Everything we thing we know about design is changing. This transformation is further advanced in America, but the seeds have already been planted in Japan and the changes are now starting to take root.

Brandon Hill explains how design, rather than more traditional analytical methods, is the ideal prism from which to view potential solutions to business problems. Not just the best approach to improving products, mind you, but also the best way to improve business processes and even to better engage employees.

We talk about the core differences between the American and Japanese approach to design, and explore some of the reasons behind Japan’s famous fondness for cute characters and busy, colorful layout.

Brandon and btrax are also the driving force behind Japan Night, one of the oldest and most successful Japan startup events. Over the last eight years, Japan Night has done a lot to improve improve the level of awareness and collaboration between Japanese and Silicon Valley startups.

Brandon also shares his plans for his latest project to improve the way Japanese and American programmers and designers work together.

Show Notes for Startups

  • The core differences between modern Japanese and Western design.
  • What is the reasons behind Japan’s unique design style
  • How the concept of design is changing to be more inclusive
  • Why Design Thinking is still rare in Japan, and why it will change
  • The reason Japanese like cute characters in marketing
  • The most common mistake companies make with their market entry
  • The birth (and the future) of Japan Night
  • The internationalization of Japanese startups
  • The btrax internship program and open innovation space
  • The most important startup trend in Japan

Links from the Founder

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Transcript from Japan

Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japans most successful entrepreneurs. I am Tim Romero and thanks for joining me. Today I’d like to introduce you to my good friend Brandon Hill of Btrax and we’re going to be talking about Design with a capital “D”. So what’s the difference Design with a capital D and design with a lower case “d” well Brandon and I will get into that in just a few minutes.

Now I’ve been wanting to have Brandon on the show for a while now but the two of us just never seem to being the same city at the same time. You see Brandon grew up in Hokkaido and after high school he moved to San Francisco to study music and later design. He started Btrax at the pit of the depression after the .com bubble burst and has spent most of his time and effort since then trying to bridge the gap between Japan, the country in which he was born and America, the country in which he lives.

Now over the years Brandon and Btrax have been a real force for good in getting western and Japanese startups to know about each other and to work together. In fact this year will be the 8th annual Japan night, a great pitch event Brandon started in order to introduce some of the best Japanese startups to US investors and the US market. We also talk about some of the most important trends in Japanese startups today and a few very interesting projects he has up his sleeve, but I will let Brandon tell you all about that himself. So let’s get right to the interview.

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[Interview Start]

Tim:                So I am sitting here with Brandon Hill CEO of Btrax, which is a San Francisco based creative agency specializing in US Japan cross border business. Is that pretty close?

Brandon:         That is pretty much correct. Sometimes we even have a hard time explaining ourselves. But, basically cross border branding and marketing agency.

Tim:                Yeah I was going to say I’ve never had a CEO of a services company on the show yet.

Brandon:         Interesting.

Tim:                Well, no Btrax you guys are doing something really different and we will get to that because I think you are doing some very interesting and important work. Well tell me; let’s talk a bit about the difference between design in Japan and design in the US. What’s your take? What’s the most important differences and most important similarities?

Brandon:         I would say there is a simple answer and there is a little bit more complicated answer. Let me tell you the simple answer first.

Tim:                Okay.

Brandon:         The design in the US or outside of Japan is a little bit more universal in the way that it’s simple, easy to understand, straight forward. Design in Japan in terms of marketing, it’s a little bit more complicated, more number of colors, more bells and whistles. So if you go to a book store the cover of magazine looks a lot different in the US and Japan. If you get on a train all the ads look really colorful.

Tim:                That is the first thing that strikes you. Western design, I don’t want to say is minimal but very simple a lot of white space; Japan is very busy, very crowded, very information dense. Why is that?

Brandon:         My personal theory is related to Manga/ Anime character.

Tim:                Okay.

Brandon:         We Japanese people grew up with manga so they are kind of like manga native, anime native. So they are used to reading really busy literature. And every single page on the manga book looks super busy and you need to follow each box to understand the story. To me it’s not easy to read manga, but to Japanese people it’s a second nature.

Tim:                That’s an interesting, –I’ve never heard that. And actually when you think about it, if you look at the advertising that is pre-war it was much more simpler and much closer to western sensibilities.

Brandon:         That’s totally true.

Tim:                I guess information dense is a relatively new phenomenon.

Brandon:         Yeah, yeah.

Tim:                Huh, all right.

Brandon:         The second answer from me would be that the concept of design itself is very different in the US and Japan. In Japan if you say design most people think it’s drawing something or layout, maybe advertisements. So designers in Japan they are very good at designing posters. Most of those design elements are towards advertisements. IN the US especially in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco area when you say design there is various kinds of design. UI is design, UX is a design, attractive brand experience, 3-d graphics, web obviously.

Tim:                But don’t all those divisions exist in Japan as well? I mean there are people designing 3-D graphics, there are people who do UI.

Brandon:         Yes and no because Japanese business heavily depend on agencies, large agencies such as Dentsu hakuhodoso they outsource the design elements to ad agencies. Where as in the US they try to have all those design departments or people in house. There aren’t too many real designers in Japan when it comes to UI and UX.

Tim:                So Japan lacks a depth of factualization and focus on US.

Brandon:         Exactly.

Tim:                Interesting.

Brandon:         And sometimes Japanese people do not call those people as designers even though there are people who do UX, probably they call them something else like–

Tim:                they are more like a programmer?

Brandon:         System engineers.

Tim:                All right.

Brandon:         Informational Architectures. It’s really rare to find UX designers in Japan.

Tim:                So UX designers aren’t really respected here? People don’t understand the value or?

Brandon:         I wouldn’t say they are not respected. They are not quite recognized.

Tim:                Okay.

Brandon:         I was talking to one of our clients, one of the largest agencies in Japan. He had told me that the rates to hire UX designer in Japan is ¼ or 1/5 of San Francisco. [Laugh]

Tim:                Well that doesn’t surprise me. Well ¼ and 1/5 are pretty extreme isn’t it?

Brandon:         It is extreme because salary of designers is one of the lowest in this country, which is kind of unfortunate.

Tim:                I think that it is interesting in that, –so I have been in Japan for 23-24 years now.

Brandon:         Okay.

Tim:                And programmers, the salaries used to be horrifically low, they are still lower than they are in San Francisco or New York but programming is becoming more respectable, larger companies are understanding the importance of it and salaries and respectability have gone up. Maybe with UX design that’s something that will happen in the future hopefully for the designers.

Brandon:         I really think so, I really think that will be the case. The more and more people spent their time on digital devices the value of UX designers will go up.

Tim:                But it does make sense. Design is a small component of the UX design, there is a lot of psychology and a lot of tracking.

Brandon:         Exactly.

Tim:                It’s a real skill.

Brandon:         Yeah, the definition of design is really changing. Design with a capital “D” includes a whole lot of things. Even includes people who call themselves as growth hackers they are assigned to us, even like business people. That actually is our approach, applying design thinking methods to your bossiness.

Tim:                So you are viewing design as almost the entire go to market strategy as a unified whole.

Brandon:         We considered the designed to be applied to every element of business. Everything from coming up with service product model to creating the organization structure, management, product development. Which is quite common in San Francisco startups, using designing thinking methods to define users, define products, define go to market strategies.

Tim:                But it’s still relatively unknown in Japan.

Brandon:         Very new, unknown but there are handful of people who realize the importance of design towards business so we do get a lot of inquiries from business in Japan requesting us to consult them.

Tim:                We are talking about design encompassing not just the go to market but all the business processes. I find that a really intriguing idea.

Brandon:         Yeah, yeah it is.

Tim:                So how would that apply to say something like accounting or back office processes?

Brandon:         It’s funny you ask me because a couple of weeks ago I attended one of the workshops in San Francisco related to design. The guest speak for that was head of UX department of Intuit. You know Intuit?

Tim:                Sure.

Brandon:         Intuit is company of QuickBooks.

Tim:                Largest software accounting company in the world they are everywhere right now.

Brandon:         Exactly. And they are very well known for applying UX and design thinking ideas towards management. They created this innovation team and every single employee of intuit is required to take a couple of workshops related to UX and design thinking to innovate their business model. Relying too much on single product is very risky. They had to come up with new product ideas.

Tim:                I see where you are going with this. That makes sense. My companies in the past I always said everyone’s in sales, everybody’s in support without exceptions, but I had never really thought about it in terms that you are saying now like everybody is in design. That is kind of the missing piece right?

Brandon:         Exactly.

Tim:                That’s the product.

Brandon:         The philosophy of Btrax is everybody is a designer in this company, no matter what you do. So applying design thinking concept you want to improve the process, you want to improve the experience. So even if you are an HR person there is definitely a way to improve the experience that you give towards applicants for example. Giving better interview process, giving better interview experience.

Tim:                Okay so instead of looking at a cooperate process as a sterile flow chart you are looking at it as a UX challenge.

Brandon:         Exactly, exactly.

Tim:                Excellent. That’s a really good way of looking at it.

Brandon:         Yeah my definition of designer is somebody who solves a problem within the best possible process.

Tim:                I can see why Japanese companies are slow to adopt this. [Laugh] It’s a great idea; yeah this will take some time.

Brandon:         Yeah exactly.

Tim:                Okay getting back to design and marketing between the US and Japan because you work bringing companies in both directions.

Brandon:         I would say first of all Japan and US are very different in a way that you apply design for go to market marketing. IN Japan obviously because of this manga culture you’ve got to have the character. Behind every products success there is some sort of character. In the US if you do it’s so childish.

Tim:                Do you find that’s true on B2C and B2B or particularly B2C?

Brandon:         I would say it’s both.

Tim:                Really?

Brandon:         Because I have seen some B2B companies using some characters.

Tim:                Yeah come to think about it all the prefectures in a lot of cities in Japan have their own little character mascots.

Brandon:         Every single prefecture has it.

Tim:                So is it just the famous Japanese cuteness? It’s easy to say okay Japanese like cute things but there has to be more depth then that.

Brandon:         I think it’s a really funny contrast. Cuteness is on the other side of spectrum from seriousness but if you think about Japanese business or Japanese business man they are super serious, it’s kind of funny that all those serious Japanese business people think about okay what kind of cute character we should make. People are usually very sincere and serious but in order to be closer to brands or people or business you need to have some boost I would say that boost is the character.

Tim:                So it’s friendly and non-threatening.

Brandon:         Yeah.

Tim:                Well that’s interesting because in the US we have almost the opposite problem where business very informal and friend.

Brandon:         Very casual.

Tim:                But certainly on the B to B side marketing tends to be very formal, very serious.

Brandon:         So in the US we use a lot of photos on the website or brochure. In Japan we use a lot of characters. And also these characters are a symbol of anonymous culture in Japan. Company do not show much of real people working with in the company even CEOs do not be on the front of marketing. In the US twitter–

Tim:                We want to show real people.

Brandon:         Jack Duress, Elam Mask, Steve Jobs, how many people can you think of being in front of marketing actives at Japanese companies? Maybe Son-san, Mikitani-san

Tim:                Those were the two I was going to think of

Brandon:         That’s all right.

Tim:                It’s rare.

Brandon:         A lot of Japanese CEOs kind of hesitate to be in front of audience instead they create some cute characters to represent their companies. It’s kind of interesting contrast isn’t it?

Tim:                It is. So the characters it’s an avatar.

Brandon:         We have our own character called Cooper. It’s a dog. It’s actually–

Tim:                I’ve never seen cooper.

Brandon:         It’s my real dog.

Tim:                Okay. [Laugh]

Brandon:         that I bring to my office every once in a while. And, sometimes we use his face on the t-shirt. We created a Btrax T-shirt saying “98% human, 2% dog = Btrax” it’s a breakdown of our team.

Tim:                I got you okay.

Brandon:         The aim is to communicate some Asians.

Tim:                So when you are seeing companies that are coming into Japan from America or going into America from Japan what is the most common mistake you see them making?

Brandon:         When for example a US company tries to come to the Japanese market the challenge is adapting to the customers in Japan by adjusting products and services. I haven’t seen to many companies who are willing to adjust their business model or product to better serve Japanese audience and customers.

Tim:                I agree with you completely on that but could you give us a concrete example of that?

Brandon:         Okay, I need to be careful on this, I cannot talk about—

Tim:                I don’t want to get you in trouble with customers.

Brandon:         With any of our clients but there was a company called Uber.

Tim:                I have heard of them.

Brandon:         Super successful in the US. Obliviously they tried to come to Japan and they did. However there was a challenge of competing with taxi. Taxi in Japan is excellent in services. You can find Taxis anywhere in Tokyo in 30 maybe.

Tim:                And they are cleared, they are reasonably priced.

Brandon:         Yeah. So competing with Japanese taxi industry is not easy. However as far as I knew Uber doesn’t change their strategy much.

Tim:                Yeah I think that’s a really good example. They pretty much are just running the corporate play book in Japan and seeing if it works.

Brandon:         Yeah so I think this is one of the weaknesses of Americans, we think Americans are number one and Japan is a tiny country that we can serve easily. It’s a little arrogant mentality of Americans people.

Tim:                It is, we Americans are pretty bad at that.

Brandon:         [Laugh]

Tim:                yeah and an awful lot of times I have worked with companies coming in who seem to feel that once the Japanese see the American way of doing things of course they will adopt it because it’s better.

Brandon:         Yeah. On the other side when we talk to Japanese clients almost always they say why should we change to go global? sometimes we say “no, no your products are excellent all you have to do is doing a better job on the marketing side and maybe localizing some UI and changing some bits and pieces of the product. Japan has excellent products but they are not very confident about serving outside of Japan and they come to us saying “okay we’d like to do something from scratch, we need to devote something from the ground up.”

Tim:                Whereas the Americans don’t want to change anything the Japanese just want to rewrite everything?

Brandon:         Exactly yeah.

Tim:                Boy it’s just extreme differences.

Brandon:         It is extreme it is.

Tim:                Moving from design I really want to talk about some of the other things that you and Btrax are doing to promote the startup ecosystem here in Japan. And I know you are running and internship program you’ve got a couple of others, –well why don’t you tell us about it because you can do it better than I can.

Brandon:         Although my passion is in the design since I have lived in San Francisco for such a long time start up culture is a natural thing for me. Every single night there is a startup event. A startup is nothing special in San Francisco. If you walk down the street 3 out of 5 people are either entrepreneurs or working for a startup. So I was a big fan of startup events for a long time and there is one day a French start up started presenting their products at event of SF New tech and I was like “oh this is interesting.” I thought about how about presetting on Japanese’s startups there. At that time this was back in 2010, with in a few months I got a chance to come to Japan. Interestingly I was selected to be one of the judges as Japanese start up event simply because I live in San Francisco.

Tim:                We had very low bars back in 2010. [Laugh]

Brandon:         [Laugh]

Tim:                They are a little more selective these days.

Brandon:         And audience’s size was like 50 people. And organizer had told me that this was all the Japanese start up people here in this room. I was like “are you serious” and he was like “yeah of course.” There are only a hand full of entrepreneur in Japan, maybe 10 or so and we have 5 companies from those 10. And they are good, they are excellent what they produce is sometimes better than startups in San Francisco. But, the unfortunate fact is that all of those products are in Japanese. How come you don’t do things in English so like it can cover the global market? And they were like “oh we don’t know how.” And I was like okay–

Tim:                I can help you with that. [Laugh]

Brandon:         “Just make your products in English, come to San Francisco, present in front in front of a US audience, that’s all you need to do.” They were like “okay, but how?” “Don’t worry about it we will hold an event called Japan night where Japanese startups compete in San Francisco.”

Tim:                So how long was it from the time where you met these first startups to the time you had the first Japan night?

Brandon:         Three months.

Tim:                Three months? That’s moving fast. All right.

Brandon:         You know it’s a startup we have to move fast.

Tim:                And you are running it will be Japan night–

Brandon:         Eighth.

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Tim:                Number 8?

Brandon:         Yeah.

Tim:                That’s awesome! And it’s bigger now.

Brandon:         It’s 10 times bigger. Last five years I’ve seen lots and lots of startups in Japan being -really successful both in Japan as well in overseas. There are some startups in San Francisco from Japan. So I think it’s incredible, incredible change I have seen.

Tim:                There has been this trend recently, I mean now there are so many more startups in Japan then there were just 8 years ago and quality has gone up as well. There has been a real trend recently for Japanese companies to move to San Francisco.

Brandon:         Exactly.

Tim:                Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. What are your thoughts on it? When is it good for a company to move to San Francisco and when is it best for them to stay in Japan?

Brandon:         I think it could be timing but I think it’s more towards products they are making the target market. So obviously if you are going to target global market coming to San Francisco would be an excellent idea to do because you can talk to direct users right at cafe, on the street or start up events. If your product and services are more towards Japanese audience you may want to stay in Japan because it’s a lot cheaper. I think there is a trend recently that a couple of my entrepreneur friends from Japan have engineering team in Japan while having business team in San Fransokyo. I thought that was the perfect mix because they can save a lot of money by hiring engineers in Japan who are excellent hard working people while expanding their businesses in the US, the hub of startup which is San Francisco. So by mixing those two you can create a global team.

Tim:                So what do you see Japan night evolving into? What good is it doing?

Brandon:         It’s fun.

Tim:                That’s always good.

Brandon:         It’s exciting. I feel like I am giving something back to the society.

Tim:                Yeah?

Brandon:         However it’s interesting that you ask me that question. I have recently started thinking about maybe, maybe we should not limit this to Japanese startups only. So I have even considered changing the name because calling it “Japan Night” is kind of limiting itself to Japanese startups.

Tim:                So you are thinking of bringing in startups from the rest of Asia or?

Brandon:         Something like that would be good. After going to different countries I started thinking about limiting to Japanese’s companies only might not make sense anymore because everything is global now.

Tim:                Well actually come to think of it a lot of the companies pitching at Japan Night weren’t Japanese.

Brandon:         Actually no. Either the companies not originally founded in Japan or speakers are not Japanese which are fully okay to me.

Tim:                Nah it’s great but you are right things are going global. A lot of the pitch events here in Japan there are a lot of companies coming from South East Asia and more and more are coming from Europe and occasionally the US as well.

Brandon:         I think that’s great.

Tim:                I do to. Well what about San Francisco? At the pitch events there is it mostly local startups or do you get that global mix of?

Brandon:         Recently I do see global mix more and more. Companies from china, companies from Singapore, companies from Europe, and speaking of that right next to our office there is an Incubator called Block 71. Block 71 is a huge incubator in Singapore hosting 300 startups.

Tim:                that’s right.

Brandon:         And they recently opened an incubator in San Francisco and I talked to them and they said their plan is to keep sending startups one after another to San Francisco. And this is getting kind of crazy a country spending money to set up a facility for its startups to go and to go to the global market. I would think Japan should do that.

Tim:                You also have an internship program don’t you?

Brandon:         Yeah I don’t know if you should call it program, it’s not that big of a deal. We accept Japanese young people lot work at our office in San Francisco to give them some global experience and I started doing these 5 years ago when we started doing Japan night simple because we needed more people to help us organize Japan night. It’s primarily organized by interns. The people who come from Japan to San Francisco are extremely intelligent, extremely smart, and very, very creative. I simply think there are so, so much great people in Japan coming to the US so if we can work together then we can accomplish something very big deal.

Tim:                I agree so how long is the internship? It’s a couple of months?

Brandon:         Typically it’s somewhere between two to three months.

Tim:                Okay. And we will be sure to put a link to this up on the website because I am sure a lot of the younger Japanese listeners will be delighted to go and intern in San Francisco.

Brandon:         Speaking of that I’d like to point this out. We get a lot of interns for marketing positions, recently we get some interns for engineers almost no interns for designer position. It kind of strange, we are a design company and Japanese designers are great but for some reason designers in Japan are not thinking too much in going outside of the country, they should because designers in San Francisco it’s kind of like stars.

Tim:                Yeah especially the way you were describing design as a whole system. It would seem that it would be incredibly valuable for Japanese designers to kind of go and understand it.

Brandon:         So I highly encourage any designers in Japan to apply to us.

Tim:                Go to the website there is a link, go talk to Brandon.

Brandon:         Exactly. And designers have special spot in Btrax to work.

Tim:                Excellent. And you are also stepping that up a bit right you are opening up a full blown co-working space.

Brandon:         Yeah there are lots and lots of co-working spaces in San Francisco, maybe 20 or 30 of them and there are a lot of startups, but almost none of them offers any mentoring or supporting in terms of design. They B C’s they have startup entrepreneurs as mentors but we always wanted to provide our design consulting services to startups and corporations and mixing startups and corporations together and I thought about doing this cross border bases would be super exciting. So we will be opening up a co-working space called D House.

Tim:                D House?

Brandon:         D House.

Tim:                Cool.

Brandon:         In October 2015. The concept of D House is providing our design mentoring to corporations and startups and we create this environment to collaborate. There will be corporations from Japan, there will be startups from Japan there will be startups from local area.

Tim:                So this is sort of an open innovations program that is tied to design.

Brandon:         Exactly. Totally. That is perfect 100%. The name D House came from Bauhaus. German school of design back in 1900 century there is a term called form falls function and we follow that concept and vision. So designs should be there to support your business.

Tim:                That is fantastic. I don’t know how I am going to possibly edit this down to 30 minutes but before we wrap up I want to ask you, so you’ve been running Japan night and deeply involved in the startup ecosystem in both here in Japan and San Francisco for the last 8 years. So pulling out your crystal ball here where do you see Japan’s start up ecosystem and Japan’s view of holistic design and UX design in 5 years?

Brandon:         I can confidently say one thing that within 5 years most Japanese startups have either entrepreneurs, founders or employees, no Japanese. Every single team will have no Japanese people.

Tim:                yeah that definitely is a trend right now that is accelerating.

Brandon:         Towards that we will have more Japanese known designers, who can contribute to their businesses.

Tim:                Do you think that will defuse the ideas?

Brandon:         Exactly. There is only one way for a startup in Japan to survive which is going global. Targeting only domestic market is not realistic and it’s almost impossible to survive in this country because there is so many corporations so they’ve got to go global. The best way to accomplish that is having no Japanese people in the team.

Tim:                So do you think in 5 years we are going to start seeing this emergence of kind of the holistic approach to design in Japan?

Brandon:         I think it is our job to do that.

Tim:                All right, well I will be looking forward to that.

Brandon:         Definitely.

Tim:                Hey Brandon that’s so much for sitting down with me it’s been great.

Brandon:         Thanks so much it was good.

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[Interview End]

And we are back.

I found Brandon’s approach to design really, well eye opening. The idea that in a great company everyone should be involved in not only sales and support but also product design as well filled in some important gaps for me. If employees are engaged and deeply care about the product of course there will be a great source for contributions to product design. And more important perhaps viewing process improvement as a design challenge rather than an optimization problem yields very different and almost certainly vastly superior results. I have been a programmer my entire life and suddenly I find myself wanting to study design.

If you’ve got an opinion about Japanese design either with a capital or lower case “d” and I know a lot a of you do drop by disruptingJapan.com/show26 and let us know what you think. When you drop by the site you will see the links and sites that Brandon and I talked about and much, much more in the resources section of the post.

And if you get a chance please leave us an honest review on ITunes, it’s really the best way you can support the show and help us get the word out. But most of all thanks for listening and thanks for letting people interesting in Japanese startups know about the show. I am Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.