How our SaaS startup broke into the Japanese market without a physical presence
Breaking into Japan is often one of the biggest challenges a growing tech company will encounter. The country is home to some of the world’s most advanced software and hardware leaders. For the startups that cater to these companies, “cracking Japan” is inevitably part of their growth and expansion roadmaps.
But the barriers to entry are high. From language and culture differences to the need to tailor offerings for a Japanese audience, many early-stage tech companies write off Japan as impossible or too difficult to break into, even if the country is inevitably part of their growth and expansion roadmap.
In 2014, our company attracted its first Japanese client when we were featured on product discovery platform Product Hunt. While this initial awareness got us on users’ radar, awareness alone wasn’t enough to sustain and grow a reliable pipeline. We grew this initial interest to 400+ of our highest paying clients over the past eight years by making community — both virtual and in-person — central to our offering and our approach to relationship-building, all without having a dedicated presence in the county.
As a SaaS company with a community-led growth model, our journey to breaking into Japan might be different to companies with other models, but the core tenets remain the same. Here’s what we learned along the way.
Follow the first user(s)
The tech community in Japan is extremely active and interconnected, so a single customer can play a disproportionately large role in facilitating your expansion there. Our experience is that if the first users like it, they’ll be your number one ambassadors. If they don’t, their indifference will also speak volumes. With this in mind, your product should be ready for prime time before you begin working with Japanese prospects. Japan is not a testing ground for MVP products.
As much as companies want to “be in Japan,” they don’t always spend enough time in the country.
Once you have even the smallest amount of traction or market adoption, consider setting up Japanese-language mention tracking. It can be surprising how quickly – and publicly – word about good technology will proliferate through social channels.
Our first user was a developer at one of Japan’s largest emerging tech companies. As Bitrise began spreading throughout his organization, we began seeing a number of new customers organically popping up at other companies as well.
Through our mention tracking service (we use Mention.com), we were able to see how the user adoption we were experiencing directly correlated with local discussions about us on social media.