THE BRIDGE

Interview / News

Japan’s Cluster secures $3.6M series B to develop own VR live show content

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. Tokyo-based Cluster, the Japanese startup behind the social VR (virtual reality) app under the same name supporting thousands-scale events in VR space, announced on Wednesday that it has secured 400 million yen (about $3.6 million) in a series B round. The participating investors in this round are XTech Ventures, Global Brain and KDDI. Cluster also announced that Hiroki Teshima, General Partner at Tokyo-based VC firm XTech Ventures, will join the VR startup’s board as an outside director. With the funding at this time following the previous series A round, the company has raised a total of about 650 million yen ($5.9 million) to date. Using the funds, they will create a studio to produce their own content, aiming to spread their VR user experience to more people. VR live performances using the Cluster platform has been receiving favorable reviews. Virtual talent Luna Kaguya’s live event hosted (by Sony Music Labels’ Sacra Music) back in August sold a VR event ticket  for 5,000 yen ($45) and the public viewing ticket for 3,000 yen ($27). At the live event for another virtual talent Phi that took place in July, not only his on-stage performance but also…

cluster-investor-team
The Cluster exec team with investors particpating in a series B round
Image credit: Cluster

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Cluster, the Japanese startup behind the social VR (virtual reality) app under the same name supporting thousands-scale events in VR space, announced on Wednesday that it has secured 400 million yen (about $3.6 million) in a series B round. The participating investors in this round are XTech Ventures, Global Brain and KDDI.

Cluster also announced that Hiroki Teshima, General Partner at Tokyo-based VC firm XTech Ventures, will join the VR startup’s board as an outside director. With the funding at this time following the previous series A round, the company has raised a total of about 650 million yen ($5.9 million) to date. Using the funds, they will create a studio to produce their own content, aiming to spread their VR user experience to more people.

cluster-kaguya-luna-live
Live performance by virtual talent Luna Kaguya in August
Image credit: Cluster

VR live performances using the Cluster platform has been receiving favorable reviews. Virtual talent Luna Kaguya’s live event hosted (by Sony Music Labels’ Sacra Music) back in August sold a VR event ticket  for 5,000 yen ($45) and the public viewing ticket for 3,000 yen ($27). At the live event for another virtual talent Phi that took place in July, not only his on-stage performance but also staff meetings, backstage operations  and stage directions were being also held using the VR platform to showcase to the audience.

In an interview with The Bridge, Cluster CEO Naoto Kato told us one or two large events a month usually take place on the platform while mostly small events take place every week. Hosting an event on the platform doesn’t cost at all, which motivates organizers to conduct their shows as a profitable business or even on a test basis.

We’d been wanting to perform live music on the cluster platform, so we turned it into reality. However, we don’t mean to create a metaverse.

We want to develop a marketplace that allows users to sell and buy virtual experiences like space trips — Amazon for virtual experiences.

cluster-sora-live
Live perfomance by virtual talent Tokinosora (content modified for privacy protection)
Image credit: Cluster

Kato says, from the business model perspective, VR-based show business is similar to that for the social game industry. A social game title usually takes one to two years and costs at least several million US dollars to complete its development. Regarding whether it will be a smash hit or not, every bullet has its billet. Compared to social game development, virtual talents or their performances can conduct trial-and-error experiments in a shorter cycle and for a lower cost. The trending wave of social waves may turn its direction towards virtual talent-powered VR events in the near future.

Kato added:

We think we are in a “bonus stage” this year where we make it possible to host VR-powered live performances by virtual talents. We could convinece people that we can make a profitable business by offering these experiences.

We want to develop a good experience before the bonus stage ends. I guess it will be a do-or-die game for us next year. To make the first-ever experience in Japan or in the world, I want to massively continue working with my like-minded- colleagues full of energy.

Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Tokyo Office Tour: MUFG opens co-working space in birthplace of banking in Japan

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. This is part of our ‘Tokyo Office Tour’ series (RSS), a modest attempt to better understand how folks in the local startup scene are working every day. Over the last year several FinTech startup activity bases were established around the Tokyo Station. Finolab relocated and renewed their space, and a number of events were held at FinGate, which was established by Heiwa Real Estate. There are also many FinTech startups at the Global Business Hub Tokyo (GBHT), which is also home to 500 Startups Japan among others. The financial district in Tokyo is largely located across from Tokyo Station and divided between the Marunouchi-Otemachi side and the Yaesu-Nihonbashi side. The Marunouchi-Otemachi side was established by Yatarou Iwasaki, the founder of the former Mitsubishi Zaibatsu conglomerate, while the Yaesu-Nihonbashi side holds the origins of the modern financiers. As the name suggests, Marunouchi is the area directly in front of the Imperial Palace and there are not many properties to be had for startups just beginning, but in the Nihonbashi area, FinTech startup offices are popping up more and more. This spring, in a little corner of Nihonbashi’s Kabutocho neighborhood, MUFG Digital Accelerator, which is presided…

MUFG Digital Accelerator’s “The Garage” was born in Nihonbashi’s Kabutocho, Tokyo. There are many people who enter under the impression that it is a bank on account of the conspicuous signage.

See the original story in Japanese.

This is part of our ‘Tokyo Office Tour’ series (RSS), a modest attempt to better understand how folks in the local startup scene are working every day.

Over the last year several FinTech startup activity bases were established around the Tokyo Station. Finolab relocated and renewed their space, and a number of events were held at FinGate, which was established by Heiwa Real Estate. There are also many FinTech startups at the Global Business Hub Tokyo (GBHT), which is also home to 500 Startups Japan among others.

The financial district in Tokyo is largely located across from Tokyo Station and divided between the Marunouchi-Otemachi side and the Yaesu-Nihonbashi side. The Marunouchi-Otemachi side was established by Yatarou Iwasaki, the founder of the former Mitsubishi Zaibatsu conglomerate, while the Yaesu-Nihonbashi side holds the origins of the modern financiers. As the name suggests, Marunouchi is the area directly in front of the Imperial Palace and there are not many properties to be had for startups just beginning, but in the Nihonbashi area, FinTech startup offices are popping up more and more.

This spring, in a little corner of Nihonbashi’s Kabutocho neighborhood, MUFG Digital Accelerator, which is presided over by the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) opened up their first co-working space called The Garage. I popped in to see their space after the dust settled from renovations.

The MUFG Digital Accelerator currently operates a four month acceleration program about once a year, and it is time for them to finalize the batch for their second phase. The 7 startup teams currently participating in the batch have reached the final stage and are putting the finishing touches on their plans for collaboration for the demo day on July 28.

See also:

The five teams that participated in last year’s first batch, as well as the logo of the seven teams of the second batch currently in progress are displayed at the entrance.

On the premise of cooperating together, “Facilitators” from the MUFG Digital Accelerator assign MUFG employees called “MUFG Mentors” to each of the seven participating startups, as well as external collaborators from VCs and other accelerators who are participating as “Pro-mentors”. Over the course of the program, monthly pitch days, weekly and biweekly mentoring, API meet-ups and mini Hackathon gatherings are held at The Garage.

The first floor houses a desk space overflowing with the feeling of openness
In the basement a living room space gives off a relaxed air
The demo day countdown timer. There are about 3 weeks left.

(Unlike corporate accelerators) an independent accelerator is one that aims to support entrepreneurs trying to develop businesses from scratch with various resources, encourage market-ready products to be released to the world, and lead the companies to the next fundraising round. On the other hand, corporate accelerators will look for startups to collaborate with, the aim being to create some sort of output, but it is rare for truly productive collaborations to be born by merely matching up startups and in-house business personnel.

In the case of MUFG, each group company recently established a department called the “FinTech Promotion Office”, and each company has devoted active internal personnel to lead, thus creating a smoother environment for collaboration with startups. Much like a reality talent competitions such as American Idol, during the second stage representatives from each group company listen to pitches made by the startups, nominate teams they see as compatible for potential business collaborations, and commit themselves to supporting the team until the program ends (or even after that).

Some people from the management team and participating startups of MUFG Digital Accelerator

The MUFG accelerator program has evolved from its first batch as a FinTech accelerator, to a broader scope with the second batch as a digital accelerator. Until now, participation in the program was restricted to domestic Japanese startups, but starting with the next batch, they will actively focus on accepting overseas startups. But before that, we look forward to the demo day for the second batch on July 28th.

A sign in front of The Garage showing the place of origin of Japan’s banks

Translated by Amanda Imasaka

Kyoto’s Makers Boot Camp partners with La French Tech to help more IoT startups grow

SHARE:

This is a guest post by Sabrina Sasaki, a marketing representative of Kyoto-based hardware startup accelerator Makers Boot Camp. The accelerator holds the Monozukuri Hub Meetup event in Kyoto on a monthly basis. Additionally, all photos in this article were taken by Kyoto-based systems biologist Tugi Guenes. Last week we took part of the closing event of France Japan Innovation year: a special forum when an official mission from France visited Japan to validate bilateral business opportunities. The event happened on December 6th and 7th at Knowledge Capital – Grand Front Osaka (Umeda) , as the outcome of two years of collaboration, when the parts involved had the chance to showcase, all in the same space, their next steps and also new opportunities in innovation between both countries. Makers Boot Camp had a booth area together with KSN (Kyoto Shisaku Net), our prototype experts, a network of SMEs who support small lot production for startups creating a new product. KSN has already clients from France, and they also count on some French team members to support French startups. We shared our area side by side with Kyoto VR, a brand new startup working on combining both arts and technology for…

sabrina-sasaki-150x150This is a guest post by Sabrina Sasaki, a marketing representative of Kyoto-based hardware startup accelerator Makers Boot Camp. The accelerator holds the Monozukuri Hub Meetup event in Kyoto on a monthly basis.

Additionally, all photos in this article were taken by Kyoto-based systems biologist Tugi Guenes.


L to R: Olivier Ginepro, Economic Counselor for the French Embassy of Japan,
Narimasa Makino, Makers Boot Camp CEO

Last week we took part of the closing event of France Japan Innovation year: a special forum when an official mission from France visited Japan to validate bilateral business opportunities. The event happened on December 6th and 7th at Knowledge Capital – Grand Front Osaka (Umeda) , as the outcome of two years of collaboration, when the parts involved had the chance to showcase, all in the same space, their next steps and also new opportunities in innovation between both countries.

Our team had a prototype expert support from Emery Delmotte, French team member of KSN,
part of Saijo Inx Sales Team.
Thierry Dana, French Ambassador to Japan, visited our booth,
when Emery highlighted all the close ties between France and KSN.

Makers Boot Camp had a booth area together with KSN (Kyoto Shisaku Net), our prototype experts, a network of SMEs who support small lot production for startups creating a new product. KSN has already clients from France, and they also count on some French team members to support French startups.

We shared our area side by side with Kyoto VR, a brand new startup working on combining both arts and technology for a unique virtual reality experience. Recently, they exhibited a demo session at Nuit Blanche, a French event in Kyoto, with a special project involving IoT for cultural initiatives. Paris and Kyoto are already sister-cities in the fields of Fine Arts and Architecture and IoT should also be considered for the next projects.

Makers Boot Camp team with all the invited startups for the pitch session: Atmoph, PLENGoer and Kyoto VR.
Atmoph team members Chikaku Kato, Customer Relations, and Kyohi Kang, CEO and Co-Founder,
introduced their smart window already available for sale in Paris and other overseas markets.
PLENGoer team with their open-source robots that will be in a tour to US for CES 2017.
For Japanese makers like them, France is also a key market they plan to expand to.

During the two days of the event, there were sessions with key industry players from both countries, as Valeo, Michelin, Orange and Dassault Systems, Toyo Aluminium, SynphaTech Japon, and also a special session day focused on IoT startups. The purpose of the event was to bring stakeholders involved on the current discussions between France and Japan in order to achieve a plan for concrete actions in the next years.

With this spirit, Makers Boot Camp signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with La French Tech, represented by The French Embassy of Japan.

In May 2016, on behalf of Makers Boot Camp, I was invited to attend two outstanding hardware events in France: Connected Conference and Innorobo. It is clear the potential of disruptive projects in robotics and healthcare being created in France, so we’d like to partner with local players interested to reach a global market with high quality. Currently, there are players from both Japan and France willing to promote an exchange of technologies and resources.

From the French local governments,
Aix-Marseille Provence and Occitanie sent their representatives from both private and public sectors.

From Toulouse city, Julien Toulouse paid us a visit to our ecosystem in Kyoto, including our KSN factories with French team members involved. The tour was a way to illustrate Japanese small lot capabilities for French startups.

On Japanese side, Kansai representatives from local government and companies were also supporting the event. We hope the players involved can commit to a more active role in both countries, fomenting IoT industry all over the world.

Japan’s Seven Dreamers, developer of laundry-folding robot, secures $55 million

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. A product from Japan created quite the stir at Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and CEATEC JAPAN in Tokyo this year. It is Laundroid. The “harmony” of clothing analysis, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics blend together to produce a “fully automatic clothes folding machine.” Japan technological alliance “seven dreamers laboratories’ is the developer. The product details have been released in various places, so I won’t get into that, but as the name says, “It’s a robot that folds clothes. No further explanation is needed.” The company announced a partnership with Panasonic (TSE:6752) and Daiwa House (TSE:1925) last year, and together established the joint venture Seven Dreamers Laundroid with plans to begin sales by reservation for their first machine “Laundroid 1” in March of 2017. The developer, Seven Dreamers, announced on November 14th the securement of 6 billion yen (around $60 million US) in funds from SBI Investment, in addition to Panasonic and Daiwa House. The shareholding ratios and payment date remain undisclosed. The concept began in 2005, and with the realization of “folding” from 2013, Laundroid was born. I heard from Seven Dreamers CEO Shin Sakane about the road it took to get…

laundroid_featuredimage

See the original story in Japanese.

A product from Japan created quite the stir at Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and CEATEC JAPAN in Tokyo this year.

It is Laundroid.

The “harmony” of clothing analysis, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics blend together to produce a “fully automatic clothes folding machine.” Japan technological alliance “seven dreamers laboratories’ is the developer. The product details have been released in various places, so I won’t get into that, but as the name says, “It’s a robot that folds clothes. No further explanation is needed.”

The company announced a partnership with Panasonic (TSE:6752) and Daiwa House (TSE:1925) last year, and together established the joint venture Seven Dreamers Laundroid with plans to begin sales by reservation for their first machine “Laundroid 1” in March of 2017.

The developer, Seven Dreamers, announced on November 14th the securement of 6 billion yen (around $60 million US) in funds from SBI Investment, in addition to Panasonic and Daiwa House. The shareholding ratios and payment date remain undisclosed.

The concept began in 2005, and with the realization of “folding” from 2013, Laundroid was born. I heard from Seven Dreamers CEO Shin Sakane about the road it took to get here.

seven-dreamers-shinichi-sakane-2
Seven Dreamers CEO Shinichi Sakane

The reason for creating something never seen before was “a comment from my wife”

I came today with the idea of asking straight out, “What happened to make robots fold the laundry?” So, what happened? (with a laugh)

Well, to be straight, “It’s now possible to recognize clothes using artificial intelligence,” is maybe the simplest answer I can give.

I see. Let’s go through the process. How did the idea first come to you?

Before that, first permit me to talk a little about what criteria the Seven Dreamers esteem. For us, there are three criterion for “Things that have not been realized yet but could change our lives, and also enrich them.” The technological hurdles are high and our policy is to clear them.

That’s true. You’ve made something that sets high hurdles.

Since first coming up with the idea, I was thinking about different markets to satisfy all the criteria. Looking around we see many products targeted at men. Starting now and into the future, ‘women’, ‘the elderly’, and ‘children’ are the keywords that will become important.

After thinking, the idea that maybe the answer lies within the home came to me and, while I don’t usually talk with my wife about work, I casually mentioned it to her. What do you wish you had? She came back just as fast, “Of course, it has to be a machine that folds the laundry.

Ah, so your wife is the reason!

The hurdle was higher than I had imagined (laughingly). But, if it’s something I can do, if I use the then current mechatronics and neural networks, which is what AI was called at the time, I thought it might be possible.

This was that same day, right?

Yes. It was in 2005. But, after a number of years passing it was really hard to hear “You still haven’t managed it?” (laughingly)

laundroid-products
Seven Dreamers are the producers of “Things not already in this world”.
L to R: “Landroid” laundry-folding robot, “Nastent” nasal strips for less snoring sleep, carbon golf shaft

A Decade of Development and the impact of “Lehman Shock”

After that development began. It took about 10 years, right?

Yes. After my wife said it I had an aha moment, and the next day I lightly searched through patents and things and while there was evidence of it, it seemed like no one had really followed through on it.

So you thought you had a chance.

At the time, on the homepage of a certain home appliance maker there was a corner for ‘appliances 30 years in the future’, and it was there, so maybe.

That’s 2035.

Even after looking through global patents, no one was doing it, so that’s it, I’ll do it. At the time I thought it would take 5 years to come together. However, that estimate was too optimistic. And also with the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2009, we had to reduce our personnel.

In the first place you needed funds. Lots of people begin by accumulating funds, what about Laundroid?

At the time, the business I had launched in the healthcare field was earning money for me. Up until very recently this continued to produce a fair amount of money, making it easier for me to start companies like Laundroid.

I see. To what extent had the development proceeded before the personnel reduction caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers?

We were able to fold t-shirts. However, this was the premise of (robots) being able to understand that the clothing was a t-shirt. But, yeah, there’s no real meaning in that. From that start I was thinking to incorporate this into a dryer, but it wouldn’t work if the robot couldn’t recognize the crumpled clothing. This is where I hit a wall.

Did you ever think about quitting after the overlap of technical difficulties and the shock of the fall of Lehman Brothers?

I suppose normally management would make the decision to stop. But I really thought we could do it. Also, I couldn’t stop after working on it for four years straight. We seriously debated this within the company. In the end, after two years the company saw a V-shaped recovery and we were able to increase staff again.

laundry-detection
It took 10 years to realize the “clothing recognition” technology for Laundroid.

The Technical Team Overcomes the Barriers

About the problem of “recognizing crumpled clothing” that probably made the technical team want to pull their hair out, how did you clear this hurdle?

Even when laundry is all crumpled and mixed together, if you look at the collar you know what it is, right? Even I can do that, so a robot must be able to. We continued machine learning, but it was impossible.
Then I received a proposal from the development team, “Not mixed together, but if we try it one at a time we might be able to do it.”

Were you able to do it by separating them?

Because of that we changed our approach, but even then it was unrecognizable. There were too many patterns because of the flexibility (of clothing). We weren’t getting any closer to an answer.

It does seem impossible (with a laugh). How did you overcome it?

At the end of the process you come away with folded clothes, right? Then you can spread it out. This is what we needed to make recognizable. Then again and again we changed the circumstances. From here there were real challenges. (Writer’s note: The details are confidential here, so it will remain unwritten.)

From the folded state to the original crumpled state, one step at a time, it took 5 years. How many times did you have breakthroughs?

Hmm, about once every two years. Just as soon as we’d say, “Yes! We did it!” the next wall would come with an, “Ugh.” (laughingly)

That must have been difficult. But you did it. At what point were you able to say, “It’s folded! Yes!”

Actually it was done in stages, so it’s difficult to choose one point, but if we make it the day we were able to recognize a laid out t-shirt and then fold it, that was around the end of 2013. At that time, if we didn’t procure funds things would have become grave, so the day of the presentation for investors was unbearable. I was nervous about whether it would work well or not.

Thus, in May of 2014 with the first presentation of Laundroid they secured funds from their first outside shareholders. After this, they would go on to partner with Panasonic, Daiwa House, and SBI Investment, etc.

laundroid-clothes
When users put the crumpled clothing into the lowest box on the machine it folds it for them. There are plans to integrate it into washing and drying machines in future versions.

A Judgement Just in Time, The Last Requirements

To wrap it up, in a situation where most people probably would have quit, you made a judgement and now have created “a world where robots can fold clothes.” What do you think is important when making such a decision?

I am, after all, a man of science, so I make sure to accurately look at the numbers. But, when trying to make something that has never been made before, there are many things that can not be judged by numbers.

In university a professor told me something. For example, today is a day in October, right? Up to this point the preceding researchers have illuminated a bright path. From here on out the road we will travel is going to be dark.

What direction should you choose to go in on a road bathed in darkness, and the professor asked me, “Shin, how are you going to decide?” Then I answered, “Umm, experience right?” and he replied, “That is the answer of someone traveling on the bright path.”

I understand.

The answer is intuition.

So it comes down to human power?

Of course it’s not merely intuition. We should exhaust our search of the bright path, exhaust our inspection of human wisdom. After accumulating this (knowledge), new knowledge is created. For example, if I decided I wanted to make shoes that fly right now, my intuition tells me, “It’s not possible yet.” That is important.

Thank you for your very interesting story. I’m looking forward to the official release and future versions (of Laundroid).

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda

seven-dreamers-shinichi-sakane-1
Seven Dreamers CEO Shinichi Sakane

In conversation with Acquia’s Dries Buytaert, inventor of Drupal

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. Acquia Labs’ establishment was announced just last week, while Dries Buytaert, the man in the spotlight, visited Tokyo. The purpose of his trip was to attend “Young Global Leaders” – a branch community of World Economic Forum for business leaders under the age of 40, which was held at Roppongi Hills – in addition to Drupal Summit Tokyo which was hosted by digital business consulting firm CI&T, known for its utilization of Drupal. Before leaving for San Francisco, Buytaert was interviewed by The Bridge together with David Peterson, in charge of the Asia-Pacific region. He spoke passionately about the future outlook and what he hopes to accomplish through Drupal and the newly established Acquia Labs. Acquia upholds the phrase “moving beyond the page” to surpass conventional web technologies and show its determination to attain the next stage. The New York subway system has adopted Drupal as a backend to collect all kinds of information regarding train operations and to provide these via open API, to produce over 80 native apps. It uses Drupal for the display system in the subway station-yard based on information acquired from sensors onboard trains and beacons inside stations. Tesla…

See the original story in Japanese.

Acquia Labs’ establishment was announced just last week, while Dries Buytaert, the man in the spotlight, visited Tokyo. The purpose of his trip was to attend “Young Global Leaders” – a branch community of World Economic Forum for business leaders under the age of 40, which was held at Roppongi Hills – in addition to Drupal Summit Tokyo which was hosted by digital business consulting firm CI&T, known for its utilization of Drupal.

Before leaving for San Francisco, Buytaert was interviewed by The Bridge together with David Peterson, in charge of the Asia-Pacific region. He spoke passionately about the future outlook and what he hopes to accomplish through Drupal and the newly established Acquia Labs.

Acquia upholds the phrase “moving beyond the page” to surpass conventional web technologies and show its determination to attain the next stage. The New York subway system has adopted Drupal as a backend to collect all kinds of information regarding train operations and to provide these via open API, to produce over 80 native apps. It uses Drupal for the display system in the subway station-yard based on information acquired from sensors onboard trains and beacons inside stations. Tesla adopted Drupal for its e-commerce website, dashboards or mobile apps. Nike plans a new experience with smart shoes, although it is still a prototype; by linking with sensors embedded in the soles, users can buy new shoes simply by swiping the smartphone screen after running a certain distance and their shoes start wearing out. Nike’s backend uses Drupal too.

It indeed seems a new attempt beyond the original Drupal CMS (content management system) coverage, but the abovementioned examples can be realized by scratch development using conventional technologies. According to Buytaert, Acquia Labs is considering more complicated concepts to differentiate Drupal, and one of its ultimate purposes is “contextual experiences” which is to provide experiences optimized according to content.

Buytaert says,

For instance, imagine a situation where I visit an airline company’s website. Generally, airline companies seek to sell tickets to visitors. But if I just have lost my baggage or have missed a connecting flight, I am not looking to reserve another flight then. I want them to help me. So, I have to say that current websites are still uncontextual.

He continued:

We provide a product called Acquia Lift for the publishing industry. By learning about the website visitors and their behaviors, it creates profiles for each user based on inflows from cross channels: re:read/not read, which channels they came from… other websites, mailing lists or push notification. It understands user preferences, for example if one is interested in startups but not in politics, and provides better experiences after the next visit.

There are some cooperative cases with Amazon Echo which is lately much discussed. On a website of the grocery chain Gourmet Market, users can enjoy an interactive purchase experience. Although this chain store doesn’t actually exist and is just there for demonstration, a technology to realize interactions between the website and Amazon Echo with only a few lines of code has already been brought forth.

Hints for information provision via web that differs from conventional ones are scattered all over daily life. In case a grocery chain publishes 2,000 cooking recipes on its website, most accesses to the website are not from users at home but from those visiting retailers. That was unexpected even for the grocery chain; most consumers do not purchase ingredients after checking recipes but searches recipes while checking ingredients at retailers. After realizing this, the grocery chain set beacons at the food section of retailers linked with the web, and then became able to provide better experiences to visitors.

Buytaert says:

35,000 users actively contribute to the Drupal community. A very large community. I am sure that they will quickly adapt to new products, and I want them to get excited with new things.

drupal-summit-tokyo-2016-at-shibuya-dots
Drupal Summit Tokyo 2016 held at Shibuya Dots, on October 21
Image credit: CI&T

Drupal’s local events like this one held in Tokyo have gathered from 100 to 2,000 visitors in several places the world over almost every weekend, resulting in about 100 events being held annually. Through collaboration with developers such as CI&T which invited Buytaert and Peterson to Tokyo this time, Drupal has strengthened ties with local communities all over the world and seeks cooperative relationships with large enterprises or startups under the Acquia Lab scheme which has commenced anew.

It is an interesting concept under which developers who have been participating in the CMS community can “automatically adapt” to advanced technologies including AI (artificial intelligence), interactive UI (user experience) or IoT (Internet of Things) due to the evolution of core platforms. A few years later, the expression of “web developer” might disappear as a type of engineer occupation for job offers on recruitment websites.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

acquia-labs-and-ci-and-t-team
Acquia/Drupal and CI&T teams
From the left: Hiroaki Kawabuchi (Marketing & Communications, CI&T), Alencar Koga (Operation Director, CI&T), Dries Buytaert (Founder, Drupal / Co-founder, Acquia Labs), Yoshiyuki Ueda (General Manager, CI&T), and David Peterson (Solution Architect, Acquia Asia-Pacific)
Image credit: Masaru Ikeda

 

Base, Japan’s answer to Shopify, snags $14M to strengthen payment solutions unit

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. As per some media reports, Tokyo-based Base, the Japanese startup behind an instant e-commerce platform, recently announced it has fundraised a total of 1.5 billion yen (about $14.4 million) from SBI Investment, SMBC Venture Capital and Suneight Investment. The details of the plan concerning the investment ratio or the payment date were not disclosed. The secured money will be spent upon hiring additional personnel in order to expand business for the e-commerce platform Base and the payment platform PAY.JP. See also: Japanese e-commerce platform Base raises $3M from Global Brain Japanese e-commerce platform provider Base raises $2M from CyberAgent Japanese e-commerce platform provider Base introduces new iPhone app Base: The Japanese freemium e-commerce platform that’s following Shopify’s lead Currently 300,000 online stores is open on Base and the number of PAY ID which works as customer ID reached 200,000. Therefore, the annual transaction amount now totals at tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) according to Base CEO Yuta Tsuruoka. There has been plenty of topics in this arena, such as one of the rival companies STORES.jp unveiling its new development to become a private-held company again; overseas competitor The Stripe’s…

base-yuta-tsuruoka-1
Base CEO Yuta Tsuruoka

See the original story in Japanese.

As per some media reports, Tokyo-based Base, the Japanese startup behind an instant e-commerce platform, recently announced it has fundraised a total of 1.5 billion yen (about $14.4 million) from SBI Investment, SMBC Venture Capital and Suneight Investment. The details of the plan concerning the investment ratio or the payment date were not disclosed. The secured money will be spent upon hiring additional personnel in order to expand business for the e-commerce platform Base and the payment platform PAY.JP.

See also:

Currently 300,000 online stores is open on Base and the number of PAY ID which works as customer ID reached 200,000. Therefore, the annual transaction amount now totals at tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) according to Base CEO Yuta Tsuruoka.

There has been plenty of topics in this arena, such as one of the rival companies STORES.jp unveiling its new development to become a private-held company again; overseas competitor The Stripe’s entering the Japan market in the financial sector including payment, investment and remittance; Coiney’s expansion into online business from its offline field; or, the appearance of AnyPay led by a serial entrepreneur Shinji Kimura.

The Bridge interviewed Tsuruoka about how Base which has succeeded in large-scale fundraising will compete in this era in a “warring nations.”


The Bridge: First of all, I would like to ask you about Base’s development plan. I am wondering if the pace of growth will become modest soon and whether you have any ideas such as strengthening sales promotion which targets enterprise merchants?

I assume you mean to ask if we are going to make something like a Rakuten (TSE:4755) or not. This is the same situation I think for STORES.jp. Regarding this point, we came to a crossroads about a year ago.

Sales promotion is a must-do in acquiring stores with hundreds of millions of yen sales, but it is more efficient to automatically acquire small stores with sales of less than millions of yen. I think that style befits the situation. Since the stores acquired through sales promotion could be stolen away by sales promotion, I do not want to compete in such a field.

From the perspective of being a technology company, I would like to take on the creation of a good product in order to form an ecosystem semi-automatically and make people happy through the power of technology.

base-screenshots

The Bridge: What was the purpose of launching a mall app?

It was to challenge selling products as Base. The way we were going, we could estimate where we would end up businesswise, so we decided to enhance the budget and human resources at that point in time. It is not still clear if that answer is the mall or the media but we will continue to strengthen those parts too.

The Bridge: Is it a method to attract a lot of customers?

It aims to gain customers who purchase products on the web once a month but could purchase them twice or thrice in a month because we cannot become a Rakuten or an Amazon. Rather, we provide a system of helping stores instead of us gathering people easily. Although the mall has an image as proactively gathering customers in general, I look upon our mall as a method of supporting management of stores after gathering customers.

The Bridge: I understand it is the policy to increase LTV (Life Time Value) under the current growth situation. On the other hand, Mercari — which invested in your company — has succeeded with the style of expanding its body size anyhow. It there any possibility of doing like that?

I think that it is a good idea to expand the body size eagerly as a challenge. Since it has become quite common recently for a customer who purchased a product to purchase it again at other stores, I think that is worth trying.

base-investors
L to R: Kazuma Ieiri (Co-founder of Base), Shintaro Yamada (CEO of Mercari), Yuta Tsuruoka (CEO of Base), Fumiaki Koizumi (CFO of Mercari)

The Bridge: What did Shintaro Yamada of Mercari advise you?

He told me to be on the offensive (laughing).

Based on the fact that Base is growing modestly and that there are only a few platforms grasping merchants as much as we do, he told us to take on as much challenges as possible. I received a lot of advice through information exchange using Mercari’s data that could be disclosed.

The Bridge: What was the advice especially helpful to you?

About organization. We had fully changed our company’s organization. Since initially any organization did not exist, we started reforming from this spring and have become a company capable of having a report line or more staffers.

My work content has also changed drastically. Although I had been in the very middle of the creation process until last year, I have moved to a more “upper” (executive-like) position now. I am not working as a communication hub by leaving responsible persons with the power of discretion to some extent. But I still cannot act like Shintaro who keeps staying in US for a long time (laugh).

The Bridge: What is the priority for your company?

Although the priority of recruitment was lower until last year, it has become a top priority now. With Mercari’s style spreading to us, we intend to form a new employee-friendly work environment. I had not been aware of the importance of recruitment well because I had been involved in our business since university. Mercari was the first external company for me, so that it was easy to absorb the culture.

The Bridge: How have you been with co-founder Kazuma Ieiri?

We meet three or four times a week even now, but he mainly tends to discuss his current project CAMFIRE rather than Base (laugh).

base-yuta-tsuruoka-2
Base CEO Yuta Tsuruoka

Competing in the financial vertical

The Bridge: What is the most valuable number for you now?

Of course we make much of the total transaction amount which is growing to the hundreds of million dollars in scale annually, so we aim the next digit.

The Bridge: In the stage of the next digit, Mercari stands as a Goliath. Do you have any ideas about expanding business into the C2C field as a management person?

The business characteristics between us and them are completely different; the culture is different from the player in the SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) arena, and the customers differ too. There are some elements in their products which can be a useful reference for us. However, originally we started our business with a theme how much we can optimize the exchange of value. Of course, it is no doubt that a drastic increase in the transaction amount is better, but it is highly doubtful whether it would lead to our company’s mission directly.

Some people say the C2C market has a higher potential growth than the SME one, but I do not agree with that. Look at Rakuten. It is huge enough.

The Bridge: As for payment business, the service directions are gradually being clarified, such as short-term loans, payments and remittances. What is PAY.JP especially focusing on?

Maybe I would start from payment service first. PAY ID is available for 300,000 stores and is linked to 200,000 users now. This is the situation I was looking forward to and I think it is a good timing as a whole.

The Bridge: Is there any rival company to watch out for?

Thankfully, we are faced with many rival companies in all time-periods (laugh).

The Bridge: I feel Mr. Kimura (of AnyPay) has a philosophy which seems close to ours. I suppose their direction is to replace trading with money to that using the Internet, so that could lead into the remittance and financial areas in the future.

We had focused on how much we can increase the number of merchants over the past three years. Now the team has separated into Base team for gathering stores and PAY.JP team for gathering consumers, and I think we have entered a new phase focused on increasing the number of consumers.

The Bridge: Thank you for your time today.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Former exec of Rakuten, Sony, gets $4.1M seed funding for “housing version of Tesla”

SHARE:

See the original story in Japanese. A former student entrepreneur has returned to the startup scene in order to challenge global issues. In 1995 Takeshi TED Homma was a student entrepreneur working with the early internet doing web design and development. He followed this by playing active roles at Sony and Rakuten, and recently talked with The Bridge about a new startup he is working on. HOMMA, the startup, tackles issues related to “the home.” As is written on their website “Redefining our standard of living,” it is an ambitious project to create a new vision of the future with regards to the necessities of life. Homma had never contemplated a return to entrepreneurship, but a single opportunity presented him with the chance to get back to the startup world. He said: I was thinking of buying a house, but it would take few years to complete. That’s a few years. In Japan it would only take a matter of months. And what’s more, it would be very expensive. I tried to find a solution, thinking there must be one. But no. That’s what got me thinking. But it would take Homma nearly 2 years to reacclimate himself back into…

takeshi-ted-homma
Takeshi TED Homma

See the original story in Japanese.

A former student entrepreneur has returned to the startup scene in order to challenge global issues.

In 1995 Takeshi TED Homma was a student entrepreneur working with the early internet doing web design and development. He followed this by playing active roles at Sony and Rakuten, and recently talked with The Bridge about a new startup he is working on.

HOMMA, the startup, tackles issues related to “the home.” As is written on their website “Redefining our standard of living,” it is an ambitious project to create a new vision of the future with regards to the necessities of life. Homma had never contemplated a return to entrepreneurship, but a single opportunity presented him with the chance to get back to the startup world.

He said:

I was thinking of buying a house, but it would take few years to complete. That’s a few years. In Japan it would only take a matter of months. And what’s more, it would be very expensive. I tried to find a solution, thinking there must be one. But no. That’s what got me thinking.

But it would take Homma nearly 2 years to reacclimate himself back into the entrepreneurial world.

homma02-620x380

He continued:

Is this really necessary? Is there no solution? Since there was no need to rush I focused intensely on preparing. At the same time, I never went so far as to say this about the entrepreneurial pursuits of my 20s, but somewhere I think maybe there was a part of me doing it for self-actualization too. But this time I had a clear vision and that’s how the decision came to me to spend what’s left of my life doing something for society. So that’s why I’m doing this.

The vision of a new lifestyle, especially the innovation of daily living, is what convinced the self-questioning Homma.

He added:

It took 100 years for the telephone to become the iPhone. 100 years later and Ford cars have evolved into Tesla. But what about homes? Have they changed in 100 years?

Homma used the phrase “a housing version of Tesla” so that even I could easily understand his meaning, but with just 5 words the view of the world that he is trying to achieve spawned endless possibilities. He originally began due to the fact that houses are expensive and take years to finish, but solving these problems will result in “homes becoming more fun”.

Their task is to make houses smart. If their goal is to summit the mountain, they are still at the foot, perhaps having approached the first station.

Regarding funding, Mistletoe, B Dash Ventures, Genuine Startups, 500 Startups Japan, East Ventures, Draper Nexus, and architectural firm KMDW participated in the seed round. The prominent lineup of individual investors starts with Hiroshi Mikitani (co-founder and CEO of Rakuten), and includes Tomohito Ebine (founder of Opt), Shintaro Yamada (CEO of Mercari), Hirokazu Mashita (founder and director of m&s partners), Hiroaki Yasutake (former managing executive director of Rakuten), Kotaro Chiba (co-founder of Colopl), Hollywood-based film producer Masi Oka.

The company raised $4.1 million in capital. This is an extraordinary amount to raise at the seed stage for a Japanese startup, but is appropriate when you consider them trying their hand on the world playing field. Furthermore, he is gathering members that sympathize with his vision who joined from companies such as Apple, Tesla, Amazon and Disney. Their current team of 7 members is working full time to prepare their product at their headquarters in Silicon Valley.

homma03-620x192

So, what image of the future are they trying to paint? What is their current situation?

As they are in stealth mode, and also currently still verifying whether the product lives up to Homma’s vision of the “new home,” a precise answer to these questions will take a little more time. However, he was able to talk about challenges with current devices for so-called “smart homes.”

He said:

The so-called ‘smart home’ market is a power struggle between big players like Google, Apple, and Samsung. As a result there are lots of apps and plenty of devices too. I’ve tried them out, but after taking out my smartphone and opening an app that shows battery level, the login screen comes up. (And I think) ‘So, when is the battery going to run out?’

If you ask Homma, at the moment the solutions are not at all useful, and there are three big problems to consider with the current smart home market.

He continued:

First, with smart homes you always have the issue of controls. But this is merely a discussion of on/off and adjustments. Not interesting at all. Next, the level of integration is low. For example, you add a thermostat, but the cooperation with the house is low. As a result we’re not able to do much. Finally, the third problem is communication. If you have 100 smart light bulbs and replace the router, you have to reset everything from scratch. If you use all-purpose Wifi and BLE problems in stability will arise.

Homma disclosed that if he had to choose one way of advocating smart home platforms, as opposed to the direction of horizontal development that Samsung chose in acquiring SmartThings for $200 million, he envisions a model similar to Apple’s or Tesla’s where everything from devices to software are vertically integrated. However, he intercedes that in everything there are a series of stages to go through to achieve goals.

He explained:

Time is the problem. For example, to build a house from ground up takes a long time. We have to think about it together with a scalable deployment. Take the iPod as an example; first, you make the software and the rest comes along after that, or Tesla that started by developing batteries.

But while listening to him speak I couldn’t help but imagine a lifestyle like those portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey or works by Osamu Tezuka. With childlike excitement that I couldn’t contain, I felt that I want to experience it as quickly as possible, and now Homma and his team are preparing to make it real.

It takes a little more, for Homma as well, to imagine the collection of big data, that is mass data taken from sensors, from these houses. But, with this as a basis, houses using artificial intelligence for home controls are something he is conscious of. In the past, this field has seen challengers in the area of communication robots here and there, with voice recognition controls by major home appliance makers and more recently in Vinclu’s Gatebox.

In other words, you arrive home and when you announce, “I’m home,” a robot turns on the lights while scanning your face for user recognition, and then uses your social data to recommend your favorite TV show–this is a glimpse of the world view. On top of allowing this to more fully develop, they will more intimately integrate with “the home itself.”

Maybe an autonomous driving house. — To borrow Homma’s words, perhaps in the future we may come into contact with such a product.

The reasons for focusing on Silicon Valley while facing the world playing field are its continued growth in population, high talent level of the population, and Homma remarked whoever is left standing here can become the “world standard.”

Nearly 20 years have passed since his days as a student entrepreneur.

Actually, I really thought someone would appear and solve this problem. But no one showed up so I’m going to do it.

Homma said this with a gleam in his eye, like someone ready and even eager to tackle all future obstacles.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda

Internet of Things key players from Japan, Taiwan reveal next-gen trends of entrepreneurs

SHARE:

This is a guest post by Sabrina Sasaki, a marketing representative of Kyoto-based hardware startup accelerator Makers Boot Camp. The accelerator holds the Monozukuri Hub Meetup event in Kyoto on a monthly basis. Additionally, all photos in this article were taken by Kyoto-based systems biologist Tugi Guenes. On Tuesday, Makers Boot Camp joined a special Monozukuri Conference organized by Osaka City and held at Osaka Innovation Hub, getting together key players in the hardware ecosystem to introduce new trends for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The main lecture was given by Osamu Ogasawara, CEO of Tokyo-based hardware incubator ABBALab CEO Osamu Ogasahara. HWTrek team members Roger Wu, VP of Supply Chain, and Alan Jung, Business Development for Japan, brought their international expertise from manufacturing in China and Taiwan, and our CEO Narimasa Makino presented Makers Boot Camp partnership with Kyoto Shisaku Net, a group of over 100 local manufacturers that combined their business strengths to face daily industrial challenges, focused on their prototype expertise (Design for Manufacturing). The purpose of the panel discussion was to talk about new ways that collaboration in hardware can lead to a win-win business environment SMEs can benefit from. The main topic was introduced by Ogasahara,…

sabrina-sasaki-150x150This is a guest post by Sabrina Sasaki, a marketing representative of Kyoto-based hardware startup accelerator Makers Boot Camp. The accelerator holds the Monozukuri Hub Meetup event in Kyoto on a monthly basis.

Additionally, all photos in this article were taken by Kyoto-based systems biologist Tugi Guenes.


jisedai-monozukuri-kaigi-20161004-2
L to R: Moderator Gen Tagaya (Business Innovation Center Osaka), Osamu Ogasahara (ABBALab), Narimasa Makino (Makers Boot Camp), Roger Wu (HWTrek), Alan Jung (HWTrek)

On Tuesday, Makers Boot Camp joined a special Monozukuri Conference organized by Osaka City and held at Osaka Innovation Hub, getting together key players in the hardware ecosystem to introduce new trends for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

The main lecture was given by Osamu Ogasawara, CEO of Tokyo-based hardware incubator ABBALab CEO Osamu Ogasahara. HWTrek team members Roger Wu, VP of Supply Chain, and Alan Jung, Business Development for Japan, brought their international expertise from manufacturing in China and Taiwan, and our CEO Narimasa Makino presented Makers Boot Camp partnership with Kyoto Shisaku Net, a group of over 100 local manufacturers that combined their business strengths to face daily industrial challenges, focused on their prototype expertise (Design for Manufacturing).

jisedai-monozukuri-kaigi-20161004-5
L to R: Moderator Gen Tagaya (Business Innovation Center Osaka), Osamu Ogasahara (ABBALab), Narimasa Makino (Makers Boot Camp), Roger Wu (HWTrek), Alan Jung (HWTrek)

The purpose of the panel discussion was to talk about new ways that collaboration in hardware can lead to a win-win business environment SMEs can benefit from. The main topic was introduced by Ogasahara, part of his own experience as a serial entrepreneur, leading recent IoT trends in Japan, not only for ABBALab and the DMM.make ecosystem but also for Sakura Internet.

See also:

dmm-make-akiba_featuredimage
DMM.Make in Akihabara

Ogasahara spoke about the challenges to start changing the common sense to a new market, focused on small and medium-size manufacturing industries and its specific needs. Just as the internet has revolutionized the information industry, manufacturing is following the digital age, and there are many opportunities available in the current industrial structure for SMEs to develop and adapt more quickly to the market’s new demands.

In addition to this movement, automation evolution and factories using 3D printers, such as the China movement of manufacturing-based entrepreneurs with a focus on gathering in Shenzhen, is massive and growing more and more, starting a new way of manufacturing: smaller lots, targeting customized products for connected devices.

hwtrek-expert-lists
HWTrek

The concept of connected devices and IoT (Internet of Things) leads to a range of new opportunities to solve most of our current problems: large corporations can’t handle them, as its structures are solid and change demands more time than our resources can wait. The solution then remains on small and medium enterprises, who must play an innovative role and be open to try new things out, as startups have been doing actively and constantly.

jisedai-monozukuri-kaigi-20161004-3
Alan Jung, Business Development for Japan, HWTrek

Roger encouraged entrepreneurs to invest time and energy talking to the new creators in order to try to find alternative applications for their own products and technologies: new projects are coming out, from many hubs in the world, as HWTrek platform has proven, and partnerships between creators and experts can lead to new approaches and different solutions.

The audience, composed by around a hundred SMEs, was interested to share insights about how to change the common sense and consider the new IoT market: a new business model for the manufacturing industry. During the networking session, innovative cases of new business in IoT were presented by HWTrek, to introduce creators that will come to Japan in November to network with local enterprises.

jisedai-monozukuri-kaigi-20161004-4
Roger Wu, VP of Supply Chain, HWTrek

Makers Boot Camp is co-organizing the next Asia Innovation Tour 2016 with HWTrek. The tour will start in Shenzhen on November 2nd and arrive in Japan on November 7th, with the following two events open to the public.

  1. Monozukuri Hub Meetup (sponsored by Kyoto City): Japan as a Starting point for IoT – November 7th (Monday)
  2. Osaka Innovation Hub: HWTrek Meetup – November 8th (Tuesday)

If you’re interested to know more about Design for Manufacturing, join our next meetup on October 12th at MTRL Kyoto, where we’ll make a direct bridge Paris-Kyoto, bringing Japanese and French makers and talk about ways to get ready for manufacturing.

See also:

Creating Japan’s Open Internet – Kaneto Kanemoto

SHARE:

The content of this article first appeared on Disrupting Japan. It has been reproduced by The Bridge with the approval of Disrupting Japan and the article’s author Tim Romero. Tim is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster and author who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 20 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast and is deeply involved in Japan’s startup community as an investor, founder and mentor. Kaneto Kanemoto founded OKWave to address a problem that was unique to the Japanese internet in the mid-1990’s. Most of the country felt the situation was inevitable, even natural, but Kanemoto-san knew it had to change. Although Japanese people are exceptionally polite in day-to-day interaction, due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, people behaved very differently online. In the early days, the mood was one of bullying, hostility and exclusion. Kanemoto-san founded OKWave to address these problems on the Internet in particular and in society in general, and he has succeeded remarkably at both. The Internet is a far more helpful and much more welcoming place thanks to him and OKWave. Tim: For those who don’t know, can you explain what…

tim-romero
Tim Romero

The content of this article first appeared on Disrupting Japan. It has been reproduced by The Bridge with the approval of Disrupting Japan and the article’s author Tim Romero.

Tim is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster and author who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 20 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast and is deeply involved in Japan’s startup community as an investor, founder and mentor.


kaneto-kanemoto-startup-founder-okwave
OKWave founder Kaneto Kanemoto

Kaneto Kanemoto founded OKWave to address a problem that was unique to the Japanese internet in the mid-1990’s. Most of the country felt the situation was inevitable, even natural, but Kanemoto-san knew it had to change.

Although Japanese people are exceptionally polite in day-to-day interaction, due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, people behaved very differently online. In the early days, the mood was one of bullying, hostility and exclusion.

Kanemoto-san founded OKWave to address these problems on the Internet in particular and in society in general, and he has succeeded remarkably at both. The Internet is a far more helpful and much more welcoming place thanks to him and OKWave.


Tim: For those who don’t know, can you explain what OKWave does?

OKWave is Japan’s largest Q&A community. We have over 40 million active users who come to ask and answer questions about work and life, and even about love.

Tim: Really, people talk about their love life?

Sure. People ask “I’m in love with my boss. What should I do?” or “I’m having trouble getting pregnant, what can I do?” When we first started, we had a lot of IT-based questions, but as more and more non-technical people started using the Internet, there were more and more questions about everyday life.

Tim: OKWave is doing very well today, and you went from founding to IPO in only six years, but most people don’t realize what a hard time you had building the company.

I think my company built me as much as I built my company. I’m Japanese, but I was born in Japan with Korean nationality. No one knew or said anything about it until my parents changed my nationality in childhood. After that happened, my classmates leaned that I was not a natural-born Japanese, and I have a very hard time. I was bullied badly, even by kids that I thought were my good friends.

Tim: It must be hard for a child to understand what’s going in a situation like that.

Yes, I was 10-years-old then and I could not really image what prejudice was until I experienced it. My parents wanted the best for me, but no one knew about my nationality until after I become Japanese.

Tim: Many people say the being an outsider helps you think differently and can be an advantage as an entrepreneur. Was that the case?

I don’t think so. In my case I think it just made it hard to trust other people. I went to an Arts college and got a job as a designer at a good company, but I wasn’t happy there. I felt like they did not really appreciate or understand my design, so I left to find work in Tokyo. At the time I really wanted to work at Sofmap.

Tim: How did that work out?

Not well. My wife was very against the move and even threatened to divorce me. I left for Tokyo by myself, and due to my own mistakes in judgement, I ended up not getting the job, and I was actually living in a park for six months?

Tim: You were homeless for six months?

Yes. I was until I met a Chinese women who had moved to Japan and was trying to find work. I told her my story, but she didn’t feel sorry for me. In fact, she scolded me for being so weak. For not appreciating how easy I had things. For using little challenges and other people’s opinions as excuses for not trying. I was shocked at first, but I realized she was right. The next day I made some phone calls and got a very, very low-paying freelance job as a designer, but that was the start.

okwave-global-edition_screenshot
Image credit: OKWave

Tim: The start? How did that lead to OkWave?

I was soon designing web pages, but I didn’t really know how to do the job, so I went online to ask people basic questions. It’s seems natural today, but in the mid-1990s, people were upset. People told me to go away and said I had no right to waste their time with such basic questions.

Tim: That’s one thing that amazes me. Japanese people are very polite, but when they are anonymous on the Internet they can be pretty horrible.

That’s true, and it used to be worse. I decided then that I wanted to make a site where anyone could ask questions safely. At that time, no one thought it would work. Venture capitalists and private investors told me that there was no incentive for anyone to answer questions for free on the internet.

Tim: So you decided to use your own money?

Sort of. I went back to visit my wife who had stayed behind in Aichi for the past two years. I wanted to apologize and tell her all the details of my life in Tokyo, and maybe start over together. I told her about my plan. She thought about it, and gave me the money she had been saving those two years. It was enough to launch OKWave back in 2000.

Tim: Wow! That’s a lot of pressure. It’s one thing to lose investor’s money, but your wife’s savings?

Yes. [Laughs] Failure was not an option. Fortunately, the site grew quickly after we launched. People were attracted to a place where members were friendly and they could ask questions freely. After investors saw the model working, they understood it and Rakuten invested. Growth continued steadily and we were able to IPO. From outside it might look like we were able to IPO very quickly, but it was actually a very long road to get there.


It’s hard to believe that back in 1997 Japanese VCs could not even imagine the internet becoming an open and friendly place where people are willing to take the time to answer questions simply because they’ve been asked.

Most assumed the Internet would evolve to mirror Japanese business culture at that time, a collection of tightly-knit alliances and closed communities. The open internet is an obvious reality to us today, but Kanemoto-san deserves credit for not only seeing it before others did, but committing his life to making it happen.

The happiest company in the world – Yuka Fujii

SHARE:

The content of this article first appeared on Disrupting Japan. It has been reproduced by The Bridge with the approval of Disrupting Japan and the article’s author Tim Romero. Tim is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster and author who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 20 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast and is deeply involved in Japan’s startup community as an investor, founder and mentor. Yuka Fujii considers Famarry to be the happiest company in the world, and looking at who her customers are, I think she just might be right. But behind this happy company is an aggressive plan to disrupt a cartel of photo studios that have dominated the Japanese market for decades. Changes in technology and demographics have opened up a small crack in this wall, and Famarry plans on using it to gain a foothold and then to change the entire industry for the better. Tim: Can you explain a what Famarry does? It’s basically crowd-sourcing of photographers, and we’ve started with pre-wedding photography. About 70,000 couples get married in Japan every year, and about half of them do pre-wedding photography. That’s the…

tim-romero
Tim Romero

The content of this article first appeared on Disrupting Japan. It has been reproduced by The Bridge with the approval of Disrupting Japan and the article’s author Tim Romero.

Tim is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster and author who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 20 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast and is deeply involved in Japan’s startup community as an investor, founder and mentor.


yuka-fujii-statup-founder-famarry
Famarry founder Yuka Fujii

Yuka Fujii considers Famarry to be the happiest company in the world, and looking at who her customers are, I think she just might be right.

But behind this happy company is an aggressive plan to disrupt a cartel of photo studios that have dominated the Japanese market for decades. Changes in technology and demographics have opened up a small crack in this wall, and Famarry plans on using it to gain a foothold and then to change the entire industry for the better.

Tim: Can you explain a what Famarry does?

It’s basically crowd-sourcing of photographers, and we’ve started with pre-wedding photography. About 70,000 couples get married in Japan every year, and about half of them do pre-wedding photography. That’s the initial market we are focusing on.

Tim:  So they go to a romantic spot with a beautiful back drop and take pictures?

Exactly. The wedding photographer is usually arranged by the venue, so the couple has no choice, but people find pre-wedding photographers by word of mouth or by searching online.

Tim: How have you marketed to this audience?

We’ve had great success using Instagram. It’s nearly a perfect fit for us since it’s all about sharing photos. We run promotions, of course, but most of our customers want to share their own photos, so it’s a more modern version of word-of-mouth. It makes it easy for people to hear about us and to find a photographer they really like.

Tim: On thing that worries me about this business is that you will have very few repeat customers. Since most people only get married once, you would always need to be recruiting new customers.

We plan to build on that. A wedding is the start of a family, so naturally our customers will soon want baby pictures and then family pictures. In the future we’ll be offering these other kinds of photography services so we can grow with our clients.

Tim:  You mentioned before that the photography business is changing in Japan?

The industry is becoming more accessible. Quality camera equipment used to be very expensive, but that’s not the case any more. There are many more skilled photographers with high-quality equipment than their used to be. Also, until recently, the studios controlled just about everything. They had a set of standard backdrops and poses and the customer mostly did what they were told to do. People are now starting to see photography differently. More and more people want something that suits their own character and tastes.

Tim: So there is more independence in the industry now?

There will be. It’s much easier for a photographer to be independent these days, and we try to match those photographers up with clients who suit their style. In the future, it will be very hard for the photography studios to stay in business using their current business model. Independent photographers can deliver higher quality at a lower cost and with a style customized to the customers’ personal tastes.

famarry-porfolio-photos
Image credit: Famarry

Tim: What made you target the wedding market? With Japan’s aging population, it does not seem particularly attractive.

The overall market may be shrinking from year to year in Japan, but it’s still a huge market. Not much has changed recently, so it’s a market that’s ready for disruption. As you said, the market is not growing, and many Japanese companies are trying to grow business overseas rather than innovate at home, which makes it easer for us.

Tim: Do you think being a women entrepreneur has made things easier or harder for you?

A bit of both, I suppose. Being different makes it easier to get press attention, but it can make it harder to do certain deals. With a startup you have to just deal with whatever advantages or disadvantages you have. I don’t think too much about it. In our case, however, most of our customers are women, so perhaps I can relate to them better.

Tim: I thought they were couples.

They are, but the woman generally take control of the wedding, and they are the ones who make the decisions about things like pre-wedding photography.

Tim: That makes sense. And even when it comes time for baby pictures or family portraits, it will be the wives driving the process.

Exactly.

Tim: What surprised you most about running your own business?

Both how hard it was and how fun it was. I knew it was going to be hard, but I guess you don’t really understand something until you go through it. I’m not complaining. It was just harder than I expected it would be. But I was also surprised ho much I enjoy interacting with both our staff and our customers. It’s a very happy business. To hear the voices of our customers every day and how happy they are with our service is a very encouraging thing.

Tim: I had not thought of that, but actually you are working with people at some of the happiest times of their lives. I can see how interacting with these people every day would be wonderful, and put you and your staff in a good mood as well.

Yes. that’s true. It’s also a pleasure working with the photographers. They are artists who are happy to be chosen to work with couples who like their style. Everyone is really nice, and I really want to help them. I think that we are doing a very good thing here.


I love the fact that Fujii-san considers Famarry to be the happiest business in the world, and she just might right about that.

Famarry, however, also represents a text book example of a beneficial disruptive businesses. The fundamental structure of Famarry results in their costs being much lower and their flexibility being much higher than traditional photography studios. The studios will be forced to either change the way to do business or go out of business.

Hopefully, Famarry will remain a happy business as they continue to grow.