Everything I’ve learned about selling SaaS in Japan

Japan is a notoriously difficult market to crack. Successful, established businesses entering Japan from overseas that do not bother to tailor their marketing and product for Japan regularly fail here.

Notably however, Japan’s SaaS market is bigger than every other SaaS market in Asia combined. If you put in the time and effort to battle through the adversity, there is a wide range of fantastic opportunities here generated by criminally under-served market segments.

For the last 2 years, we’ve been building MakeLeaps, a tool to help businesses in Japan create, manage and send their invoices and quotes.

We soft-launched 7 months ago, to almost zero fanfare – to our great relief. Unlike our other local competitors that have popped up in the last few months, we made an active decision to not issue press releases or seek media attention until we were confident we both had a deep understanding of our users requirements, and we had a product they would find both useful and compelling.

Sending invoices and business documents in Japan is deeply ingrained with various cultural nuances, and is ruled by a series of business manners and traditions. We had no idea if businesses would actually use an online system to send their invoices, since you cannot get less ‘traditional’ than using an online system to send invoices.

Having said that, 99% of all small/medium sized business in Japan are using Word and Excel to send their invoices. There’s a strong argument that says “Word and Excel” are not exactly traditional Japanese software either, which gave us hope.

In the beginning, I would go to peoples offices, put MakeLeaps in front of them on my laptop, and explain why we thought the software would be so great for them, both to practise my pitch and to garner some feedback. While many of these initial users were friends and acquaintances, I also cold-called a bunch of businesses, including accountants, to get deep level feedback about the system from as many actual potential users as possible.

After countless cycles of listening to these few initial customers I managed to get using the system and iterating on their feedback, things really started to take off around 2 months ago.

User Growth

I feel like we’re now in a good position to talk about our experiences and what we’ve learned.

You’re a foreigner, and that’s ok.

If you’re a startup/company trying to enter Japan, you are very literally foreign in Japan. The kanji for foreigner literally translates to “outside”. Being an “outsider” in the perspective of Japanese culture comes with drawbacks and benefits.


  • You have a degree of freedom, because you’re expected to be different. Japanese are understandably proud of their fantastic traditions and culture. They expect that most foreigners have no clue about the history, nuances and traditions that make up their country, and for the most part, they’re correct.

    This means as a person attempting to introduce a product or service to Japan, you’re not expected to be perfect in your knowledge of local customs, although of course, you’re expected to try.


  • This ‘foreign-ness’ is typically not a problem if you’re selling a low-risk service, such as say, a social photo-taking application. In fact, it can even be cool for Japanese consumers to use a foreign application or tool. However, if you’re selling a business critical application, such as an invoicing tool, your foreign-ness becomes an issue.

    To a Japanese company, there are very real business and reputation risks in using a foreign tool for something as critical as invoicing. It’s a human trait to trust people who are similar to you, and who have shared experiences. It’s important for you to discover whether or not your foreign-ness is an issue.

Here’s how we got around this:

  • One strategy we’re using, is the ‘feature what you can’t fix’ idea. On our Q&A page we make it very clear, who we are (essentially, not Japanese!) why we’re in Japan, and why we’re working in this problem space.

Since this is a big issue, I go into further detail on various additional strategies we’ve used to beat this in the section below titled “Japanese consumers make buying decisions in different ways”

It’s really, really hard to get feedback

The concept of social harmony and saving face in Japan is baked into every relationship in Japan, whether they’re personal or business. In fact in Japan, there’s often no difference between these two concepts.

This creates a tricky dichotomy where:

  1. A user with no personal connection to you will feel no obligation to risk providing you with feedback – preferring to simply close the tab and move on if software doesn’t suit their needs.
  2. A user with a personal connection to you will rarely provide you with ‘real’ feedback because that could disturb the social harmony in your relationship, and could cause you to lose face. Both terrible outcomes for your thoughtful Japanese friend.

This means that it’s almost impossible to garner feedback in Japan.

Here’s how we got around this:

  • We openly ask for comments in our welcome email, our support page, and also on Twitter and Facebook.
  • We often email regular users and new users from a ‘real person’, asking how things are going, and politely requesting any feedback or comments that the user might have.
  • We do our best to build relationships with our users who are bilingual. The idea of dissenting opinions and openly discussing/disagreeing with people is typically more accepted overseas and in international companies. We find that bilingual users with experience in international companies are often quite open to sharing their feedback and comments.
  • When a user does provide us with feedback, we:
    • instantly reply to them explaining how grateful we are to receive this feedback,
    • explain that we take their feedback and comments very seriously
    • we explain that even though we cannot implement every suggestion, we promise to discuss it with the team and get back to them if there’s an update on their issue.

    This approach hopefully communicates our willingness to listen to feedback and leaves the door open for future communication.

Japanese consumers make buying decisions in different ways

Japan has a culture based around personal networks and connections, so Japanese consumers typically look for consensus and poll their network while making a buying decision. This can lead to a pleasant snowball effect, where if enough customers start using a product/service, critical mass kicks in and the product/service achieves extraordinary success.

A recent example is Apple. You can’t get on a train and sit down without seeing 20/30+ iPhones, iPads, or white earbuds leading to iPhones/iPads/iPods.

The flip-side of this, is no matter how good your product/service is, people won’t use it unless they see other people using it, or unless their friends introduce them to it.

If it’s a business service, this is doubly true since there’s real risk in using a ‘non-consensus approved’ product/service.

How we got around it:

This is a big one, so we’ve come up with a lot of strategies to battle this.

  • Avoid the English/Japanese content problems by creating a separate social media accounts that are 100% Japanese for your potential customers in Japan. Examples:
  • We don’t recommend you begin in Japan with blog content posting. We had one very popular article on the MakeLeaps blog that was shared a lot in Japan, and we got about 60,000 views. Grand result: 0 signups. We haven’t given up on blog content and we’ve got a bunch of ideas on how to increase conversion here, but I recommend building up to blog content – don’t start with it.
  • When a user talks about us publicly, we feature it on our Facebook page with a public and personal message from us to them, saying “Thank you very much for using the service. We’re really happy you’re getting benefit from it!” Showing Japanese businesses that other Japanese businesses are using our software has been critically important.
  • To further reinforce the idea that many companies in Japan are using our service, we printed MakeLeaps stickers, and made them available for free to all our users. When a user is nice enough to send a photo of their PC/Mac/iPad with the MakeLeaps sticker, we upload the photo to Facebook.
  • We’ve had a lot of success with our Facebook page in Japan. Facebook is exploding in Japan, and to some degree we’ve managed to ride this wave of growth. Facebook is our primary tool for regular communication with our users.
  • We do everything we can to promote our regular users, which benefits us both. We offer many of our regular users the following mini-package:
    • Featured quote on the front page
    • Featured blog post where we come to their office, ask them some questions, take some photos, publish it on our blog and promote it by FB/Twitter/Blog/Newsletter.
  • We treat every customer support ticket with the utmost importance. Not only is it good business practice, the business benefit of one ‘happy tweet’(Japanese) from a satisfied customer far outweighs the effort on our side to ensure they’re extraordinarily happy with the support they receive.

Japanese consumers are extremely sensitive to “Japanese-ness”. And rightfully so.

Ever read something ‘Google Translated’ into your language? In Japanese, it sounds about 10 times worse.

To a Japanese consumer, if you can’t get basics like the language copy right, chances are pretty good you’re not going to get the more fundamental things right either, like the value proposition to Japanese consumers.

How we get around this:

  • There is no way around this. You need staff on the ground in Japan who can communicate effectively to your customers through the website copy, and the language in the application itself. Not to mention collecting feedback on the features and the application itself.
  • Another tip: Japanese consumers favour websites with very dense content, and little whitespace. This hurts the latte drinking minimalist designer inside us, but we’re not here to argue.

    Heres some examples of very popular Japanese sites:

Bic Camera


Here’s the more ‘spaced out’ English MakeLeaps Site

MakeLeaps (English)

Here’s the more dense Japanese MakeLeaps site

MakeLeaps (Japanese)

‘Insanely great’ Customer Service

First-time visitors to Japan are always amazed at the incredible service they receive here. The service levels are probably the best in the world.

The thing is that your customers will expect a similar level of service from you. Failure to provide this high level of service gives your customer an instant feeling of disconnection from you, and you’re quickly cemented into the ‘outsider’ box, since you don’t get the Japanese customs regarding customer service.

How we get around this:

  • We do our best to provide a fantastic level customer service (in both English and Japanese).
  • We provide a phone number for people to call. Interestingly, we are currently the only online invoicing tool in Japan that does this. Even more interestingly, we get a lot of phone calls to this number.
  • All of our sales/support staff are on Twitter. We tried connecting with our customers through the @MakeLeaps_JP twitter account, with very little success. Once we changed to personal twitter accounts, our customer engagement on Twitter shot up.
  • Another avenue where we’ve had a lot of success is having direct founder engagement with users. I’ve had some very pleasant conversations from surprised users when I’ve sent tweets in Japanese from @JasonWinder.


Japanese companies commonly use the concept of campaigns when marketing. We’ve had a lot of success with the following 2 campaigns:

  • Our ‘Spring’ campaign
    • Offering incentives for: providing us feedback we can use to improve our system, introducing their friends to MakeLeaps, and tweeting about us.
  • A 24 Hour signup campaign
    • We provide our Facebook followers with a registration code that provides them with 3 free ‘mail points’. A mail point allows users to have one invoice printed and sent by Japan Post by us. We saw a huge spike in signups during and after this 24 hour campaign.


Many of what we’ve learned has only been possible because we’re on the ground and able to directly contact and interact with our customers.

For a SaaS product targeting the Japanese market, you will absolutely need a team on the ground to get you the information you need for your build/measure/learn cycle. Success in Japan is very rarely achieved accidentally.

In our experience, your realistic options are either to build a team in Japan, or to partner with a company in Japan experienced in market entry. Although typically companies that offer market entry services have price tags that are prohibitive for early stage startups.

In any case, I’m always very happy to support more businesses and startups coming to Japan so please feel free to contact me if I can help.

Jason Winder | jay@makeleaps.com | @JasonWinder

Greetings HN Readers! If you happen to be in Tokyo this Friday, drop by to the HN Tokyo Community meetup. Full details here.

* For historical interest, here is the original link I posted to find a technical co-founder in Japan to HN – http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=941606. A few weeks after posting this, I was lucky enough to meet my brilliant technical co-founder Paul Oswald. Thanks again to HN enough for building the infrastructure that made this introduction and relationship possible.

Jay Winder

Jay Winder is the Australian Co-Founder of MakeLeaps. Jason came to Japan in 2001 to study martial arts, set up his first business called Webnet IT in 2003, and set up MakeLeaps in 2010 with the vision of unlocking the potential of freelancers and businesses in Japan with clean and powerful software. If you like, follow me on Twitter.

Other Posts by Jay Winder

This article has 26 comments

  1. SmartPartner JacKK
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

    Fantastic article Jason, very generous of you to share your experience with others like that, good on ya!

  2. Chii Elmonetlil
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

    In Japan, 75 percent of business documents are written on Excel.
    Not a few Japanese people don’t even know that Excel is a software for calculations.
    They view Excel as a useful grid paper or an outline editor.

  3. Thanks for writing such an insightful article.  I immersed myself in Japan from 2003-2005 in order to pick up the language and customs, and I definitely found myself nodding my head throughout your account.  I’ve lamented the difficulty of applying my love of Japan to my love of Startups, but you’ve given me hope!  :)

  4. Great post, thank you for the insights. 

  5. Wonderful post.
    3 lessons I’ve learned: listen to your users as much as possible, ignore traditional marketing, utilize your customers’ connections instead, provide ‘insanely great’ customer support.
    Which left me wondering are these steps really Japanese SaaS specific?
    Follow this strategy and you’ll succeed even on Mars. Or in less exotic places such as US.

  6. Marc Brandsma
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

    Really great feedback. So good for all the business plans that just mention “and after that, we’ll open in Japan”. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. Ludovic Urbain
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

    “It’s a human trait to trust people who are similar to you, and who have shared experiences.”

    It goes much further than that.

    In Japanese culture, failure is NOT tolerated.

    Simple example here with business deals and resolutions:

    American : standard failure rate, good resolution offer discount / free / free return – make the customer happy with a practical solution

    Belgian : standard failure rate, bad resolution bitch / offer return at your costs – customer service is a pain here in Belgium

    German : low failure rate, excellent resolution – the german do not take failure / incorrectness lightly

    Japan : very low failure rate, perfect resolution (+seppuku sometimes) – without exageration, any culture I know can tolerate a 10% rebate for one in a thousand damaged goods.
    Japanese will send you the box back because it’s unacceptable.

    So yes, people similar to you and all that, but the chasm between western and japanese culture is huge, and the main justified fear a japanese will have is that you have no clue of how to deliver “acceptable” quality.

    When they see you, they think you’re a savage who wipes his ass with paper, using the same hand he uses to greet.

    When they see you, they think you’re a savage incapable of communicating in a civilized manner (one has to admit the complexity of japanese respect and communication).

    When they see you, they think you’re a savage who doesn’t even try to prevent sharing germs with everyone when he’s sick.

    So no matter how open they are, they’ll always have that “gaijin” tag on you and that’s something you may never beat – unless you try very actively to learn their customs (make sure you have a few years for that though).

    Luckily on the business level, it has much less impact. – still, I like Japan –

  8. From Joel: Spreadsheets are not just tools for doing “what-if” analysis. They
    provide a specific data structure: a table. Most Excel users never enter
    a formula. They use Excel when they need a table. The gridlines are the
    most important feature of Excel, not recalc.

  9. Thanks for dropping by and reading Marc

  10. Ludovic Urbain
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

     God bless Japan,

    You have no idea how much problems have been caused by applications written in Excel or by ex-Excel vba hackers in VB.

    I have two very good metrics for providing value in an enterprise : #emails reduction and #xls reduction.

    Too much data is locked away, versionned to hell and corupted by excel, and too much time is taken by emails that should be work requests or preCAB exchanges etc.

  11. Ludovic Urbain
    Wednesday May 30th, 2012

    The emphasis is bigger. You cannot get away with just “great” customer support. It doesn’t make financial sense to provide such support to people who are more sensitive to price for example.

    So yes, general points but the specificity is clear I’ll say.

  12. Salvador,
    My pleasure – thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  13. Hey Grant,
    Nice to hear from you. The startup ‘industry’ in Japan right now is going through a bit of a boom. Loads of incubators, and more opportunities. Japan is also slowly changing and starting to use more ‘cloud’ style services, such as Evernote, Salesforce, and MakeLeaps.
    Never give up hope :)

  14. Jason, 
    Always nice to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words mate.

  15. Seriously ? Where did you get that info please ?

  16. Great post a great deal to be learned.
    Thanks for sharing.

  17. Great post.

    I had a VIP email business in Europe.  Delightful customer service was requisite.  We could have charged more sure, but that’s not the point.  “Doing more for than paid” keeps value overwhelming, encouraging word-of-mouth customer acquisition (the best kind).  One bad experience, and a “problem” customer today can tweet about it, post it on facebook and the world presumes your company to be in league with evil.  How staff are treated is mirrored in staff’s interaction with customers.  Being nice does not cost a quid, penny or yen. 

    Outside sales to small business customers is notoriously difficult.  A hard truth is that they will continue to stay small if their owner/s is unable to put more capital efficient assets, practices and people into revenue generation capacity.  (If you’re not growing without over-expanding or over-levering, what are you doing?)  Novice sales people can put useful tools in front of them with nearly immediate ROI and they will turn them down for non-logical reasons.  That’s where experienced sales staff earn their huge commissions, turning objections inside-out and showing that it is safe to play in your pool with all the other cool kids.

  18. There’s no right or wrong way to use a tool if it helps the user get more done in a shorter time than another away.

    Productivity comparison of GUI and Text UI between novice and expert users:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2655855/

    In this regard, only hire people that are capable of mastering keyboard shortcuts and only deploy software which provide these.  (KeyCue for Mac shows an exhaustively complete list of available keyboard shortcuts with no special changes.  Hold the command key and it shows a heads-up display grouped by category.  It plugs into the Accessibility API to do this.  Brilliant.)

  19. I wonder if this is a rough guess based on first-hand experience.  An exhaustive study on effective Japanese corporate productivity sounds like good material for a PhD thesis.

  20. Wow. That is a very very insightful analysis into the Japanese market! We should share some ideas. I’ve built http://www.clientbiller.com here in the US and would love to discuss things with you.

  21.  When they see you, they think you’re a savage who wipes his ass with paper, using the same hand he uses to greet.

    When they see you, they think you’re a savage incapable of
    communicating in a civilized manner (one has to admit the complexity of
    japanese respect and communication).

    When they see you, they think you’re a savage who doesn’t even try to prevent sharing germs with everyone when he’s sick.


  22. Sure – always happy to have a chat. You’re welcome to get in touch with me at my contact details posted at the end of the article.
    Cheers Chris !

  23. Jason,

    Thanks for the post! It is really hard to enter the market, indeed.

    I am having hard time finding a “good” partner for our expansion in Japan.
    http://readdle.com has some great success in the US, now we want to bring our apps to Japan.

    I will appreciate your advice. Finding the “right” people is always hard.

    Looking forward to chat with you,



  24. I’ve been working on eCommerce in China and Asia, and the standard UX is definitely information dense like in Japan. Across in Korea, Taiwan, HK, all similar. It’s when you go further south, to Malaysia, Singapore that it gets more towards the western-uncluttered style.

    Some research articles from agencies suggest that the “younger” generation in the former countries are growing to prefer the uncluttered style, but I’ve yet to seen any large sites implement that.

  25. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing. Japan is a fascinating place, and VERY different.

    You understand it well, many don’t.

  26. I always heard that Japan is a good place for shopping, but then a lot of Japanese friends have left their country. They said that they its really expensive! well i have few proposals in mind, this article was a good read! I have my tickets booked through http://www.travelmerchants.com and i am all set for my meetings with the investors! keeping my fingers crossed !!!!