I fell in love with Japan the first time I traveled there when I was in High School in 2000. Since then I decided I wanted a business career in Japan, so that's where I started my 'dream job' fresh out of college in 2008 with a Japanese marketing firm called IMP, Inc. Above you'll see me (back-left) as the only white guy, aside from a tall European client who was the President of Bourjois at the time. Good times.
Here's the story in a nutshell: Within months of starting my aforementioned 'dream job', I developed digital vocabulary flashcards to learn Japanese on my iPod, learned Japanese faster than my friends that were in full-time Japanese language school, randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan at a bar a few months later, showed him my product and impressed him with my Japanese skills, he told me within weeks to quit my job and start a company with his seed investment, which I of course did.
The Extended Story
No one in the office spoke more than a lick of English, I needed to learn Japanese fast. I'll explain how I got the job in a later post. Although I had studied Japanese in college, I couldn't hold a conversation past "hello" and "my name is" (slim shady). I didn't have time to go to Japanese class or to study in front of a computer (I worked from sunup to sundown in that company - typical for a Japanese salaryman). I was never good at learning visually (e.g. paper flashcards, textbooks, etc.). I was unpleasantly suprised to find no solution that could help me learn the Japanese content I needed to learn (e.g. business words) through audio on a mobile device. So I made a solution for myself.
I created digital audio vocabulary flashcards that worked on my iPod (this was before the days of smartphone applications in Japan). Initially I used my own voice for recording. Since my Japanese pronunciation sucked, I eventually hired professional voice talent to record the hundreds of words in Japanese and English that I had collected in a notebook from my daily life. I worked with a developer to create a program that imported an excel file of these words along with wav files of their respective Japanese and English Counterparts, to export hundreds of individual mp3s for each vocabulary word on my iPod.
All my friends (most in full-time Japanese language school) asked how I was learning Japanese so fast. I gave a few my product, they loved it. Their friends asked me for it, I gave it to them. I was soon barraged with requests, so I decided to learn how to code a website (I didn't know a thing about websites!) to start selling my product online. I started making more from the sales than I was from my full time job.
At a bar I randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan. I saw him giving his business card to someone and interrupted him (in Japanese). I gave him my pitch, he asked how my Japanese was so good, I showed him my product. Within weeks he convinced me to quit my job and to start a company out of my product with his seed investment. I gladly accepted.
The Product/Market Fit
I discovered that there were 22,000 English speakers in the USA that needed to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), that had a very structured (and published) series of levels with specific vocabulary lists for each. I hired translators to translate the Japanese vocabulary lists into English, then hired the voice talent to record the words, then created digital vocabulary flashcards for this market. Particularly with great Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Enging Marketing (SEM) and with Google Adwords, I was able to capture sales from 18% of that initial target market with a 60% return on investment (ROI). I knew I had something, it was time to scale.
This man, "Ichimi-san", believed in me and hired me straight out of college to head the International Business efforts of his marketing company, IMP, Inc. God bless him, PlaySay would not exist if it wasn't for him.
Here I am in 2008 with my new Japanese girlfriend, Eimi, celebrating my first day at IMP, Inc. Of course a girl was involved with the beginning of PlaySay. Why else would I be so intrigued to learn Japanese?! I kid, but truth be told, the girls of Japan were instrumental for maintaining my engagement in learning the language.
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