How your mobile is morphing into a modern compass
Neeraj Jhanji, President, ImaHima Inc
The office of ImaHima is the impressively modern Ebisu Garden Place Tower. The area is a stone’s throw from Shibuya and a largely residential spot where the rents are sky high and the apartments fabulous.
Neeraj Jhanji had worked at consulting company Andersen Consulting Strategic Services in Tokyo for five years which helps explain why he speaks Japanese so well. From his warm manner and soft way of speaking, he seems a peaceful kind of guy. Yet he is succeeding in one of the toughest, most exciting businesses – mobile phone service.
ImaHima is Japanese and means “are you free now?” and is a perfect description of the company’s services.
It provides the framework for a mobile Internet community. By using its mobile phone service, subscribers can find their friends and exchange messages by phone or web interfaces.
Because of its uniqueness in Japan and the large number of i-mode subscribers, there are already more than 250,000 users of ImaHima since it started in December 2001.
But times are tough for businesses, especially tech-based ones, in Japan and the rest of the world. So how did Jhanji do it? JapanToday reporter Takanori Kobayashi asked Jhanji to let him in on a few trade secrets.
What is ImaHima’s company culture?
It’s very multi-cultural. I am from India and we have ten employees, who come from around the world including India, Japan, England, America, Russia, and Switzerland.
While we all have different backgrounds, cultures and points of view, there is a lot of respect. The office is also very open. There is no demarcation between us when we have meetings and people come and go from my office freely.
How did you come up with the idea for your service?
When I was working for Andersen I was having lunch one day and looking around at the people also eating in the restaurant. I wondered if any of my friends were nearby and whether I could lunch with them, I always carry a mobile and so did they.
Then I thought what if my phone told me where my friends were and I realized this was a good idea for a service.
How does your service work technically?
Users tells us where they are from a list, for example, Shibuya or Ebisu in Tokyo or say Sapporo in Hokkaido. We put the information into our databases on a web server, and show the pages displaying users’ locations. They can then be accessed and you can find your friends.
Who are your competitors?
There are so many companies providing different kinds of software on mobile phones but there is very little available telling you about location. I know one company in Israel, which has the same kind of the service we do. I don’t think many companies provide services to keep in touch with friends on mobile phones.
How does the company make money?
When using ImaHima through i-mode, you pay monthly but you get extra services like sending greeting cards. You can use the location service for free by using your PC or a mobile phone. I want to keep it easy for users to experience ImaHima.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Managing the company itself is a challenge for me. In between creating products, hiring people and building relationships there’s a lot to do. The most difficult part for me is figuring out not only how to create interesting products but also how to make them valuable parts of the business. Otherwise, the company won’t last long.
Why did you start this business during a downturn?
For two reasons. First, I was working at the consulting company and was already established here with a family and friends. Also, I could speak some Japanese and felt very comfortable here. And the second reason, when it comes to mobile phone businesses, this is the only the country on the planet with a high penetration of mobile users of the Internet.
Who is funding your venture?
AOL is the largest investor of ImaHima. Also, CTR is a venture capital company and one of our investors. Its CEO, entrepreneur Roger Boisvert, has helped a lot. Boisvert’s companies are very successful. When I met Roger, I asked him for details on how to make this company successful.
Do you have other applications?
Our strategy is a little different from other mobile players such as Cybird or Bandai. They offer contents like games, which you enjoy but then you’re easily bored, and also fortune tellers, which get boring quickly too. These products are all short lifetime products.
We’re focussing on creating a relationship between individuals, because communities are not short term things. They take time to grow. I’m thinking about similar applications for teenagers and people outside of Japan, like travelling businessmen.
Are you making a profit yet?
We hope to break even by the end of the year. By the way, now, our focus has to be tight to make sure our products are successful. Sure, making profit is really important, but so is helping people to keep in touch with friends. the main push for our business. I know building a successful business will take a long time.
Who in business do you respect most?
Takeshi Natsuno, a DoCoMo employee. He’s one of the founders of i-mode. He helped build the entire business model for i-mode from 1997 and made all the big decisions to make it successful. He has so much energy and ideas and is very practical. Another person is Mike Yoshii who belongs to a law firm which helps ImaHima. People like him work very hard to help venture businesses get funding and support. Of course there are many others through history but these two are contemporaries.
What do you think of the future of the Internet in Japan?
Many Japanese people are coming online and using email so it’ll be more comfortable to use the Internet and to get information. Internet access by mobile phones is growing, and it’s becoming a daily thing, not a novelty. I cannot predict the future but personally I think that if it’s possible for parents to be able to see their children’s face from the screen of a mobile phone, it’ll be great.
- Takanori Kobayashi