Launching a Successful Business in Japan
May 25, 2017
Despite growing interest, setting up a business in Japan, especially as a foreigner, can be challenging. Language barriers, immigration regulations, as well as complicated bureaucratic procedures can deter entrepreneurs, and even when these hurdles have been overcome, the next steps of financing, networking and gaining credibility can prove difficult for start-ups keen to enter the Japanese market.
On the evening of 23 May 2017, BCCJ members and guests attended the latest Toolbox event in the BCCJ 'Small is GREAT' series, "Success as a Serial Entrepreneur in Japan", to hear from trailblazer Fariza Abidova about her motivational and empowering journey as a foreign, female entrepreneur in Japan, and to gain insights into the lessons she has learned in building an innovative and successful business.
Abidova opened the session by providing some background on her two companies. She is the CEO & President of Trusted Corporation, established in 2016, and SOPHYS Corporation, established in 2010. SOPHYS provides business solutions to global Japanese companies regarding cross-cultural awareness, and practical business and communication skills necessary for a global business environment.
Her second company, Trusted Corporation, is currently in the startup phase. It is a membership-based, pre-screened cross-border B2B platform primarily for small and midsize companies of any industry/country. The platform makes it possible to find business partners without middlemen and to reach any company’s decision makers directly. Customers benefit from direct sales leads and interesting collaboration offers from abroad.
"No matter in which country you are, the challenges one faces in starting up a business are the same," said Abidova. So what are the steps one has to take in order to reach one's goal?
Abidova addressed the first step in starting up a business; when to quit one's day job. "It can be difficult to know when to make the move," she said. "For business to flourish, both time and money are of the essence and this contradiction can be a challenge".
Abidova explained that she worked her way around this problem by working freelance and in part-time jobs, which gave her greater flexibility and enabled her to continue earning while still having time to focus on the new business.
Referring to the development of her content and training programmes, Abidova emphasised the importance of thorough research, brainstorming, experimenting, and talking to as many people in the field as possible. The speaker explained that her first step was always the Internet; "reading up, collecting information from diverse sources, and taking notes on the 'ideal seminar'".
The speaker stressed that talking to and learning from "real people" in the business was of the utmost importance, and recommended consulting with different people from different countries and cultures so as not to limit oneself and to gain as many perspectives as possible.
"Instead of academic speakers, I invited CEOs from different countries from whom my seminar participants could learn. This kind of seminar is closer to real life, and this became my unique selling point."
"Always be sure to think from the customers' point of view," she added.
"You need people in order to run your business - for project development, sales, tax, etc., but how do you recruit these people if you have no money?", Abidova asked. The speaker advised finding a key person "whom you trust and who shares and believes in your vision." She explained that she had found such a person and that she had started by paying a success-based fee, and worked from there.
The speaker explained that speaking to people who had experience in the same business field was incredibly beneficial and is an excellent way of building a network. "Every time I met these people, I told them about my project and so people remembered me. Linked In was also an excellent channel for meeting new people and building networks."
Abidova also recommended working with competitors rather than against them. This was possible for her because of the uniquness of her product - she had something no-one else did and so competitors benefited from her products.
One regret, she told the audience, was her decision to partner with big corporations. With hindsight, she recognised that the bureaucracy and drawn out processes were a hindrance and that too much time was invested in training the company's representatives to sell seminars. "For start-ups, speed is everything."
Abidova revealed that when starting up her first business, she surrounded herself by people she thought she needed, but that now, she ensures she works with people she likes who have a positive attitude. "Positive people help you believe in yourself, make you stronger, and help you grow."
"Numbers can seem convincing, but reality is different", Abidova warned. "Set realistic goals!". The speaker explained some of the things she is doing differently with her second business: "It is really important to be aware that things may not go according to plan. I didn't take into consideration that there were some developments that I couldn't control, and it was only later that I learned to accept that things may not turn out exactly as one expects and that flexibility is key!"
The audience asked Abidova how she managed financially and whether there weren't moments of desperation. "Of course, it was very tough at times! I didn't make any profit for the first two years and only survived by working freelance in between. There were times when I felt under great pressure, but I strongly believed it would work. With time I learned that I wouldn't always have someone to lean on and that I simply had to follow my intuition, take risks, and make decisions by myself."
Her motto: "If you fail, fail fast, and move on!"
To move ahead faster and to secure business, Abidova advised going straight to the CEO rather than to someone else in the company. "If the CEO believes in your vision, you have a good chance of success."
The speaker also highlighted the importance of 100% customisation to ensure repeat customers and better stability: "In Japan, if the service/product is of excellent quality and a relationship of trust is established, there is great loyalty and the customer is unlikely ever to change vendors."
The speaker emphasised the necessity for thorough prior research. "I interviewed 200 Japanese managers who had worked abroad, and 500 foreigners who worked for Japanese companies, asking them about the challenges they faced and about any miscommunications they had experienced." Abidova meticulously analysed the situation from a cross-cultural point of view.
Again, Abidova stressed the importance of the customer and asking them what they want and need.
Abidova explained that her thorough research and the knowledge that her product was unique enabled her to set her prices high, positioning her company as a high-end vendor.
"I knew I wanted to hold my seminars at high-end venues, but I was told by many people that I didn't stand a chance as I was unknown with no track record. But I was determined! So I went to Academy Hills in Roppongi, introduced myself and my business, offered some free trial seminars, and it worked!" From there, Abidova received various partnership offers and was able to develop her brand.
Abidova explained that she was also cautious only to invite high-profile business people to her events and to secure foreign facilitators, enabling her to set higher fees that would cover all her costs.
The speaker advised against outsourcing to reduce costs. "There is too much dependence and it becomes difficult to grow. I recommend a small in-house team or welcoming other business partners if they have something valuable to bring to the business."
Abidova revealed that due to the various challenges mentioned above, she had found it difficult to increase her first business' level of performance when tested by larger operational demands. "The seminars became founder-dependent. My clients were reluctant to try new trainers after establishing a relationship of trust. This had a negative impact on scalability. Over six years, I helped about 3,000 managers with my seminars, but the impact wasn't very far-reaching."
The speaker also highlighted the fact that is has become increasingly difficult to find qualified staff who are bilingual and available to work full time.
Abidova explained that she had learned lessons in her first business venture, allowing her to take steps to prevent the same mistakes being made in her second business.
Again, Abidova mentioned positivity and strong human relations as a key to business success. "It is of the utmost importance to listen well, to understand the needs of the people around you, and to develop good relationships with your partners, clients, and team. Staff motivation and respect are paramount."
She warned against trying to manage people, but instead advised hiring good people, believing in them and letting them make decisions for themselves. "This results in much more efficient work and a positive working atmosphere." Abidova said that it also important to distance oneself or to cut off certain relationships if they are not working.
Abidova is very excited about her second venture, Trusted Corporation.
"Due to the high-profile foreign speakers at my seminars, I became known for my strong global network and received many offers to collaborate on projects and to expand business abroad. I recognised the gap in the market. Many small and medium companies in Japan want to expand globally, but don't know how to find a business partner they can trust. Trust is the main issue. This is how I came upon the idea of setting up an online platform where verified companies can contact each other for cross-border business."
The B2B online platform makes it possible to find business partners without middlemen and to reach any company’s decision makers directly. Customers benefit from direct sales leads and interesting collaboration offers from abroad.
BCCJ members and guests asked many questions and were captivated by Abidova's story and business insights. BCCJ members interested in Trusted Corporation have been offered a year's free trial if registering before September 2017.
Photos of the event can be viewed on BCCJ Flickr HERE
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