June 13, 2021


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Web Localization Startup in Japan Eliminates Borders to Create an Internet for Everyone

Minimal Technologies is a tech start-up based in Tokyo with the mission to “localize the world’s websites and create an internet for everyone”. Its main business now is a web localization service named WOVN.io. Started in 2014, WOVN.io has supported over 10,000 businesses to reach out to international users by bringing their websites from one language to multiple languages in just minutes by adding only one line of code. Minimal Technologies stakes its success and global vision in the ability to bring in engineers who are from different cultures but sharing the same passion into its office. We had a chance to talk to Jeffrey Sandford, Minimal Technologies’ CTO, to learn more about building a startup in Japan and managing in a multicultural environment. This is part 1 in the 2-part interview.

1 — Building a global startup in Japan: Multiculturalism as the common ground

Adventure on a unique path

Why did you decide to focus on web localization business in Japan?
Actually, my co-founder, Takaharu Hayashi, is the one that came up with all the concept and everything and then he was looking for somebody like me. Somebody who’s either a foreigner or had experience living outside of Japan, who spoke English and Japanese, and an engineer. He had this great idea of using a concept similar to A/B testing in Optimizely to switch between languages. We started creating the actual service called WOVN.io. I think it’s a great fit for myself and him because we’re from different countries with different languages and I think it is really important to create a multicultural and multilingual environment for this kind of company.
Initially, I came to Japan because I wanted the opportunity to live outside of my home country and try something different. I always like studying languages and Japanese is so different from English so I thought that was really interesting. Also, my friend studied abroad in Osaka and I came to visit him and I had a good time so I decided to come back (laugh).
Coming up with, developing it and nurturing a startup idea into a successful product is a difficult process. Not everyone can do it. So how did you make it?
Well, I feel like we haven’t made it yet, we’re still working on it (laugh). I mean it’s an ongoing process for start-up, right? We’ve got to make it to the next court and to the next court. We’re not worried about going out of business, but of course, we’re always trying to improve. How we got to this point would probably be a combination of things. I would say to really focus on what type of solution you want to build. A localization solution is simple enough. But from there where do you go? Creating a solution that is not done by anybody else or not done in the same way. Having a unique direction in your solution is very important. You can feel like ‘We’re never going to make it’ but you just have to focus on what you’re doing and keep on going and I think those are the two most important things. It’s a growing experience (laugh).

Started in Japan with a global aim

What do you see as the biggest challenge to do a startup in Japan and what do you think about the startup environment in Japan?
If I were to compare it to for example Silicon Valley, the main differences are that there’s not as much money here, as there is in the US. There’s so many companies or an entire industry just built around funding startups. Whereas the ecosystem for investment here isn’t as established as it is in Silicon Valley although it’s gotten better. Also, culturally in Japan, people are less likely to want to join a start-up or smaller company. When I was growing up I didn’t want to work with a big company because I felt like I would just be one number, but if you work for a smaller company, you’re a more significant face. But at the same time, you get the positives, because the type of people that you hire at a startup are the people who are very committed to that type of company. Because they’re intentionally going for this different experience. Another thing is that we have to continuously focus on not building a Japanese company but a global company in Japan. One of the ways we’ve done that is by intentionally hiring, especially our engineers, about half of them are foreigners, half of them Japanese. It’s important to keep all of those different ways of speaking, and different experiences, different histories in the company because it’s part of the company’s DNA. It really has an effect on how you approach the problems you come across.
“Any time you create a new feature or have a new idea, you want to get everybody’s input and the opportunity to receive input from people from all over the world from within our office, without having people to go do studies or anything is unmeasurable. And having these people at the office reminds everybody that we’re focusing on more than just here, we’re focusing on the whole world. You know, they also want to see their family and friends know about it, they want to see the company in their home country as well. So it’s a constant reminder. It encourages us to continue.”

Multiculturalism as the common ground

Do you see any similarities in the business culture or work culture between Japan and your country?

Yes, definitely, especially for engineers. For example, when we try Agile development we use a methodology called Scrum. If we use it in our company, we have to stick to its rules and the structure and it works fine for everyone. It’s really created to be the most efficient way for engineers to work so I think every engineer will be happy to work in that environment. It doesn’t matter where they are from, Japan, Europe, America, they’re all in a way interested in this same thing, they all have the same desires, they want to have the freedom to make choices so it doesn’t really change that much when it comes to engineers.

If you can take one thing from your culture to bring to Japan, what would you take?

I would say learning on the go is something that can be very valuable. In Japan, people want to learn everything and then do it. Learning just what you need and doing it while you’re learning more, I think, is a great way to do a lot of things. There’s definitely some great positives to having all things planned out. But there are some things you couldn’t really determine what’s going to happen so sometimes it’s best to just do what you can and just do it.

And what would you take from Japanese culture to bring back to the US?

It’s so hard. There’s a lot. The attention to the quality and really caring about creating a solution that always works for the user is something that I think is great about Japan. They always focus on creating the best experience. The users have a really high standard for quality. If there’s just one bug, you’re going to hear about it, which is great. Another one is the people’s sense of responsibility. I feel like people here take much more ownership over what they’re doing and their responsibility to complete it correctly.

{Tech Box} AI in Web Localization

The Japanese language is very difficult and complex. Your service is now allowing for both machine translation and human translation. Do you see any technological development in the near future that would allow you to cut the human element completely out of it?
Never. For stuff like marketing or branding, even if the machine translation can do it well, the cultural nuances are very difficult, even for the translator. For example, if you were to look at our website in English and Japanese, we don’t even advertise the same way, nor say the same thing. That’s where I think it breaks down because you got to have a human who can make the decision that ‘Ok, this market doesn’t care about this feature, they do care more about this, we’re going to write a different thing here.’ So that’s why there will always be a human element.

Do you have any plan to adopt AI in the future?

Yes, we do actually. We have some plans to do projects focusing on the AI aspect. Most websites these days are very dynamic. The texts are not always the same, it might change by day or change to put the most popular article on top. So being able to detect and anticipate the contents that will be on that page are part of what we want to do with AI. We’re not planning on trying to build Google Translate because that’s a huge endeavor, that’s not easy to do. What we can do is offering some really useful help for our users to translate better — more of a translation assistance. And that would require a lot of work on AI or natural language processing. Another thing is detecting what kind of website they are working with so we can say ‘this is the website that sells shoes and when you’re selling shoes in Japanese, you want to use these kinds of words’. I can talk about AI for a long time. (laugh) There’s a lot of things that we haven’t done yet but we’re gearing up. …To be continued…
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Also published on Medium.


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