The translation and localization industry has seen some impressive innovations over the past decade, but in many ways, it has remained stubbornly resistant to change.

Today we sit down and talk with Jeff Sandford co-founder of The Wovn team has developed a way to take the pain out of web localization and translation. They promise to do it all with a single line of code.

We talk a bit about the mechanics of web-site localization and state of the industry as a whole, and we also discuss some important but surprising differences between with makes compelling UI/UX design for Japanese and for Western users, and what kinds of tasks machine translation can really be trusted with.

Jeff also explains why he decided to start a company with someone he had never meet.

It’s a great discussion, and I think you’ll really enjoy it.

Show Notes for Startups

  • Why website translation is important but often overlooked
  • Why Jeff chose to start a company with someone he had never met
  •  How to combat Japan’s “Design by Committee” problem
  • Why you should not trust machine translation for e-commerce
  • When you need to change from a bottom-up to top-down sales strategy
  • The challenges of working with Japanese enterprise customers as a startup
  • Advice for foreign engineers and founders who want to come to Japan
  • Why Japan needs to get uncomfortable

Transcript from Japan

Disrupting Japan, episode 86.

Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Today we’re going to talk about something that you and I, and probably everyone else listening right now has struggled with. Translation and localization. It’s been an industry that has both seen some impressive innovations over the past decade, but is also somehow quite resistant to change. Localization is a part of business that almost every firm has to deal with, but almost no one looks forward to. It’s a lot like dealing with lawyers in that way, I suppose.

Well, today we sit down with Jeff Sandford, cofounder of who say they’ve developed a one line of code method for taking the pain out of localization and translation. We talk a bit about the mechanics of website localization and the state of the industry as a whole, of course. We also talk about the important and surprising differences between what makes great UI/UX with Japanese and western users. And what kind of tasks machine translation can really be trusted with. And Jeff shares a story of what made him decide to start a company with a cofounder who he’d never even met before.

But you know, Jeff tells that story much better than I can. So let’s hear from our sponsor, and get right to the interview.

Tim: Cheers.

Jeff: Cheers.

Tim: So I’m sitting with Jeff, cofounder of Minimal Technologies and the creator of And thanks for sitting down with me today.

Jeff: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

Tim: at a high level is simply localization for a website. But it’s more than that. It’s more interesting than that so why don’t you tell us a bit about what it is.

Jeff: So often people when you tell them you do website localization, they think translation, which it actually isn’t. Translation is a very integral part of it, but what we focus on is the system of localizing a website. So let’s say you have an English website, and you’ll like to create a Chinese version or Spanish version of that website, we handle all of the details of actually creating those versions, and also managing them and serving them to users.

Tim: Now there’s a lot of companies that are doing that, but you guys have a particularly interesting approach to it. The promise, as it were, is the ultimate in simplicity, right?

Jeff: Right.

Tim: It’s a single line of code copied into your webpage.

Jeff: Exactly. Yes. In the simplest case, you can really take a website, even a relatively large website, and have the entire thing translated within minutes. That’s the promise. That’s the goal. Right?

Tim: You get little pieces out of JavaScript code. You sign up a You get your API key. You put that code in your website, and suddenly the whole website is enabled?

Jeff: Yes, that’s it.

Tim: And how do you localize? How do you translate? How do you actually get the Chinese and the Japanese onto the page?

Jeff: Okay, okay. So the next step is actually creating those translations and putting them in place. So what a lot of people do, especially larger websites or people who have websites that constantly change, is they use our automatic translation features and automatic page creation features. So you turn those on, and we will automatically add all the pages on your website. We’ll automatically translate all of your content and publish it for users to see. Now if you don’t want to do it automatically, you can also all the pages added for you, and then go and translate everything yourself. A very common use case is to do the automatic translation, and then go back and edit, and modify it, and improve it yourself.

Tim: Well, that would make a lot of sense. But actually tell me a bit about the use cases. Tell me about your customers. Who’s using Wovn?

Jeff: A lot of our customers tend to be surprisingly ecommerce sort of sites and larger websites here in Japan. Surprisingly enough, Japanese companies haven’t quite gotten on board with localization yet on their websites. And specifically it’s the Tokyo Lymbix, which is coming up. It has really lit a fire under them to start working on this.

Tim: Well ecommerce makes sense because that way someone puts up a new product, it’s automatically translated into two or three additional languages, and they can go back and refine that later.

Jeff: Exactly, and you can see right then the cost benefit of it as well.

Tim: Right. And so who else it? Like a travel industry site or is it a—

Jeff: That’s another one. Travel industry, tourism in general, and then also restaurants or things that have a lot have a lot of foot traffic from tourists and things like that is also pretty common. Hotels is another one.

Tim: And about how many clients do you have now? How many sites are being translated or being localized by

Jeff: Alright, so this changes all the time, but I think right now—

Tim: Hopefully it’s going up.

Jeff: It is going up. I think currently it’s about 8,000.

Tim: Alright.

Jeff: So yeah, 8,000 websites.

Tim: Okay, and of those 8,000 sites, how many are paying and how many are on the free tier?

Jeff: Good question. So right now the paid ones are definitely on the smaller side of it.

Tim: They always are.

Jeff: Well, definitely. It’s that most of our paid users are Japanese right now.

Tim: I want to dig down into that a little bit later, and talk about your overall sales and marketing strategy. But before we do, let me back up a bit and let’s talk a little bit about you.

Jeff: Sure.

Tim: You cofounded this company in 2014 with Hayashi-san?

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: Well, let’s back up a bit. What brought you to Japan the first time?

Jeff: Good question. This is the question you always get as a foreigner in Japan.

Tim: It’s obligatory.

Jeff: Initially, I just really wanted the experience to live outside of my home country. I had a computer science degree, so I could have been a developer. But I had this fear that if I jumped into a career in English, I would never learn Japanese. I did not want to get stuck in an English bubble, which a lot of people do here.

Tim: It’s easy to do here.

Jeff: Especially with the internet these days. It’s so easy to live in your own world in Japan. Because of that, I decided to do something I knew I really wouldn’t enjoy that much to force myself to learn Japanese so that I can work in a Japanese company or in a company that I could speak Japanese. So I started out by being an English teacher. I did it for about two and a half years. Had enough of that.

Tim: Yeah, two years is a pretty—

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah, it’s a tough job.

Jeff: I don’t hate it, but it’s definitely not what is going to be my career, and I definitely knew it wasn’t going to be so I wanted to move forward. But definitely I think teaching is much more difficult than people give it credit for.

Tim: It’s a tough, tough job.

Jeff: I’ve always done some freelance for development and things so after that, I continued to kind of work full-time. I lived in Japan for a little bit doing freelance web development, actually. And then I had some awesome weddings back in the States. So I’m back from some weddings, actually. So when I was back in the States for that, that’s when I got connected with Takuharu Hayashi. We actually had a few Skype meetings, and decided over Skype to do it. One of my good friends here, a guy from New Zealand is the one who said, “Hey, Jeff, there’s this guy who is looking to cofound with somebody. He’s looking for somebody who speaks English, or someone who’s foreign, who has experience globally. So what do you thing?” So I connected with him. We decided to do it before even seeing each other. We decided over Skype. I came to Japan to work, to cofound with this person, and I never met this person.

Tim: Okay, and the company you two have built is a very multinational team, right?

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: Usually when I see start-ups in Japan that have a good multicultural team to them, it’s usually foreign engineers and Japanese support and sales. And it’s that kind of how it’s worked out for you guys?

Jeff: It is similar, actually. Yeah. Well, we do have one of our—Actually the first person who joined the company after me and Takuharu, he’s actually Taiwanese, but he lived in Australia as well. He speaks Chinese, Japanese, and English all fluently. So he’s definitely one of the corner stones of our company, so he works on the business side. Of course he does computers—Not computers. He does customer service. And he really owns that part and manages it all. And then on the development side, what we’ve done is we try to go half and half. I feel like if you’re based in Japan, you should also be employing Japanese people as well. But also because we want to have that global community, and I think as part of the reason is like this. It is very half and half English and Japanese.

So when we communicate with writing, which we use a message system. It’s mostly English. There’s a very really important message output in Japanese as well, even though our Japanese developers can read English. But when we have meetings, it’s really half and half. People if they speak Japanese, they speak Japanese and I translate it to English. If they speak English, then I translate it to Japanese. And it’s back and forth. Sometimes I feel like it’d be nice if everyone spoke the same language, but I think it’s actually really great especially given what we’re working on too. So we have two French developers who speak French to each other. We have two Vietnamese who are joining us soon. I’m sure they will speak Vietnamese together. So we have Japanese who speak Japanese together. And then I speak English with the Canadian developer. So it’s very interesting. It’s a very small international community for people who are looking for that experience who really want to work in those languages, especially want to study English or Japanese. I think it’s a great opportunity.

Tim: All of the four companies I founded here in the Japan, and also the US company I brought into Japan, in every single case, the spoken communication throughout the company was in Japanese. The written communication was in English.

Jeff: Well, Japanese people they can read and write English pretty well.

Tim: Well, that’s it. Yeah. All educated Japanese can read English. Right?

Jeff: Yes, they can all read it for sure.

Tim: And Japanese is a really hard language to write.

Jeff: Maybe I’m just going on and on. But one other interesting thing actually about, I think, the products out of our company is the design of our products really isn’t very Japanese, for lack of a better word. I find a lot of Japanese websites generally are set up to follow that minimalist design, which is really important to us. That is why we’re called Minimal Technologies.

Tim: Well, that is true. Japanese graphic design in general is much, much more cluttered than western design.

Jeff: I agree, but I also think that there’s much more of an influence from the business side in Japan than there is other places. I think that they give the designs a little bit more freedom in the west than they do here. In my experience, they always—I’m sure this is the same with everywhere, but the business side, they just want to just pack in information, which is interesting because Japanese who all they like the information, but westerners don’t like the information. They want less.


Tim: So you feel in Japan there’s like the approval committee gets the design and says, ‘Oh, we need to include these 12 more points.’

Jeff: Yes. Yeah.

Tim: Yeah?

Jeff: Yeah, actually an interesting thing is we had a landing page just specific for Japanese business people who would possibly use our website, and it was in Japanese. And I wouldn’t allow English to be honest because it was very cluttered, and it didn’t look minimal to me. And it’s the kind of design that is very common in pamphlets and things in businesses here, but it is not the kind that you can really put in English and give people a good impression of your company. Because it packs in a lot of information, but it’s, I think, to westerners too much information. We like to get just the bare minimum. And there’s places for having a lot of information, but I feel like they really like it at the top of the page above the fold.

Tim: You guys are using all the modern tools, so you’re measuring what converts and what doesn’t. And do the busy pages convert better in Japanese than the minimalist pages.

Jeff: Yeah, that’s actually a difficult problem because people want to have more in Japanese than they do in English. So I would say going from Japanese to English is much easier because it’s very easy to remove something when you’re localizing, it’s much more difficult to add something. Because that might involve a new styling, or you might have to rearrange the content in that case in order to handle the extra information. Right?

Tim: And this gets really to kind of the core of localization and translation are different but related things.

Jeff: Yes. Yes.

Tim: Well, actually, let’s take it step-by-step. So we were talking about the different sensibilities in design. With the exception of some ecommerce companies, but most companies won’t change their design much for each individual market. They go with a global design.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: So the next step is the actual language. Is machine translation good enough? Should people really feel okay about putting up their website, and their information about their company, and their philosophy, and having it machine translated into Japanese and Chinese?

Jeff: It really depends first of all on a language pair. If you’re translating between English and Japanese, that’s on very heavily supported pair. But at the same time, these two languages are very difficult to translate between. So it is not as good as it were English and French, for example. Our French developers actually help us translate any website into French. And he translated the settings page recently, he said, “Well, I only had to fix one or two things because it was all fine.” So when it comes to shorter, succinct, self contained sentences, and things that don’t have context that relates to previously said things, and so like that is pretty good. And also I’ll add that with Google’s new Neural Machine Translations—They currently use the Neural Net to translate, it’s actually really good.

Tim: Really?

Jeff: It’s actually a huge leap from their regular one to the Neural one.

Tim: And so after that, you’ve got kind of a step up. You connect with Gengo—

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: —which is a SaaS based spot translation company here in Tokyo.

Jeff: Right. Right.

Tim: So do most of your customers take advantage of the human translation that Gengo provides, or do they kind of outsource it to their own people, or do they just let Google handle it?

Jeff: Not many people use those as I would like them to because I think the standard for translations here is a little bit lower than for example, if you’re in Europe. Because they don’t read it as well. And there’s not as many people who speak English here, so the standards is a little bit lower. Companies who care us it. They use Gengo. Or the ones who really care the most do it themselves. Gengo is a really great service, and the translations are really good. I’ve never seen a translation from Gengo that seemed like I couldn’t read it or couldn’t understand it. It’s always good. But if you really want to—especially with marketing things and taglines. Those kind of things. It’s not even related to the quality of the translation. You need someone you can talk to and explain the meaning behind, which you want to translate. and the nuances, which is really important when you’re doing marketing material and things that are a little bit more sales and things like that.

Tim: I guess your customers kind of triage—

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: —their translations. So some that are maybe technical specs or raw data, they let the translation engine handle it by itself.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: Some more general informational things, they’ll outsource to Gengo. And then things that are really advertising copy, or headlines, or critical things, they’ll handle themselves.

Jeff: Yes, and I can tell you from experience at least with us, advertising copy changes completely. Even a different meaning. For us, if you look at the English one and the Japanese one, the meanings are just different. I don’t even want to try to match them because you really want to express the feeling even more than the meaning. Right?

Tim: Exactly.

Jeff: So yeah, that’s why it’s important to really have someone who works with you to do those.

Tim: But even then, when you’re looking at doing business internationally, translation’s only the first step.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: So even if you got the website translated, you’ve got email to send back and forth. You’ve got people asking you questions in English or Chinese that you have to answer now.

Jeff: Yes. Yeah.

Tim: And how do your customers handle that? What stage are they at? Are they using to kind of fill out the website where they already have the infrastructure behind it to handle the different languages, or are they sort of using as like the first step because it’s so easy and then suddenly discovering, ‘We have to answer these customers here.”?

Jeff: That really does happen, actually. It really does depend on the users. But a lot of users end up just kind of figuring it out as they go. So they’ll do it, and then they get these, like you said, emails from people. And then they have to figure out, okay, how do you handle this? They find a service or whatever. That’s something that we want to handle ourselves. And we have plans for everything you actually just mentioned. We have plans for emails. We have plans for support. Multilingual support as well. We really want to make it so—Because localization, like you said before, isn’t just translation, it’s a whole system of things. Right?

Tim: Absolutely.

Jeff: So we want to provide the whole solution. So you can just plug it in, and you’re good to go. So that can include, like you said, support, multilingual support, and the emails.

Tim: Are you going to be rolling out new products in the next couple of months or something like that? Any thing you can share?

Jeff: Yes, so right now we’re really, really focusing on the scaling because I’m sure everyone knows that is a huge issue for people to deal with. And as your user base grows, you have to go support it. So as soon as you finish our current project, our next projects are actually what we were actually just talking about. So email and multilingual support. I’d like to have some of this stuff out by the end of the year. Hopefully more than one or two. Of course, we don’t have any solid, hard deadlines now that I can give you, but those are things that really just coming right down the pipeline and they’re on their way.

Tim: Awesome. Let’s dive down a bit into some of the more kind of technical problems involved in this. The way works is it’s a Cloud-based service, right?

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: So when a request comes into server page, that request is partially routed to Wovn servers who figure out which translations need to be inserted, and then they serve that page, right?

Jeff: So it depends on what you’re using. We actually have two main services. We have the snippet we talked about before. We have another one, which is a library for you to install on your server. And that’s the one that when you get the request, it gets the data from the Wovn server and returns it to these or that way through Wovn and through the servers as well. The snippet is a little bit different in that user downloads the page, and then the JavaScript itself would download the translations for the page. We use a really good, fast CDN. So basically when you’re downloading the translation information, it’s cache and it’s very close to the user. Sometimes you don’t even see it. If someone’s trying to translate to Japanese and English—Japanese for example. They might not even see it. It just shows up in Japanese from the beginning.

Tim: So there’s really no impact on the latency. This doesn’t significantly increase the page load time at all?

Jeff: It doesn’t significantly increase. The JavaScript one has absolutely no effect. The other library one has a very, very small effect.

Tim: Okay, well that’s important because I mean page load speed these days is directly related to search engine—

Jeff: It is. Yes. SEO is very important, especially if you’re trying to sell things.

Tim: Well, SEO again though, is how do you deal with the fact that if it’s a JavaScript that is to determine the language and dynamically substituting the appropriate language, how do you make sure that the pages each within the specific language are indexed correctly by the search engines?

Jeff: Good question. So that is the main weakness of the snippet. So it’s real easy to do, but the SEO isn’t as good. So Google said that it would process JavaScript. We worked on it, worked on it. We’ve never been able to reliably get them to use our snippet to translate all the pages. That is the reason we have the library as well. So in that case, the search engine as seen as transitive pages. So in that case, your SEO is great.

Tim: Okay, so would it work with, for example WordPress? So I’ve been thinking of getting Disrupting Japan content translated into Japanese for like forever.

Jeff: Yes, I’m sure. Actually, it was funny. We were looking at it today, the office, at your website. And we were saying, “Oh, they should use”

Tim: I know. I know. Well, let’s talk about it. Does it work with WordPress?

Jeff: It does. It’s actually, of course, one of the most common ones. So I would really love to have a WordPress plug-in, which we don’t have yet. But you can also use the PHP library. What we try to do is get as far outside the application as possible.

Tim: Well, look at it this way. Do I have to write code?

Jeff: No.

Tim: Okay. That’s important.

Jeff: There is some configuration to be made of course anytime you install a library on your server, but besides the configuration, you should not have to write any code.

Tim: Let’s move for a minute over to the sales and marketing side. At a high level, is your strategy more bottom up or top down? So bottom up evangelizing engineers, and getting the developers excited about it. And top down is more going to the enterprises and saying, ‘Hey, this will save you X amount of dollars, and make you deliver a project faster.’ What’s your basic approach to marketing this?

Jeff: I feel like we’ve tried both, but right now it’s really top down, as it’s working the most.

Tim: Really? That surprises me.

Jeff: Me as well. I think when we first launched, we expected it to be used by bloggers or people who have small personal websites, and we were really surprised to find all these corporate clients who wanted to use our servers and we actually had to pivot. And that was a rough time, let me tell you, in the development side, pivoting, because supporting a website that thousands of pages and a website that has hundreds of pages is a completely different job. So the corporate websites, specifically I think in Japan, is such a big part of the market for us.

Tim: Well, they certainly pay better.

Jeff: Yeah, well there’s really a need for it in Japan right now.

Tim: Well, what kind of things did you have to change to service the enterprise market? Were there specific features? Did you have to hire more sales engineers versus developers?

Jeff: One of the main things we worked on a lot was the automatic page creation and automatic translation because when you have such a large website, you just can’t do it all by hand. So you really need these tools to do it automatically, which fit into what we wanted to create as a product. So that worked out well for us. But when we’re creating a system and expecting just to serve a hundred websites with 10 pages, it’s different than serving 10 websites with a thousand pages. So we specifically had one website—ecommerce website—who joined us pretty early on and is still with us. I think they have 40,000 pages now. Initially, we weren’t planning for supporting that much, especially not from out of the gate.

Tim: That sounds like almost an idea situation. It’s forcing you to address the scalability problems before they get too bad, right?

Jeff: Yes. We thought that the entire time, but it didn’t always feel like it. We always thought—

Tim: Looking back.

Jeff: ‘This is great, but it’s terrible.’ And they also taught me a very valuable lesson is to scale before end. So that’s why we’re doing scaling now before we get to the point where we have to scramble and have some sleepless months, should I say. Not nights, but months.

Tim: You mentioned that is looking to do more business globally.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: So for the global expansion, are you planning on following that same kind of top down enterprise strategy, or are you going to try to do more grassroots, bottom up, convert the developer strategy worldwide?

Jeff: I have a feeling that the bottom up is going to work better. But we are going to go with whatever works best. So we are going to try a little bit of each, and see which one picks up, and really adapt. One thing that we learned from when we first launched and realized that we were completely wrong about our market is that you really can’t make assumptions. So we’re going to go in with an open mind and try everything, I think. But once we figure out what’s going to work best, we’ll focus on it, and really try to work until we find success.

Tim: That makes a lot of sense.

Jeff: Yeah, and actually there’s a lot more competition globally as well that’s going to affect our approach. So one example of how we worked on that in Japan is that we have a Wovn Partners program, which is if you have a web development company who develops other websites, then you can join the Wovn Partners program and sell Wovn to your clients.

Tim: So what’s the advantage for the partners? Is it just discounts on the services? Is it—

Jeff: Really the main thing that partners get is the system.

Tim: And the partnership program it gives them tools to manage like multiple websites and things like that?

Jeff: Yes. It gives them tools to manage multiple websites. They can also kind of a little bit customize to appear more like the service they’re offering. Those are the advantages.

Tim: Okay. Let me ask you some general Japan questions.

Jeff: Sure.

Tim: So we talked before that Wovn has a really multicultural, multinational team. This is something I in see more and more Japanese start-ups who say they want to do that. They want to cultivate an international team.

Jeff: Right.

Tim: What do you see as both the advantages and disadvantages on a very practical level of having a multicultural team?

Jeff: I think that Japan—And I’m going to make some very general statements here, so forgive me. As a country, a lot of times they just need to get out of their own way. They’re very good at what they do, of course. Japan is successful in many places, but by including people from different countries into your company is—I think it really can’t be measure just from how valuable it is. Because when you want to have those start-up ideals—I’ve seen it happen in my own company, and I think we do a really good job at it. But not even intending to, you kind of pull towards where you’re from, where you grew up. It’s not even conscious, I don’t think, even. So having those other people on the team—Just having those people there, and speaking up, and speaking their mind is critical to creating a healthy, thriving start-up community in Japan, I think. Because Japan historically, and even now doesn’t really have a thriving start-up scene. And I think one of the reasons is because the thinking of start-ups. The whole concept of start-ups doesn’t really fit with traditional Japanese thinking.

Tim: Well, I think that there are a very large number of foreigners involved in the start-up scene here in Japan.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: Much greater than the general population.

Jeff: Yes, definitely.

Tim: And that’s true in San Francisco as well. But the interesting thing, the mixed team—Getting down to really specifics. So some of the companies I’ve run, I’ve been the only non-Japanese. And I’m very aware of the negatives and the inefficiencies that that involves. And my Japanese is pretty good, but it’s not native.

Jeff: Right.

Tim: And it takes me five times as long to read something in Japanese as it does anyone else in the company.

Jeff: You’re preaching to me. I know.

Tim: So when you can look at the real specific negatives. What are the really specific positives and advantages, rather than just general concepts about multiculturalism?

Jeff: Okay, I’ll give you a really specific example. Our marketing director, he’s Japanese. He’s born in Japan. He’s Japanese. His girlfriend is actually American. And the the product in a lot of ways has been something that I’ve nurtured and created a lot. Compared to a lot of other products in Japan, I don’t think it’s very Japanese, for lack of better word. And we often have problem with specifically maybe older gentlemen, businessmen who really don’t know how to use our product. We’ve put in tutorials and stuff, and tried to help with that, but they want a manual. They someone explaining that to them.

Tim: Oh, yeah.

Jeff: Right. And he said he had his girlfriend use it, and she had no problems. She just started like, ‘Oh, this is fine.’ She kind of figured it out as you go. Which is much more of a western approach, I think. Just kind of figure it out as you go. And that was something that was really helpful to me to convince other people that we’re doing the right thing as far as creating this minimalist approach in creating the product that we have. He was surprised as well to see his girlfriend’s reaction. I think he also used it with one of his friends, and she had this same thing with her. It was no problem to use.

Tim: Okay, that makes sense. Certainly, if you’re looking for eventually going global, you’re going to need that input from day one.

Jeff: Right.

Tim: But actually, I have found that as well that western users, both business users, and developers are much more willing to jump into something and kind of take it step-by-step. Japanese users want to sort of know the whole path forward before taking that first step.

Jeff: Before they start. Yeah.

Tim: Well, over the last 10 years. Over the last five years especially, we’ve seen more and more foreign developers, foreign engineers in Japan. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s really beneficial to the start-up ecosystem here, and to the enterprise ecosystem for that matter.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: But what would your advice be to a foreign engineer who’s thinking of coming to Japan to work for a start-up?

Jeff: Prepare yourself because—I don’t mean to be very negative about it, but it’s just the fact is that Japanese culture is so different from western culture. I think Japanese culture—Maybe Korean might me close. But as far as a culture that is so different from western culture—I think Chinese culture is maybe closer to western than Japanese is. Japanese to me really is on the far end. When you first come here, I say the first year is the honeymoon period where everything, ‘Oh, all things are new. This is cool.’ And then after that, it can become kind of gray and depressing, which what I would—

Tim: People go through the cycles, right?

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: So the first nine months or year, it’s wonderful. Everything is interesting. The next nine months, it’s sort of like, ‘I hate this place. I want to go home.’

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: And then it kind of stabilizes.


Jeff: I would say that the one thing that I always tell people, also when I speak with with people who are in interviews, I ask them—want to gauge if they would be able to make it here. Because some people come here, and they leave in six months because they can’t take it. Have some kind of support system. So you need somebody here who is from your country or who at least is not Japanese who you can hang out with, and chill with, and complain to, or whatever you need because without it it can get really lonely here. I was just back in the States for two weeks—And it happened to me before. But when I first go back to the States, I’m always surprised when people start talking to me when I don’t know them. ‘Oh, hello. Good morning to you too.’

Tim: Yes, we Americans are a very friendly bunch.

Jeff: Yes, I think so more than others maybe.

Tim: Yeah, we are.

Jeff: It takes a second for me to get into it, but once I get into it, I’m like, ‘Oh, I like this. I like being able to talk to friendly people, even if I don’t know you.’ In Tokyo, it’s kind of the worse of Japan in that way. No one’s going to talk to you if they don’t know you. Right?

Tim: You said a number of times, it’s important to kind of prepare yourself. So what are you preparing yourself for exactly? How do you prepare yourself?

Jeff: I would say a lot of people look at Japan and have a very different image of the reality. I think the way the west looks at Japan is not realistic. They see it as kind of this—People will often say this land of technology, and anime, and crazy weird things that everything and wherever you go is weird, but—

Tim: And that is here.

Jeff: It is, but it’s not to the extent that people expect it to be so I just think—

Tim: You have to go look for it. Right? You have to seek it out.

Jeff: Right. So when I say, prepare yourself, I really mean to set your expectations that this isn’t going to be what you’ve watched on anime. Or even if you watch dramas or whatever, it’s not the same as that either. So be honest with yourself on what you’re getting into. And don’t expect it to be like a theme park.

Tim: I think that’s really good advice. From my own experience, I’ve noticed that the westerners who come to Japan expecting Japan to be a certain way whether it’s from anime, or martial arts, or the more traditional arts. Those guys usually don’t last very long.

Jeff: No.

Tim: They usually go home after three or fours years.

Jeff: It’s a very different culture from where you’re from, but it’s a modern culture. One of the greatest things I found about living here is learning about just more than the differences but similarities. What do all humans share?

Tim: That’s an important insight for businesses and start-ups as well. It’s easy to talk about the differences.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: But in building a business, it’s the similarities that is most important.

Jeff: Definitely.

Tim: Because that’s what’s going to translate from Japan to the US market, or to Australia, or to China, or whatever you next step is. Hey listen, before we wrap up, I want to ask you what I call my “magic wand” question. And that is, if I gave you a magic wand, and I said you could change one thing about Japan—anything at all. You could change the education system, the way people think about risk—anything at all to make it better for start-ups in Japan. What would you change?

Jeff: I would say if I had a magic wand, I would change people’s willingness to be uncomfortable, which is, I think, common anywhere. They don’t want to be uncomfortable, but—

Tim: Interesting.

Jeff: —specifically willing to be afraid. Willing to do something that you aren’t sure of the outcome, or something that you aren’t used to doing.

Tim: But let’s dig into that for a minute because, uncomfortable—I know what you mean. To grow as a person, you need to push yourself into doing things that are uncomfortable. But I take Japanese society on one level is very comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you will.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: So the whole idea of gaman—

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: —and endurance, and putting up with things.

Jeff: And working at something you’re great up, and just keep on keeping. You’re killing yourself every day.

Tim: So Japan is probably better than anywhere at that. So that’s clearly not what you’re honing in on. So when you talk about being uncomfortable, what do you mean exactly?

Jeff: I guess I’m thinking more about users and clients. Not so much inside a company. When we want to do something different than they’re used to doing, it’s not considered.

Tim: Oh, I see what you mean. So it’s not necessarily that it’s risky or dangerous—

Jeff: Right.

Tim: —it’s just this feeling that, ‘We’ve never walked down this path before.’

Jeff: ‘Not used to this. I don’t want to do this.’ You walk down the street, and if there’s construction, there’s about four or five people waving you around the construction. I saw three people yesterday just—There’s no foot traffic even near them, and I think that’s what Japan’s known for.

Tim: Well, yeah. There’ll be like one guy swinging a pick and three guys directing traffic.

Jeff: I think in any other country maybe, they wouldn’t be there because you would be expected to figure it out. And I think in the States, you’re expected to figure stuff out a lot more here. And that’s what I mean uncomfortable where here you’re guided through everything comparatively. Especially as a customer. If you’re a customer somewhere, you’re guided through the whole process, even sitting down at the table at a restaurant.

Tim: That’s true. And I think that attitude kind of bubbles up even to corporate culture.

Jeff: Yes.

Tim: So in corporate decision making—If you’re trying to sell something to a large enterprise customer, that sense of guiding the decision is very much—The section chief will not look at the data, look at the costs, and make a decision. He’ll kick it down to his subordinates who will work together, and provide that guidance, and bring everyone on board, and then present it to the chief who will then make that decision.

Jeff: Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah, that’s basically what I’m talking about. That probably is the thing that I think is—It leads to a lot of inefficienciesenvelope I think.

Tim: I think so as well. It leads to inefficiencies. It leads to stagnation, a lack of innovation. Innovation by definition is not necessarily going out of your comfort zone—Well, maybe a little bit out of your comfort zone because you’re trying something new.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: They just need a few more people. A few more start-ups pushing that envelope. Pushing that comfort level just a little bit, and great things will happen.

Jeff: Yeah. And what I see a lot is on an individual level, I don’t see that as much of a problem. But when it gets too organizations and groups, it becomes more and more of a problem here. I’m sure it’s the same anywhere, I guess.

Tim: Oh, yeah.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah, I think in general, most people are wonderful one-on-one. You get them in big groups, that’s when problems happen.

Jeff: I think also we’ve done a really great job of building a team. Our Japanese developers specifically—I mean, all of our developers are great. But Japanese developers—I don’t think they’re very typical Japanese developers because I don’t think it’s very typical to want to work for a start-up here. You want to work for a larger company usually.

Tim: There must be a lot of Japanese developers who are attracted to that situation.

Jeff: Definitely. Yeah. So that’s what we found. And this comes back to the uncomfortable thing. I think developers generally want the kind of environment we’ve built, which is to just be able to along just do their work. To not have to go through levels just to do something. So I think that it’s something that any developer would want to work in, but uncomfortable to be in this—Not just something that’s new for work, but your whole life. It’s the whole way that everything is organized here. It’s not normal.

Tim: Right. Right. Trying something new. Pushing yourself a little bit further.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: Well, excellent. Hey, listen, Jeff, thanks so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.

Jeff: Thank you very much. And thank you for having me. It was a great time.

Tim: And we’re back.

I really liked Jeff’s point that to make progress, Japanese founders, and innovators, or anyone else really needs to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Throughout Japanese business culture, there’s an overwhelming need for certainty and for guidance. And in most large companies, that fear of uncertainty is crippling them.

But even on a personal level, I’ve always believed that the quality of one’s life is directly proportional to the amount of uncertainty that you can put up with. And seems to have the right attitude towards the uncertainty they are facing in their international expansion. They’re paid user growth in Japan has been driven primarily by relationships with and direct sales to enterprise customers. It’s a top down model that will be hard to replicate overseas, at least on a start-up’s budget. An enterprise sales force is expensive, so will most likely need to develop a bottom up grassroots campaign to get developers and designer on board, and then convince their managers that Wovn is the right tool.

I also found it interesting that is planning on filling other niches in the localization ecosystem such as email and help desk support. It’s a lot of functionality for a relatively small start-up to go after, but the market need is huge and no one company is dominating the market right now. So it’s going to be exciting to watch how all these uncertainties play out over the next five years. If you’ve got an opinion or a story about localization or translation, Jeff and I would love to hear from you. So come by and tell us about it. And when you come by the site, you’ll see all the links and notes that Jeff and I talked about and much, much more in the resources section of the post.

Oh, and before we go. I want to tell you a bit about our sponsors. No, no. Don’t worry. We’re done with the ads for today. I promise. But over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people comment that I seem a little too enthusiastic in my praise for our sponsors. Now of course their sponsorship is what allows me to introduce you to all these amazing companies and founders. But more than that, every one of our sponsors really does contribute to the community here. And yes, I’ve turned down a couple of companies that I didn’t feel were a perfect fit. So hey, check out our sponsors, drop by their sites, and let them know you heard about them here.

But most of all, thanks for listening. And thank you for letting people interested in Japanese start-ups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.