Seeking for differentiation in a tough market, Airweave found an angle difficult to tackle. Olympic Athletes have confirmed the benefit of the product. Mr. Motokuni Takaoka, President of Nippon Kouatsu Electric Co. Ltd. And Chairman and CEO of Airweave Inc. speaks to The Worldfolio.
Despite certain hints of economic re-growth expected in 2016, the impact of Abenomics is still debatable and has fallen short of expectations. With some structural issues remaining to be addressed such as the ageing population and decreasing workforce the government is now launching Abenomics 2.0 to generate growth and solidify the economic recuperation by 2020. From your point of view could you tell us how you see the Japanese economy?
Japan has gone through many changes since the Second World War; the first signs of economic growth came in the sixties and seventies when we were massively exporting to the world any kind of goods. In the eighties innovation and technology from Japan took the world by surprise, and thanks to our technology we transformed what an expensive item was, such as TV, to a commodity. Today, that eighties technology does not play a leading role anymore, as the internet became more important for global growth, the Japanese economy come to a stagnation. Abenomics cannot change the trend of regression and the decrease of population. Finding new research fields is the chance Japan has to be big again. From the turn of the millennium until now every couple of years, Japanese scientists are awarded a Nobel Prize. Many corporations, big ones like Toyota are sponsoring these researches because they understand innovation as key to success.
What are the main challenges an investor faces when starting a new business in Japan? Do you think enough is done to support entrepreneurship in Japan? What are the key reforms you would like to see to improve the business environment of Japan? What needs to be done to create a Japanese Silicon Valley?
I had a very entrepreneurial vision since my days in Silicon Valley, I was very lucky to go to the United States after graduating in the Business School, and seeing by myself all the work done by all the multinational teams. I understood the power of innovation from the heart of the technology industry, and I said to myself, this is the way to build things, through innovation. An investor or someone creating a startup has to be smart enough to see the necessity of the people. From my days at Silicon Valley I started thinking that we spend a lot of our lives sleeping, so instead of going out and being another mattress manufacturer, I decided to come with a smarter idea adding value to a product. That is how Airweave was born.
When I started Airweave, I did a lot of research, taken from the scientists who studied the sleeping process, adding value to the product. Advanced materials make you feel the mattress is great, but they also assure a well-rested night, improving our performance the following day, making us feel invigorated and refreshed. The result is a good balance between mental and physical well-being.
Entrepreneurship come as a sign of the times. In my case, I had the opportunity to take over a nearly bankrupt company that used to make fishing nets from my uncle. I had a great challenge in my hands and was successful in turning the situation around converting it into a brand new company that today contributes to society by providing a product for a better sleep. And that could only be done with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, that was the engine that made it happen.
From the perspective of Nippon Kouatsu Electric Co., what have been the energy policies’ greatest successes and where do you see need for improvement? How would you evaluate the need to go global and what has been the strategy for each company?
It might seem that there is no connection between Nippon Kouatsu and Airweave, but actually, there is. In both cases, we are working on infrastructure, in the case of Nippon Kouatsu, we are talking about social infrastructure, in the case of Airweave, is people’s living infrastructure. Being global is key for Japanese companies, and is something that was very clear from the beginning and we developed in both companies; we have to be global in order to succeed.
The de-regulation of the energy market came in the nineties. Once I went back to Japan and was working for my father’s company, I had the opportunity to meet a representative of an energy corporation that was doing the same as my father’s company was doing in Japan, so we had an interview with them and I learnt some strategies that later were used at Nippon Kouatsu when it started their globalization process. To make a country go global does not mean just having overseas presence but also making it multinational in its core. Our company solid market it’s Japan with a total of 80% of revenue. We have interest in China, Vietnam and Myanmar, and half of our staff are working overseas, so in that sense we have gone global.
From Airweave’s point of view the global perspective started from the marketing and research departments. In this industry with tough competition, we sought to differentiate ourselves with prestigious international institutions endorsing the quality and benefits of our products. We promote an excellent product through excellent ambassadors, the Olympians. Olympians are serious about sleeping, they train hard and they expect the best when they are going to bed, they are serious about it.
Talking about Airweave’s operations. How have you managed to make a case for yourself in the bedding industry portraying yourself as an innovative company?
The main difficulty of portraying Airweave as an innovative company in this sector is the customers approach to buying a mattress. People in Japan and in other countries select their mattress of choice only by touching not by sleeping on them.
I am so confident about the benefits of my product that I managed to get Stanford University interested in developing a study about the effects of high and low rebound mattress pads on sleep and athletic performance.
We don’t normally think about how a good or bad night’s sleep affects us the following day, so I decided I would approach Olympians because they are among the most demanding customers in the world. They take sleep very seriously, since they train hard every day and can’t afford to have a bad night’s sleep. The study among young athletes concluded that the Airweave mattress (a high rebound mattress with a breathable structure) induces effective heat loss and enhances deep sleep. With this in mind Olympians have been trying it and choosing it. Airweave has become an indispensable item for their rest and recovery, this mattress is now an essential part of their routine.
The results of this study had also made its echo among regarded institutions like the Opéra national de Paris.
Airweave has been supporting Olympic athletes since 2008. At last year’s Rio Olympic Games, we supplied nearly 3,000 mattresses to top athletes from six countries: the US, Japan, Australia, Germany, China, and Taiwan. Around 31% of all Rio 2016 medalists—and 36% of gold medalists—came from these teams. We are very proud that top performers are choosing Airweave more and more.
We are serious about providing a good night’s sleep, and on top of our unique products, we have developed an application, which tracks the sleep quality, and helps be aware of how good or bad we are sleeping.
Constant innovation is key to success, so we launched a scaled up version of our top mattress making it thicker. Now the clients have the option to improve their own mattress by adding the Airweave top mattress, or get a new Airweave mattress. We want to educate people on their sleeping habits, trying to deliver the best possible experience to our customers.
Where do you see Airweave in the future?
I would like Airweave to become the leader of innovation in the mattress sector. There are too many manufacturers doing the same thing in this industry and I knew Airweave had to be positioned differently.
We understand the difficulty we have, as Japanese society to communicate. It’s not part of our culture, we are far from the technical ability for sales and marketing the Americans have. Recognizing our weaknesses makes us stronger because we can search for a solution to it. We understand that each country has its culture and peculiarities, and our strategy is to find the right partner in each country where we are present, in order to adapt to the local needs. That’s the approach we would like to have in the American market too. The same way we have found the right local partner in other countries, we would like to find it in the USA, to better communicate the attributes of the product to the US audience. At the end of the day we want our partners to deliver the same message as us: Tomorrow starts tonight.