue early on came from developing mobile and web apps for its clients. That’s how Backlog was invented.

Hashimoto: We launched back in 2004 and started our business doing software development for clients. So we were working on web productions for our clients in Fukuoka, system developments for securities companies, or even consulting work. In such processes, we had no system for tracking bugs and managing fixes. So we developed our own. That was the beginning of the Backlog app.

Using some open source code and libraries, we could finally introduce the commercial version of the tool after a couple of testing versions. That was in 2006, and at that time the tool was available for free. We didn’t care about charging to our users. (laugh) After that we picked up a lots of new users without any intentional promotion activities.

Subsequently, they released a premium version that was priced at around 8,000 yen (about $80) a month, but that didn’t quite work out. They needed to find another way to make it work.

Hashimoto: We had been developing the app from an engineer’s perspective. We hoped the tool could help software engineers design system architecture or interfaces for their work. But then we changed things and made some improvements for designers or website producers, and the premium version started showing good numbers.

As a result, the tool became widely recognized as a task management tool, not only in the Fukuoka tech community but all across the country.

The emergence of Cacoo

Following up on the Backlog app, the startup introduced Cacoo back in 2010, enabling users to collaborate on diagrams with other remote users, and even chat within the app. Cacoo would go on to become a smash hit.

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Cacoo is now integrated with AdFlow, a banner ad production assisting tool.

Hashimoto: We released the Cacoo app back in 2010. During development work, we previously used wikis for sharing technical information among our developers. But we wanted to edit a diagram or an image in the Wiki easily. And that’s why we started developing the diagram editing and sharing tool.

But for them, it was a very long road to releasing both Cacoo and Backlog. By taking time away from their primary work to develop the Cacoo app, they needed two years to develop the app and get it published.

Shifting focus

Each of the three board members plays a different role. Hashimoto was in charge of managing the client software development, but since these two web services started showing good numbers, he decided to shutdown that department.

Hashimoto: Our director Tabata takes care of the Backlog app, and Agata takes care of the Cacoo app. Since these services are growing now, we shutdown my department. It used to be the primary revenue stream for the company but I think it there is less potential in the future.

We have expected to execute this pivot earlier, but it was impossible to do it so rapidly. We spent three years to shifting our resources from development work to intensifying these new web services.

The startup has also introduced an SDK, which allows third-party developers to work on system integration with the Cacoo app.

I asked Hashimoto if he’s interested in trying for an IPO. He explained:

If your company is listed on a stock exchange, it’s no longer a private company, and should serve people almost like public works. If you expect to make your business into something like that, it’s worth trying to IPO. […] Our next goal is to make this a world-class company.

With the lofty aspiration of further global expansion, Nulab launched a subsidiary in Singapore back in March of 2012. It will be interesting to see if they can use that outpost to find further opportunities around Asia and beyond.

Japanese child education app developer raises $3.5M in series B funding

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See the original story in Japanese. Japanese startup Smart Education, best known as a developer of educational smartphone apps for kids, announced today that it has raised 75.32 million yen (approximately $748,000) from Shinsei Corporate Investment, the investment arm of Japan’s Shinsei Bank. Prior to this funding, the startup raised 200 million yen (about $2 million) from Mitsubishi UFJ Capital and Infinity Venture Partners back in December of 2012, and 75 million yen ($750,000) from Fuji Startup Ventures[1] and CyberAgent Ventures back in April. Thus far, the consolidated amount in its seed B funding is now a total of 350 million yen ($3.5 million). The combination of smart devices and kids education is attracting lots of expectations among investors recently. Smart Education itself has developed nine such apps, which have racked up more than 3.7 million downloads and 800,000 monthly active users. The company points out that almost 50% of all mothers who own smart devices in Japan use these apps. The company’s monetization model is based on selling picture-book or music content via in-app purchasing. For Android users, you can choose a subscription-based membership which charges on a monthly basis. They have already started overseas business expansion, and the…

See the original story in Japanese.

Japanese startup Smart Education, best known as a developer of educational smartphone apps for kids, announced today that it has raised 75.32 million yen (approximately $748,000) from Shinsei Corporate Investment, the investment arm of Japan’s Shinsei Bank.

Prior to this funding, the startup raised 200 million yen (about $2 million) from Mitsubishi UFJ Capital and Infinity Venture Partners back in December of 2012, and 75 million yen ($750,000) from Fuji Startup Ventures[1] and CyberAgent Ventures back in April. Thus far, the consolidated amount in its seed B funding is now a total of 350 million yen ($3.5 million).

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Kindergarten students using the Smart Education apps.
The startup is testing the apps at many kindergartens using 25 tablet devices.

The combination of smart devices and kids education is attracting lots of expectations among investors recently. Smart Education itself has developed nine such apps, which have racked up more than 3.7 million downloads and 800,000 monthly active users. The company points out that almost 50% of all mothers who own smart devices in Japan use these apps.

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Smart Education’s growth: app downloads (gray), monthly active users (red), and revenue (green).

The company’s monetization model is based on selling picture-book or music content via in-app purchasing. For Android users, you can choose a subscription-based membership which charges on a monthly basis. They have already started overseas business expansion, and the startup’s managing director Yusuke Kusakabe explains their localization efforts in Korea is showing good numbers. As mentioned I recently mentioned, there are few competitors in this space, when you compare it to other app categories.

The startup’s directors include members who previously worked at CA Mobile, the mobile-focused subsidiary of CyberAgent. With this funding, the startup will accelerate its overseas expansions and bring in some new employees to help with that effort.

In addition to developing smart device apps, they are developing something like a platform where knowledge regarding kids education can be shared among users.


  1. Fuji Startup Ventures is the investment arm of Japan’s largest private TV network Fuji Television.  ↩

Ready? Fight! A summary of 6 fierce Japanese startup rivalries

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See the original Japanese version of this article If you’re a web startup, chances are you probably have a competitor or two. Maybe more. Here in Japan we are seeing rivals emerge in a number of service categories. Thankfully, with each struggling to stand out from the other, it means that users are most likely to benefit, at least in the short term. I will talk about the major players across six startup categories that have been getting attention here in Japan. Round 1: Stores.jp vs BASE (E-commerce platforms) ¶ I almost wanted to write about just this competition by itself, since both services have experienced rapid growth and the quality of their services is increasing by the day. This is a great example of how intense competition brings better quality product. See STORES.jp in our database See BASE in our database Base: The Japanese freemium e-commerce platform that’s following Shopify’s lead How Stores.jp is helping small businesses in Japan come online Round 2: iQON vs Origami vs MONOCO vs Fril (Smartphone x Fashion) ¶ iQON is media, Origami is commerce, Monoco is a concierge service, and Fril is C2C. Those startups all differ slightly but they share two common…

See the original Japanese version of this article

If you’re a web startup, chances are you probably have a competitor or two. Maybe more. Here in Japan we are seeing rivals emerge in a number of service categories. Thankfully, with each struggling to stand out from the other, it means that users are most likely to benefit, at least in the short term.

I will talk about the major players across six startup categories that have been getting attention here in Japan.

Round 1: Stores.jp vs BASE (E-commerce platforms)

I almost wanted to write about just this competition by itself, since both services have experienced rapid growth and the quality of their services is increasing by the day. This is a great example of how intense competition brings better quality product.

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Round 2: iQON vs Origami vs MONOCO vs Fril (Smartphone x Fashion)

iQON is media, Origami is commerce, Monoco is a concierge service, and Fril is C2C. Those startups all differ slightly but they share two common threads: ‘fashion’ and ‘smartphones’. All have maintained high levels of investor interest. And it is said that this field is about to face a host of new entrants, resulting in even more hype around this space.

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Round 3: CrowdWorks vs Lancers (Crowdsourcing)

The platform concept of these two services differs slightly. However, I feel both have the potential to change the concept of the way people work here in Japan, and that’s what differentiates them from other worker-client matching services.

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Round 4: Coiney vs Rakuten Smartpay vs Paypal

Competition this category is a little more fierce as the players are not all startups. But when I interviewed Coiney I felt that their strategy is not to compete head on with these other payment giants. Check out interview (in Japanese) for more details.

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Round 5: Campfire vs Readyfor vs Countdown (Crowdfunding)

Campfire has gotten a lot of attention so far, but it hasn’t yet resulted in the same kind of impact that we have seen with big overseas players. The first out of the gate in this crowdfunding space was Readyfor, which has differentiated by focusing on social contributions, donations, and NPOs. A critical success factor will be its ability to generate news media exposure.

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Round 6: SmartNews vs Gunosy vs Vingow (News technology)

This field is pretty interesting because the competition depends on technology much more so than in the previously mentioned categories. SmartNews shows its users almost all the same news information, which is different from the other two players. The concept of personalized news is common to Gunosy and Vingow. But Vingow offers users updated information in real-time, different from Gunosy which updates information in batches. Many users might use both services, depending on the occasion.

Gunosy-for-iPhone

I confess, I also wanted to include C2C platforms in this article (such as ticket selling, for example), but I’ll come back to that another time.

Besides those listed above, Japan also has an abundance of camera applications and casual games, but many lack monetization plans and solid business models – so they are less news-worthy in my book. Most of the services listed above have established business models and firm financials, and of course that is a big attraction for investors.

If you’d like to suggest some other hot startup categories or rivalry, please let me know in the comments.

How do you create a strong management team? Japanese internet execs discuss.

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See the original story in Japanese. Below is a condensed, translated version. For startups in their launching phase, sometimes the founders may have interpersonal issues, and the team may fall apart as a result. In order to find some insight from some of Japan’s more successful companies, we recently heard from the executives of three Japanese internet giants, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their management systems. The panel, which took place at last week’s Infinity Ventures Summit, included: Yoshikazu Tanaka, CEO at GREE Kotaro Yamagishi, executive vice president at GREE Yusuke Hidaka, vice president at CyberAgent Tetesuhito Soyama, managing director at CyberAgent Yasuhiro Hagino, managing director at Mixi Yuichi Kawasaki, executive officer at Mixi Moderator: Etsuko Okajima, CEO at Pronova Most executives at GREE have been working together for a long time. Yoshikazu Tanaka, the company’s CEO explains: GREE’s Tanaka: At some companies, growth heavily relies on the founder’s effort. I previously worked at Rakuten where I saw how Hiroshi Mikitani managed the company, I sometimes wanted to work in a way that followed his management style. From my perspective, mobility of personnel is not essential as long as the company keeps growing. But for a startup founder, if…

japanese executives

See the original story in Japanese. Below is a condensed, translated version.

For startups in their launching phase, sometimes the founders may have interpersonal issues, and the team may fall apart as a result. In order to find some insight from some of Japan’s more successful companies, we recently heard from the executives of three Japanese internet giants, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their management systems. The panel, which took place at last week’s Infinity Ventures Summit, included:

  • Yoshikazu Tanaka, CEO at GREE
  • Kotaro Yamagishi, executive vice president at GREE
  • Yusuke Hidaka, vice president at CyberAgent
  • Tetesuhito Soyama, managing director at CyberAgent
  • Yasuhiro Hagino, managing director at Mixi
  • Yuichi Kawasaki, executive officer at Mixi
  • Moderator: Etsuko Okajima, CEO at Pronova

Most executives at GREE have been working together for a long time. Yoshikazu Tanaka, the company’s CEO explains:

GREE’s Tanaka: At some companies, growth heavily relies on the founder’s effort. I previously worked at Rakuten where I saw how Hiroshi Mikitani managed the company, I sometimes wanted to work in a way that followed his management style. From my perspective, mobility of personnel is not essential as long as the company keeps growing. But for a startup founder, if you still keep a large stake in your company, your management board does not work anymore – because all the other board members do is just follow your judgment.

To avoid this particular issue, GREE is working on adding external people to its board of directors.

GREE’s Yamagishi: Our business has been rapidly expanding in the last few years, we actually have many issues to address in our management process. Recently we invited someone new to our board of directors, and asked him to provide some general business advice. He’s 65 years old but has been working in the global manufacturing business.

CEO Tanaka described the external director as a sort of mirror, since he can restrain himself based on things that person points out. When asked by the moderator about a possible change of board members, Tanaka responded he would add more people as the company becomes larger.

In a contrast with GREE, CyberAgent takes a different approach to deliver a improved and efficient management. The system is called CA8, and changes the board members every two years. This was deployed to eliminate employees’ anxiety that they might have no chance to join the board of directors in the future.

CyberAgent’s Hidaka: Our CEO Fujita has alone decided everything about the CA8 system. He said we would create the rules of personnel management and employee welfare from the scratch. If a rule works appropriately, we’ll keep using it in the company. To be honest, the system has some negative effects, but the positive aspects surpass the negative one.

A person from the audience asked if the company has any intention to invite a non-employee to become an executive at a future subsidiary. In response, Hidaka explained:

CyberAgent’s Hidaka: For an entrepreneur running a startup, if you can understand our corporate culture, we can acquire your startup and invite you to our team, which will work well. We haven’t yet done this because we haven’t found such a high-potential talent or startup. We are used to growing a business with our own employees rather than acquiring new business from outside the company. This trend will continue.

Perhaps by this he means that the company requires no drastic changes as long as its business keeps growing.

Mixi’s Ogino: Unlike the other two companies, our growth is in a crucial stage right now. In this situation, some of our employees started to stand in the way of their most competitive colleagues. That is unfortunate. In the beginning of 2010, my previous company was acquired and I joined the team. At that time our people were always following what their boss said, and they had no interest in competing with other internet companies or aiming for the top in the global markets.

In the crucial moments for management or executives, unless you change your mind significantly, your people are likely to see that you are not seriously determined to make things happen. But I learned the entire company may change if a small number of people change their mind.

Mixi acquired Naked Technology back in 2011, and Kamado in 2012. Those startups’ co-founders Yusuke Asakura and Yuichi Kawasaki joined Mixi, and now its board is filled with experienced entrepreneurs.

MugenUp: Disrupting the anime production industry with a crowdsourced workforce

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See the original story in Japanese. The anime business consists of many fundamental tasks, such as rough drawing, storyboard writing, and painting. Even for digitalized anime productions, these tasks still exist. It’s not the most efficient process, and can result in a harsh work environment for many who are employed in the industry. But now there’s a startup that may change all that. It’s called Mugenup. In our recent interview with its CEO Ryota Ichioka, he told us the company has acquired several thousands of crowdsourced workers, and with rapid growth thus far, it could hit 20,000 by the end of this year. The emergence of vertical crowdsourcing sites Japan’s crowdsourcing market is pretty hot right now. Crowdworks is showing good numbers, and Lancers recently completed a big funding round. We asked Ichioka to share some figures on their business, and while he couldn’t go into specifics, he says they are generating revenue in the tens of thousands of dollars every month. This is despite the fact that the startup is less than one year old. In contrast with general-purposed crowdsourcing sites like Crowdworks or Lancers, Mugenup is far more niche with its focus on anime. It functions as an…

mugenup_screenshot1

See the original story in Japanese.

The anime business consists of many fundamental tasks, such as rough drawing, storyboard writing, and painting. Even for digitalized anime productions, these tasks still exist. It’s not the most efficient process, and can result in a harsh work environment for many who are employed in the industry. But now there’s a startup that may change all that. It’s called Mugenup.

In our recent interview with its CEO Ryota Ichioka, he told us the company has acquired several thousands of crowdsourced workers, and with rapid growth thus far, it could hit 20,000 by the end of this year.

The emergence of vertical crowdsourcing sites

Japan’s crowdsourcing market is pretty hot right now. Crowdworks is showing good numbers, and Lancers recently completed a big funding round. We asked Ichioka to share some figures on their business, and while he couldn’t go into specifics, he says they are generating revenue in the tens of thousands of dollars every month. This is despite the fact that the startup is less than one year old.

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Some artwork on the Mugenup website

In contrast with general-purposed crowdsourcing sites like Crowdworks or Lancers, Mugenup is far more niche with its focus on anime. It functions as an intermediary between clients and crowdsourced workers, helping both parties match up with the other much easier than they could before.

Until March of 2012, the startup was developing social gaming apps. But unfortunately that plan didn’t work so well. So they shifted their target client slightly to focus more on mobile game developers.

Most of the projects they’ve dealt with have been single-picture illustrations, but it’s gradually changing to character designs or 2D drawings for Unity, a gaming app integration environment for smartphone.

Things are tough for mobile game studios recently, and most would like to avoid to increase their amount of full-time workers, which means they have to rely on freelance animators or outsourced illustrators. But while most gaming studios typically have in-house programmers, they usually have just a few animators or artists. Ichioka adds:

In addition to individual workers, about 50 studios are registered on our service to receive crowdsourced orders from us, they typically create content for pachinko machines or animated films, but they usually work on our crowdsourced projects during their downtime. In terms of making the most of that downtime, our business model is sort of similar to Raksul, a discount printing startup that makes use of printing factories during their downtime.

Mugenup is a 30-person team for now, and about 20 of those are professional art directors, all comfortable providing directions to crowdsourced animators or illustrators.

For many crowdsourcing sites, what’s the most important is how to create an environment where clients and crowdsourced workers can efficiently work on projects together. At Mugenup, directors use a chat system to communicate with crowdsourced workers, monitor the production process, and give workers revision requests if needed. Surprisingly, production management processes are standardized and workers’ skill sets are well managed.

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Their retention rate for such crowdsourced workers is as much as 60%, which indicates they are highly motivated. Mugenup plans extend its business beyond Japan and to start receiving orders from publishing companies or cartoonists later on.

Some project tasks are difficult to split among different crowdsourced workers. Such tasks include rough sketches or storyboard writing, which are typically an important step to determine the overall character design. To get past this obstacle, the startup asks clients to pick their favorite crowdsourced animators before placing an order, one who fits their taste exactly.

Mugenup has each client fill out a checklist, recording why they have chosen a certain animator. This process helps when placing future orders, because if a client complains that an outcome is not what they expected, they are asked to update form to give better results that can more accurately fit their preference. This process takes some time, but it definitely helps business proceed more efficiently overall. Ichioka further adds:

We believe possible to make our business more scalable, and we’ll be extending our offerings to include three-dimensional or characters in motion as well. […] In this internet era, we are aspiring to build up a new business that leverages fine Japanese craftsmanship.

He hopes that his company can go public in a few years. And given his success so far, it will certainly be a company to watch in the future.

Mugenup was launched in June of 2011, received a seed funding from Incubate Fund in December of 2011, subsequently fundraised 100 million yen (approximately $1 milllion) from Nissay Capital.

CyberAgent CEO Susumu Fujita chats with Japanese entrepreneurs about their journey

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See this story in Japanese. Below are selected excerpts from the original. This is part of our coverage of the Infinity Ventures Summit 2013 in Sapporo, Japan. You can read more of our reports from this event here. In this panel, CyberAgent CEO Susumu Fujita spoke with five young Japanese entrepreneurs to find out more about how they got to where they are today. Participants in the discussion included: Riki Kojima, CEO of Willgate (an SEO solution provider) Nobuhiro Ariyasu, CEO of Coach United (a private lesson provider) Shintaro Otake, the CEO of Tri-fort (social app and smartphone app developer) Kensuke Furukawa, the CEO of Nanapi (an archive of how-to and daily tips) Natsuko Shiraki, the CEO of Hasuna (jeweler) Startup strategies in the face of hardships Otake: I intended to take a radical approach in order to make it successful. I set a target that we surpass Facebook, and I learned that we need radical and rapid growth to reach that goal. Kojima: At the age of 20, my company was still two years old but employed too many people, even though I didn’t have much business experience at that time. With our 100 million yen funding ($1 million), I…

See this story in Japanese. Below are selected excerpts from the original.

This is part of our coverage of the Infinity Ventures Summit 2013 in Sapporo, Japan. You can read more of our reports from this event here.


In this panel, CyberAgent CEO Susumu Fujita spoke with five young Japanese entrepreneurs to find out more about how they got to where they are today. Participants in the discussion included:

  • Riki Kojima, CEO of Willgate (an SEO solution provider)
  • Nobuhiro Ariyasu, CEO of Coach United (a private lesson provider)
  • Shintaro Otake, the CEO of Tri-fort (social app and smartphone app developer)
  • Kensuke Furukawa, the CEO of Nanapi (an archive of how-to and daily tips)
  • Natsuko Shiraki, the CEO of Hasuna (jeweler)

Startup strategies in the face of hardships

Otake: I intended to take a radical approach in order to make it successful. I set a target that we surpass Facebook, and I learned that we need radical and rapid growth to reach that goal.

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Willgate’s CEO Riki Kojima

Kojima: At the age of 20, my company was still two years old but employed too many people, even though I didn’t have much business experience at that time. With our 100 million yen funding ($1 million), I hired 30 people but the company unexpectedly collapsed too soon. Subsequently I found a colleague’s chat post that mentioned ‘I shouldn’t work with this company.”

Fujita: What are the advantages and disadvantages of launching your business when attending school?

Kojima: I had no business experience, so that I couldn’t figure out what was the best approach. I was forced to take a roundabout route and fail repeatedly. I’m still young, so people tend to see me as an immature business person, but in fact this makes me better at feeling people’s pains.

Monetization and business strategies

Fujita to Furukawa: I frequently visit your blog, and I know you’re quite good at writing stories. You, the company’s president, often show up on the web. What is there to gain from that?

Nanapi's CEO Kensuke Furukawa
Nanapi CEO Kensuke Furukawa

Furukawa: If you’re running an internet service, you should be familiar with the space. But on the other hand, it was once pointed out at an important business appointment that I might have too much time to spare. Many employee applicants come to us through my blog. Compared to applicants we find through talent search services, they are highly motivated and bring much benefit to our business.

Fujita: For today’s business owners, your blogging strategy makes sense. Not only to help your hiring efforts, but it may also help you bring your vision and message to employees as well. But what’s your overall strategy behind Nanapi? Are you just focused on growing it without considering monetization? Do you plan to sell it off to other companies?

Furukawa: In order to monetize the service, we need to make it grow. We have 20 million monthly unique users, not yet sufficient for the monetization. In Japan, if you monetize an internet service, it should be among the top 50 sites in the country in terms of internet traffic. Some web media companies have succeeded to monetize, but my interest is in making big stuff.

Coach United's CEO Nobuhiro Ariyasu
Coach United CEO Nobuhiro Ariyasu

Fujita: In my view, Cyta.jp (Coach United’s private lessons portal) is not very ‘Internettish’. How do you feel about it?

Ariyasu: No, our operations are not ‘Internettish’, as you say. For many online service providers, you typically send inquires to consumers to find out if they are satisfied with the customer experience. We actually use mystery shoppers to conduct surveys. In case that we can’t acquire users by e-mail marketing, sometimes even use telephone marketing.

Entrepreneurial culture in Japan

Fujita to Furukawa: Gradually we’re getting a culture where people admire exits. Do you plan to run your business independently without funding? Or are you interested in selling off?

Furukawa: We actually fundraised from Globis Venture Partners. In terms of our business model, our focus is on enlarging our media business. Selling off is a good option. But for now, we’d like to look at buying someone else’s service in order to enlarge our business.

I developed the Nanapi service because I couldn’t find any similar one. In our four-year experience since the launch, I eventually learned that it’s not so promising. Everyone wanted to have it but nobody actually did it, since it’s a bother.

Fujita: In Japan, entrepreneurs are generally not admired much. What do you think about this?

Furukawa: In my understanding, Japan is a country where we can easily launch a startup. We can also receive orders from big companies regardless of the size or maturity of the business. Compared to foreign countries, startup founders in Japan are relatively older, probably because we (generally) prefer to launch a business after getting work experience at a big company. For me, I’ve worked at Recruit for three years, which I think helps me do business more easily. If you are a student, people typically look down on you.

Kojima: When I failed in my business, I was bothered by the issues surrounding capitalization strategy and employment. I wanted more details about this information. I failed once but I bounced back even though I was immature. I hope our society can be tolerant of people who fail.

Ariyasu: Japan is heaven for entrepreneurs. Considering the huge amount of cash flow available in the market, the population of entrepreneurs going after that cash is extremely low. We need more success stories than we need government efforts to help entrepreneurship. If we get more billionaires, more people will get excited about entrepreneurship.

Fujita: Absolutely. If we have more success stories, that will certainly have an impact on people’s mindsets.

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Tri-fort CEO Shintaro Otake

Otake finishes by asking Fujita a question: When are you planning to retire? What kind of people would you want to hand the company over to?

Fujita: To be honest, I’ve been always thinking [about] stepping down — when our business became profitable, when we completed the launch of Ameba (CyberAgent’s blog service). But the fact is, every time that we make an achievement, another new goal comes up.

For our media business especially, I was heavily involved in building it up. I did too much, and now I can’t really hand it over to someone else. (big laugh from the audience.)

How can Line monetize its 150 million users?

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See the original story in Japanese. This is part of our coverage of the Infinity Ventures Summit 2013 in Sapporo, Japan. You can read more of our reports from this event here. In contrast with that GREE and Mobage (by DeNA) who released a wide range of web-based game titles, native apps are grabbing much more attention, notably Puzzle & Dragons and Line’s repertoire of gaming apps. But can their revenue be sustained? And how will they lead the smartphone app market? We had a chance to hear from Jun Masuda, chief officer at Line Corporation, where he spoke about how to monetize apps and open the platform to the third-party developers. According to the stats from App Annie CEO Bertrand Schmitt, the Line app was ranked in 4th as of last March, based on consolidated global revenues from the iOS Appstore and Google Play. Masuda: For message app developers, you usually make money by selling stickers, ads, and charging for derivative services. For social network providers, you may might make your living with advertising. But if you rely only on that revenue stream, it’s far too difficult to sustain your business. It’s important to mix up revenue streams, both…

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See the original story in Japanese.

This is part of our coverage of the Infinity Ventures Summit 2013 in Sapporo, Japan. You can read more of our reports from this event here.


In contrast with that GREE and Mobage (by DeNA) who released a wide range of web-based game titles, native apps are grabbing much more attention, notably Puzzle & Dragons and Line’s repertoire of gaming apps. But can their revenue be sustained? And how will they lead the smartphone app market?

We had a chance to hear from Jun Masuda, chief officer at Line Corporation, where he spoke about how to monetize apps and open the platform to the third-party developers.

According to the stats from App Annie CEO Bertrand Schmitt, the Line app was ranked in 4th as of last March, based on consolidated global revenues from the iOS Appstore and Google Play.

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Masuda: For message app developers, you usually make money by selling stickers, ads, and charging for derivative services. For social network providers, you may might make your living with advertising. But if you rely only on that revenue stream, it’s far too difficult to sustain your business. It’s important to mix up revenue streams, both charging users and with advertising, and keep that in balance. Sale of stickers is showing good numbers, and the app is ranked in first place if you exclude gaming apps, both on the Google Play and the iOS app store.

Popular stickers, popular characters

Masuda: We’ve had success acquiring users in the Thai market, so non-Japanese also like this concept of decorative communications, adding stickers in chat. Our revenue comes primarily from the Japanese market. Prices for our stickers are common in all around the world. Prices are relatively high for Thai users, but they still like to buy the stickers.

In terms of sticker sale trends, we’re not seeing any apparent gap between the globally version and locally-optimized versions. A sticker showing familiar characters, Brown & Cony, is the best selling one in the global markets. In the countries where local people typically watch Japanese animation films or understand what kawaii means, the Line app business does well. In the rest of the world, however, business is not so good.

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Make the most of 150 million users

Masuda: In the latter half of last year, the Line Pop app was the best selling of our gaming apps. For games there have been 140 million downloads, and 25 titles. I can’t disclose revenue numbers, but our strategy is to acquire new gaming users on the Line user base.

We intend to keep introducing titles that female users will like, but we carefully set prices that won’t force them to pay too much. They typically play the games where they like to talk with someone over the phone. We’ll try to think further on how to monetize.

If an app has its name associated with the Line app, it usually has a very high rank in the app store. Prior to the launching the app in the gaming app category, we check if the app behaves as intended, and assure the quality of its user experience.

Opening the platform to third-party developers

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Line’s Jun Masuda

Masuda: We are actually receiving many inquires about opening the platform to third-party developers. But there’s no plan for the time being. As we’ve been doing until now, we’ll work with partner developers who have ideas on what kind of games are suitable for Line users. We shutdown the in-company gaming studio team back in April. Kakao has more than 200 gaming titles, which makes me feel the life-cycle of a title is getting shorter. We’re now carefully thinking what to do next.

For more information on the growth of Line, please check out our interactive Line Timeline which chronicles its growth from its launch back in 2011 up until the present day.