"Japan has a culture based around personal networks and connections. Japanese consumers look for consensus and poll their friends in making a buying decision."
When door to door salesmen or telemarketers try to sell me things in Japan, they always start off with "Everyone in your area is doing XX" or "You're the only one in your area that isn't on XX yet."(1) It ticks me off to no end, but my wife (Japanese) actually starts reconsidering sales propositions when she hears that everyone else around her is doing the same thing.
As an American, I grew up with the phrase "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?" instilled in me. Talking with my Japanese friends, they seem to find that saying very odd -- if everyone else is jumping off the bridge, there must be some merit to it, they try to reason.
(1) A network provider tried to convince me that I was the only house in the neighborhood who was not yet on the optical network. My neighbors are pretty much all over the age of 60, and many of them probably do not own a computer more powerful than a cellphone.
I've always loved the two diametrically opposite sayings that Japan/The west grew up with:
Japan: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down."
West: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."
A very telling set of proverbs..!
It's a common strategy employed by salesman to try and convince people to buy into the idea of a new product (or switching products) without doing actual research. Though, I will say it is odd to open with this in the pitch since you don't know how much the potential client knows about your product or competition.
It's actually a pretty good heuristic most of the time -- hence its ubiquity -- but obviously it has a bunch of pathological corner cases, and it's open to exploitation by salesmen, politicians, cult leaders, and anybody else who does mind control for a living.
As AVTizzle says below as well, it's a fantastic way to learn more about your customers and the problems they're facing.
With the inkan situation, we allow our customers to upload both their logo and their inkan. When printed, it looks exactly the same as a 'stamped' inkan. None of our customers have had any problems getting their MakeLeaps invoices processed, which is the important thing. For your interest, we have some printed samples here:
Would it hold in court in case of a dispute?
Aside, if you are coming to Osaka sometime and have a free evening, do let me know. Would love to hang out. Besides, I have to thank you in person for some excellent advice that worked out very well.
When I was applying for my house loan, the exactitude of the forms I had to fill out was staggering, and each needed to be hand-written, in a specific format, with my personal seal that is registered with the city office. Any mistakes means I had to rewrite the form.
My invoices to clients, on the other hand, are generally printed and sent with the seal on them already. However, all of my clients do require printed invoices to be mailed to them.
The advice we've received is that the important point is whether or not the sending party intended to give legal effects to the document. If so, it is a legally valid document.
This reflects our actual experience at my original company Webnet IT, where our vendors (huge Japanese 3000+ employee companies) send us documents with digital hanko images.
The 50 customer development interviews turned into warm leads already halfway down our sales pipeline by the time we were ready to ship.
A question for Jason, should he read this: I'd love to hear your personal reason for developing with the Japanese market specifically in mind. I think it's unique for a company that's not well-known to break into a foreign market. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc all have some presence, but I've rarely seen a company cater exclusively to a foreign market. Was it just because you saw it was ripe for disruption, or something else?
Actually, I've been living in Japan for 11 years. I started my first business in 2003, and I had all sorts of problems with invoicing. I built some custom software to scratch my own itch. People started asking me about it more and more, and eventually I partnered up with Paul Oswald, my technical co-founder to try to bring a multi-tenanted solution to the Japanese market.
So, it was very much an evolution. I didn't wake up one day in Australia and decide to build this in Japan. I think it'd be tremendously difficult to build a solution like this without having a lot of direct exposure to the problems and pain points that people sending quotes/invoices in Japan actually go through.
You mention you "ask for comments in our welcome email, our support page, and also on Twitter (English) and Facebook (English)." Do you do this in Japanese as well or do you find that people are more comfortable giving feedback in English as opposed to Japanese?
Although I don't have much experience with Japanese companies, sometimes I get the impression that the Western benefits that are usually touted for products (save money or time) do not apply as well here. Have you had experiences like that?
If you are starting out and don't really have many (or any) customers to offer as social proof, what can you say to convince someone to make a change to your system?
Sorry, just realised that's not completely clear. We communicate 100% in Japanese with all our customers.
Those two are examples to make it easier for the English-only speaking reader to understand.
Developing your application completely in English might be very suitable for an English Language teaching tool. But not so suitable for a business critical tool.
We've had varying degrees of success with different ways to sell, but the one clear way to achieve success in Japan as you mention is social proof.
Basically the idea is to look for any way possible to display and feature users who are using your system to other potential users and customers. I've detailed a list of a few ways to do that for our kind of application. You're welcome to use those, or come up with an approach that's more suitable for your product.
Best of luck though - let me know how you go.
Note that most English-learning products in Japan are marketed using Japanese, and more often than not the content itself (navigation, explanations, commentary, etc) is heavily in Japanese. For instance, this is Yahoo Japan's site for English learners:
This isn't unusual. Look at the language section at a typical bookstore and you'll see lots of books for learning English... written in 90% Japanese.
I'm not in any way a specialist in that field but if you throw me an email I'd be happy to provide you feedback on your product.
Of course I, and the rest of my states side colleagues were astonished, but the japanese, and more importantly the customers did not see how this was a major problem. I'm still having a hard time seeing if this is true, can any of you who are more familiar with Japanese culture expand how japanese culture respects alcoholics in the workplace?
Doing our own seminars (online and offline) is big on our radar as well though.
It even tells you the bank they use.
While I have your ear, I have a question about your comments regarding getting feedback:
You mention that you ask for feedback in your welcome mail as well as on Twitter and FB, which are both in English. Do you find that a large number of your users are open to the idea of using the English versions of your FB & Twitter accounts? If so, do you find that this is a product of being in the Tokyo area?
I used to sell security software and many of our competitors were using solutions developed abroad that in many cases were not translated, or translated poorly. In our experience even when the competition was leagues better than our solution, we won out contracts because of full-Japanese support, and the image of quality that comes from that. This may be a result of being in the Nagoya area, but I was curious about your experiences with "Japanese Only!" customers / clients.
Also, cheers on a great product, and that amazing hockey-stick of growth.
Absolutely agree on that. We discovered very quickly it was extremely important to our customers to feel like we're a Japanese company. That's one of the reasons why we're very careful about our Japanese image, marketing and communication.
Especially for something like a security tool (or an invoicing application), image is critically important. I don't believe that's localised to Nagoya, I think it's a Japan-wide thing.
We had almost zero engagement with our English Twitter/FB. Things turned around when we went fully Japanese with Twitter and FB.
Apple shot to popularity in America first before Japan, leading the way for Japanese consumers.
Insanely great customer service is definitely a big part of Apple's way of doing business, considering the genius bar strategy.
They also have a large team on the ground here. Steve Jobs identified Japan as a huge opportunity, and flew here to hire the Japan CEO himself years and years ago.
Of course, all our users are still using the main application site with no problems.
The idea is that with a good online system, you can get rid of a lot of the crappy work, and make leaps in your business.
It's not just websites, all their software is like that.
Japanese sites just seem poorly put together in both design and implementation to me. Confusing layout (and I base this on watching Japanese use them, not just from using them myself), takes 20 clicks to do anything, shitty back-end tech, search results always seem to be awful, etc. Do they favor it? Or do they just put up with it? I suspect it's the former myself, as well, but if you've looked into it a bit I'd certainly like to hear about it.
It might be similar to what happened with cell phones here where for a long time the accepted wisdom was that the Japanese market demanded all kinds of quirky hardware bullshit that no one else in the world would care about, so you had to design phones especially for it. I guess you saved money on making the software because it was always terrible and an afterthought for those phones. Then Apple and Softbank came along and ate their lunch.
The Japanese consumer might be starting to become ever so dimly aware that software is important, too. There might be hope that the days of the shitty Japanese landing page are numbered.
They put up with it, for a couple of reasons. First is the absolute domination of the internet by mobile phones running proprietary "versions" of the web, and second is the language barrier - the newest ideas and techniques from the west simply don't get translated, or get translated poorly.
I've recently taken a job running UI/UX for a Japanese software company, and let me tell you - it's an uphill battle.
For a large percentage of Japanese, the cell phone is their personal computer (and camera, and wallet...). If they own a desktop or laptop at all, it's rarely used. Obviously iPhone and Android look, to us, like nirvana in such a society but there's hesitancy there because (1) by and large they lack some key features like NFC and (2) switching carriers in Japan is, to borrow a Jobsism, a bag of hurt. It can be done, but you'll leave a lot of yourself behind.
About the iphone in Japan...there's been a lot of myths and misinformation, but from my POV the iPhone was the shiny modern and bugged to death "smart" phone, and it was to be used in combination with the "dumb" phone handling all the serious business (making calls, handling NFC transactions, hosting the official bank apps, GPS navigation etc.). For a lot of people, crashing when recieving phone calls was a non starter if it were to be used as the sole phone device.
I think what you mean is "poorly-designed websites".
I think there are crappy web sites and buggy back-ends all around the world, and we just learn to ignore most of them in everyday use (or you don't and you just go crazy).
Anyway, a "keen student" of Japan would likely have told you the iPhone would fail here (no 1seg? Ha!), and that an invoicing service for Japanese companies, built by foreigners, was an outrageously stupid idea. But the Japanese market is no more impenetrable than the American market, or the British market, or the Indian market, nor any more difficult to learn and understand (though you still have to do that, of course).