Starting a small business in Japan: selling products
As you know I got my start in the business world designing and sewing bags for children. My label Mee a Bee is reasonably well-known among crafty types in Japan but a funny thing about it is that most people do not know who runs it. I've been a sewing hermit, that's why!
I designed the business so that it would be flexible to run at any hour of the day, around my kids' schedules. I still run it that way as it's pretty much on auto-pilot these days while I focus on building up my consulting firm. I check the emails in the morning. Sew and/or package orders before my ten o'clock appointments then dash to the post office at lunchtime.
What kinds of things do you struggle with in your product-based business? That are unique to being an expat? I'd like to shed some light on these topics.
Getting supplies from overseas will soon become prohibitively expensive so it's worth doing some research to find local suppliers or buying cooperatives. My business Mee a Bee, despite doing well, never made it to the level of sales where it warranted setting up wholesale buying accounts. I still buy fabric from my local store or online via Rakuten or directly from the store online.
One exception is the strapping that I use for my bags. I go through vast quantities of strapping and found this to be a huge cost in each bag. I searched for months on google to find a supplier who had what I wanted. I was lucky too that he was willing to deal with me in English, via email and would sell me fairly low quantities whenever I needed him to. Finding his business was really a matter of trial and error. Another good thing - he accepts payment via online banking. It couldn't be easier. I found it by searching using a Japanese dictionary online, trying all different search queries and clicking all the links. It was exhausting and frustrating but paid off in the end. If I were to do this again I would hire someone to do it for me.
The other major expense I incur is in packaging materials. I know a lot of crafters here simply buy their supplies from the 100yen shop. That soon gets very expensive not to mention time-consuming traipsing down there all the time. The biggest time and money-saver I discovered was Askul the office supply firm. I set up an account fairly easily on my own with them - online. They did call me initially to confirm a couple of details, namely the nature of my business, but it's been plain sailing with them for years.
A couple of points to note about Askul. They require a fax machine to verify that you are in business however these days they rarely use faxes. Payment is made on monthly account, up to a month after you order. Unless you order over 30,000 yen worth, then payment is required straight away. They send an invoice in a separate envelope with a convenience store payment slip. Easy peasy! You can order 24 hours a day but delivery is only made on weekdays and usually via Sagawa. A signature or hanko stamp is required to receive packages. Inside the packages you will find a packing slip but it's not an invoice and requires no action. Wait for the invoice in the mail.
I buy in bulk: packing tape, boxes, bubble envelopes, clear plastic bags, hangtags, marking pens, ink for the printer, paper. Also coffee and tea for the classes I run at Chatty Cafe. The catalogue is about 800 pages long so it's like being a kid in a candy store for me. Beware that not everything is cheap but the bulk packaging materials are. Plus if you like being able to order at midnight then you will love it.
You cannot beat Japan post for efficiency and speed of delivery. I have NEVER had a delayed or lost package in eight years (touch wood). I do take special care to securely fasten my packages closed. And to write the address carefully and accurately.
Most of my parcels are gifts for the kids who receive them so I can use the 'green label' CN22 and send the packages via the small parcel/airmail option. It's very cheap. And fast.
The thing that trips people up when dealing with the post office is the 'sometimes' difficult staff at there. All I can say is to persevere at the same post office branch so you get to know the staff. At my local, just 5 minutes bike ride away, the staff all know me. They are speedy and efficient at ringing up the amount on the cash register, franking the stamp. I no longer get the third-degree about what I am sending or why. In fairness to them, they are just doing their jobs. There are strict rules and severe penalties for sending illegal or dangerous items so I can understand why they have to ask. Like I said, now they know me, and they know that I know what's allowed or not. Generally speaking I only send "handmade children's bags" so they're cool with that.
Here's a tip - ask them if you can have some extra 'green labels' to take home so you can save time in the queue by filling it out at home. They happily give me a sheet or two whenever I need them.
If you are sending parcels via EMS it is also possible to pre-register and have the post office send you the labels pre-printed with your address - another timesaver. I found this on the Japan Post website a few years ago. Not sure if they still do it but check it out. It might be under the option for business users.
And lastly I ordered an inexpensive address stamp from vistaprint which saves me having to write out my own return address every time.
These timesaving tips were a godsend when I was having to prepare everything with my toddler underfoot. And I run a tight ship when it comes to keeping my operating expenses low in order to maximise profits. I suggest you do the same.
I probably have tons of other tips garnered from eight years in business. If you would like to pick my brain just get in touch! I am happy to share any words of wisdom.