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Life inside the happiest company in Japan
Four compulsory holidays a year and the employee, rather than the customer, is always right. Here's the man behind every office worker's dream job
EC Studio is not your typical Japanese company. They offer IT consulting, but they don't meet with their clients and they won't talk to them on the phone. With a staff of just 33, they manage tens of thousands of contracts.
They are almost completely paperless and don't use office software, but they can tell you all about the latest iPhone apps and Twitter. They have no problem refusing customers if it's not a good match, and recently they had to turn away a Tokyo University graduate who offered to work for free if they would just let him join.
What in the world is going on here?
According to the CEO, Toshiyuki Yamamoto, he's just looking out for his employees. “My philosophy is that I want to help people find happiness, starting with those closest to me,” he says.
The young grasshopper
Yamamoto, who has written two books on business and technology, didn't even get interested in IT until he was 17. He was more into working out and martial arts, particularly nihon kempo.
His younger brother was the one who loved computers and gaming, something that earned him a great deal of ribbing from his more athletic sibling.
“Our father got fed up with it and he told me, 'The nerds are the ones who are going to build Japan,'” Yamamoto recalls. “I was really shocked. Up to that point, I hadn't taken any interest, but I decided to go to my brother's room and ask him what he was up to,” he adds.
His brother introduced him to the fledgling Internet, and he was astounded by the ability to connect with people regardless of international borders.
People were gathering online, not just to play games, but also to exchange information and to teach each other stuff, and it occurred to him that there was a business opportunity there.
EC Studio's beginnings
He began by selling some weight training stuff he had around the house, trying different sales techniques.
“I just learned by experimenting. I didn't read any books or take any classes on marketing. I was just 17 years old, so it didn't occur to me to take lessons or to study,” Yamamoto says.
Of course, eventually the stuff ran out and Yamamoto had to think about what he could sell next.
What he hit upon was the fruits of his experiments -- his knowledge about how to sell from home. He set up a subscription service, targeting housewives and businesspeople looking to make a little money on the side.
The service did well and he continued it through his junior year in college. He felt a lot of the information he had gathered applied to small and medium-sized businesses as well, so the next step was to start EC Studio in 2000 to help businesses increase sales through their websites.
Around that time, Yamamoto decided to study abroad in Los Angeles. While his competitors would be talking to clients on the phone and meeting with them in person, Yamamoto knew he wouldn't be able to do that from the States.
But he also knew that his costs would be lower, so if he had a website that was comprehensive and easy to use, he could provide the same services much cheaper.
It turned out that clients were more than happy to accept that trade-off, and before long they numbered in the thousands. After returning to Japan, there didn't seem to be any reason to give up what had turned out to be a successful strategy.
That’s why to this day EC Studio doesn't have a listed phone number and all interaction with their clients is done online, something which usually elicits screeches of disbelief from Japanese.
“We tell people 'We don't meet with you, we don't talk to you on the phone ...' and they are like 'What?! Why, why?!' They want to learn more about us and they want to buy stuff from us even more in some cases,” Yamamoto explains.
Technology and efficiency
While cutting out face-to-face client interaction is one way of saving time and money, as EC Studio's client base grew to over 20,000 and the number of staff expanded, the issue became how to maintain efficiency without eating into profits.
Technology is the quick answer, but a company still has to choose which technology to use. What solution is going to work best for the least amount of money?
The experimentation that served Yamamoto so well back as a 17-year-old salesman is his key strategy for dealing with this problem, and it has actually become the linchpin of his business model.
“We try lots of different things and if something works well, then we provide that knowhow as a service to our customers,” he says.
“What we strive to be is an example of how other companies should do things. In Japan, these giant companies often squish out the competition of small and medium-sized businesses and a lot of times there is just this overwhelmed feeling. There is not a lot of energy coming from them and we want to figure out how we can show them they can do it too,” he says.
Playstation 3 and Skype as conferencing systems
For example, EC Studio is based in Osaka, but they have had a branch office in Tokyo since 2005. They were spending a lot of money traveling back and forth, but video conferencing systems were prohibitively expensive.
A couple of the staff remarked that the video chat function on the Playstation 3 was very good, so they tried it out, using two consoles brought from home. It worked perfectly and, at ¥30,000 a unit, was much cheaper than any of the conferencing systems made specifically for businesses.
They also recommend free software like Skype, or much cheaper versions of common business software, like Google's Master Apps or Kingsoft's Office programs. They don't care whether they can license it or not, it just has to work and be affordable for small businesses. And if there is not a good option out there, they make it themselves.
Everybody get happy
What really makes EC Studio stand out from other companies is employee satisfaction. According to Link and Motivation Inc.'s Employee Motivation Survey, they have been number one in Japan for the past two years.
When you come into the room, you can feel the difference. The stifling atmosphere that pervades a lot of offices is totally absent, it's bright and clutter free, and although everyone is hard at work, they smile easily and look relaxed.
Music plays softly in the background, and if you are curious, the company's Twitter feed will tell you what they are listening to at any given time.
To make employees happy
Back when his staff first started to increase, Yamamoto was focusing solely on profit and efficiency, which lead to people quitting, health problems and a general lack of energy.
Since he didn't have a background in management, he decided to meet with 1,000 different CEOs with a wide range of management styles. What he discovered was that businesses that put a lot of importance on their personnel were the ones that did well.
“The customers interact with the employees, and they need to be happy employees. If they are, then the customers will be happy. Of course, the employees themselves want to take care of the customers. That's what they are here for, but the management is here to take care of the employee,” Yamamoto explains.
“When there is a conflict between an employee and a customer and the management has to decide which one they are going to protect, it should be the employee,” he continues.
How could you NOT be happy?
The fact that management has their back isn't the only reason for the staff to be satisfied. The list of perks and benefits at EC Studio goes on and on.
Every staff member is given an iPhone and data plan. Non-working days account for 140 days out of the year, including four vacations of at least 10 consecutive days.
Also there's no overtime. The company pays for you to visit your hometown twice a year if it's more than 140 kilometers away.
Once a month each employee is treated to lunch with the CEO and given a chance to talk about how things are going and what they would like to work on, just to name a few.
For customer support staffer Miyo Kato, mother of five-year-old twin boys, the best part is the flexibility of her schedule and the ability to work from home.
Voices of employees
“I didn’t think I would find this level of flexibility,” she says. “At a typical company, if you said 'I have two small children,' it would be difficult to get hired at all, so I think a company like this is a real find,” she says.
Designer Takamori Shinmen used to work at a company where all-nighters were frequent, but applied to EC Studio on the recommendation of his friend.
When asked what he likes best, he laughs and says, “It’s probably getting the free iPhone! That and I can do my own work that interests me, work that energizes me.”
Michiyo Matsuo, a motherly woman in tech support with a seemingly irrepressible smile, puts it more succinctly, “I enjoy every day. It's fun!”
Spreading happiness through IT
Yamamoto isn't content that his own employees are happy, though. His mission is to use IT to spread happiness throughout Japan. As he defines it, happiness is “richness of heart” and consists of three pillars: wealth, time and harmonious relationships.
Wealth is created through cutting costs and adding value to your product, higher efficiency provides more time and focusing on employee satisfaction means both external and internal relationships will flourish.
It's easy to see EC Studio employees have all three pillars in abundance, but by teaching clients how to provide them for their own customers and staff, the potential effects on Japanese business culture are exponential.
“There are a lot of ways to define happiness,” Yamamoto says. “But this is how we define it, so we look for IT solutions that will achieve these goals."