The first post in the A Week in Tokyo series that I wrote was back in November 2007. It's been interesting looking at past posts to see what life was back then and how much it has changed over the years. Unfortunately, there started to be big gaps in the frequency of updates.
As talked in the latest Desk Diary entry, I had to make a decision to hang on to a large user base I built up until then - or risk losing it by pursuing a further passion - to make a 1/3 scale fashion doll with the aim to make it a global brand - there are only a few truly global doll brands that I'm aware of - Barbie, Blythe and Pullip all of which are of a similar size and targeted at a similar market.
I made the sacrifice and soon after I found myself in a situation where I saw readership numbers that I built up over many years start to dwindle over night through the lack of writing - at the same time not being sure how well Mirai Smart Doll would do. No matter how confident I was in the product - it was ultimately the consumer who would decide the outcome of the decision I made.
The result of the sacrifice only started to be evident a few years later in June 2014 when I launched Smart Doll - a fashion doll modeled after a character I created called Mirai Suenaga. Mirai sold well - so well that exactly the same model still has demand after a year of her release.
I built the company purely on internal funds and successfully bootstrapped to a point where we are self sustainable - however I'm being faced with another major decision that I need to make. I understand that I can only take the company so far on its own cash and that if I want more growth then I'm going to have to take some form of financial investment. I was contacted by JAFCO who are considering to help me take the company public and I currently have a few investors who are also interested - I just need to work out how much of what I have now that I'm willing to sacrifice.
There is one thing for sure however, part of running a business involves doing some stuff that you are *not* so passionate about to bring in the cash flow that enables you to the stuff that you *are* passionate about.
Anyway - first photo taken in my hood near Nishikoyama station. All my photos are taken on the Sony A7 with the occasional Sony RX100 III. All these photos are HD size too which may make decent wallpapers for some of you.
2015 has been a good year for Mirai Smart Doll so far. Sony are using them in their showrooms and Kadokawa in their schools. Earlier this year, Mirai appeared in her first live action drama starring Mikako Tabe and Yoshida Yo - Doesu Deka. This photo taken with the film crew in Kawasaki - it took is 12 hours to film the first 6 mins of the show. I was sitting in the corner of this room supervising the lighting for any shot that involved Mirai.
AFATH 2015 was the first time we used all of our booth space - previously we would only use half of the land and the rest would be left for queuing and a few cabinets for displaying stuff.
Now we get a large backyard for stock and also for taking a break. Events are fun but also very tiring too so the new backyard layout was a good decision.
But if you don't care about being ignored or bullied then you are already halfway to fulfilling your dreams. Remember - if you care too much about what people think about you - you are not going to get far in life because your big goals will in most cases will involve making some people unhappy.
22 years ago I sat here at the Hachiko exit in Shibuya wondering how I was going to make it to Japan permanently. Looking back, being raised in a foster home, being bullied at school later and being raised in Hackney London (at the time was the most worst place to live in the whole of England) later on primed me with a determination that I didn't realize I had until I discovered Japanese culture.
No matter how much grief you are going through or have been though, one day you will realize why you went through that shite.
The view from my local solitude spot. These days, there seems to be many folks who spend too much of their time with their head either buried in their computer screen or mobile device but don't realize the importance of solitude time to reflect on life. Reflecting on the past enables you to examine the present to plan for the future - essential for anybody who is aiming to achieve something in life.
I was brought up in an era without Internets - without its distraction, I got to spend a lot of my time thinking and I did a lot of that by the River Thames back in London.
While I don't get as much time to think about stuff as I did back then, I do try to make as much time as possible to think about stuff - and there is a lot to think about what with running the company. When waiting around for a train (or on the train), I consciously try not to bury my head in my Xperia as I know I already did that back in the office and at home.
There are a load of problems to be solved and much of it can only be done by devoting processing power from your brain. Pulling yourself away from a daily routine and spending sometime at a place with a view does wonders. If you find your brain getting clogged up or you feel stuck in a rut in your career then maybe it's because you have been spending too much time using your brain to process information from the Internets rather than using your brain to process life problems and goals.
A lot of my time is spent on hands-on production of Smart Doll. All of our body components are made in Japan - the outer shell parts are made in Katsushika Ward in Tokyo. Katsushika is where Japan's Toy industry started off and is also home to the headquarters of Takara Tomy.
Here is our Mirai Mobile being filled up on the way to our casting facilities.
Mirai travels with me on my production visits to our vendors and facilities and is also a reminder that perseverance is worth it! Perseverance is key in dealing with production issues which will always exist as long as one continues to make stuff - established companies such as Apple and Samsung seem to be no exception.
Perseverance is usually uncomfortable as it involves dealing with so many production headaches - the easy way to get comfortable again is to drop everything. But as I discussed before - being in the comfort zone is the worst place to ever be. Giving up on Mirai means giving up on the future - and for those of you who don't know, "Mirai" in Japanese means "Future."
Molding and casting are greatly affected by the season for example - most of our issues happen in the Summer due to the temperature but start in June due to the moist rainy season.
Despite all the headache and turmoil of running a production company, it's rewarding to see how many consumers around the world are enjoying our products - Mirai is starting to change lives in not only the hobby world but education, business and soon the health sector too.
When I look at Mirai for long enough you will always see me smile ^^
Vendors are great at what they do which is why we use them but they need guidance as it's difficult for them to see their own mistakes. Its crucial that you dont compromise on quality just because you want to be nice - you have to be straight about any blemishes that you find in their work or you are doing to end up regretting it after with a half baked product in your hands.
Life does not have to be regrettable especially as more often than not you will have a chance to rectify and change the course of something that may turn out bad.
One would think that Tokyo being one of the most populous metropolis in the world that the highways would be clogged with traffic all the time. While the traffic can be horrid from time to time, the highways are usually quite fluid and drivers are generally well mannered. What is it like driving on the highways in your neck of the woods?
In the first quarter of the year, we started to run out of space at the office - I didn't anticipate the type of growth that we are experiencing. Luckily, the folks on the first floor moved out so I decided that we should take it and turn half of it into a store. This is what it looked like before we moved in. The previous tenants were a printing company who had huge machines which left the carpet and walls in a mess.
While our operating costs have shot up, it was a decision that had to be made because there was simply no more room to grow the company on the 2nd floor and I didn't want employees to work in sardine conditions.
Deciding to open a store is risky but the location makes it great for logistic reasons where stock and people just move between floors. We use more than half of the store for apparel development and fulfillment too so even if no customers came, we can make good use of the space and make the extra rent worth paying.
Mirai Store Tokyo opened in July 2015 and became profitable in August - this is great considering that the shop location has no expected walkins from local foot traffic - folks who come to the store specifically come to get goodies.
If you are in town then drop by! We are open Mon - Fri 10AM - 1PM and 2PM - 6PM. Closed on Japan public holidays.
MIRAI STORE TOKYO
NISHI GOTANDA BUILDING 1F
SHINAGAWA-KU NISHI GOTANDA 3-6-33
MIRAI STORE TOKYO
Map > http://buff.ly/1tn0rDI
Queries > support at smartdoll.jp (even for non Smart Doll related questions)
Our Smart Dolls dont have serial numbers so up until a while ago we didn't have any idea when they were made. I felt it was important to know when we made them to enable us to troubleshoot any problems and better improve the quality of the product - by understanding when they were made gives us better insight in how materials change shape and color over the years.
I introduced these tags which we put inside the head (no not on the toes!) which have the date the product was made - we call them "Brain Chips" internally ^^;
I learned about Howard Schultz (founder of Starbucks) through a Japanese business seminar and heard a few things about him and his story which I related to. I wanted to learn more about how he started his empire so sought his first book "Pour Your Heart Into It" which upon reading, I learn of many other areas which I relate to especially when I think about the way I wrote the first half of my own story.
I've always been meaning to update my "Discovering Japan" post when I eventually turned this company around - we've just passed the turning point but still have a lot of ground to cover.
As for reading - it's difficult to make time to read when I'm in Japan so I end up doing much of my reading when travelling - which is why you will see me with this book all the time ^^;
Time to head off again - this time to Sydney. I usually hand carry my girls who always get a free x-ray.
My old carry-on was about to bite the dust so got a new one which is the Proteca Maxpass H - it has a front compartment that allows me to quickly whip out my MacBook Air.
Picked up another book at the airport - The Art Of Thinking Clearly was written in an easy to understand manner and I actually managed to get through half of it on the flight.
While much of the book covers concepts which are obvious, the author includes details on research which reinforces what we already know.
While I do prefer business class to economy mainly due to the reclining chairs (my spinal hernia plays up when sitting for too long), there are times when economy is prefered especially when you want to be left alone. I think that airlines feel that they need to dote over you due to the premium cost of the ticket but at times I would rather just get some shut eye.
Another example is that business class usually serves food on crockery too which is not exactly practical and takes ages to serve - unlike the trays that you get in economy class which are easy to whip in and out.
I've been living in Tokyo for about 16 years now and I've never seen so much rain. 2015 has been so wet that Meguro river nearly overflowed - many other parts of Japan were devastated due to the recent rain too.
This is my rain gear which looks odd but keeps the rest of me dry to and from the office.
There are a few sushi joints in our neck of the woods. Some do better than others - then some do so well that other sushi joints end up closing down because the new kid on the block is doing something new.
The new place is really nicely done up with some very traditional looking interior. They got the conveyor counter sushi and private tables for the family too where they can order side dishes on an iPad. The lighting is bright and the chefs call out to each other providing a lively atmosphere. There is always a queue to get in no matter what time you go.
This is an example of how companies get comfy with their current business model - they don't innovate or try anything new and before they know it - it's too late. The same can be said for the 1/3 scale doll industry - nothing new until Smart Doll came onto the block - since then our competitors have been proactively participating in events overseas and also decided to add similar Smart Doll joints to their products.
When running a business, it's always important to try to see into the future and innovate as much as possible - rather than wait for a competitor to start taking your market share pushing you out of your comfort zone to do something.
Many folks who start a business kid themselves in claiming that they don't have any competitors which is supposed to comfort investors. The fact is that acknowledging the existence of competitors is healthy for the business because it keeps you on your toes and should encourage you to innovate.
As my team continues to grow, the thing I struggle with the most is managing so many people. We have a great team of folks with ninja execution skills but I currently lack folks with people management skills.
Ideally I would have somebody who can run operations while I work on growing the business - it continues to be challenging doing both.
Networking has been key to building the company but I have not been doing as much as I should what with the hands-on production. I have been delegating as much work as possible but there are still some things I need to handle - for example I'm the only one who can speak Korean in the company which I use to work with some of our vendors who work on our apparel and wigs - Google Translate just does not cut it ^^
The development of Eiji is taking waaaay longer than anticipated - we had to resculpt the head, head cap and torso - then get them duplicated in wax and electromolded ;-;
When you start running a business, one thing you should prepare yourself for is to expect that things will never move as fast as you want - which includes people, services and time.
Never be disheartened though as this is just one of the plethora of hurdles that you will have to deal with.
To deal with the increased production, we got another ATOM printer. Prints can sometimes fail - the finer the print, the longer it will take and the higher chance of a failure there is.
We usually start both printers at the same time for an important print in the event one of them fails.
I've been working on these designs for a while and they are finally ready - I call them Casual Yukata.
From left to right - Kizuna is wearing Ajisai Blue, Mirai is wearing Nadeshiko Beige, Ivory is wearing Suzu Pink and Ebony is wearing Ougi Gold. I was going to release them this month but want to stock up the quantity a bit more so it will be October - they will be available on the Culture Japan Store.
Japanese traditional garments look great but one of the reasons why folks don't wear them on a daily basis is due to their impracticality. Yukata for example is usually down to the ankles and only enables pigeon steps - there are no pockets either.
These Casual Yukata enable ladies to wear them with either jeans or shorts providing more practicality and mobility on a daily basis.
This is Ebony Futaba - the first soft vinyl doll to be released in darker skin tone. It took me 5 months of production time from concept to release and I think she is just so awesomely cute! I've seen folks complain saying that Ebony should be darker - I say that I call her what I want and name her what I want cos I made it phnarr phnarr.
However I am in the middle of making an even darker skinned character called Harmony who I should be able to show off the first week of October.
My Brooks Pickwick rucksack started to break here and there - the zips broke and the straps started to fray. Got myself a Freitag Victor - I came across their brand from doing some Googling and I love what I found. Up until now I had been making bags from leather due to my background making shoes but I had no idea that one could make bags using tarpaulin too.
The great thing about tarpaulin is that it can be printed on - things like our mascot characters. I've been inspired to finally get working on something else that I've always wanted to do - make bags.
Wifey and I setting up booth at Fancy Frontier in Taipei. Some events are easy - some are not so easy. Fancy Frontier is one of the easier events as we just order a shell scheme and stick up our banners that we bring with us from Japan.
Events which involve complex booth construction and printing are the ones which come along with their fair share of... headaches. Sometimes the booth will come with footprints on the walls - sometimes there are no walls ^^;
Then after I got back from Taiwan, I spent two days sitting up on the 3rd floor prepping this post - my spinal hernia didn't like it and I woke up the following morning with the most pain I've ever felt in my entire life - I thought last time was bad but this was just horrible to the point where I was biting my pillow and screaming into it. I eventually started to punch the walls too. I had no idea how I was going to get through the pain. None of the painkillers I had worked either and the TENS (electrical therapy) unit did nothing.
Wifey took me to the hospital to get an epidural injection in the spine to alleviate the pain and I layed in bed for a week. The pain was so bad I could not sit at all and if it wasn't for the washlet we had at home, I could not even wipe my botty properly.
Laying in bed for a week not being able to do anything has you thinking a lot about stuff - and studying too about my condition - Sciatica - pain that runs down the Sciatic Nerve which is caused by a bulging or herniated disc.
I want to share my knowledge about the condition with others so will write up a different post on the subject.
I would like to thank the folks who have been sending me messages of encouragement and also thought that I would mention that during the same period, I continued to get messages from others who complained about how I "let the Culture Japan brand die" by working on Smart Doll and failing to update the site.
In life there will always be folks out there who don't understand so don't waste time explaining yourself because people who support you don't need to hear it - and people who hate you won't want to listen anyway.