Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today we features a Japanese IT entrepreneur who used to live in the Silicon Valley in his youth.
Hiroaki Taira moved around Japan with his family because his father, a semi-conductor engineer, was transferred to some branches. Then his family went to Silicon Valley, but he left the ventures’ playground long before he started business.
Eventually he looked at Thailand, which is still a “developing” country in the IT field. He gambled on its possibility and aimed at a place which has not been reclaimed yet, not a well-established market. Also he is now sharpening his sword to make changes in the Anime production field which still remains an outdated characteristic of the industry.
The venture spirit, DNA of Silicon Valley, has been implanted into his gene.
Silicon Valley boy who has no interest in IT
My father was a semi-conductor engineer and was transferred to branches of his company. So I moved constantly with my family. I was born at a hospital in Chiba and moved to Osaka, and moved to Yokohama, Mie Prefecture, then we migrated to Silicon Valley. At that time, Intel was growing its business steadily and the demand for semi-conductors increased. So my father was chosen as a project member for the new plant in Silicon Valley. My family moved to California.
We lived in San Jose, California. It’s the center of Silicon Valley, which has the headquarters of Apple, Google and so on. But there are no entertainment areas there so the only things that I did were going to gyms, going to movies or drinking some coffee at Starbucks. I looked up a sign and thought, “What’s Adobe?”. I didn’t know the Adobe Systems because I was not interested in IT so much.
But I remember that every single computer that my elementary school had were Apple’s “iMac“. Many of my classmates were children of “garage entrepreneurs”. And many of them were Asian. They had a strong tendency to aim upwards and headed for very elite universities such as Stanford, Harvard or UC Berkley.
As for me, I got interested in anime under the influence of Pixar‘s works and wanted to learn manga and anime back home. My 8-year Silicon Valley life ended and I came back to Japan. Then I got to know “mixi“, a Japanese SNS, and I felt IT was fun. I never felt like that in Silicon Valley.
Now I manage an IT company called “GOOPA Inc.” which has its offices in Japan and Thailand.
Thailand is known as a prosperous resort area and relatively close to Japan. Both traveling costs and prices are low. There are quite a lot of people who can understand English in my impression. But I feel that Japanese companies viewed the country only as a production base of industrial products.
On the other hand, the IT service market in Thailand will be the biggest one in Southeast Asia in 2015 according to a forecast by IDC, International Data Corporation.
Actually the number of smartphone users was skyrocketing in Thailand. I felt that in my bones in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. The smartphone population is much larger than the internet population over there. I thought we’ll make a loss unless we grab the iPhone app market in Thailand so we started developing smartphone apps.
Our Bangkok office has three designers and three engineers. We’ve launched an English education app called “Cuddly ABC” recently and now we’re making a photo decoration app for gothic lolita fashion lovers, gas mileage calculation app which would be much-needed by drivers in one of the world’s major automobile societies and an app for bass fishing which tells you how to choose a good lure.
The internet diffusion rate is about 10% in Thailand and they still use mostly ADSL technology. Some of you may think it’s a minus factor, but in other words, Thai IT industry will focus on smart phones and apps for it. I mean Thailand has a very big potential app market.
“Cuddly ABC”, app recommendable for mothers caring for children.
Being a bridge between Japan & Thailand
If you want to expand your market in Thailand, it would be better for you to leave the whole process from development/produce and marketing/promotion apps to staffs in Thailand.
Above all, it would be exactly advantageous to you. So we sell Japanese companies a package of both “development and promotion in Thailand”. That’s what I do as a president here in Japan. In other words, I’m a bridge between Japan and Thailand. Other than producing apps, we are going to open a co-working space called “Launchpad” in Bangkok at the end of November 2012. We want it to be a “bridge” between Japan and Thailand as well.
We came up with an idea of having a co-working space when we were looking for our office in Bangkok. We have around 10 people, but it was very difficult to find because there are only very small offices like for 2-3 people or very huge ones. We thought; “Startups who want to have their spaces in Bangkok will face the same problem”. So we wanted to solve both our problem and their problem.
About that time, a Thai guy who is a co-founder of GOOPA found a huge space. His father manages a real estate business and the first floor of his building became available.
We’ll use that space and also we want to use it as an incubation center for ventures in Thailand. And eventually we want startups overseas to use it as a toehold in Thai market.
As I mentioned before, Thai IT market is very desirable. I guess IT companies that are looking at Indonesia, Singapore or Vietnam will rush in Thailand about a year later. By that time we want the Launchpad to be a hub in Thai IT market.
Why I attached my mind to Thailand is not only because it’s an attractive market but also because I met a guy from Thailand before.
When I was a senior college student, I studied at Carnegie Mellon University. It was a 6-month foreign exchange and I majored in the business administration. I was studying at a university where you can major in animation or manga, but I wanted to study totally different subjects such as business science or accounting in the US.
Fortunately I thought nothing of English because I used to live in the States. So I joined a lot of events and parties in order to meet up with as many people as possible and had a lot of experiences in half a year. During that time, I met Vincent Sethiwan, a co- founder of GOOPA. He is the guy who found a space for Launchpad, our co-working space.
Vincent was managing his own business at that time. His father was involved in the rice and real estate businesses, but he financed by himself without relying on his father’s money and started business. I got good vibes with him and met him almost every week. I don’t know why I became a friend of a guy who was such an unaverage guy. At that time we talked a lot about what we wanted to do, but didn’t take up detailed and concrete discussion.
Transborder joint project
The six-month study in the States ended and I came back home. Later Vincent, my co-founder, graduated Carnegie Mellon and closed his business and went back to Thailand. After we graduated universities, I began to work at an ad-maker and he became an IT consultant at the Thomson Reuters of Thailand.
A little later, he visited Japan. His destination was Hokkaido, so I went there to meet him. Then we decided to do business together.
When I was a Carnegie Mellon student, I came up with an idea of doing business related to “encounter”. That was a vague idea, but actually my world has broadened and I realized that the ways of thinking are really diverse because students’ backgrounds were also varied at Carnegie Mellon. Moreover I met with a business partner there. I really thought that encounters are very important in our lives.
While Vincent was on his way home, and I was on my way home, we dashed off our business ideas. Then we discussed things through Skype after each of us got home and we developed an SNS which promotes interacting between groups. Its name is GOOPA, the same name as our company. We started with a website service development, not apps.
We’ll lead in Southeast Asia
We’ve been a “bridge” between people so far. We’ve connected groups with groups through our SNS, we’ve connected Japanese IT companies with our Thai development team in the app production field. We also connect Japanese IT companies and Thai IT market at Launchpad, our new co-working space.
Also we’re planning to connect Japanese IT companies with Thai investors. They’ve invested on “what you can see” such as corn or real estate. But Vincent says that they are looking for new destinations for the investment. However they are afraid of investing in IT because they are not familiar with the industry at all.
So we’ll make connections with them and tell them about IT industry and introduce them to IT startups. We want to use Launchpad for that purpose too. In order to realize that, it’ll be essential to work with experienced Japanese incubation facilities.
A co-working space which will be managed by a team who can make apps, do marketing research and promote products… I believe that it’ll be very useful and helpful for Japanese IT companies to use as a toehold in Southeast Asia. That’ll be our value and we’re aiming at, “When we expand our market in Thailand, we’ll ask for GOOPA’s cooperation”. Then we’ll go to different countries and get credit. We hope to hear, “When we go to Southeast Asia, let’s ask GOOPA” eventually.
Connecting Japan with the world
My dream will expand further. We’d like to build a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world. But we won’t do it in the IT field, we’ll do it in the animation field.
When I was a high schooler in Silicon Valley, I got into animations created by Disney and Pixar. I wondered why those kinds of world-class animations hadn’t been made in Japan. That was a kind of a juvenile idea, but I wanted to create such an anime giant… I came back home thinking like that and entered a university with an animation department.
But actually there are so many animators who work at low pay and the turnover rate of animators in their 20s reaches 50 – 80%. On the other hand, there are tons of 100,000 dollar players at Disney or Pixar. I think that’s one of the reasons why Japanese anime industry cannot create works that are comparable to them.
Money doesn’t come to animation companies because of the production partnership system.
Before an anime movie production gets started, a production partnership or production committee is formed. Cash-hungry anime companies cannot join it so there are only major media companies on its list as a result. Also an animation company devotes its copyrights to a committee and they don’t receive any continual rights income no matter how much their work becomes a big hit.
So we are planning to build a crowd funding system which specializes in the anime field in order to boost up fund power and self-branding ability of Japanese anime creators. Those are things that they are lacking. And we’ll enhance their international presence by raising money from people around the world. Also we will create an opportunity for them to spread their works around many kinds of people, not only among otakus.
Creators raise funds and find sponsors (=potential fans) at the same time. We’ll prepare a platform for completed anime works to deliver them. Creators deliver their works so their copyrights will be protected and rights income will come to anime companies. Also it’ll make marketing research easier. We are thinking of deliver them through mobile devices, not TV or theater. Each of them is a 5-minute movie and you can watch them whenever you want – I mean it’ll be the “on-demand system”. And your movie could be shown at theaters, too, eventually.
Moreover if someone asks you about a secondary use of your work, we’ll introduce him/her to you. We’ll build such kind of bridge and eventually build a system which enables creators to receive certain incomes.
“Startups that don’t make innovations happen aren’t worthy of existence” – a lawyer who supports ventures said. I was deeply impressed by his words and I always work on assignments with my team in consideration of the words.
Connecting bustling Southeast Asian markets with Japanese IT companies. Connecting Japanese anime creators with anime fans in the rest of the world. I would like to bring vitality to Japan and inspire Japanese society. That’s my dream.