As an organizing member of Tokyo’s local tech community, I often get contacted from foreign entrepreneurs and investors who are coming to Japan. In order to help make their visit more fun I would like to take them to notable attractions in Tokyo, since Tokyo is a part of my daily life it can be hard for me to anticipate what might best entertain them, especially in terms of experiencing authentic Japanese culture.
FindJPN may be a solution to this problem . The Tokyo-based startup, and an alumni of Open Network Lab (a sort of Japanese version of Y-combinator), is almost one year old. I tried to learn a little more about its business strategy in an interview with the startup’s founder and CEO Masashi Takahashi.
Please tell us a little about yourself and what led you to launch FindJPN?
When I attended Keio University SFC (Shonan Fujisawa Campus), I was running an NPO that encouraged amateur cameramen to shoot videos and air them on community channels to help revitalize the local community and economy. But it was an NPO and I found no way to monetize. In order to learn how the monetization process works, I worked with a consulting firm called A.T. Kerney after graduating from the university. In 2008, a friend of mine launched a startup called Coach United, providing private lessons for those who wish to learn English, illustration, guitar playing, etc. I decided to join them. This is a sort of O2O (online-to-offline) matching service that connects private teachers with potential students, and I’ve been working with them for three years.
Coach United has been a good business, but I’ve been seeking a new idea and a chance to launch my own startup. I’m sure that it’s worth giving foreign visitors authentic travel experiences which they have never experienced before. That’s why I launched FindJPN last August and applied for a startup acceleration program by Open Network Lab. Now we have an independent office with a team of five members and are working on further system development and business expansion.
How does the system work?
The system has basically two different log-in modes, an activity organizer and a user. Users can find attractions which they want to experience simply by browsing our website. They can pay in advance using PayPal or a credit card prior to leaving for Japan or even during their stay in Tokyo.
We currently have almost 150 sets of attractions provided by activity organizers such as individual travel guides, calligraphy teachers, yoga instructors and cooking instructors. They usually have their own customers but they put their activities on our website in order to fill up vacancies in their classes and acquire new customers. But their basic intention includes letting visitors experience Japanese culture and learn English conversation through the activities. Their listed prices include our commission, which is our main revenue source.
Compared to existing travel agencies, why not arrange accommodation or transport for your customers? Could that bring more revenue?
Our business is a niche. We do not intend to compete with [in that space] but rather partner with [those companies]. Furthermore, we need to have a license to arrange package tours and deals with accommodation or transport ticketing under the Japanese travel business law.
Do you have any screening process when approving postings from your activity organizers?
Absolutely. In order to ensure the [quality and variety] of activity postings, we talk with them on a face-to-face basis or over Skype prior to approval.
Is there any competitor with a similar business?
As far as I know, there’s one called Vayable.com. It’s a San Francisco-based startup which launched in April of 2011 and is backed by Y-Combinator. But we’re really focusing on providing authentic Japanese experiences to the world at this point, and that’s unique.
Can you tell us something about your future plans?
We have several plans at this point. But first of all, what we can do is provide activities in the Tokyo metropolitan area. By encouraging activity organizers in the rest of the country to join our platform, we would like to present more posts about activities happening in many cities.
Second, we would like to make the service available in multiple languages. Currently we are only in English but our users include people from the US, Australia, Singapore, Germany, and Scandinavian countries.
Third, we want to work together with our potential partners such as hotel chains, travel agencies, and online travel reservation sites such as Trip Advisor and Expedia. Our business will not conflict with theirs, and we’ll able to pay them commissions when they sell our activities on their websites.
Are you offering anything special for users right now?
Yep. We’re currently running a promotion campaign where you can win cash. If our user encourages a friend to sign up for our service, that user can win ten dollars when the friend purchases any travel activities on the website.
We’re also working on developing new things which may attract more users. We can’t disclose what it is yet, but it will be unveiled later this year or in the beginning of next year. So please stay tuned.
After the last year’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Japan’s travel industry has been struggling. Local hotel owners are often complaining about bad businesses. However, there are more ways to acquire visitors by giving them more additional attractions, and FindJPN may be a good way for them to do so.