2018 was a special year for Rakuten for many reasons. It was a year of tremendous growth: with our global registered membership surpassing 1.3 billion and transactions on our platforms around the world now approaching USD140 billion.
More qualitatively, it was a year that saw Rakuten take a big step forward in terms of brand identity. We introduced a new logo that underscores our identity, launched our very first Optimism conference in San Francisco and saw key businesses like our French e-commerce platform move forward with rebranding to Rakuten.
It was also a big year for our sports and entertainment partnerships. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship and FC Barcelona triumphed in La Liga. Andres Iniesta joined our football team Vissel Kobe and we signed David Villa to join next year. We powered Shakira’s tour across North America and Europe and launched a global partnership with the obstacle race series Spartan, a brand that encourages participation in physical activity.
Growth at home and abroad; New medical forays
On the domestic front, our Rakuten Ichiba marketplace continues to grow, as does Rakuten Travel, Rakuten Point Card, Rakuten Pay and many other businesses in our robust and dynamic ecosystem. Roughly a decade since launch, Rakuten Card is the biggest credit card in Japan (by transaction value) and our vibrant fintech businesses continue to play a key role in the expansion of our ecosystem here.
Globally speaking, Ebates, our cashback rewards service based in North America, is continuously growing. A new initiative that offers rewards to Lyft users has proved very popular and is part of our growth beyond shopping – to offline and digital commerce. The partnership between Rakuten Marketing and Ebates is getting stronger, Rakuten Viber reached 1 billion registered members and, for the first time, Rakuten Kobo launched our e-reading services in the U.S. in a big way, in partnership with Walmart. Rakuten Institute of Technology, our research arm, now operates from six centers around the world, from San Mateo to Bengaluru.
On a different note, and one that is very close to my heart, we recently made a meaningful investment in the biotech company Rakuten Aspyrian, which I have also invested in personally for some time. Rakuten Aspyrian has been developing new precision-targeted anticancer therapies based on a photoimmunotherapy platform and in 2019 we hope to see this innovative and potentially lifesaving technology continue to make strides.
These are all remarkable accomplishments that each and every member of the Rakuten family can be proud of. However, today, on the first working day of the new year, I want to look ahead.
Believing in the future
In 2019, our ambition is not only to become the greatest company in Japan – we want to become the greatest company in the world. While that may sound bold, I truly believe in our capacity to accomplish this goal.
Building on the success of our inaugural Optimism conference in 2018, we’re already developing plans for our next Optimism conferences in new locations that will bring all of our businesses together and demonstrate who we are, how innovative our technology is, and how creative we are. In the future, I would like to hold initiatives like this around the world.
The birth of Rakuten’s mobile business
This year, we will need to rise to the huge challenge of launching our new mobile business, which will make us Japan’s fourth mobile network operator (MNO), and the first new player to enter the market in 13 years. The architecture itself is very, very unique. For example, we are using a very simple type of antenna to build out the network. This stands in stark contrast to the traditional antennae of the telecom incumbents, with lots of boxes beneath them and masses of wiring, that are very difficult to install and expensive to maintain.
Our approach is very simple: everything will reside on the cloud, including what are known as ‘edge services.’ This cloud-native approach makes it a much more cost-effective investment than that of MNOs of the past, and a lot more agile. It will also be 5G-ready from the beginning.
Payment, logistics and the ecosystem
This year we will expand our own end-to-end delivery network in line with the concept of “One Delivery”, combining and building on all the supply management power of our ecosystem.
Payments are also a major focus. Investing in mobile payments, including QR code payments and other touch payment solutions, has already put us in a leadership position in Japan. We will continue to innovate and grow in a way that will strengthen the ecosystem and offer more convenient services to our users, both online and offline.
Again, these are very big, very ambitious projects, and we will need to execute extremely well in order to find success, and ultimately, make history. But I am confident that with the strength of our global teams and technology, we can do great things in 2019.
With a new year upon us, we now face new and exciting challenges. While there will be bumps along the way, I’m sure that together we can overcome any obstacle we face.
Thank you very much, and once again, happy new year.
This text is based on the annual greetings delivered by Rakuten’s CEO to employees at the opening of business in the new year.