3 things entrepreneurs should learn from established Japanese brands like Muji and Nissan(Tech in Asia 9.3.2016)

Entrepreneurs like to learn from the pioneers in the industry – they hunt for the key to success from the blogs of successful entrepreneurs like Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk; they read books like Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things from end to end, regarding as bibles for starting up companies.

As an entrepreneur, I totally agree that it’s much easier to kickstart your journey on the shoulders of giants. But there is no single formula for success.

I recently came across several books and studies about Japanese companies with decades of history, and I found that these brands perfectly embodied the beauty of subtraction. From their design philosophies to management strategies, they seemed to be born with the power of building business lean. These are the 3 things entrepreneurs can definitely learn from them.

1. When developing your product, less is more



Photo credit: MUJIglobal

Tagged as “brandless brand”, Muji is a retail company selling no-logo household and consumer goods with minimalist design. The brand goes by the philosophy of “no flash, just functions” to indicate what’s appropriate for every day life.

This goal is manifested for example, in their development process of household appliances. When manufacturers from China and South Korea targeted the Japan-dominated market with a low pricing strategy after the 1990s, most manufacturers in Japan tried to reclaim the lost ground with a wide variety of functions. Muji steered the opposite way – developing products with basic functions so as to keep the quality and price competitive. The company believes that household appliances with basic functions are enough for most families. On the contrary, customers might get lost in the fancy functions which also bloat the price of the product.

This is also true when entrepreneurs turn ideas into products. Innovation-oriented market positioning often leads to fancy features that fail to meet the consumer’s basic needs. While Muji’s approach is to make something people want and need, but not more, “nice to have” functions should be eliminated. Entrepreneurs should figure out problems that need to be solved and develop corresponding solutions that touch on the right pain points.

Uniqlo, the casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer, is another Japanese brand with a no-frills design philosophy. Uniqlo is quite the rebel in the apparel industry — producing and selling clothes designed for everyone. In an industry stressing on one’s personality and individuality, Uniqlo focuses more on customers than clothes, and believes that customers can develop their own styles by mixing and matching its simply-designed clothes.

Entrepreneurs must have read quite a few suggestions on putting “customers first” and done market research before developing their products. But the truth is that balancing customers’ needs and product differentiation is not easy, due to limitations in resources and technology.

Uniqlo is one example of a brand that takes away the personalized features of their clothes and enables customers to personalize their styles on their own accord, indeed reaching the “customer-oriented” goal that many entrepreneurs have long sought.

2. Observe users, and not just through big data

Here comes another thorny issue – how could I know what my customers want? From manufacturing to the IT industry, conducting customer research is never easy.

Muji tries to communicate with costumers through different channels, including service counters in retail stores, their website, through the telephone and from market research.

However, what inspires me the most is the way Muji observes their customers. Muji built investigation teams composed of designers, buyers and management-level staff for customer home visits, in order to observe customers’ usage behaviors from different angles with the team members from different backgrounds. After the observation, they would interview these customers, directly getting comments on products and a sense of their customer’s sentiments.

During the process, investigation teams would find out about how different customers use the same product, some in innovative ways the product designers had never expected.

For entrepreneurs, there are some tools in the market for analysing consumer behavior. Although these could be used to get insights on consumer preferences, it is important not to neglect the human touch in trying to understand aspects of people where machines fall short.

3. Be decisive, and stay focused on the core of the business




Photo credit: Nissan USA

After launching products and scaling, entrepreneurs would probably pause to review their strategies before progressing further.

Multinational automobile manufacturer Nissan once dipped their toes in the aviation industry. But after 2000, the company successfully sold this high-end profitable business, in order to hold the lead on the global automobile market with a centralized set of resources.

This strategy is similar to that of snack food manufacturer Calbee, which has persisted in only selling potato-based snacks for over 60 years. And in order to keep businesses lean, it holds regular “off-shelf” meeting for superfluous product lines.

Apart from the products they have initially launched, entrepreneurs would also invest resources in side projects, hoping to boost revenues along both lines. However, this approach may cause them to sidetrack and deviate away from their original intentions for the business. I would suggest never to linger on businesses that do not coincide with your future plans for your business.

In conclusion, there is no foolproof formula for success. But on the way, most entrepreneurs should not only learn from technology giants, but from traditional industries, understanding the beauty of “less is more” and chasing big goals with small, manageable steps.

The opinions expressed are solely her own.



Female serial entrepreneur, CEO and Co-founder of EVENTION, her 2nd tech startup.Business development & marketing professional with >15 yrs’ exp in IT. Writer for HK & regional media.


Original article was published on《Tech in Asia》on 9 Mar 2016