Ichizo Yamamoto , co-founder of Sow Experience Inc(http://corporate.sowxp.co.jp ), started his business in 2005, when he was still early 20’s. What Sow Experience provides us is “experience” that would give you unforgettable moment in your life. Masaaki Hasegawa, alumni of Master in Visual Media, class of 2013, had a chance to explore his unique experience and life style that would infer us the advent of new way of life.
MH: Why did you make your mind to be an entrepreneur and how did you come up with the idea of merchandising unique experience?
IY: In my opinion, there are 2 kinds of people who start business. One is who have a specific business plan or things that they aspire to do. And the other is who do not have specific ideas but get motivated to be a self-independent businessperson who owns their own business. I was in this category that I did not have any particular business plans.
In my university days, I belonged to Investment Club that I could have generated value from scratch. This experience was so addictive that I could not imagine anything but founding a company by myself, and I started to build up a business plan with friends from junior high school, who finally become co-founders. When we started business, the overheating in the information technology boom had made aspiring young people tend to develop business in that field but I was believing that I would develop some service/product in which customer would use their five-sensens unlike online experience. Then, we happened to know Virgin Experience Days that is gift service of unique experience and could see the market growth potential in Japan where the size of the gift market is quite huge compared to other countries. I have believed that the history of gift is that of human that it has connected people and strengthen the bond between them, and it should grow further.
MH: What was the first step to realize your business?
IY: It was necessary to customize the idea that we had gotten from Virgin to be fit with Japanese domestic market, but, at that moment, I had no experience or knowledge about market research, and thus it was an ongoing process with trial and error. Also, we did not use time efficiently that we spent a month to build up the 30-pages business plan to raise capital. If I had had experience or knowledge that I have now, I would have quickly developed a prototype to sell.
MH: Who was the first target?
IY: Normally, gift should be well within someone’s budget parameters. And our first product was designed to be a gift, for our own friends, within 10000-yen (approximately 100 US dollar) budget. In the 21st century, where the same product can be consumed by broad range of generation, we have not thought it is an appropriate way to segment the market demographically, and thus we simply focused on developing a product that would be valuable for people surrounding me.
MH: What were the difficulties you faced then?
IY: Getting awareness has been our challenge. At the beginning, we thought that consumer would find us once we have developed a quality product. Unlike in B-to-B business, in B to C business, especially consumer products, it is necessary to sell a product to a number of people because of low profitability per unit and to survive in the fierce competition. Therefore, media exposure has strong influence on our business, but, at the beginning stage, we did not have any media exposure to obtain awareness in the market and it was the hardest issue to be solved at that time.
MH: Unlike the present, there was no means like SNS. How did you get the awareness?
IY: fortunately, Nihon Keizai Shinbun, which is one of the biggest-circulation newspapers in Japan, took up our service. And that article brought about a good deal of exposure and additional interviews. In my opinion, the influence of social media is too tiny to get an enough exposure to sell product whereas the mass media have direct strong impact on sales, and it would be effective to maintain the relationship with existing customer or to execute branding strategy. Still it is not as impactful as TV and newspaper to get new customers.
MH: Many people tend to insist that experience has become much more important than product. Is it true for your business?
IY: I disagree with the opinion that product is less important than experience because I think product is also a part of experience. For example, the delight of experience when buying a bag sophisticatedly designed by an artisan has not changed. Another example is that many people purchase Mac for experience that is incorporated in it. When I start Sow Experience, I just felt that why there is no experiential gift Japan.
MH; what is the most important point on designing experience?
IY: To provide great experience for customers, the most important thing is people in my company having fun, who can have the same viewpoint as our users. Exploring the interesting, exciting experience would enable you to provide experience in which the users would see values. Also, we pay a great attention to small details that can determine the whole impression of experience, and thus we always improve every single detail of each gift. Beside, through the experience we provide, we try delivering the message that there are thousands of different kinds of unique experience you are not familiar with in the world. Our gifts are somewhat provocative and suggestive to make people experience something that they usually do not experience. It is certainly true that our most consumed gift tend to be “massage” or “spa” what heals body and allows you to relief stress in daily life, but we intentionally place the gift which gives you outdoor experience on the top on our webpage.
MH: Why you decided to take MBA in Rady School?
IY: There are 2 reasons. One is to improve myself to be a person who is capable of managing the bigger size of business as my company has grown up. I started business when I was early 20’s and I could have managed it without any serious troubles but I was wondering myself whether I would be able to manage the company when hiring hundreds of employees in the future, and thus, I felt the necessity to learn business science over. Second, I was just interested in living in California where most of interesting cultures that have enriched my personality and life come from and in seeking out the reasons that this location could have generated abundant unique culture and attracted people. In fact, I came to realize that California has a culture to accept new people, product, and culture and adopts those to its original culture.
MH: People often discuss about the risk. What is the greatest risk you have ever taken?
IY: I think that the definition of risk varies from one to another. For example, I used to work for Hewlett-Packard before taking up my own business, and people said to me it is risky to quit the company. However, for me, not doing what I really want to do is the greatest risk. Particularly, when it is about your life, it is not possible to measure the value of your decision by using some mathematical/financial calculation model like ROI (Return on Investment). It is true that, in business, it is sometimes necessary to calculate the short-term profitability, but I believe that we need to think our life as a marathon that you do not have to live in a hurry. These days, starting up and selling out business is a sort of trend or common sense among young entrepreneurs. As a result, so many intelligent young people are likely to be drown into the field of application development aimed at gaining the short-term profit. I see the competition in the startup culture is now heating up too much that young people are likely to disdain the large corporations but I think that it takes decades of time with a great deal of capital to develop technology something really meaningful, innovative and influential in the society that would make the world better. I do not think it is a good way of business that you puddle hard when no waves coming. Also, I think many people are likely to look for instant role models to be successful and to put themselves into the template to measure their value of life.
MH: Please give a message for future entrepreneurs
IY: Try not to intentionally make a startup idea. You can generate something only based on your own knowledge and experience, and thus, it would be naturally generated from your inner side if you keep thinking about it. In my case, I had been making a list of the restaurant and places that were interesting, and had a passion and motivation to explore new experience by temperament. That is why I could have founded Sow Experience and led it to be successful. No matter how harshly other people criticize on your business model or laugh at your idea, the true courageous mind and the key point to be successful is to be yourself. Have courage to dig deep into what you have experienced.