Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How I Ended Up in the Japanese Matchmaking Industry

I just wanted to improve my listening ability.

Seriously.

A year after moving to Tokyo I had signed up to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in February of 2017. I registered for Level 1, the most difficult exam that certified adult level fluency in Japanese. It was already January and I was panicking because I had been too lazy to study. So I started watching Japanese dramas to train my ear.

I caught this fantastic show called Nigeru no wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu. I wrote a review of it. More importantly, I became familiar with the idea of contract marriage. The Japanese equivalent term is keiyaku kekkon. That phrase was trending on Google and Twitter as a result of the drama. So on a lark, I checked and saw that no one owned the domain of keiyakukekkon.com.

So I bought it. For $11.

And I said to myself, "How hard can it be to spin up a simple dating site?" I figured I could maybe make a little cash on the side. So by April of 2017, I had a really shitty WordPress site up and running. And crazily enough, people actually started registering. Not a lot, mind you, only a few dozen. Nevertheless, real live human beings were actually using the site to find a spouse. Realizing this gave me pause. I felt a sense of responsibility.

So I started reading.

I did some research about Japanese culture and demographic crisis. I have written a bit about it on this blog. Over a period of several months, I came to realize that marriage is a more important institution than I had realized. It isn't just an arbitrary arrangement two adults set up because they like each other a whole lot. It is actually the foundation of modern civilization and a core adaptation that enabled homo sapiens to dominate the planet in the first place.

I went to various meetups and events and got feedback. The site was a mess. It needed a better marriage contract builder. It needed more tutorials. It needed a better UI. I started getting more invested in the idea. Then, one fateful day in August, a Japanese friend called me. He knew someone at the Japan Finance Corporation, a government agency that invests in startups with socially beneficial missions.

I was very skeptical about applying. I didn't think they would hand over millions of yen to some random black guy working out of his home. Yet somehow, we got an interview. My friend and I spent two hours being grilled about the concept. They asked for details about our financials. They wanted to be sure it wasn't just another shady hookup site. There were several phone calls and follow up meetings. And then the decision came at the end of October of 2017: We were to receive three million yen in funding to build a viable business.

By then I had already given notice to my day job (it had been a bad fit and I had not been there long anyway) and I prepared to invest a few months into making a real business out of my little experimental site. I still had a good amount saved and figured it wouldn't be too hard to get another job if necessary. I spent a month working on marketing content - an animation, a commercial, billboard ads, etc. I also invested in hiring a contractor to clean up the UI. That latter effort ended up being a waste of money and time, sadly. Now in late January of 2018, I find myself just fixing what I can on my own. Yet the site is pretty stable and has hundreds of alpha users. We will make a serious go of promotion and marketing in the next week.

Who knows how it will go? I'm not expecting the world to explode. Hopefully we get a couple hundred more users over the next few weeks. I intend to disable the free alpha membership option soon and limit some key functionality only to paid users. The monetization scheme is such that the site only needs a few paid users to pay for itself. Sure, I'd love to go viral and get a million users, but I have no delusions of grandeur or megalomania about my little app. Honestly if even one happy couple is able to get married because of my service, it will feel worth it. Still it'd be cool to earn enough to work on it full time and have my own small business.

I have tinkered around with the site for the better part of a year and now worked on it full-time for a month and a half. I am actually hunting for a new job now (hit me up if you need a good devops guy!). I'm reading a book called Traction and trying to learn how to market the service. Maybe I can sell it to someone with more vision than I. Ultimately it just feels nice to actually have a finished project that works. I start so many of these side projects and they never go anywhere. For this I can at least say I completed a working service and have a cool thing for my portfolio.

So anyway, that's how I ended up in the Japanese matchmaking industry.

Also I passed that Japanese language exam too. I intend to write a blog post at some point titled, "How to learn Japanese in one year."