Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
One day we happened to find an interesting app on Facebook timeline. It enables you to give school meals to children in developing countries by booking seats at restaurants, bars, izakayas, etc. in Japan. The app is called “Table Cross”, which implies “Cross any boundary, connect with each other through food and make the world happier”.
This app is not an interesting app, but it’s really helpful. You can make a difference in the world if you book seats at restaurants – maybe you’ve done it at least once so far – with the Table Cross app. You don’t need any fee.
We thought that it was a very valuable app. We’ve never heard of such an idea even though we’ve interviewed many change makers so far. We got interested in who made it and looked it up on the Internet. Then we found that a 22-year old college girl put it into the world and got interested in her background. We even invited MET viewers so we could have a public interview.
“Who am I working for?”
We launched a restaurant reservation app. Actually there are some similar services such as “Tabelog” and “Gurunavi” in Japan, but what makes ours different from them is that you can give school meal(s) to a child or children in developing countries, as many as the number of seats you reserve. For example, you’ll give school meals to 5 children if you reserve 5 seats.
Restaurants pay an ad cost of ¥180 (approx US$1.8) per seat for us, then a percentage of the total amount of the costs is donated to 10 NPOs including WFP (World Food Programme) that are affiliated with us. Then they provide school meals to children in the developing countries such as the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, East Timor, Kenya and Palestine.
How to download and use Table Cross app *Japanese
We started a company at the end of June 2014. Then, we spent 6 months to develop the app and finally released “Table Cross” on March 22, 2015. As of December 2015, we have 1,000 member restaurants throughout Japan. The circle of “One Reservation for One School Meal” gradually widens.
Unlike other developed countries, people tend to have a psychological barrier to donate money in Japan. But you can make a donation only by reserving seats at restaurants with Table Cross. Moreover, customers do NOT need to pay any money when you reserve seats. Donations are payable from ad costs that are borne by restaurants – that’s the major point of Table Cross.
I used to be a sales person for an online restaurant reservation service. I was working for a sales agency as a part-timer and they really pursued business profits. I worked hard to improve my business performance, but one day I thought, “Who am I selling this service to?” which means, “Who will be really happy with this service?” That was a trigger to make my own restaurant reservation service, which would be able to make someone happy.
I learned that the ad cost imposes a heavily burden on a restaurant. And I learned that many restaurants adopt “Fixed ad charge system“, which charges a fixed expense to them regardless of the amount of their store traffic. I thought really hard about the ad model which eases strain on restaurants, then I came up with an idea of “Pay-per-customer” system.
Street children and “CSV”
I have two experiences that brought me to the idea of Table Cross.
One was traveling abroad. I’ve been to many countries with my family since I was a little girl. What impressed me most was that there were children around my age living on the streets. That imprinted on my mind. I said before that I wanted to make someone happy. To me, “someone” is a kid living on the street.
Another experience was being sent to Orlando, in the US, when I was a high schooler as an ambassador of friendship. My hometown, Urayasu, in Chiba Prefecture, is a sister city of Orlando because both have Disneyland. I visited local elementary schools, junior highs and high schools to see their classes.
Also I saw the activities of local NPOs and I felt, “How wonderful their idea is!”
It was that people shared common awareness like “Working on both social contribution activities and a quest for profit leads to improve society”. Now there’s a word to describe it – Creating Shared Value (CSV) – I didn’t know it at that time. But I thought their idea was exactly CSV when I learned the word recently.
In Japan, many companies adopt “CSR”, Corporate Social Responsibility, which is defined as “giving a part of their profits back to the society”. But CSV is different. The definition of CSV is “Working on both the profit seeking and making a social contribution”. People whom I met in the US thought that CSV was required by society so even NPOs were involved in a lot of profit-making businesses.
I visited a small NPO, which was organized by local mothers. While they were having a meeting, they were working single-mindedly on calculating their profits. I was impressed by their profit-making mindset. Because my image of NPO was that it was a volunteer group which only does unpaid work, so their attitude really motivated me.
“I want to be a company president!”
I realized that what they were doing was CSV even though I was just 16 years old. I think it’s thanks to my grandfather on my mother’s side. He used to be a CEO of an IT company. Actually he was really gentle and often gave me an ice cream when I was a child. I’d never seen him working at a company, but I respected him. So I told my family, my friends and other people that “I’ll be a president!” since I was old enough to talk. I don’t remember that, but my old friends said, “You really became a business owner!”
Before starting a business, I organized a student group called “Volante”. Its slogan is “Energize Made-in-Japan stuffs” by developing products with companies. Students from about 30 colleges joined us and we founded branches in Tokyo, Osaka and Taiwan. That was like a simulation experience of bootstrapping, but I was thinking of working for an ad company or a trading company during my junior year. There should be the option of starting a business after a few years’ working experience.
But I finally decided to go into my business when I met a wonderful engineer. I usually say what I want to do and my old friend remembered that. He introduced me to a man and he joined me as an engineer. I met him at the beginning of June 2014, we hit it off right away and I established a company about 3 weeks later.
I had no hesitation about that. I’m a person who decides whether I do something or not after trying it. Many would be afraid of bungee jumping before you do it, but I think whether it’s scary or not after diving into the air LOL. I heard that 99% of venture companies would die in 10 years, but I didn’t hesitate at all. Because I’m a girl who decides whether to continue it or stop it after starting a business!
The last defense
However I hesitated about one thing… It’s to tell my fresh new beginning to my grandfather.
He discouraged not only me but also my family from going to developing countries that are unsafe, politically unstable and unsanitary. As I told you, I went to some developing countries with my parents and met street children when I was a child, but we didn’t tell my grandparents about those trips so I couldn’t tell him that I started a business in the area of assistance to developing nations.
I started a business at the end of last June, collected funds and my stories appeared on some media… I couldn’t hide it anymore so I went to Kobe to see my grandfather and told him about my business.
He looked at some photos taken with children in the developing countries with amusement. He felt happy with my idea and the business model that I figured out. When I said bye to him, I asked him to download Table Cross app to his iPhone6 and he did!
Changing advertising model
In terms of the number of our affiliated restaurants, we have a certain goal; attaining 10,000 restaurants by the end of 2015. And our ultimate goals are; 700,000 affiliated restaurants and 1.2 million users (accounting for 1% compared to the total population in Japan).
I’m not sure how long it will take to reach those numbers. Also, those figures are not derived from our break-even point. We have to have those numbers of restaurants and users in order to save children who could die at age 5 or younger.
Originally, I was thinking of a system in which restaurants, nationwide, can adopt easily so I set a low ad cost per reservation. When I was working for a big restaurant reservation service, I thought that the ad cost that restaurants had to pay for a service provider was too expensive. Many of them pay several tens of thousands of yen for a provider regardless of the amount of their store traffic. On the other hand, restaurants pay only ¥18,000 (approx US$180) ad cost even if there are as many as 100 seats booked if you use Table Cross app.
I really want to change the advertising model of restaurants and change the status quo of the restaurant reservation industry which is dominated by a few companies.
Let me give you a simple example. In Japan, we pay ¥10,000 (approx US$100) a month for an iPhone on average, but it would be about ¥4,000 (approx US$40) a month abroad. Why does this happen? I think it’s because we have only a few choices.
The same thing is happening in the restaurant ad field. Restaurants pay expensive monthly costs for the service providers because they have only a few choices. So I want to tell them there’s another option. If you use the Table Cross app, you can lower the ad cost a lot.
Creating culture which encourages profit generation and contributes to society at the same time
I want to create a culture which encourages both profit generation and contributes to society. I’d be able to realize that if our business model is successful and other companies follow up.
There are so many systems that enable you to give support not only to children in developing countries but also to the disabled or the elderly through a restaurant reservation – that’s my ideal world.
Also I’m thinking about applying the Table Cross system to anything you need to reserve such as hotel, hair salon, nail salon etc.
Reserving leads to profit generation and contribution to society at the same time – I want to create a new Japanese culture by doing this.