Japan’s Sumally Interviewed by Wired Japan [TRANSLATION]

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This article about Sumally was written for WIRED Japan, and I had the opportunity to translate it to English. Sumally has been covered before on PO, so consider this an update of sorts to the previous article. Sumally is an encyclopedia of all products. People can Want or Have any product that they come across online and archive them in a single unified format. The total number of Wants and Haves on Sumally has exceeded one million, and the number of items archived has surpassed 200,000.

Here is the article below, with comments from me indicated by italics.

Sumally: The Vision and Processes Behind the New Social Platform for Connecting People and Products [In-depth Interview]

Sumally, the new online service where Tokyo’s top creative talent are sharing their Wants and Haves, started from a desire to create an all-encompassing online encyclopedia of products. Here is what the four leading members of this exciting new service have to say.

Sumally is a new social networking service aiming to become the “Encyclopedia of Products.” Kensuke Yamamoto, the CEO of Sumally, left his position as a magazine editor to become an entrepreneur and to pursue his vision of creating a place where users can catalog every product they ever wanted or had. He was joined by well-known web designer Yugo Nakamura, and together with Nakamura’s employees, design director Hideki Oowa and software engineer Keita Kitamura, they are working hard to create an online experience that will be successful at an international level. As the team prepares to release the next milestone for their service, which will allow users to buy and sell products on the site, our WIRED editorial team sat down with the Sumally team to share and discuss their ideas, hoping to find out how Sumally will help shape the technology driven future.

The entire interview lasted more than an hour, split between serious discussions about Sumally’s vision, hardships the team endured, creative solutions to get around them, and plenty of laughter.


Original article on Wired Japan

Kensuke Yamamoto (left center, see Wired photo)
President and CEO of Sumally. Graduated from Hitotsubashi University. After starting his career at Dentsu Inc., Mr. Yamamoto joined Conde Nast Publications Japan as an editor for GQ JAPAN. Resigned in September of 2009 to found Sumally in April, 2010.

Yugo Nakamura (right)
CEO and Designer of tha*
. Web designer, interface designer, and screen image director. Graduated University of Tokyo graduate school with a degree in engineering. Associate professor at Tama Art University. Became involved in interactive design in 1998, and founded design studio tha ltd. in 2004 to direct, design, and develop websites as well as video art. Won the grand prize at Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, and has received the Tokyo Interactive Award, the TDC Award, and the Mainichi Design Award.

Hideki Oowa (right center)
Design Director for tha*. 
Born in Tokyo 1972. Received a BFA degree in the United States. Participated in design projects of all sizes in various locations, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, London, and Sydney. Returned to Japan in 2002, working at Business Architects, as well as a freelance web director. Went back to the United States to become senior art director at Method and AKQA. Became design director for Yugo Nakamura’s design studio “tha ltd.” in November, 2010.

Keita Kitamura (left)
Programmer and Technical Director for tha*. Born in 1983, Kitamura dropped out of high school, and started working at Business Architects, Inc. After studying abroad, he joined design studio “tha ltd.” as a founding member in 2004. Built an image bookmark service called “FFFFOUND!” in 2007, which remains very popular among designers all over the world. Won awards for Japan Media Arts Festival, Tokyo Interactive Award, and ARS Electronica.

Can you tell us what Sumally is about, and the concept behind it?

– While I was an editor for a magazine, I started thinking about creating a “Wikipedia for Products”. Not only am I in love with products of all sorts, but I also realized that even mainstream products, such as Leica cameras, Nike sneakers, Louis Vuitton bags, Comme des Garcons clothes, are not cataloged in an openly available format. This is a serious loss for our society, and it was clear to me that I had to create a universal format for archiving product meta data.

So, instead of creating a magazine, I moved on to creating an encyclopedia of all products. And instead of just having a picture and description of the product, like any modern encyclopedia in year 2010 should have, I decided that it was important that information such as who wants it, who has it, and who is selling it was also included. Furthermore, a system had to be in place to make the cataloging process simple.

Users have pulled down different products from different places online. Some of the commonly seen websites include Amazon, and fashion websites such as Mr.Porter and ZozoTown. I came across products from Esty too.

Mr. Nakamura, what was your first impression when you heard of Mr. Yamamoto’s idea?

Yugo – Many online services are started by “geeks”, or some sort of specialist involved in the domain of the service. They start small, and gradually become big. It was exciting to see an editor of magazine, someone in a completely different field, to want to start a new web-based online service. He was all smiles when he first came to talk to me, and announced “I want to be the Japanese Zuckerberg.” At first I was speechless, but the idea seemed interesting, and thought that his idea just might work. I then spread the word to Hideki and Keita, both of whom were involved in creating UNIQLOOKS, and we all decided to give it a shot.

How about you, Mr. Oowa?

Hideki – While we did pretty well with UNIQLOOKS, I had a gut feeling that we could go further in terms of designs and structure. That’s when the idea of Sumally came along. The fact that it was a startup and not a big enterprise was appealing, and Kensuke’s passion convinced me that the project was indeed feasible. Despite the hardships that comes with it, building a new online service from scratch is really exciting in a different way from creating advertisements.

And you, Mr. Kitamura?

Keita – While our design work at tha is mostly for advertisements, I have always wanted to create an online service as well. So, Keita’s proposal came at the perfect timing. I was excited that I will finally be able to build my own online service. As Hideki mentioned, with advertisements, once it’s finished it is out in the open, and that is the end of it. On the other hand, building an online service allows to continually attract and build up a customer base, which is what I was looking for. I actually feel that suites my character better!

When investors make the judgement to support a startup, they look at the idea or the potential market size, but more importantly, they look at the team. The Sumally team is unique in the sense that they are not from the high tech industry which gives them a fresh eye. The uniqueness of the team can be confirmed by looking at the simple and sleek design of the website and its newly released iphone application.

“Advertisement is a short film, Service is a Soap Opera”

What is the difference between creating websites for advertisement and creating websites for an online service?

Yugo – Advertisement is a one-shot deal like creating a short film or a movie. An online service, on the other hand, continues even after it’s released, more like a soap opera. Of course, not everyone can contribute to both kinds of website development. While developing an online service is interesting to me, I tend to lose focus when working on one project for a long time. Hideki and Keita prefer developing an online service though.

Hideki – The line between an advertisement and an online service is becoming increasingly thin, especially since modern online advertisements require an interactive social networking feature. The difference lies in the amount of time the content needs to be relevant, and much higher level of passion and vision is required to maintain an online service that will disappear like one-shot advertisements. Furthermore, while advertisement projects come with a budget, building your own online service requires us to attain funding. Fortunately for us, Kensuke, with his passion and determination, has been able to deliver the funding we have needed.

Sumally has just started its journey. There are many online services that have succeeded in getting the attention upon release, but had difficulty maintaining user interest. Each and every decision they make will either engage users more possibly make them lose interest.

sumally sumally-2

“Creating a truly international online service!”

Can you tell us more about your vision of creating a service that can change the world?!

Kensuke – My saying that I want to change, not just Japan, but also the world, is a bit of an exaggeration, something I’ve been saying to stand out from the crowd. But I have always been passionate about and have great respect for brands that can make it in the global market. So yes, I do want to build an online service that can succeed outside of Japan. One of the things that I feel might have a chance at succeeding on the international level is the way Japanese people, and especially people living in Tokyo, create brands for specific product categories. A simple combination of a ten dollar t-shirt together with a five dollar skirt and perhaps a twenty dollar pair of shoes is enough to be branded as a specific “style”, which seems amazing to me. This ability to quickly create recognizable name for a specific product category that represents context as well as interests is something unique to Japan, and something I think we should be proud of. And I am hoping that it will be relevant throughout the world.

Hideki – Building content that is only relevant in Japan wasn’t what the tha team is about either, so “Going global” was one of the key elements in deciding to create Sumally together.

When I first looked at the Sumally website, all the menus were in English, making the site look “foreign”. Was that design effect something you were aiming for?

Hideki – Definitely. Of course, since most of our users are Japanese, we have to choose the words we use carefully. We are looking to strike the perfect balance between keeping the site user friendly for Japanese users and making sure that the site is viable in the international market.

Kensuke – I want our online service to be just as user friendly for non-Japanese users as it is for Japanese users, while making sure that we keep our roots in Japan.

Yugo – When we say global, we are not talking about the geographical transition from Japan to the rest of the world. Our challenge is whether Sumally can become an infrastructure for people when they talk about products. Online services such as Twitter and Facebook provide infrastructure, while advertisements function on top of such infrastructure. And we are an infrastructure type service.

Kensuke – Making something fashionable is simple, if I am allowed to say so. But going beyond fashion and reaching sophisticated simplicity that can be appreciated objectively across the board is a totally different matter. That’s why I wanted to team up with Yugo Nakamura who can achieve this both in terms of programing and user interface design. Things have to work whether the product is an animation figure, golf club, or a teapot in order for our online service to be considered an infrastructure.

Making it universal to take it beyond fashionable.

What exactly do you mean when you say “universal”?!

Kensuke – Magazines are segmented into categories such as street fashion, animation, or Internet related. “Universal” is when you abandon that categorization based on taste. Until about 5 years ago, people were talking about how mass media would someday become segmented media. My thought at that time was that after segmented media would be “micro-media collectives”. The “2ch” online service, which I consider to be one of the best built media, is already structured this way.

In the 2ch system, there are 100 or so top level categories, and under them are 200 or so threads in each category, which makes it highly likely that every visitor will find something interesting. The fact that this simple aggregation of content is functioning as a single medium makes 2ch very powerful. It is my belief that such a platform, where the currently separate worlds of street fashion, animation, and gadgets can coexist, is the required structure for any successful media. This is what I mean by wanting to create something “universal”.

Hideki – This concept of being universal is something we have in common with the design concepts at tha. It isn’t the container of content that needs to stand out. Through our designs, we ensure that the content that stands upon the container shines through and looks good.

Kensuke – That is why we need to build something that is more than just fashionable.

Now that Sumally has been launched, has it been used in a universal manner so far?!

Kensuke – We’re still in our invite-only beta phase, hoping to start out with mostly influential users with a strong interest in products, and then gradually spreading out the user base. This makes it unlikely that the service is being used universally, but we are accumulating quite a collection of products across a wide range of categories, which is exactly what we were aiming for.

Yugo – What I found interesting was how much effort Kensuke poured into attracting beta users for the service during the launch. Even many of my colleagues, many of them famous and very influential in their industry, have started to use the service. I really liked the idea of “start building the people network first”.

Kensuke – This part is similar to how we start up a magazine.

Keita – While many people who can develop the system, the type of content you accumulate depends mostly on the people you attract to your service. It was a smart idea to start out by gathering many interesting people. It would be difficult for other startups to do what Kensuke did.

While many popular services penetrate from tech savvy people to mainstream, Kensuke has leveraged his network from his career as a magazine editor. Just by looking through Sumally products, one can meet fashionable and famous stylists and celebrities in different fields. It is similar to the marketing strategy of Ameba, the biggest blogging service in Japan. They succeeded in attracting all sorts of famous celebrities to blog use the service, which in turn brought in the mainstream users. In the case of Sumally, it is mostly because of the passion that Kensuke has that these well-known people have tried out the service.

The next step for Sumally: selling products via “Social with Commerce”

What is the business model for Sumally?

Kensuke – A new feature we have in mind is to be able to sell products on Sumally. Most e-commerce works by creating a list of what to sell. We believe that it would be a better user experience if it was the other way around, and users were able to shop from a list. Both real and virtual stores are separate establishments, giving more power to the merchant. Using a universal catalog of products, consumers will be able to indicate and share their wants, and instead of going to buy a product, merchants will come to sell the product. From the merchant’s perspective, instead of having to spend energy on attracting customers to the store, they can simply go to the consumer who is ready to buy. We would then receive a cut of the sale.

Is “Social Commerce”, which is quickly becoming a buzzword, a category that Sumally belongs to?

Kensuke – To be honest, I am a bit uncomfortable with the phrase “Social Commerce”. In my opinion, it is more like “Social with Commerce”. There are many catalogs that are made to look like a magazine, but everyone can tell that it’s still just a catalog. It is obvious when something is being pitched to you as a sale instead of when they are presented because they are good. Just like we all know that Takuya Kimura, a very famous actor and featured in commercials for the Toyota Carola, does not really drive that car in real life.

Since “Social Commerce” services are based on the old e-commerce model, I believe that they are limited to just that: what the seller wants to sell. Sumally, on the other hand, is about sharing everything that is interesting. Rather than categorizing the products that are on sale, it is closer to adding an e-commerce feature to the Tumblr service. This is why I feel that “Social with Commerce” would be a better description of what we are trying to do, than “Social Commerce”.

The Sumally iPhone application is worth trying out. There is a feed tab where users can see all items shared by people they follow. On my Sumally tab, users can browse through products that they have Wanted or Haved. The Activity tab can be used to find people who have similar tastes as yourself, because you can see who else have Wanted or Haved the products that you have archived on Sumally.

Since it is impossible to add every feature you can think of, what are the criteria for adding new features to Sumally?


BEAMS T on Sumally

Kensuke – The most important thing is to have our users keep on using our service. An iPhone app, which is coming soon, will be the first. (NOTE: iPhone app has been released )We also plan to add a feature similar to Facebook Pages for brands and stores. Users would be able to follow a brand and find out about new product arrivals and everything else about that brand. There are many other features that we’re considering, but we will take it one step at a time.

Hideki – Since the concept of connecting people to products is at the core of Sumally, we want to make it easy for our users to discover other people and other products. New recommendations should flow by constantly, yet painlessly, and we aim to design and implement a best of breed system to make that possible.

Is there anything you would like to share with our readers about the near term plans for Sumally?

Kensuke – Being able to buy and sell products on Sumally is definitely on the top of our to-do list.

What is the appeal of Sumally for people merchants?

Kensuke – Since people are sharing what they want, merchants would be able to sell to those particular users who want the products. If there are 5 people who wants a 1,000 dollar Star Wars figure, toy stores all over the world would want to sell there. If 100 people indicated that they want the same pair of sneakers that Kayne West has, Nike would want to sell there.

Hideki – I really want Sumally to be used all over the world. We are currently still in our beta phase, and most users are still from Japan. The key is how we would expand into markets outside of Japan. Just like we count many influential and taste-leaders from Tokyo as our users, we will have to attract the same kind of users from all over the world, and make it possible for anyone anywhere to take a peek into their closets.


[Original article, Text by Hiroki Maruyama, Translated by Yukari Mitsuhashi, Oct 31, 2011]

Sumally has also released brand pages and more than 50 brands have joined already. It works sort of like a Facebook page where brands can share newly available products with their core fans who have decided to follow. Very famous brands which have joined include Colette from Paris, Cibone, and Moma Design Store, and they have over 400 followers at present.

The next feature planned to be released is a smaller categorization of Wants and Haves. Users will be able to categorize their wants to something like “Things I want for my next birthday” or “Things I’m giving away” or “My interior goods”. This should make the discovery process a bit easier.

Sumally began it has been invite-only in its beta phase in Japan.  Most of the current users are from Japan with only 10 percent from outside Japan. Now that it are officially available to everyone, it aims to gain more users from Asia and the United States.

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