Executive Officer & Head of Overseas Establishment Team
Having spent time working in R&D with IT startups in Silicon Valley early in his career, Shigemoto returned to Japan to do a master’s degree in engineering at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology. He joined Sansan in 2009, and served several senior roles, including a stint as CTO. Having spearheaded Sansan’s push to internationalize its development teams in Japan, he is now focused on building Sansan’s first overseas engineering team.
Early career and joining Sansan
To begin, please tell us why you first decided to join Sansan.
In Silicon Valley, I mainly worked as an implementation consultant focused on middleware. When I arrived in the US, I was more focused on how to improve my skills and grow myself as an engineer. Of course, I was also thinking about what to do with my career in the longer term.
However, my thinking changed a lot after spending time with Silicon Valley engineers.
We’d have conversations over dinner, discussing how we could change the world with this product. To achieve this, what do we need? How can we get more customers? We were talking about this over and over. Of course, many of them were probably also thinking about their own careers, but I was nevertheless inspired by this environment of talking about the products with such passion and ambition.
Was that a turning point for you in your career?
Definitely. While talking with them, I felt that I gained a lot of fundamentals about how to create software. I strongly felt that I wanted to do engineering work which would enable me to proudly say, “I created this product,” so I wanted to join a company where I felt I could do that.
Why did you decide to look for that company in Japan?
In Japan, we use many US-born products like Google, Facebook, and Instagram as part of our lives, but when I was living in the United States, I realized that nobody was using any products from Japan, which was quite a sad realization.
I thought it would be more challenging and interesting to try to develop a Japanese product that could be used globally. When I found Sansan, I felt I could make my dreams come true if I worked with this company.
Why did you feel that way about Sansan?
A common tendency in product development is that there is an inspiration of some sort, and the products are not wholly original in concept, but more of a tweaked or updated version of an existing product.
However what Sansan was trying to do was something I had never seen or heard of before, and yet it made a lot of sense and seemed like a great idea. I felt I had something in common with their mission. It was very interesting, and I saw a lot of potential. There was no simple answer to many of our problems, as nobody had faced them before. So, I wanted to enjoy developing software in that environment.
What is Sansan trying to achieve with its mission of “Turning encounters into innovation”?
First of all, our company’s products are focused on business. What we mean by an encounter is encounters in the business scene. Every day, thousands of people encounter each other, and sometimes those encounters lead to great things. Encounters are not only between two people, there are encounters between companies, people and companies, people and services, services and companies, and so on.
The connections that come from these encounters are clearly fundamental to our societies, and yet it had not been well defined that they should be considered a valuable resource for business.
I think many people underestimate the power of networking. Not only people, but companies also fail to successfully connect with the right people, companies, and services.
“Turning encounters into innovation” is about unleashing the value of these “encounters”, and creating new opportunities for innovation. In trying to achieve this mission, the speed and efficiency of business can increase dramatically.
What kind of products are you creating to realize that mission?
Our primary service “Sansan” is a B2B product to visualize and optimize the encounters between people and use them effectively in business. In a very basic sense, Sansan is a contact management application. Having originally focused on digitizing business cards (as they are fundamental to business encounters in Japan), there are now multiple methods of inputting contacts into Sansan, as well as multiple features to organize, optimize, and utilize that contact network.
With over 8000 corporate customers, and 81% market share, Sansan is the biggest product of its kind in Japan.
We also have an equivalent B2C product, Eight, which supports individuals to manage their personal networks as well as their career. It has some similarities but also some key differences with LinkedIn. With over 3 million users, it’s the biggest professional social network in Japan.
We also have a few new products, the most significant of which is Bill One.
Bill One is an invoice management application that enables customer companies to collate and organize all their invoices in a unified cloud database, irrespective of how those invoices are received. It’s already proving popular both in Japan and abroad.
So as you can see, all of our products are related to encounters and their optimization, one way or another.
The overseas team
Why are you now building a development team in the Philippines?
From our founding, we envisioned that we would be competing on a global scale. Now that we have successfully grown domestically, we feel that this is the time to use our resources overseas more than ever before.
From an engineering point of view, when we expect to have many users outside of Japan in the future, I don’t think it is possible to only have Japanese engineers in Japan doing the development work. If there are people from other countries on the user side, there should also be people from overseas on the development side to create products from the perspective of diverse ideas and discussions.
Currently, our Singapore employees are in charge of sales outside of Japan. We thought that the Philippines, a country geographically close to Japan and Singapore, would be the best location to make a new development team. The team can communicate directly with people in Singapore, listen to the feedback of Singapore users, and discuss with CS members. That is how the establishment of the new development base in the Philippines started.
How do you envisage the team in the Philippines?
The idea is not to build a subordinate team that receives orders from Japan and works as a subcontractor. We want to have a team of engineers who can make decisions on their own, and so we need to create a situation where they can communicate effectively with members in Japan and exchange opinions while creating the products. So, our first goal is to determine the development process, structure, and communication protocols.
What kind of growth do you think the engineers in this team can expect from working at Sansan, now that the company is taking on global challenges?
I don’t believe that engineers can be evaluated just by their engineering knowledge and skill. Thinking about how to find and solve problems is just as important as technical skill.
We therefore try to encourage our engineers to grow by gaining these instincts, and do not focus only on engineering skill. We are trying to create something that has never been made before, so there is nothing we can refer to or copy. We need to think carefully about what users can gain from these products and try every day to develop new ideas and solutions, before the users have even thought of them themselves. In other words, we want our engineers to be able to think about how to succeed in the product business. I believe this is the best way for our engineers to grow.
How often are you currently going to the Philippines?
Right now I’m going once a month for about two weeks each time, so I’m spending roughly half my time there. I’m very serious about providing a high performance environment, so I am trying to learn about the culture and people of the Philippines. If we don’t know what Filipino engineers eat, what kind of commuting style they have, and what makes their lives worth living, we cannot give them the right opportunity and environment to succeed.
What do you think is the most important part of your role?
I think it is essential that I instill Sansan’s philosophy and strategy in them so that they can properly understand what kind of culture exists in Sansan and in Japan in terms of business, why we are creating this now, and why these new features are necessary.
Then, I would like to hear from them what needs to be changed, and hear their ideas about the design and direction of the products, working together with them as a team to create products that can be internationally successful.