What does it mean to give someone a “break” in business? In my opinion, a break is not about a single opportunity or a nudge in the right direction. It is really about empowerment – giving someone the tools, the environment and encouragement to do their best work. This is what I experienced when I left a banking job to start my own internet company, and it is the core philosophy that we continue to follow today at Rakuten. My goal was not as simple as giving someone a break, it was about empowering people to make their own breaks, over and over again.
Rakuten has now grown into a large company that is able to empower many other companies, small and large. Our earliest customers were not always sure of what we were talking about when we encouraged them to take their small and mid-sized businesses and put them on the internet. The internet was still a relatively new concept then. We even helped some of our early customers to buy and set up their first computers. This was new territory. But it quickly became clear that when business people had the right tools, the platform and the encouragement, they took their companies to new heights.
Tokyo-based fashion company Silver Bullet is one of many examples in our Rakuten marketplace. “Our customers are the sort of people who would buy clothes before food,” says B.P.I Co., LTD. president Koh Takagi, the founder of Silver Bullet.
When Silver Bullet signed on with Rakuten, we did not give the team there a “break”; we gave them a platform to create their own success. From its conception in 2002, the company grew even faster than 30-year-old Takagi and his two partners expected. Monthly turnover went from zero to 30 million yen ($300,000) in just four months.
They were too busy to give much thought to the future of the business, but their Rakuten e-commerce consultant proposed ambitious targets. They discussed everything from online sales to page design to finding a bigger warehouse. “We knew how to make clothes, photograph them, sell them,” he says, “but running a business was something else.” Yet, six months later, their turnover had swelled to 100 million yen ($1 million) a month. “Without our e-commerce consultant, I don’t think we would have had the courage to do that.”
Another example: A maker of children’s clothing decided to shift its efforts to focus on owners of dogs and cats – and the iDog and iCat web stores were born. Rakuten supported this transformation by offering the tools the company needed to create an online community. Most of the pet photos from their site and print catalog are of customers’ dogs and cats. The company sent the clothes for free and owners sent pics in return. The company has worked hard at making the site fun and engaging. Staffers write about their own pets in the website’s popular newsletter. During one special sale, they sold 5,000 items in a single evening.
Sometimes Rakuten is not simply supporting a new business, but keeping a long-established one from going under. In the case of Fabric Plus, when low-priced Chinese imports started flooding the Japanese market, the company’s cloth bleaching and dyeing business was in danger of drying up. The new president and grandson of the company’s founder turned to Rakuten to jump-start his family’s business. He began marketing the company’s cloth as high-quality and Japanese-made. And he used Rakuten to reach customers directly. Selling via the internet rather than wholesale allowed Fabric Plus to tell customers directly what its products were made from, how they were made, and who made them. Rakuten helped this company create its new opportunities online.
When a business thinks in terms of empowering its customers, the prospects of both the business and the customers soar – together. We have many stories like this, not just in Japan but around the world.
Today, as we focus our efforts on being a global innovation company, we continue to keep the concept of empowerment high in our minds. This is the thinking that allows us to succeed while we help others to do the same. It’s the best kind of break you can offer.