Originally compiled in Japanese and posted on Touch-Base.

We sat down with Yoko, the former Japanese Country Manager at Noom Inc. and now the founder and CEO of AVANT GARDE, a fashion e-commerce company that creates versatile, timeless basics that can keep a woman’s closet minimal and inspiring. To take a closer look at how she had successfully spearheaded development in Japanese markets in a short period of time, being cognizant of the fact that Japan is one of the toughest markets to tackle, we went behind the scenes to hear about her success.

About Yoko:
Having worked in a variety of corporate giants in Japan like Rakuten and Google as an account developer and marketing specialist, she moved down to New York to start her new career. After that, she landed a job at a healthcare start-up in New York, Noom Inc. as Japan Country Manager with the responsibility of developing a Japanese market. In the first year at Noom, she successfully developed the user base from zero to win Google’s Best App. Along with its significant success, she was promoted to Director of Growth and Strategy where she was in charge of customer acquisition. Recently, she has been working on launching her own fashion start-up, AVANT GARDE.

About Noom Inc.:
Noom Inc., a leader in mobile health coaching, combines the power of technology with the empathy of real human coaches to deliver successful behavior change at scale. Noom’s direct-to-consumer weight loss and exercise tracking mobile applications have reached more than 45 million users worldwide.
Reference: Noom Linkedin

Left Google to Pursue Her Dream

Before anything, I would like to know why you decided to leave Google and to move to New York.

The reason was simply because I got inspired by the energy happening in New York when I visited in New York. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. However, I didn’t want to go to New York without serious career prospects.

At that time, I got a job offer from Google and decided to take the opportunity in hopes that my dream would come true by being transferred to a branch in the US.

However, it turns out that it takes a while to make it happen, given that Google is a big company.
Thinking that it’s faster for me to make a move rather than wait for it, I eventually decided to go to New York on my own.

From The Ground Up, Developing Japan Markets

Could you tell me about when you started working at Noom?

I joined Noom as Japan Country Manager. Before I joined, there hadn’t been such a thing as a Japan team at Noom. Even after we launched the Noom app in Japan, there were only 2 members: myself and an intern on the Japan team.

Like other start-ups, we didn’t have any budget to run advertising or to use resources outside so we had to acquire users organically.

How exactly did you obtain users?

First of all, we focused on traffic. No matter how great product it is, without awareness and traffic, users won’t increase.

One of things we did was to reach out to media for PR including not only healthcare media and female targeted media, but also tech media when something occurs related to investment and partnership. In order to build a strong relationship with the media outlets, we provided editors with unbiased content that worked for them and included products that were not our own. On top of that, we partnered with Lawson as well as other media and service providers who share similar target audiences for the promotional campaign.

Reference: PR TIMES

Reference: ITmedia

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that it’s important to keep things going and not to give up early. The continuous effort ended up bringing interviews from the mass media.

You mean you reached out to mass media?

No, I meant it indirectly led to TV interviews.
Of course, we didn’t have a contact list of mass media from the beginning and accumulated the list by continuing to share content to public. Particularly when it comes to interviews from the mass media, it has something to do with luck.

Makes sense.

We also focused on localization into Japanese.

With the limited resources we had, we had to use universal functions for all users among all regions and languages, meaning we couldn’t localize the functionality to Japan. For that reason, we focused on localizing just the content.

The 2 major things that we localized were:
Communication and content focus
Search Index

First off, we adjusted communications for Japanese users.

When it comes to the user demographics of those on a diet, it’s different between the US and Japan.
In Japan, a diet is generally associated with beauty and the majority (70 – 80%) of users are female. In the US, on the other hand, a diet is usually associated with serious health issues such as diabetes and the 40 – 50% of users are male. Given that, we added tips and content that Japanese females liked.

We also changed the tone of voice to make it more polite for Japanese users.

I see.

Second of all, we kept improving the index for the app.

Japanese is a complicated language that has 3 forms of writing: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. There also are a couple of ways to explain one object. Rice ball, for instance, can be written as “Onigiri” and “Omusubi”. We carefully kept monitoring search logs and added the synonyms to the app accordingly. And we also developed additional functionality that allowed users to report items missing in the app.

In addition, what we have for certain situations is different between Japan and the US. For example, people in the US have granola as a snack, but it’s not common in Japan and we replaced it with another healthy snack.

It might sound a bit too focused on the details, but it’s easy to be stressed while on a diet, so we wanted to make sure that they can easily find the items they are looking for, even if it’s a tiny piece.

Switched from B2C To B2B Market

In order to accelerate developing Japan Market, we switched to cultivating the B2B market.

In Japan, there are a lot of initiatives to decrease medical costs by the government and by enterprises and thus there is a high demand for solutions like Noom to prevent disease.

For example, there is a healthcare program for someone who is diagnosed with obesity or prediabetes to join to improve their health. Noom has been scientifically proved by many clinical tests and can deliver the results to a wide range of people at a reasonable price, which is required by enterprises. Thus, it makes sense for Noom to penetrate the B2B market.

So does this mean you reached out to clinics?

Yes, we also reached enterprises.

In Japan, increasingly there have been enterprises who own an in-house healthcare department since the importance of prevention in healthcare was spotted several years ago. When we started, a lot of Japanese companies were wondering how US companies work on healthcare. We held seminars to share the tips and to propose how they could utilize Noom to do that.

It sounds like you had to educate them first. I’m assuming it might take you a long time to start picking up business opportunities there?

Right. But it wasn’t that tough for Noom to start picking up the B2B business opportunities. First of all, Noom was well-known in the healthcare sector as we had won Google’s Best App award before we jumped into the B2B market. Second of all, by that time, there were many competitors who proposed similar disease prevention programs in the arena. We rarely had to explain the concept from the ground up.

What was more challenging was that we had to enlighten our internal management team on how Japanese businesses work. The difference in business culture between the US and Japan becomes more noticeable when you nurture B2B relationships.

Let’s say in the US, it’s common that you start projects with someone who you’ve never seen in person by using a conference call or email. In Japan, on the other hand, you have to meet in person first. On top of that, the decision making process is usually much longer: starting off with exchanges of industry updates to get to know each other and having multiple meetings to build a relationship before getting down to business. Other than that, seals are more used than signatures to sign a contract in Japan, etc… These are all small things, but when added all up, a lot of unnecessary time is wasted.

While these are just examples, I learned the importance of communicating with management teams closely and getting them to understand Japanese cultural norms in business as a country manager.

Image: Outing with the US team

Bottom Line

I’ve rarely seen such a successful Japan Country Manager like Yoko and it was fascinating to see how she pulled it off. Through this interview, I’ve learned that no matter what situation you are in, it’s important to keep going at whatever you are doing until it works out.

Thanks, Yoko!