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Everything I’ve learned about selling SaaS in Japan (makeleaps.jp)
139 points by pwim on May 30, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

In my experience this is the money quote for selling in Japan:

"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.

As someone who grew up with the same ethos, I can completely relate to this. I also relate to the frustration in trying to explain your mindset.

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..!

As an American who did door-to-door sales for a little bit after college, I will say that this works in America too. The term used in sales circles is Jonesing, which comes from this - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeping_up_with_the_Joneses

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.

The general term for this sort of thing is "social proof", and you see some amount of it in all cultures:


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.

It goes both way. When a critical mass is using a product, even if it my not be optimal, at least you know it is somewhat useable and has a high probability of staying around. In the tech world it would be the equivalent of "never be the biggest user of a technology"

If you learn one thing from Jason, I'd suggest the "customer development interview as sales.". It blows my mind, but he's getting that adoption graph largely by taking his iPad around Tokyo, demoing prospects, and signing them up on the spot. Never would have considered this myself.

In the beginning, we definitely seeded our growth with my iPad. I still do it these days because it's fun and because the app works great on an iPad, but fortunately we've got several other customer acquisition channels right now that don't involve just me and an iPad :)

As AVTizzle says below as well, it's a fantastic way to learn more about your customers and the problems they're facing.

I'd love to see a breakdown of what "kinds" of customers are using makeleaps, even how that's changed over time. Also, how are you dealing with the "inkan" situation? Maybe it's less of a problem than I think to use a digital representation?

Currently we're targeting freelancers and small businesses up to 10 people, so this is the majority of our current user base.

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:


> When printed, it looks exactly the same as a 'stamped' inkan

Would it hold in court in case of a dispute?

It is the routine and widely accepted practice of many Japanese corporations to use electronic reproductions of their company seal for routine business correspondence such as invoices. Be forewarned, if you ask me for a source, I'm going to cite 常識。

I see. I was specifically told by UFJ staff that a printout of a seal will not work for some of my bank papers. Hence was curious.

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.

The key part of Patrick's comment is "routine business correspondence." Banking (or anything involving city/prefecture laws) are definitely not routine business, and would require the use of an actual seal (銀行印) that is registered with the city office.

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.

This is an important question. We've been working with a Japanese lawyer to help us make we're covered on these legal issues.

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.

It's a great point, and was actually a pretty intuitive connection in my experience. I started in Sales at Yelp, and when I launched my startup, I recognized that the interviewing and customer development process I was putting potential users through was pretty much exactly the same as the early stages of the Yelp sales pipeline.

The 50 customer development interviews turned into warm leads already halfway down our sales pipeline by the time we were ready to ship.

That was a really informative post about the culture— business and otherwise— in Japan.

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?

Hi there, thanks for your question.

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.

Thanks for answering! Very interesting information.

Thanks a lot Jason. This is very useful. As someone who does not yet have the ability to converse well in Japanese, would this hinder my ability to sell to Japanese people even if they speak English (I am developing a product for the English-language school market)?

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?

Hey Matt,

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.

Generally speaking, many English learners aren't able or willing to communicate in English, and that's especially true in Japan (I suppose you are not in Japan?).

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.

This is probably a better thread than any to ask this question. My company recently began making some progress in the Japanese market. On my most recent trip, it began to be obvious why we were having issues earlier. One of our sales managers is consistently drunk while doing demos :(

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?

Looks to be down atm, here's the Google cache: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:www.mak...

Wmboy, thats actually an old version of the article. Is it possible to remove that link?

Thanks Jason - a great look into doing business in Japan and relevant for large as well as small businesses IMO. Especially interesting are the methods you used to break out of the no-users-without-social-proof vicious circle. Another option is to hold instructional events or seminars which could help potential customers feel more comfortable, both in terms of seeing others in the same position and being reassured of who they'd be buying from.

Right - that's a really good idea. We've been getting approached by people running these kinds of seminars who are interested to promote us, which is nice.

Doing our own seminars (online and offline) is big on our radar as well though.

Slightly related, I think you should make MakeLeaps a bit more visible in the Hacker News meetups, even if it's just a logo on the door or reception desk. Alternatively, hand out the stickers you mentioned in the article. I'm sure lots of us would be happy to stick them on our PCs to show appreciation.

This about page is awesome, http://www.makeleaps.com/en/about/

It even tells you the bank they use.

It's also very common to put the amount of capital that your company has on the about page. When looking for vendors, a lot of companies will judge your strength by the amount of capital you have listed there, which is why many companies have stopped putting that number there. ;)

This is very common in Japan. Why argue. :)

We were just in the middle of re-working our WP caching - unfortunately it was a bit early to get a HN blast...! We're working on it now.

Jason, WP can be a right pain in the ass, can't it?

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.

Of course, always happy to chat.

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.

Jason great post thanks. AFAIK, they didn't do most of what you say. Maybe because of uber-popularity of Apple. What is your take on Apple in Japan?

Apple is kind of a special case for a few reasons. There are definitely parallels though.

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.

Wow, makeleaps.jp is completely down. A bunch of traffic to a blog post managed to take down the business' entire site. Hmm.

We weren't actually planning to publish this on HN until later - we were fine-tuning our cache in Wordpress, when it shot to #1 on HN. Doh! Good advertisement to use a service like WP Engine.

Of course, all our users are still using the main application site with no problems.

Jason & Paul, great to see you guys ramping up the hockey stick. Always watching what you guys do, and best of luck!

Cheers - thanks for the well wishing! :)

A bit off-topic, but some of the Q&A answers are missing spaces after dots.

How did you guys come up with "MakeLeaps" for an invoicing and quotes service?

Because we view ourselves as more of a business automation service, as opposed to a pure invoicing and quoting service.

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.

>Japanese consumers favour websites with very dense content, and little whitespace.

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.

> Do they favor it? Or do they just put up with it?

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.

You mean i-mode, ezWeb, etc? They aren't as dominant as they used to be though, right? A mobile site has to support both an i-mode and a mobile web version now, so i-mode is in a sort of IE6 situation? Not as far along yet of course, but getting there.

No, it's not as bad as it was in, say, 2007 ;) But it's still dominant.

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.

Perhaps it's a remote culture thing. I feel mostly the same about european web sites filled with cruft, buggy transaction handling and sending me back my password in plain text. It just sticks out when it's from a different environment than the one we are confortable with.

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.

European websites? Europe has plenty of good websites.

I think what you mean is "poorly-designed websites".

Sorry for the ambiguous wording. I was writing about the crappy ones, not all european 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).

Just to add to this, one thing you can learn from the iPhone's success in Japan is "don't let Japanese exceptionalism blind you to good and innovative solutions that people will pay you a lot of money for". The Japanese love to tell you how unique they are and how different everything is here. It isn't hard to get the typical Japanese salaryman halfway up his own ass in Nihonjinron bullshit after a few beers. In that, they are like nearly every other people on Earth, but for some reason they seem the most convincing. It's probably being on an island and having a tough language, and some other stuff.

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).

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