Akibanana, a six-person company that aims to help bring Japanese anime animation from the world of traditional distribution onto the web. Her three part plan includes a media hub tracking the industry, a real-world tour of the Tokyo neighborhood where anime culture is centered (Akihabara) and a B2B service helping change media distribution models. In the following interview, Jane discussed doing international business in media distribution in Japan, as a woman.Jane Fong is the founder and CEO of
I was fortunate enough to attend Fong's tour of Akihabara recently (courtesy of collaboration software startup Lunarr) and was intrigued by Fong as a businesswoman. She's not just challenging international business models, she's doing it in Japan as a foreigner and as the only female entrepreneur I saw there.
Jane: I was born and bred in Singapore but had always wanted to go abroad. My chance came when I won a scholarship to go to Japan as an exchange student in my third year of University. I've always had an affinity for Japan since I was young and after coming to Tokyo I felt at home and settled down very quickly. After returning back home to finish up my final year, I returned again with another scholarship to do a one year language and two years Masters program in Japan. Back then, I had passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test already so I was bored to tears in language school. I took up all kinds of jobs to keep myself sane while I was going through the language school, and I built up a network and gained experience which would prepare me for my future business venture. After one year of graduate school and three months of graduate school in Sophia University, I found work to be more satisfying and stimulating than school so I gave up my scholarship and student life to start up my own business. I never regretted the decision. In fact, I wished I had quit school earlier.
How did you get involved in the web?
I was always interested in business although I can't remember when and how I got interested in IT. I was never formally trained but I listened to some web 2.0 related podcasts and read up a bit here and there. I also got to know many entrepreneurs in Japan through friends and got most of my knowledge from conversations with CEOs of IT companies. The more I learned, the more interested I became. Through those conversations, I realized that there is a big gap between Japan and the US and I thought how much faster the world could advance if this information were to be shared and disseminated more rapidly. What the world needs now is more communication and better information transfer between countries, I don't know how this can be done but this is one thing I hope to achieve via GI JANE.
Although I wasn't an expert in web or IT, I kept up with the latest in IT through the internet and shared what I knew with my Japanese business friends and this information proved useful because they had no access to it. One of them hired me to assist him with his overseas expansion. It was a web analytics company so I was very much into analytics for a while. Later on I was involved in media and I guess it was just a natural progression for me to start up a web media. I wanted to change the world and what better tool other than the Internet which connects the world together?
What kinds of work do you do now on the web?
I stopped watching TV for a long time so my greatest wish is to be able to watch TV on my laptop. The internet is facing a piracy problem for a long time, DVD sales are falling, content holders want to stream their content online but there are no proper platform on the internet that allow them to monetize their content. To be exact, the world wants anime but anime companies are hesitant to release their content online so easily. To solve this problem, you need lots of money, the right business model, a cultural mediator and a proposal that these big Japanese companies can swallow without feeling defeated (because they are proud of their own works and won't let it go so easily or cheaply).
With that in mind and with limited resources, I came up with a grand plan for GI JANE and have managed to actualize a part of what I have set out to achieve at the beginning - but there is still a long more way to go. I observed that most web businesses started with the end consumer in mind which is great but eventually to monetize it you need a strong B2B arm or at least have the B2B clients in mind when setting up the business. For a web business to be stable, a strong offline presence is required. Akibanana is a web media with a focus on Akihabara, the otaku holyland with an online guide about the town as well as news and features about anime, manga, games and otaku culture. Offline, we have an actual tour in Akihabara and we are currently preparing an English map to be distributed around Akihabara. On the B2B side, we have plans to help local shops and businesses have a more intimate relationship with their patrons online.
Eventually, we hope to help Japanese companies expand overseas and foreign companies enter the Japanese market. Akibanana would be a useful tool when we start doing that. Via Akibanana, we can do market research, help do promotions and actual sales both online and offline. The synergy between the offline and online arm as well as the B2C and B2B connections will make this business model stable and strong.
Currently, while Akibanana is our main business, it is still a beta version and is at an early stage to bring in any revenue. Apart from building the business we have been providing some B2B services for overseas media coming into Japan. We have also already gone faster than planned to help companies in their cross-border expansions. On the side, I give advice and devise strategies for other web companies for fun.
Back to the original plan of bringing the TV to the computer; this would probably have to be achieved by a different plan. If I were a programmer, I would have been able to save much money by starting up the platform myself but I am not and I was fresh out of school, without any experience or money. I locked myself at home, and spent one week writing the business plan and spent months finding the right angels while supporting myself. I finally found seven and gathered enough to start off; the funds weren't enough to bring TV to the computer but enough to achieve what I intend for Akibanana so far. TV on computer problem must be solved by Plan B.
What do you think about the environment in Japan concerning innovation online? Is it supportive? Difficult? What do you wish was different? What do you like best?
The education system in Japan is much in want. Most companies pride themselves in on-the-job training and job rotation so people don't care what you specialize in at school; it won't be applied at work anyway. All they care is the University that you graduate from. This is a great pity. Most engineers in Japan today are not trained professionally, they either learn at work or from books. Having said that, the group-oriented Japanese have a great information-sharing culture because the "self-interest" logic doesn't apply here. In the West, information is withheld for fear of jeopardizing one's chances in climbing up the corporate ladder but here in Japan everyone helps each other to succeed as a team.
[Right: Japanese idols Stylish Heart perform their music and sell CDs on the streets of Akihabara.]
Another difference is that while roles tend to be compartmentalized in the US, with one person specializing in one task, in Japan one person can do everything. Being a generalist helps you to see things from various perspective and come up with ideas that the specialist may not be able to come up with.
The group-orientation and generalist-type workers make for a conducive environment to innovate and execute ideas but decision-making and politics slow things down and make change very difficult. Being used to stability and doing things perfectly, the Japanese need to get hold of every bit of information from A to Z before making a decision. Once they have got hold of the Z, the situation has changed and before they can act, they have to get hold of the new information from A to Z again. After getting hold of the information, you have to seek consensus so that you don't offend anyone. In a culture where being direct is abrupt and rude, people would rather say "maybe" if you ask them "yes or no". Gathering consensus as you can imagine is an intricate process. Most times, Japanese treasure relationships above everything else and those who fail to understand this would find business decisions illogical sometimes. If you understand the relationships between the players and your position in the game, half the battle is won. Politics is just as important as business in Japan. Very often, the decision-making process and politics are the biggest obstacles to innovation.
In the US, there are relatively few women in positions of leadership on the web. There are some for sure, but not as many as there are men. It appeared to me that this was even more true in Japan. Is that correct? What can you tell me about the gender related experiences you and other women have had in trying to innovate and take positions of leadership on the web in Japan?
In Japan, there used to be a glass ceiling at work because a woman's role as mother and wife was prized by society and a company would be less willing to groom an employee who would quit once she gets married. However, things are changing, especially for small and medium-sized companies there are no such barriers and it has become acceptable for women to work after marriage and child bearing. Unfortunately, this is still at an early stage so most people who make decisions in big companies are old men and men are more comfortable talking to men here. I was never conscious about myself being a woman or a foreigner or being very young but in Japan, these three makes the worst combination to succeed in business in terms of "reliability". Being Asian is also a double-edged sword; I blend in well because I look and speak Japanese but when I do or say something that is un-Japanese I don't really get the "Gaijin Privilege" or the privilege to be forgiven on the excuse of being a foreigner in Japan. Initially, especially when dealing with big companies, people may have been shocked to see me but later on as they got to know me better they could accept me. I think the barriers are sky high for foreigners if they don't know the culture and how the Japanese people think and work. Nevertheless, my understanding of the culture and language gave me a big advantage over other foreign entrepreneurs here. Being young, I can make friends more easily since people won't feel threatened or the need to be super formal as with an elder businessman. Being a woman, I stand out because many women are not interested in becoming an entrepreneur.
Most female entrepreneurs today are in their late thirties. Women of that generation are a little more aggressive for some reason. You need to have a lot of confidence in yourself to start up a business in Japan so most female entrepreneurs here that I know of come from rather elite backgrounds and they are brought up thinking that they are different from others so they are more willing to break the rules.
What directions would you like to take your business? What kinds of things would you like to do with it next? What are your goals?
The direction of my business is clear. I am having fun achieving the vision step by step. I would like to do more things involving other countries. I can speed things up with strategic alliances for Akibanana but I need to strengthen my base at the same time. My next challenge is to build a strong organization. I need to attract the right talents and then groom them to run the business together. I want a strong capable team that can think and operate on an international level.
We'd like to extend a big thanks to Jane for her time, her work and her interest in the types of innovation that many ReadWriteWeb readers are working for as well. We hope you'll visit and subscribe to her site Akibanana.