Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tao Romera Martinez (Spain)
Engineer of Sanpo
The 1st interview with a man from Spain! Tao Romera Martinez, an engineer of the smartphone application service called “Sanpo“.
Sanpo (散歩, walk or outing in Japanese) is like “Google Map for people who enjoy the slow life”. Google Map shows the shortest distance from A to B, but Sanpo tells you the courses from A to B that are wonderful to stroll or cycling irrespective of distance.
We got to know the existence of this service at Samurai Venture Summit (Sept 2012), which was held by Kentaro Sakakibara, a Japanese incubator. There were startups’ booths at the venue and the letters of “Sanpo” on their orange-colored banner were shining. We wondered what it is, walked to them and a Japanese guy and a foreign guy kindly showed me about their service.
We love to get around with a bicycle so we got interested it. Also we wanted to hear the story of an entrepreneur who came from abroad and launched the service in Japan. We asked him for an interview and he said YES. Later we enjoyed talking to each other and it made us forget the time.
Thumbs-up to my unconfident idea
When I get around with my bicycle in Tokyo, I check the shortest route by Google Map. But it shows the routes that go under express ways or are very busy. It’s not comfortable to ride a bike on those roads. So I looked for a service which would tell us routes only for cycling or walking, but there weren’t any.
I wished there was such a kind of service, but I was not comfortable with my idea. I was brainstorming with my team members and discussed with them my idea almost the end of our talk. Surprisingly, they said, “Cool!””Wonderful!”. That was the origin of “Sanpo“. We were going to create an application for cyclists at first, but we applied it also to walking. Then our ideas got larger.
I was assigned to construct a system of technology behind the service and another engineer was in charge of the interface construction. And we formed “Team Sanpo” with a designer and marketing/PR person. We started the development of Sanpo application in February 2012 and released it six months after that.
I’m not only a creator of this service, but also a user of it. That’s the service we created, but I’m grateful to it. So I think a seed of bootstrapping is “my own needs” because I know which kinds of functions must be added to it if you want the service.
Demo of Sanpo
Japan, a totally unknown country
Now I live in Japan and have almost no worries about the Japanese language. But I hadn’t only seen Japanese but also Asian people before entrance into college. I was not interested in anime or games, so I didn’t know about Japan at all.
In Spain, my home country, I went to French schools between the ages of 6 and 18. So I was qualified for a French university examination. I passed an exam, entered a university and majored in electronic communications.
The reason why I studied at French schools is neither because one of my parents was French nor they loved France. Moreover a school was located about a 30 minute drive away from home. Nevertheless my parents sent me to that school because they wanted me to have the opportunity to experience a different culture. Thanks to that, I acquired the ability to speak three languages such as Spanish, French and English.
But I wanted to study a totally different language from those after I entered university. Other than European language classes, there was only Japanese class at university. So I began to learn Japanese as a hobby. If there was only Chinese class, I might have a completely different life.
Got hooked on Japan
The class I took taught me both Japanese language and culture. Those were very interesting for me. Also Japan is developed like Western countries even though it’s part of the Orient, so I didn’t feel it’s a faraway country. That made me come to Japan when I was a third-year student. I went to the beautiful highland called Kiyosato, about 200km away from Tokyo, and stayed at a Japanese Inn (ryokan) for two months.
It was pure Japan. Nobody else could speak any language besides Japanese. My Japanese skills improved very much thanks to that tough environment. And I could experience Japanese culture, which is totally different from Spanish or French culture, so my life in Japan was very stimulating.
That’s why I wanted to do the research work, which is done during the last half of the year in Japan when I went on to fifth grade (Engineering faculty of French university offers a five-year course). Then I was lucky to be involved in the research at the electronics and communication division of Tokyo Institute of Technology for half a year.
When I was in the university in Tokyo, I wrote my diploma thesis and went back to France to present a paper. I graduated a French university in September in the year, but the school year ends in March the following year in Japan. So I continued the research at Tokyo Institute of Technology until the annual end-of-classes.
As a result, I was enrolled at the university for one year. I looked for a job in Japan and entered a Japanese company. I’ve been in Japan ever since.
Taking control of the international team in Africa
After working at a small medical device manufacturer and a research laboratory of Fujitsu, I became a consultant for international development. I was fed up with sitting in front of a computer for a long time, I wanted to get a more humane job which enables me to interact with people. So I chose to be a consultant.
JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) funds the developments of developing countries, but actually consultants are at the vanguard of the developments. I was in charge of being a project manager, who manages a set of processes from designing development of systems within budgets to activating them overseas. I often went to Africa, especially Tunisia.
When I was involved in countermeasure projects against floods in Tunisia, I operated the remote measurement of rainfall. Sometimes I took control of negotiations among Swiss, Tunisian and Japanese staffs. Each of them had a different background and interpretation of words differentiated because of that. So it was very tough.
I worked as a consultant for two years. I gained engineering experience at Fujitsu and learned the project management when I was a consultant. But my core, I’m an engineer. If you work as a consultant, you would be in charge of system management rather than system development. So I wanted to be an engineer again.
“This is it!”
I worked for Japanese companies for five years and felt the uniqueness of Japanese corporate culture. I couldn’t take a paid vacation very much and couldn’t work to my satisfaction. I was tired of being restricted at working places and time. So I thought of working as a freelancer, but I didn’t decide what to do. So I intended working at a startup venture company as well.
Then I searched for information about startups in Tokyo and came across “Startup Weekend Tokyo“. Startup Weekend, which originated in the States, is the event which is designed to foster startups in the world. Participants spend 54 hours simulating the entire process from organizing a team to starting your own business.
In October 2011, when I was working at a consulting company as an engineering consultant, I joined Startup Weekend Tokyo even though I didn’t have a specific idea.
But I thought “That’s what I want to do!””I wanted to work like this!” after I came along it. I worked on a project with other young people, it was totally different from my working style at that time so it was worthwhile. It’s more important for entrepreneurs to produceresults than working for a long time. I thought that working style would suit me. So I began to think of starting my own business after the event. I left a consulting company in April 2012.
Sanpo helps society?
Conditions for launching business which are applied to foreigners are different from ones applied to Japanese. If you’re Japanese, you can start your own business with ¥1 (approx. US1cent) in capital. On the other hand, ¥5 million (approx. US$50,000) need to be invested on your business and you have to have a facility for your office space if you’re someone from overseas. You’re not allowed to use your home as an office space. That’s why it’s difficult for us to found a company by ourselves.
But fortunately I met Shingo Hiranuma, associate developer of Sanpo, and Naoko Tsubaki who subsequently joined us as a marketer. We clicked together and brainstormed over and over again for a month after welcoming Mika Nozue as a designer. Then we released Sanpo as I mentioned before
All of us think of “creating a service that would benefit society”. Of course we have to make our living by releasing services, but we don’t want to make something not only for earning money but also helping society.
However Some people may wonder if Sanpo is beneficial for society. That’s why I hesitated to tell my associates about my idea when we were trading ideas. But you’ll enjoy walking or cycling by using Sanpo and prevent obesity. It’s good for a change and you’ll become healthier mentally and physically. So Sanpo will be able to help people. That’s our motivation, so we enjoy developing the service.
Sanpo to the world
I’ve been in Japan for seven years so I’ve taken root in this country. When the 3.11 Earthquake occurred in 2011, my parents were worried about me and there was the split second when I thought of leaving Tokyo especially after the nuclear accidents. But it was not easy. Even if I had escaped from Tokyo to Osaka (500km away from Tokyo), I wouldn’t be able to be there more than a week because I made my livelihood in Tokyo. I took root in Tokyo that much.
Moreover now it’s possible for us to promote services overseas without leaving Japan. The name of Sanpo is always expressed in the ABCs, not in Japanese alphabets or Chinese characters even in Japan, because we’re aiming for its overseas expansion. Every time I plan a new service, I think whether it’s possible to promote it overseas or not. For example, if someone suggests the idea of containing information about cherry blossom viewing spots, I can tell him/her, “That’s interesting, but people overseas won’t be interested in that kind of info”. In that sense, Team Sanpo has the best advisor! We want to tell people around the world about Sanpo from Japan.
What is Japan to you?
Good country. Everybody is very kind.
But I feel that there are only a few people who are interested in other cultures. I don’t know whether it’s because Japan is very comfortable, but it’s like a bath. You feel very comfortable when you immerse yourself in a nice hot bath, but you’ll feel much more comfortable if you get out of a warm water bath, go out in the cold and get in a bath again. In the same way,
You’ll have stimulating experiences if you interact with people from other countries or have the opportunity of learning other cultures.
What is Tokyo to you?
Very livable even though it’s a huge city. And there are a lot of possibilities here. You can see various kinds of people and see people who have the same ideas. So Tokyo is a very good place for people who want to try to do something or who want to realize something.