“Let us suggest what it is you really need.” Feelings connected by Chikaku Inc.
To the grandfathers and grandmothers of the world, grandchildren are irreplaceable idols. So, what if they were able to see the faces of their grandchildren on TV just like they were watching an idol show?
This year Chikaku Inc. is slated to release its “Mago Channel,” a product that allows photos and videos of grandchildren (“mago” in Japanese) to be sent to a TV at the grandparent’s house just by setting up an inbox. Mago Channel is just the product that Japan has been waiting for as it is faced with an advancing trend toward nuclear families.
Operation of the product is intuitive, the scenes it uses are clear, and its simple appearance allows it to blend into any environment. How did Chikaku CEO Mr. Kenji Kajiwara conceive of this product which fits right in with the position of its end-users: grandparents?
We spoke with Mr. Kajiwara on topics ranging from the episode in which he came up with the Chikaku principle of “Making people far away feel closer together,” to the philosophies he inherited from his previous position at Apple.
The Background behind Chikaku and Mago Channel
— Could you tell us the details of how you formed the concept for the philosophy found at Chikaku’s corporate site that says: “Create a connected world that goes beyond time and distance and makes loved ones far away feel closer together”?
Mr. Kenji Kajiwara (below, “Kajiwara”): Ever since I was little I have liked computers and I started to use the Internet around the time I was a university student (circa 1994).
Since then I have thought that the Internet’s biggest advantage is that it enables you to connect instantly, going beyond time and distance. I also became hooked on online games. I felt that it was interesting that people who had never met each other and who had never interacted except for in a game could become such good friends.
The early 90s was also right around the time when the trend of making personal websites, primarily on GeoCities, began to take off and things like chat rooms and message boards came into existence. I myself would frequent the sites my friends and acquaintances were running and even interacted with people who I had never met in person. Anyway, I was talking in chat rooms practically every night and a year later when we all decided to meet in person, even though it was the first time we were meeting, it was a mysterious feeling in that it did not feel like the first time. When I thought that it was wonderful that the time had come that you could connect with all kinds of people, it was really just the very beginning.
— This episode is unique to the times when there were still few people online. Tell us the background on how this early experience with the Internet led to the concept for Mago Channel.
Kajiwara: I am from a place called Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture, and until I came out to Tokyo for university, I lived in a three-generation household with my grandparents, parents, and siblings. I still have good memories about living there together.
I left for Tokyo, found a job, and now have two kids of my own… which made it so I could only go back once or twice a year. Moving, no doubt, is difficult and there was a time when I started thinking: “How many more times will I be able to see my parents back home?” But then, thinking back on the time when I was in Hyogo, our grandparents clearly adored us — their grandchildren — a great deal, and I figured that my own parents probably had the same feelings towards my children. I thought it must be pretty tough not to be able to see your grandchildren and began wondering if there wasn’t anything I could do.
— So that is how the concept for Mago Channel was born. These days you can, for instance, use technology like Dropbox to share files. What was the reason for going with a TV interface instead of using one of these existing solutions?
Kajiwara: At first, I myself gave my parents a small Mac and employed the approach of sharing photos via Dropbox. The problem was, my parents did not really understand the meaning of Dropbox. I also tried using YouTube, but it is quite the hassle to put private information up on YouTube and lock it, so I could not sustain it.
More than anything, though, there was the problem that my parents just were not all that familiar with computers to begin with. If they made even a slight mistake, they would get in touch with me to tell me that it stopped working and I would provide support remotely over the phone time and time again.
So when I thought about whether there was something that grandparents could do more easily, I hit upon the idea that they could probably operate the TV they watch every day. From there, they were really pleased when I hooked the Mac up to the TV and showed them photos via Dropbox.
— In terms of being able to see their grandchildren — their very own “idols” — in a way that they are familiar with like turning on their usual TV, I think it was an outstanding observation that this could connect seamlessly with the prior experiences of grandparents.
Kajiwara: That is how it should have been, but it turns out that my parents just did not get Dropbox. Every morning I would remote login from Tokyo, do a screen share, and move the shared files on Dropbox to iPhoto remotely.
I do not think that my parents knew it, but continuing that kind of life for several years, I had my doubts that ordinary people could do something that was such a pain. I somehow managed since I had made a habit of doing it. So my hunch that there would undoubtedly be people who would be pleased if we could simplify such a painstaking task was another spark that led to the start of Mago Channel.
“Cool and Innovative” just does not sit right
— I am really excited to have heard the details of the story leading up to the current UI for Mago Channel. By the way, were you working on this concept when you were at Apple?
Kajiwara: Not quite. All the back-and-forth with my parents was when I was at Apple, but I had not really thought about commercializing it like now. I was basically just doing it on my own accord because my parents were happy and I thought: “Why not?”
Then, in 2011 with the Great East Japan Earthquake and the timing of Steve Jobs passing away, I had a lot on my mind and quit Apple. I went through a time when I was thinking about what to do next, if I should help out at my friend’s company, and other things.
With the image of my last job, I thought that if I were going to do anything on my own, I would not be able to save face unless I made something cool, innovative, and disruptive; however, about a year later I felt that kind of thing was just not right for me. Even if you come up with a cool idea like that, it may not strike much of a chord, and even if you concern yourself with those around you, the people around you may not give much of a thought to such things to begin with.
— So that is how you came to the conclusion to commercialize your own experience: a TV channel to connect with grandchildren. Now, besides your parents, what kind of people did you talk with as potential users?
Kajiwara: I started by soliciting friends on Facebook, saying that I wanted to be introduced to grandparents. On top of that, I actually visited about 15 of the families I was introduced to in Tokyo and Osaka.
I had the opportunity to bear witness to a truly wonderful moment, showing photos and videos of grandchildren that I had taken aside in advance to their grandparents as a surprise, and the grandparents were so moved that they were stunned speechless. My motivation went up and it was a real wake up call when I thought: “Besides my own parents, if this can make other people happy too…”
— That is inspiring! Last year, the word “IoT” become a buzzword, but basically as something of interest to geeks, and I have the impression that there are many products that are geared toward people who are particularly keen on technology. In that respect, I suspected that the actual way Chikaku found its market was different. Does your personality have anything to do with actually visiting the clients and getting the sense that this could actually work?
Kajiwara: I think it has a lot to do with things I learned at Apple. There was a story, “Don’t ask customers what they want,” amongst the episodes left behind by Steve Jobs. For example, if you asked people what they wanted in the era when there were no cars, they would have responded: “I want a horse that can run faster.” In other words, we have to suggest what customers really want.
At the end of the day, I am doing the same thing now. I have a hypothesis and confidence that the customers will be satisfied, I bounce the idea off customers, and I see to what extent the hypothesis can be validated. I feel that this is a methodology I learned at Apple.
You do not know the size of the market until you try it
— How do you feel about receiving funding of nearly 600% when crowdfunding was conducted for Mago Channel?
Kajiwara: We had a bigger response than expected. We really had a variety of people contact us and place orders, and it was beyond my expectations in terms of a response. Of course the prototype was already finished and we had users that we were monitoring. The actual product to present was already settled, so we tested roughly how many people there were who actually wanted it.
— Does that mean that you gained a real sense that the market was bigger than you expected from the size of that response as you proceeded from monitoring to advanced sales?
Kajiwara: I think the actual market size and the size of the response from early adopters are different. You never know whether you will cross the chasm or not — a common innovator’s theory — until you actually try it.
I believe that the people who focus on a product in crowdfunding are the kind of people who can essentially accept new things stress-free. But from the perspective of other people, all they know is, it is “something that [they] do not really understand by a company that [they] do not really know.” You never know how the actual market will accept the product unless you give it a shot.
— Personally, I have a feeling that it will take off with the early adopters — the parent generation — giving the product as a present to grandparents — the intended end-users — and the habit will spread to the generation of upcoming parents. Thank you for today!
Kajiwara says: “For all intents and purposes, hardware and IoT are nothing but tools.” When thinking backwards from what can provide good experiences and positive value for users in the shortest time, the notion of making hardware if hardware is required is at the root of this philosophy.
At the end, when we asked Kajiwara about how his way of devising ideas has changed in each of the respective phases of his time at Apple, doing business on his own, and expanding the staff at Chikaku, after thinking it over for a while, Kajiwara responded:
“The way I devise ideas basically has not changed. A TV, for all intents and purposes, is nothing but a tool, so I am always looking for techniques to maximize the concept of making people who are far away feel closer together. While what the customers want and what we provide is very important, instead of just presenting short-sighted solutions, are people really getting closer as a result of those solutions? As a company, we want to set our sights on the benefit of society as a whole.”
This attitude of exhaustive inward contemplation oozed out of each and every one of Kajiwara’s responses to the questions posed by the BRAIN PORTAL editorial staff as he looked back meticulously on where the points of change were and what core principles he has protected to get to where he is today.
Even if you cannot make the philosophy of innovators into something that is your very own, imitating their approach to thinking may help you step up to an even higher level. This interview made us feel that way.