If there is any business that typifies the new forward-thinking, outward-looking mindset of Japan Inc., it is DMM.com
Founded by Keishi Kameyama in 1999, DMM.com began as an online entertainment provider, but has since diversified into a wide range of high-tech businesses, including online retail, robotics, online English-language learning, 3D printing services, cloud sourcing services, virtual reality theaters, solar panels and online financial services.
“At the very beginning we started with video rentals, and went from there to DVD sales,” recalls Mr. Kameyama, who is also the company’s Chairman. “We saw the writing on the wall, and thought that video rentals were at some point going to disappear. We moved to other things online.”
Mr. Kameyama and DMM.com’s success has stemmed in part from his willingness to take risks and try his hand at anything he believes can be profitable. “Essentially, we have been following the trends, and picking up what we thought would be popular or is becoming popular with the Internet. We do not have any hang ups in terms of business sectors.”
Having lost out to the likes of the U.S., Europe and South Korea in recent years, Japan has been trying to rediscover its innovative edge. DMM.com has been at the forefront of this innovation drive since it launched in 2014 its business incubator, DMM.make Akiba, which helps budding Japanese inventors and entrepreneurs develop and commercialize their ideas.
This $9.5 million, state-of-the-art facility in Tokyo has more than 150 machines for hardware production, such as 3D printers, testing devices for acquiring public certification for electric appliances, and platforms for mass production. By paying a small monthly fee, members of the incubator can also receive guidance on how to start and develop a business. Some of the innovative products that have been developed in the DMM.make incubator include a prosthetic robotic arm for amputees, and FOVE, the world’s first virtual reality headset with intuitive eye tracking.
“DMM.make is basically a high-end workshop for people to develop and innovate,” Mr. Kameyama explains.
“We want to facilitate the younger people to create something new, noble, and innovative. Through our format, we turn young motivated people into the protagonists, give them power to make something new, and we are going to augment their weak points by funding them. We are going to help them with the legal side, the logistics of shipping, the sales channel and then things such as patents.”
“They are going to facilitate connections with venture capitalists to secure capital. Once capital is secured, they are looking to make money through mass productions by facilitating mass production locations such as China, and pioneer sales channels in the U.S., India, and Dubai.”
Products developed at the incubator are also sold online at the DMM.make store, giving members direct access to customers around the world. Some of the products sold on the online store include aluminum water and dust-proof LEDs, smartphone parts and accessories, a four-wheel carry-on suitcase with mobile batteries, and a 10-watt Bluetooth speaker.
While it is helping startups to take their products worldwide through its incubator, DMM.com itself, like many other Japanese companies, is shifting its focus from the domestic to the global market, and in particular untapped markets like the countries in Africa.
Launched in September 2015, the DMM.Africa project aims to support governments and private companies in African countries by providing them with Japanese high-tech solutions, and Mr. Kameyama hopes it will become one of the pillars of the DMM.com business. The company plans to recruit a globalized team to lead its intelligence-gathering mission, to look for new business ventures and opportunities on the continent, across a range of sectors.
For the risk-taking DMM.com boss, this African venture is a case of “throwing things at the wall to see what sticks”.
“We are sending people to seek different market opportunities. They will be gone for two or three months. They can do logistics, construction, or agriculture, but the idea is to do something new. There is no specific mission,” he explains.
“Once something sticks or gains traction, then we will allocate a budget. We will dedicate staff to the project. The U.S. is more of a mature market however. This Africa initiative, just like DMM.make, will be in the red for probably five years. If this can be something profitable then it can become the core of the business.”
DMM.com also hopes to introduce and commercialize in Africa some of the innovative products developed at its Tokyo incubator. Earlier this year it held a ‘DMM.make Akiba’ exhibition for African diplomats in Japan. The high-tech products showcased at the event were well received by the attendees, one of whom commented on their “potential for various kinds of business development, and perhaps for the future of the African market”.
Entering the African market is a pioneering move for a Japanese firm. Being one of the first companies there on the ground will give DMM.com an advantage as more Japanese companies follow suit, Mr. Kameyama believes.
“We feel there is business opportunity in Africa because not many Japanese people or companies have gone there yet. It is very uncommon. So, because there are not many of us there it is easy to meet with country leaders.”
“We are early to Africa. I imagine in a few years there will be a lot more people there, and there will not be the same opportunities as there are now. If we are there first, then when the major Japanese companies come we can teach them, solve their problems, advise them, and create opportunities for ourselves.”
But while DMM.com is focused on bringing more of its innovative solutions abroad, it hasn’t been neglecting things on the domestic front. The company is active in robotics and solar power – industries which are charged with developing products that can help address some of Japan’s biggest issues, such as energy security, an aging population and a shrinking workforce.