Rakuten celebrates a decade in Taiwan: An interview with Grace Lo, founding member and CEO

More than two decades have passed since Rakuten founded its namesake online marketplace in Japan in 1997. Since then, the company has not only grown into Japan’s e-commerce leader, but also into a global innovation company that provides diverse services to a membership base of over 1.2 billion members. Of course, global success didn’t materialise overnight: It all began in 2008 with the ambitious launch of Rakuten Ichiba Taiwan.

This year marks the celebration of ten years since that initial marketplace launch and so we spoke with Grace Lo, founding member and CEO of Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba, to learn more about how the team has grown in Taiwan and what lays ahead.

What can you remember about the launch day of Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba?

At that time, we didn’t have fancy equipment for video conferences. Early in the morning on the day we launched, we stood in front of a TV monitor hooked up to the Tokyo office via Skype and Ejiri-san (Rakuten Taiwan founding CEO Yuichi Ejiri) announced “We are open!” We all cheered and toasted to the occasion! Then we waited for the first order. But at that time, Rakuten was still new in the market.  We waited and waited and still no orders came in. Someone had to take the initiative, so I quietly placed one—the no.1 order!  We all cheered again! And soon after we had our first order, we had our second and third. That is how we started Rakuten Ichiba in Taiwan. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was an incredible experience.

How was the first year in the business?

There was a lot of energy, passion and optimism with the launch of the new business. We got a taste of Japanese omotenashi service culture and the crazy, sleepless nights of a startup. The first year we had 40 or so people and each and every person had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. We’d often stay until 3 or 4 in the morning, go home for a shower and then head back to the office. We were exhausted, but kept up our energy by being hyper, chatty, joking around with each other and eating together. When we discovered McDonald’s had started late-night delivery, that was a life-saver.

How have things changed since then?

Over the past 10 years, we went from one service (the Ichiba marketplace) to an ecosystem in Taiwan of six different services (Ichiba, Travel, Card, Kobo, Rakuma and the research company) and we keep expanding. Amazingly, we are still in the same building we started in, but as we’ve grown from the original 20 employees to over 350, we’ve taken over a few more floors.

Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba CEO Grace Lo speaking at a merchant event in 2017.
Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba CEO Grace Lo speaking at a merchant event in 2017.

What has been important to your success?

The rapid global expansion of the Rakuten Group gave the Taiwan team the opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate with talented teams across the globe. That, and the dynamic nature of the business have been crucial to our success. The latter is especially important because it allows us to continuously challenge the status quo and do things differently. Rakuten provides the stage and the equipment but allows its talented teams around the world to be the conductors at their own concerts.

What are some of the defining moments for Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba over the past decade?

There are many “firsts” when you start a business, but some of the big ones include: the first time Rakuten was featured in the newspaper and on TV; conducting branding activities alongside merchants for our consumers like the food festival Umaimono Taikai; mega shops like Nitori or A.mart signing up to our platform; witnessing our merchants grow from zero to million-dollar-plus shops; introducing Rakuten Super Points; and seeing 10-year merchants passing their businesses along to the next generation.

10 years is a major milestone.  What’s next for Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba?

There are so many special milestones in our history but, ultimately, Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba is a combination of merchants, consumers and us as the platform and the success of each one of those groups is an essential part of all of us continuing to be successful.

For our first five years, the theme was very much “local,” i.e. locally developed platforms, operations, etc. In comparison, the past five years have been much more focused on the “global,” i.e. Englishnization, moving to a shared global platform and joint branding activities.

Moving forward, we will be doing a lot more with AI, using data and tech to enhance the merchant and end-consumer experiences, borderless commerce, and online-to-offline shopping.

We’re looking forward to helping grow Rakuten in Taiwan even more in the next 10 years!

About Grace Lo

Grace Lo is the CEO of Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba, overseeing the overall operation for the marketplace business in Taiwan. Grace joined Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba in 2008 as a founding member and head of marketing. Under her management, Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba became one of the fastest growing overseas businesses in the Rakuten Group and successfully introduced several other services to Taiwan market.

Prior to her career in Rakuten, she worked for a top offline retailer in Taiwan, where she led marketing operations and new business development.

Grace holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, with a double major in biology and economics, and an MBA from Taiwan National University. Though today she possesses an unwavering passion for improving consumer experience in the retail space, her initial career aspiration was to become a biological scientist.

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