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

Japanese corporate communication platform Talknote has more than 5,000 clients

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See the original story in Japanese. Talknote, a Tokyo-based startup providing an in-company social network platform for sharing among colleagues, announced that it has acquired more than 5,000 corporate users. The startup was launched in February of 2010, pivoted to a communication tool for business in 2011, and raised funds from CyberAgent Ventures in March of 2012 [1]. They’ve been seeing good numbers lately with 1,400 corporate users coming on board in the last two months, and company’s CEO Haruo Koike says the service will be reaching a growth rate of 1,000 users a month very soon. It was more than three years ago when I met with Haruo for the first time to discuss the original version of Talknote. At that time it was intended for chatting in closed groups, but the shift to target enterprise users has yielded good results. The CEO’s eccentric background has really helped the rapid growth of the company. He has been running several restaurants since he was young, and I still remember how he emphasized the importance of feature phone-optimization for web services, making them easier to use at working sites like restaurants where adoption of digital services can be very slow. And…

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See the original story in Japanese.

Talknote, a Tokyo-based startup providing an in-company social network platform for sharing among colleagues, announced that it has acquired more than 5,000 corporate users. The startup was launched in February of 2010, pivoted to a communication tool for business in 2011, and raised funds from CyberAgent Ventures in March of 2012 [1].

They’ve been seeing good numbers lately with 1,400 corporate users coming on board in the last two months, and company’s CEO Haruo Koike says the service will be reaching a growth rate of 1,000 users a month very soon.

It was more than three years ago when I met with Haruo for the first time to discuss the original version of Talknote. At that time it was intended for chatting in closed groups, but the shift to target enterprise users has yielded good results.

The CEO’s eccentric background has really helped the rapid growth of the company. He has been running several restaurants since he was young, and I still remember how he emphasized the importance of feature phone-optimization for web services, making them easier to use at working sites like restaurants where adoption of digital services can be very slow. And he has apparently done a good job of bringing such businesses onto his platform. Haruo tells me that internet companies and IT business account for only the 20% of the entire user base. The rest are restaurants which were accustomed to fax or feature phone-based e-mails for their internal communication.

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The Growth of Talknote subscribers (corporate accounts)

Most users have learned about our service by word of mouth from restaurant owners whom I know, and they’ve decided to use the service not because of better usability than other tools but because those owners find the value that Talknote may help them get away from conventional analog communication tools.

When I saw it for the first time, I thought it was just a Yammer clone and would be a new group chat tool for high school girls. But what Haruo is proposing is not developing an innovative system but evolving ways of communication in places slow to adapt to digital. It will be long journey to make this happen.

Compared to the other businesses, people working in the restaurant industry can be very digitally challenged, they don’t want to use anything even if it’s a bit complicated. I’ve been working here for 10 years, and that experience helps a lot in developing the service.

We often follow cutting edge technologies or business models in the tech space. But this conversation reminds me that this is just the tip of the iceberg when building new services or new businesses. Talknote is expecting to acquire 10,000 users by the end of this year. We hope they’ll have a big impact on digitally challenged businesses with their product.


  1. The amount of funds raised was not disclosed.  ↩

NTT Docomo launches startup incubation program, partners with 500Startups and B Dash Ventures

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See original story in Japanese Japan’s largest mobile telco NTT Docomo (NYSE:DCM) today announced its new incubation program called ‘Docomo Innovation Village’ (first alluded to back in October) has launched. Its goal will be to intensifying business partnerships with startup companies. In connection with the start of this program, the company is planning to launch a new 10 billion yen fund (approximately $107 million) (called Docomo Innovation Ventures) by receiving all shares of NTT Investment Partners, a fund managament company belonging to NTT group’s stock holding company. The fund will be established in late February. Docomo is a relative late-comer in the Japanese incubation industry, but many entrepreneurs are certainly happy about this announcement because the telecom’s brand will lend an element of trust to any invested company. The program starts receiving applications today, and each of five to six qualified startups will be able to receive a grant of 2 million yen, as well as office space for system development and mentoring. The startups will be asked to finish their development in five months, and then present their results at a release event scheduled for late September. NTT Docomo executive Toshiki Nakayama explained that standout candidates will receive an offering…

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See original story in Japanese

Japan’s largest mobile telco NTT Docomo (NYSE:DCM) today announced its new incubation program called ‘Docomo Innovation Village’ (first alluded to back in October) has launched. Its goal will be to intensifying business partnerships with startup companies.

In connection with the start of this program, the company is planning to launch a new 10 billion yen fund (approximately $107 million) (called Docomo Innovation Ventures) by receiving all shares of NTT Investment Partners, a fund managament company belonging to NTT group’s stock holding company. The fund will be established in late February.

Docomo is a relative late-comer in the Japanese incubation industry, but many entrepreneurs are certainly happy about this announcement because the telecom’s brand will lend an element of trust to any invested company.

The program starts receiving applications today, and each of five to six qualified startups will be able to receive a grant of 2 million yen, as well as office space for system development and mentoring.

The startups will be asked to finish their development in five months, and then present their results at a release event scheduled for late September. NTT Docomo executive Toshiki Nakayama explained that standout candidates will receive an offering to collaborate, as well as promotional and marketing assistance plus additional investments from the fund.

For further details about the program, visit this page [1].

Where does Docomo fit in the startup ecosystem?

So what should entrepreneurs think of this new program? We can help but compare it with KDDI Mugen Labo and KDDI Open Innovation Fund, both operated by Japan’s second largest telco, KDDI, Docomo’s closest competitor.

The Docomo program aspires to differentiates itself others by aggressively partnering with other accelerators. It has partnered with 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based seed accelerator which has invested in more than 450 startups in the last two years. Japanese startups in its portfolio include online translation service Gengo, online ticketing and event promotion startup PeaTix, and social lending service AQUSH. The Docomo program allows qualified startups to receive mentoring by 500 Startups partners, and also offers multi-faceted support for startups interested in doing business in North America. It was also announced that the program will also include a partnership with B Dash Ventures, a Japanese investment fund focused on startups.

But the bottom line is that startups will have to be qualified to receive all these privileges. The program intends to help participating startups go global, but if all are doing domestic-centric business, the partnership with 500starups will not work at all. So it will be interesting to see what kind of programs get accepted for the program, and we look forward to hearing what they roll out post-development in September.


  1. Not yet online at the time of writing.  ↩

Lang-8: The language learning startup that’s playing the long game

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Lang–8, launched in 2007, is a language-learning platform in which users from different language backgrounds can socially correct each other’s writings. The CEO YangYang Xi started the service when he was 23 years old while studying at Kyoto University. Xi, born in China and raised in Japan, got the idea of the language-learning platform from keeping a diary, in which he asked friends to correct his own writings (in Chinese) when he was studying in Shanghai. Six years, half a million users later ¶ Skip to the present day in 2013, and Lang–8’s user base is about to reach 510,000, with the current active user rate at about 10%. The service is used by people in 190 countries, 70% of them from outside Japan. The primary users are business professionals. While the 500,000 user milestone is an impressive one, the company took more than a little while to get there. When asked about this six-year journey, Xi says he didn’t experience real growth until about a year ago, and that it took a lot of preparation to reach this point. Having started his career as a student entrepreneur, the first order of business was research and development. The service needed…

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Lang–8, launched in 2007, is a language-learning platform in which users from different language backgrounds can socially correct each other’s writings.

The CEO YangYang Xi started the service when he was 23 years old while studying at Kyoto University. Xi, born in China and raised in Japan, got the idea of the language-learning platform from keeping a diary, in which he asked friends to correct his own writings (in Chinese) when he was studying in Shanghai.

Six years, half a million users later

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Skip to the present day in 2013, and Lang–8’s user base is about to reach 510,000, with the current active user rate at about 10%. The service is used by people in 190 countries, 70% of them from outside Japan. The primary users are business professionals.

While the 500,000 user milestone is an impressive one, the company took more than a little while to get there. When asked about this six-year journey, Xi says he didn’t experience real growth until about a year ago, and that it took a lot of preparation to reach this point.

Having started his career as a student entrepreneur, the first order of business was research and development. The service needed to expand enough to be profitable. Initially Lang–8’s staff spent the majority of their time on site development and other technical elements. But two years after launch, Xi had a bit of a falling out with his engineer. Abandoned and left alone to nervously face 15 servers on his own, he decided that he couldn’t entrust his work to other people. That moment prompted him to make an effort to learn programming, and in the following two years, he learned development skills by interning at a friend’s company.

Interestingly, this period of personal growth for Xi coincided with strong user growth on the site as well – likely not a coincidence.

In 2009, Lang–8 received an angel investment of about 10 million yen from four private investors, including Nishikawa Kiyoshi of NetAge. In order to raise more funds, he will have to prove that Lang–8 has real growth potential. And that means addressing one key problem: smartphone support. Lang–8′s competitor busuuu experienced sudden growth as an iPhone application, reaching 1,9000,000 users. And while Lang–8′s userbase is not as large, its position as a social network is unique. If solid smartphone support is added, Xi believes it could become a serious competitor.

The other crucial point is monetization. Xi explained several of his ideas for controlling the corrections which play a central role in the service. For example, whether an entry receives corrections can be an issue. About 60% of English entries get corrected, as compared to 80% of entries in other languages. But a paid service could ensure that all entries are corrected. The jump from free to paid is never easy, but if that’s what users are looking for, it may possible.

Belief in an idea

Xi’s six-year journey from a struggling student startup to a community of 500,000 has certainly not been a glamorous one – although his persistence is certainly admirable. But compared to the explosive growth of social gaming and chat services in recent years, Lang–8′s growth rate might not grab the attention of investors.

Even with the recent improvement in user growth, there must have moments when Xi considered throwing in the towel. But he asserts, “I feel it has potential, and that’s why I can continue.” There are several entrepreneuers who are currently supporting him as mentors, and hopefully this can help with his plans to grow and expand his staff in the future.

That kind of unshakable belief in an idea is what has carried him this far. And with any luck, it’ll continue to drive him as he takes Lang8 to the next level.

Japanese fashion coordination site iQON raises $3.2M, will boost marketing efforts

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See original story in Japanese Vasily, a Tokyo-based startup which runs online fashion coordination service iQON, announced today that it has fundraised a total of 300 million yen (approximately $3.2 million) from Globis Capital Partners, Itochu Technologuy Ventures, and GMO Venture Partners. This is the second round of funds following the previous series A funding of 140 million yen ($1.5 million) in May of 2011. The iQON service allows you to combine clothing and accessories online and share fashion coordination ideas with other users. Each item has a direct link to fashion e-commerce sites where you can purchase it, and the startup will generate revenue from partner sites using an affiliate model. More than 300,000 coordinated outfits have been registered since the service launched in April of 2010, and users are bookmarking their favorites more than a million times a month. The startup introduced its iOS app last February (and an Android app is now also available) which really took off. It even helped some of their partnering e-commerce sites make more than 20 million yen monthly sales through the affiliate traffic. The company focused on service development in the series A phase, but will be intensifying branding and marketing…

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See original story in Japanese

Vasily, a Tokyo-based startup which runs online fashion coordination service iQON, announced today that it has fundraised a total of 300 million yen (approximately $3.2 million) from Globis Capital Partners, Itochu Technologuy Ventures, and GMO Venture Partners. This is the second round of funds following the previous series A funding of 140 million yen ($1.5 million) in May of 2011.

The iQON service allows you to combine clothing and accessories online and share fashion coordination ideas with other users. Each item has a direct link to fashion e-commerce sites where you can purchase it, and the startup will generate revenue from partner sites using an affiliate model. More than 300,000 coordinated outfits have been registered since the service launched in April of 2010, and users are bookmarking their favorites more than a million times a month.

The startup introduced its iOS app last February (and an Android app is now also available) which really took off. It even helped some of their partnering e-commerce sites make more than 20 million yen monthly sales through the affiliate traffic. The company focused on service development in the series A phase, but will be intensifying branding and marketing efforts from now on.

When discussing fashion e-commerce sites in Japan, we can’t help but mention Zozotown (listed on the Tokyo Mothers exchange since 2007). The site is a partner for Vasily rather than a competitor because the two companies have different business models and won’t compete and/or conflict. Vasily’s CEO, Yuki Kanayama, says they will keep working closely with their good partner Zozotown in the future.

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Vasily Inc.’s CEO: Yuki Kanayama