"Tokyo's market potential is as great as New York and London" Paul Chapman, CEO of Moneytree ｜ TOKYO Dream Vol. 2
Japan: Part of my life since childhood
Looking at Japan as a whole, foreign nationals are rare as company presidents. This is no wonder, as out of 3,578,000 companies conducting business in Japan (as of June 2016), only 27,249 have foreign nationals as presidents (as of 2019; based on the number of business management visas issued). This is about 0.76% of the total.
While foreign residents of Japan number 2,885,904 (as of the end of June 2020), foreign nationals account for only about 2% of entrepreneurs in Japan. One of these entrepreneurs is Paul Chapman, who launched a venture in Tokyo and now serves as the CEO of Moneytree KK, a company with roots in Japan. For Chapman, Japan has been a target of interest from childhood onward.
"Since I was a child, Sony, Sega, and Nintendo were part of my life. When the Japanese historical TV drama Saiyuki (Journey to the West) became popular in Australia, my interest in Japan grew even more."
Technology (games) and entertainment were Chapman's entranceway. However, his reason for deciding to study Japanese is a bit surprising.
"My grandfather could speak five languages, while I only knew English. I wasn't happy about that, so I decided to take on Japanese, a language difficult for Westerners."
For Westerners, the hurdle of reading and writing kanji is a high one, and so learning Japanese is said to be difficult. However, Chapman overcame that barrier by studying abroad for a year after graduating from high school and a year while in university, as well as through his innate "inherited ability for language."
"I visited Tokyo for the first time while studying abroad as a university student. There were skyscrapers and a lot of people wandering around the streets. I still remember the energy of the scene."
Hailing from Australia, Chapman encountered a lot of surprising sights. Australia has about 20 times the land area of Japan, but at just over 25 million people has only about one-fifth of Japan's population.
"Tokyo is by no means spacious, but it had everything. It's full of options for food, for education, and for business. The more I got to know the city, the more I was taken by its charms, and eventually I wanted to start a business in Japan someday."
Finding business opportunities in the size of Japan's market
There are other global cities, but Tokyo held greater appeal in Chapman's eyes.
"First of all, it is a safe place and Tokyo has more options than New York and London in a number of areas. In other words, it is an environment where you can design the lifestyle you want. There is a term 'work-life balance.' For me this means valuing both, not choosing between work and home. I thought that this sort of life would be possible in Japan."
With that in mind, Chapman started a business in Australia to gain experience, then sold the business. He then worked as an IT senior manager for a Japanese recruitment company, during which he learned Japanese business etiquette including bowing, exchanging business cards, and became familiar with sales in Japan and Japanese business contracts. All he needed to start a business in Japan was an idea.
"In Japan, the iPhone came out in 2008, and took the world by storm. I felt that smartphones were about to become the center of our lives, and saw a business opportunity in application development."
But how did Chapman come to pursue the development of Moneytree, a personal financial management app?
"For some time, Japan's digitalization has been lagging behind the world. Bank ATMs were unusable from early evening; it wasn't possible to even check account balances. At the same time, Japan has a large number of banks and a huge market. I thought that if we could succeed with a financial app, we could make a big impact."
Household budgeting books are familiar to people in Japan, but whether an app for personal financial management would find acceptance was another matter.
"In Japan, there is the idea of omotenashi (hospitality). Our app was developed with the same spirit in mind. First, it is simple and easy to use. The intuitive and easy-to-use User Interface features common to the Sony and Nintendo game products that I was familiar with since childhood are reflected in this. Next, we pay heed to privacy issues. Finally, we build everything from the user's perspective."
The result was an app that is security-conscious, easy to use, and ad-free, with high usability. A year after its release, the app was selected by Apple for the "Best of 2013" award for iPhone.
"I didn't expect to win the award, so it was really an honor. The moment I heard that we'd won, I was too surprised to move."
Kind Japanese people who supported the business
This Tokyo-based venture company with a "foreigner" as its CEO initially had difficulty gaining opportunities to make contact with major companies.
"Still, there were people who acknowledged us, and a lot of kind Japanese people supported us. We got introductions to the right person at a major financial institution, and received support in a lot of ways."
The Moneytree app has features that allow users to connect to their financial institution accounts to check their balances and transactions within the app. The support from people in Japan was largely due to the fact that building this system was not easy to create. Users not only appreciated the technology but also the opening of the app's unique technology as a platform, leading to even more supporters.
"I understand people in Japan think of me as a foreigner. Still, I think of myself as an insider, not an outsider living in Japan. That is why I always want to make a contribution to Japan and be of help to others, and so I wanted to contribute to the expansion of the market and the economy by making Moneytree's technology accessible as a platform."
Hoping to give back to Japan by growing Moneytree
Currently, half of the company's employees are foreign nationals. Chapman says that everyone there works with the wish to contribute to the Japanese society.
"I think every foreigner working in Tokyo has some dreams about Tokyo, myself included. My dream is to make more people aware of Moneytree. I want people in Japan to know that there are foreigners and Japanese working together with a serious desire to contribute to this country. That is the sort of potential and charm that this country and Tokyo have."
Chapman says that this stems from his own experiences. "In the past, I've struggled to find somewhere to live in Japan for the reason of being a foreigner. At that time, I thought the first step to solving the problem would be to make people aware of what kind of people we foreigners are. If we could better understand each other, more foreigners might consider starting a business in Japan, and that would be great for everyone."
"In terms of my private life, my wife is Japanese and we have two children, so I often feel thankful to Japan and to Tokyo. For that reason, growing Moneytree and making people's lives better is a way for me to give back to Japan. I want Moneytree to keep moving forward as a startup born in Tokyo."