American Chamber of Commerce in Japan – 10 Points Business Series
“Wood is Good”
10 + 1 POINTS:
- Elevator Pitch
- Find an Expert
- Balanced Wheel of Life
- Expect Things to Go Wrong
- Stay Focused
- Trade Shows
- Target Market
- Niche Business
- Relationships are Paramount
- Drink Vinegar
- Hana hou point - Digital Savviness: Navigating Japan's E-Commerce Platforms for Business Solutions
1. Elevator Pitch – English and Japanese
When networking and meeting a plethora of individuals, it's crucial to articulate what you do concisely. Can you define your business in 30 seconds or less? Your pitch should captivate, pique interest, and open doors to further dialogue, potential business ventures, or even a blossoming friendship. And for those daring enough, mastering it in Japanese amplifies the impact.
2. Find an Expert (and outsource translation)
In my formative years, I'd watch my father handle tasks I felt were beyond my grasp, like repairing a bulldozer. This made me question if I could ever run his business. However, I soon realized that there are experts out there who can do these tasks. While hiring professionals might be an expense, it's an investment that allows you to focus on your strengths and areas that bring in revenue. A leader doesn't need to be a jack-of-all-trades, but it's essential to have a foundational understanding of your business's various components. For instance, while we may not know how to repair a car, we should at least know how to refuel it.
When it comes to language proficiency, if you're not fully fluent in reading, writing, or speaking, it's pivotal to have a go-to expert. I'd advise against relying solely on close family or partners for this. Early in our journey, my wife made it clear she wouldn't be my crutch. She told me to figure it out on my own. Some of the best advice I ever got and it was a blessing in disguise. Not only did it push me to enhance my Japanese proficiency, but it also led me to hire an assistant. This assistant, who has been with me for over a decade, even helped me perfect my elevator pitch in native Japanese. Oh, btw, she did help me when I really needed it, but she wanted to be sure our business would thrive without her.
3. Balanced Wheel of Life – Pursue a Holistic Balance
Imagine your life as a wheel with eight spokes representing various facets. Each spoke, gauged on a scale of 1-10, signifies how well you're managing that particular aspect of your life. A score of all 10s would indicate a smoothly spinning, balanced wheel. Conversely, all 1s might give you a round wheel, but it'd be too small to get you anywhere – a state of stagnation. It's vital to self-assess honestly. For instance, neglecting health would render you at a score of one, while maxing out on hobbies but lagging in others could give you an unstable, lopsided wheel.
Here are the spokes to evaluate:
- Partner - Romance and Connection
- Family & Friends - Bonds and Relationships
- Health & Fitness - Physical Wellbeing
- Finance - Wealth Management
- Fun, Recreation & Hobbies - Leisure Activities
- Spiritual, Contribution & Mental Health for Inner growth via Prayer, Meditation, etc.
- Career - Professional Development
- Personal Learning & Growth - Continuous Improvement
A word of advice: incorporate rest into your Health & Fitness spoke. Taking time to disconnect from work is vital. As a business owner, while it's challenging to detach entirely, carving out non-work days or periods can be rejuvenating. Personally, I aim for a work-free Sunday. Even if it aligns with Saturday in the U.S., it gives me a respite. If I've had an intense week, I might even extend my downtime to Monday. While I might check emails, I could be doing it from a beach or park. But remember, true relaxation only comes when you unplug entirely from work.
4. Expect things to go wrong – Embrace the inevitable hiccups
Life isn't a straight line, and neither is business. Expecting everything to proceed flawlessly is wishful thinking at best. Throughout various projects I've undertaken, I've encountered hitches and hurdles. Some were foreseeable, others not. While it's beneficial to anticipate potential issues, don't obsess over them. Moreover, don't be disheartened by the occasional failure, even if it's a spectacular one. Instead, analyze what went wrong. Determine if it was something within your control or a random occurrence. Learn from it, document your insights, but most importantly, move on without lingering on past mistakes.
5. Stay focused – The Lure of New Opportunities
The world is brimming with enticing opportunities, and it's not uncommon to stumble upon one that seems like the next goldmine. However, that doesn't mean you should chase every glint that catches your eye. Remember, while there are countless new companies emerging and thriving daily, there are equally as many that don't make the cut. Over the years, I've set a self-imposed limit: no more than three distinct projects or businesses at a time. Lately, I've even pondered if three is stretching it thin.
Ingenious ideas can sprout from the most unlikely sources, like they did from my dentist, just as misguided ones can originate from those you'd least expect. When contemplating launching a new product, it's crucial to weigh the implications. Sometimes, what seems like a mere product addition can metamorphose into a full-blown brand, pulling you into a vortex of added responsibilities like multiple social media accounts, a fresh website, and more. Stay discerning and remain aligned with your core mission.
6. Trade shows – The Pulse of Your Market
There's an old adage in real estate: location, location, location. When something is repeated thrice, it emphasizes its importance. In the world of business, that mantra might well be: trade shows, trade shows, trade shows. Judging by the relentless calendar of events at convention centers, it's evident that almost every industry and product has its showcase. Your task? Find yours and immerse yourself in it. Begin as an observer and graduate to an exhibitor if the alignment feels right. Though it can sometimes feel like a strain on resources, as it will sometimes inevitably be, I've found that every time I took the plunge, the returns were substantial.
Trade shows not only serve as platforms for brand exposure but also as litmus tests for market alignment (point 8) Case in point: my initial foray into “The Japan Home Show” was a stark reminder of market misalignment. Zero traction. But the winds of serendipity guided me to the Tokyo Music Show, which became a gateway to Los Angeles, Frankfurt, and Shanghai for the bigger shows and countless other cities around the world for smaller shows. These global rendezvous didn't just grant me delightful "business" trips but spawned business ventures worth millions to my company and a multiplying factor in revenue to my customers. To illustrate, my modest $10,000 sale potentially equated to $250,000 in revenue for a guitar maker, thanks to the unique wood I offered and used in the guitars they make with it.
Even the more localized trade shows can be gold mines. While I had sidestepped smaller markets for years, my return to Japan half a decade ago rekindled my interest. Despite the setback of the pandemic, recent events like the Tokyo Handcraft Guitar Show and Osaka Music Show re-established connections and translated into substantial sales. The takeaway? Never underestimate the power and potential of trade shows, be it global or local.
7. Target Market – Finding the Right Fit in Sales and Partnerships
Understanding your audience is fundamental to any thriving business. Remember our initial efforts trying to introduce our exotic woods to the home-building sector, instead of the musical instrument industry? Or my college days when I attempted to offer scholarships to students who were financially secure, neglecting high school students on the brink of their college journey? Both instances were misdirected target markets. To give your startup, project, or product the best shot at success, it's pivotal to focus on the appropriate customers and establish collaborations with the right partners or distributors. A prime example is our partnership with a renowned e-commerce platform. Though it appeared promising initially, given their notable financial prowess and vast reach, our endeavor led to no sales. Clearly, a misstep. The profound takeaway? The indispensable value of guaranteed marketing support.
Being wowed by numbers and the allure of a "bigger player" wanting to partner can sometimes cloud judgment. This platform, with its vast expanse of offerings, might have eclipsed our products amidst the clutter. Their model, reminiscent of Amazon's for industrial goods, might not have been the best fit for our unique offerings.
Another essential consideration is the alignment of a distributor's customer base with yours. I recently guided a client in the ukulele business through this maze. She juggled multiple ukulele lines, varying in price and quality. While it might be tempting to consolidate under one distributor, it's imperative to understand the strengths of each distributor. For her, having separate distributors for her premium and lower-priced lines made sense, ensuring each product got the attention and market it deserved.
In essence, while numbers and big names might dazzle, it's crucial to prioritize alignment and fit when choosing partners or platforms. Your target market's understanding can be the difference between success and a missed opportunity.
8. Niche businesses – Mastering Specialized Markets for Sustained Success
Diving deep into niche markets has fortified the foundation of our profitability for over two decades. I might not have stumbled upon this niche independently, but I mastered the art of catering to it. The journey wasn't a cakewalk, and given the exclusivity of the market, it shouldn't have been. However, honing skills for a challenging supply chain not only amplifies the prospects of profitability but also ensures sustainability in business—two attributes we proudly possess.
9. Relationships are Paramount – Cultivating Genuine Bonds for Long-Term Benefits
The depth and authenticity of the relationships you form can be a game-changer for your business. It's not just about fleeting interactions or a cursory exchange of social media handles during a night out – “What’s your IG handle?” Consider my enduring association with the company that constructed our house 17 years ago and later our office. While our direct commercial interactions may be limited, the value derived from this bond has been immense.
I'm currently leasing warehouse space at their primary factory in Nakatsugawa, a testament to their over half-a-century legacy in Gifu, Japan. Nestled in the forested heartland of Japan, their reputation has further bolstered the credibility of my enterprise, enhancing our interactions with Japanese partners. This relocation, though propelled by the constraints of the pandemic, was made seamless by the strength of this relationship. An added bonus and strategic advantage? Their proximity to my premier client in Japan, has significantly amplified our sales. Building genuine relationships isn’t just about networking; it’s about establishing mutual trust and benefits that endure over time.
10. Drink vinegar – Embracing Difficult Tasks and Clear Communication
Just as the proven health benefits of drinking vinegar might tempt us to adopt this habit, the taste can be a barrier. The metaphorical lesson? Sometimes, we have to face unpalatable tasks in business. When you encounter something you'd rather avoid, you have two choices: find a palatable alternative or delegate it to someone equipped to handle it.
In today's digital age, where texts and emails dominate, there's an increasing tendency to hide behind screens, especially when delivering unpleasant news. However, picking up the phone and addressing issues directly can circumvent potential misunderstandings and allows for real-time dialogue. It's a reminder that while technology offers convenience, it doesn’t always translate nuances or intentions perfectly. Case in point: I've often found that my directives on platforms like Teams, despite being seemingly clear, get misconstrued. When such misunderstandings occur, it's vital to approach the situation with empathy. Chances are, if an employee misinterprets an instruction, their intention was to do their best. Instead of reacting with frustration, use it as an opportunity to refine your communication and reinforce clarity in the future.
11. Hana hou point – Digital Savviness: Navigating Japan's E-Commerce Platforms for Business Solutions
“Hana hou” means one more time in Hawaiian and is often used at a concert when you want the singer to play one more song after leaving the stage. In Japanese, “mo ikkai”… probably other countries do the same. So here is my hana-hou point directed specifically for the Japan market.
Foreign entrepreneurs in Japan can significantly boost their operational efficiency by familiarizing themselves with the nation's dedicated online platforms tailored to specific industries. Setting up accounts on these platforms not only streamlines the procurement process but can be a game-changer when hunting for niche items. In the woodworking and manufacturing sectors where I operate, platforms like Rakuten and Yahoo Auctions have been invaluable, especially when Amazon falls short. They have facilitated my acquisition of second-hand equipment that's occasionally tricky to find new. Monotaro and Dogudoraku are prime to find industrial goods. You’ll be able to find the 3mm wide x 0.5mm thick washer at Monotaro. To illustrate, just yesterday, I was able to find a solution, online, after facing a malfunctioning bearing in a woodworking machine from over a week ago. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to identify the part, I reached out to an industry acquaintance (again, relationships are paramount) who, with his guidance, I located the precise bearing on Monotaro for a mere 300 yen. The platform even suggested the necessary tool to remove the bearing, which I then sourced more affordably and speedily from Amazon
Beyond the industrial sector, Mercari is another platform worth noting, although it's more consumer-centric but great for selling anything you don’t need. I have been using it to down-size my home and office. But if it’s commercial goods or high-value items, Yahoo Auctions are the way to go. I sold my very first car using Yahoo Auctions in 2003! And that was pre-google translate days. It was a serious challenge, yet so rewarding. Oh, this reminds me of my snowboard goods arbitrage business I started around the same time. We can save that story for after the presentation.
Brick-and-mortar stores, such as Kimble in Komaki, pioneered the second-hand goods market in Japan and provide a plethora of commercial goods. 2nd Street is more consumer-oriented, yet I’ve found many useable items for my office and warehouse. Over time, I've managed to source a diverse range of items like warehouse shelving, tables, and dollies from both of those places. And if selling some old equipment is in order, you can head to Yahoo Auctions and Mercari. .
While I advocate for professional intervention in specific scenarios, as I point out previously, the digital landscape in Japan provides the tools and resources for swift, cost-effective solutions. Whether you're stationed in bustling Tokyo or the serene Gifu countryside, leveraging these platforms can often be more efficient than seeking professional help, which may not be available, or might take too long especially when time is of the essence.
So take the time to learn the various systems despite them being all in Japanese. I’ve gained so many new, interesting and time-saving experiences from my eagerness to learn new technology.
** Disclaimer: In crafting this presentation, I employed AI software to enhance clarity and grammar, as well as to estimate the presentation's duration to fit our allotted time. However, the essence, facts, and style remain authentically mine. The collaboration with AI in refining this content mirrored the dynamic of working closely with an assistant. I firmly believe this represents a responsible and effective use of AI in such endeavors.