077: Becoming an SEO and Digital Marketing Expert in Tokyo W/ Jeff Crawford

podcast Nov 12, 2020

Today on the Small Business Japan Podcast you get to learn about how Jeff Crawford developed his SEO and Digital Marketing agency Zo Digital Japan, and he gives you tips on starting your entrepreneurial journey in Japan as well.  

Jeff Crawford started his professional career working for Apple and Microsoft in Silicon Valley. Jeff moved to Japan in 2004, working for MSN-Online and Adobe Systems Japan. He left corporate life in 2014, doing Digital Marketing consulting for various clients. In 2018 Jeff's consulting business became Zo Digital Japan, an SEO and Digital Marketing agency. 

Jeff moved to Tokyo in 2004, his plan was to stay 2 -3 years, get some good experience and go back to California. 16 years later he still here. 

How he services foreign companies coming into Japan.

They help introduce foreign minded Japanese companies to a global audience. 

Their Services: 

- SEO (KW Research, Technical SEO, Link Building Outreach) 

- Content Marketing 

- Pay Per Click Ads 

- Analytics and Conversion Optimization 

- Sometimes websites 

He worked at Apple all the years Steve Jobs was NOT there. 

He started a company in 2014 using principles from the Lean Startup, “start fast fail fast’. After a year, he realized it was never going to make money, so he shut it down. 

 In the last company Jeff was at (Adobe), learned about Analytics, which was really interesting. I was able to combine user experience with data. 

 To help make ends meet, he started doing consulting on the side in 2014/2015, helping clients with Adwords Campaigns, Analytics, and then eventually SEO. 

With almost no agency experience, I started my own Digital Marketing agency. 

Zo Digital Japan incorporated as a GK in 2018. 

Operationally, Zo Digital Japan is a bit unorthodox. After 25 years Jeff developed a distinct dislike for the traditional office work environment. 

- All of his staff is remote 

- They communicate by Slack 

- They have 4 or 5 core staff 

- They we have a network of specialist consultants 

- Instead of high-stress technical interviews to hire FTE, he hires for small tasks, and add additional responsibility over time. I like to pick people with potential, then grow them up. 

He worked 25 years in 3 big Silicon Valley companies. He then decided that it was enough, so he decided to strike out on his own in 2014 

  • Being an entrepreneur is not always as glorious as they sometimes make it seem.  
  • You have to spend time talking with customers in the beginning especially.  
  • Everyone needs a little reset and small break from Japan from time-to-time. 

When starting a company, you need to be an entrepreneur, a technician, and a manager. Often these roles conflict with each other too. The 3-hats of an entrepreneur. 

Having a good case study is a good way to help you get started with other similar companies.  

He also started an event called Tokyo Digital Marketers. They now have 2200 people on the mailing list, and get 50 to 60 attendees for each meetup. https://www.meetup.com/Tokyo-Digital-Marketers/ 

Jeff recommends everyone to create their own luck by starting their own meetup and get like-minded people in the same room.  

Try to stay solo – Kojin Jigyo- as an individual as long as it reasonably makes sense. When you incorporate many new issues come up, like taxes etc.  


Zo Digital Japan



Show Sponsor:

I just wanted to take a minute to highlight the fact that Jeff has built himself and his thriving company Zo Digital as a Lifestyle Japanpreneur. A Lifestyle Japanpreneur is someone with a strong connection to Japan who builds a small but mighty business on their own terms. I have just recently released a training course on starting and growing your business as a Lifestyle Japanpreneur and I’d love for you to check it out on the website at SmallBusinessJapan.com. The course aims to take you from idea creation to building a business that scales but doesn’t grow, that means you can lead the lifestyle you desire as your business thrives.



00:02:27 Josh          

   Welcome to the show, Jeff. 

00:02:30 Josh          

   Thank you, Josh. I just appreciate you having me. 

00:02:32 Josh            

 Yes, definitely. What is your connection to Japan? 

00:02:37 Jeff            

Well that’s an interesting one. It started way back when I lived in San Francisco. I had sushi for the first time and I thought that was pretty good. 

00:02:51 Jeff             

And I had never used chopsticks, even when I was in college or University. So to me, this whole Japanese culture thing was quite unique, right? I grew up in New Jersey. I also grew up in Michigan and then moved to California. 

00:03:11 Jeff 

To me, Japan was something radically different, but somehow very very interesting. So, I started to travel here and I would come here on my two week Japan Rail pass, travel around, hike in different places, soak in onsen, eat different types of food.

00:03:32 Jeff 

And yeah, so that's kind of what got the ball rolling, so to speak. 

00:03:38 Josh

Okay, and you had spent some time in California there, so for a while you were working there with a few different companies in Silicon Valley?

00:03:52 Jeff 

Yeah, that's right. So I worked in Silicon Valley. I worked for both Apple for like nine years and then I worked for Microsoft for another six years. That whole time I was a developer so there was actually a time where I knew the ins and outs of the Mac OS. 

00:04:12 Jeff 

Coming from inside of Apple, so that was kind of an interesting time. 

00:04:16 Josh

So is it fair to say that Steve Jobs was a mentor of yours? 

00:04:22 Jeff 

Well, people ask me about what it's like to work with Steve Jobs. The fact is I worked there all the years that Steve Jobs was not there.

00:04:36 Jeff 

I can't remember the year he left. I think he left in ‘85 or ‘86 or something and I joined in early ‘88 and then the month I left was March of ‘97 or something like that and that was the month he came back. 



00:04:55 Jeff 

Thankfully I never had to work with him.

00:04:58 Josh

It seems like it might be a little mixed bag there. I mean, in a way it might be better to just, you know, appreciate him from a distance from what I hear about his social skills. 

00:05:13 Jeff 

Yes, yes. I've talked to many people. I have lots of stories, too. 

00:05:17 Josh 

I’m sure, I'm sure. 

00:05:20 Jeff 

Definitely somebody I would not enjoy working for that’s for sure. But one of the things he is good at is looking at user experience and really pointing out the key points about the user experience. ‘You have to make this’, ‘You have to nail this point really really well.’ 

00:05:40 Jeff 

He was really good at driving that, and so you know, that's definitely something I respect him for. 

00:05:53 Josh

Okay. So you have a very solid tech background with you know, and working in Silicon Valley. What was it that drew you to Japan to make the move here? I mean, was it Japan's cutting edge fax culture that kept you here? 

00:06:11 Jeff 

Yeah, the fax culture. That's what did it. 

00:06:15 Jeff 

So actually, I mean I had been in Silicon Valley for 16 years. 

00:06:21 Jeff 

I was tired of driving my car. 

00:06:24 Jeff 

I just thought, well, if I come to Japan and get some work experience there for maybe like two or three years, I can make myself that much more valuable. Get this wonderful experience and then, you know, go back to California and continue with my life. But two or three years became five years. And then five years became 10 years and now it's 16 years for me. 

00:06:49 Josh 

16 years, ok. Well I guess to give everybody a little background then. So what is Zo Digital Japan and what are some of your revenue streams? 

00:07:00 Jeff 

Ok, Zo Digital Japan is an SEO and digital marketing agency.

00:07:05 Jeff 

We mostly cater to foreign companies who want to come into Japan. But we also have clientele who are, how do I say, more foreign-centric, foreign minded Japanese companies who want to appeal to both like Japanese users and foreign users.

00:07:26 Jeff 

So some ways we performed. 

00:07:31 Josh 

What inspired the name Zo Digital

00:07:35 Jeff 

Zo, of course, means elephant in Japanese. Those of you, if you know anything about elephants, of course they're very strong creatures, but they're also very very intelligent. One really interesting aspect of elephants

00:07:55 Jeff 

is like the leader of the herd, I think you call it, they are famous for nurturing the other younger elephants up like that's their responsibility. So that kind of resonated with me when I was thinking about names that you know, this kind of nurturing thing like we do with our clients. 

00:08:18 Jeff 

And then also, Zo can be words like “Sozo”, imagination. You know that type of feeling kind of stands out. So that's how we ended up with the name. 

00:08:31 Josh 

Very cool, very cool and it's short too which always makes it a little bit easier on an international spectrum there for, you know pronunciation and and you know being able to remember it. 

00:08:43 Jeff 

Exactly, I wanted something simple that people would remember. You could say it once and it sticks in your brain and then yeah it doesn't leave, right? So if you're choosing a name you definitely want to pick something that can resonate with people. And so for us it's that simple name and a very simple icon that we have. And yeah, that seems to work. 

00:09:08 Josh

Nice nice. So it seems you have a bit of the Paul Jarvis “Company of One” mentality which I love. Can you tell me a little bit about how you structure your company? 

00:09:22 Jeff 


00:09:26 Jeff 

Basically I'm the only employee of the company. But we have this small army, I call them staff or consultants. Some of them are freelancers, some of them are interns, some of them do different things. A number of them probably, let's see, I think three of them work somewhere between 30 to 40 hours a week. But others I bring in because of their specialties. Like we have a really good designer. So we can bring him in if we need him, if I need his help. 

We also have like a really good link builder. So we bring her in on different things. She's very creative and really good at creating linkable, shareable content. And then it all depends on the project. 

I have a lot of connections these days and depending on what the client’s requests are, I can bring in the right people. I like that style, that structure over a more traditional company that has to have an office, that has to have full time employees, which sets a very high bar for me. You have to have this much income to sustain all that. You sort of lose your agileness, your flexibility to deal with things like Covid or other other types of stimulus. 

00:11:04 Josh 

So you've gotten around on having to have an official office space?

00:11:11 Jeff 

Yeah, so we have a coworking space. And then if a client were to visit us, we take them to the coworking space or take them into a conference room. But actually my staff is distributed all over the place.

So I have, at least at this moment, these are all Japanese people too, I have two people working in Okinawa. I have another guy who shares this time between Bangkok, Thailand and Helsinki, Finland. I have another person in Spain and of course I have a number of people around the Tokyo area. But you know these days, do you really need a traditional office? Right now we're all connected with Slack, we all know each other. We send each other messages everyday and we get stuff done. 

00:12:06 Josh 

So is it safe to assume you were sort of set up, or you know, prepared for this whole pandemic. I mean, it wasn't a major adjustment to your business plan. 

00:12:21 Jeff 

Yeah, in terms of the way we function it was not a major adjustment for us. However, of for our clients, we either lost clients or some clients had to spin down. But then other ones came up, other ones realized, oh we have to have a better online presence, let's start contacting people. 

00:12:43 Jeff 

It (Covid-19) has been a big challenge for me personally. Some clients spun down and other clients spun up, and the kids are at home. There's also the personal aspect of it as well. You’re trying to run your business and then babysit the kids at the same time. That's been a big personal challenge for me as well, as I suspect many other people throughout the world, that are parents. 

00:13:16 Josh 

Yeah, it's a lot of juggling. Even if you were working home from home before, now you know you have extra family issues and things to deal with.

00:13:30 Josh 

So you're coming from a tech background in Silicon Valley, what was it like taking the leap into entrepreneurship and becoming your own boss? 

00:13:42 Jeff 

Yeah, first of all, I think in many ways it's over glorified so to speak. I mean you have TV shows, you have books, you have movies sort of glorifying this type of way of life. It's not all glory, that's for sure. You know it's interesting because  I worked in the field for something like 25 years or so. 

00:14:12 Jeff 

And then working as an entrepreneur you start to respect, well there's a lot of value in knowing that monthly paycheck is going to show up. 

00:14:23 Josh 

Right, right stability is a nice thing to have. 

00:14:28 Jeff 

Yeah it is. So, you know I think a couple of things I learned that, first of all, you can't just go instantly getting an income as an entrepreneur, right? Even as a consultant, you have to work hard to go out and find potential clients, talk to them and try to understand their needs, right? 

00:14:53 Jeff 

Or if you're starting your own business, you gotta spend time talking to customers. You gotta get their feedback. You gotta try different things. Basically, I wouldn't do it unless you can see yourself not making any income for something like two years. 

00:15:15 Jeff 

You may want to think twice about doing it because you go negative very very quickly and then you start climbing yourself out of it. Sometimes you never get out of it, right? Fortunately, at least with Zo Digital Japan, I've been able to get somewhere. 

00:15:35 Josh 

Yeah, and were you in Japan for awhile before you started your own thing? 

00:15:42 Jeff 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I came to Japan in 2004 and I was working for Microsoft MSN for five years in Japan. And then I worked for Adobe Systems Japan.

00:15:58 Jeff 

So it is about that time where I was really getting tired of corporate life for various reasons. And you know, I just have these dreams, and okay, I'm gonna try now. Now is the best time and so yeah, I made the leap. 

00:16:17 Josh 

Okay, so you made the leap. 

00:16:20 Josh 

Tell us a little bit about that first leap. How did that go? 

00:16:26 Jeff 

Not too well. 

00:16:30 Josh 

Was your family okay, were they on board with you making the change? 

00:16:36 Jeff 

Well, it took awhile to convince the Japanese wife that you know, hey, this is what I want to do. I don't think she signed up for that when she married me. 

00:16:50 Jeff 

Yeah, so I'm gonna chalk it up to as a giant learning experience. 

00:16:56 Josh 

That's how you gotta look at it.

00:16:59 Jeff 

First of all I left my last job and I had a severance package, so I had some time to kind of plot my next step, and I consumed a lot of content about starting your own business and that type of stuff. 

I don't know if you follow MicroConf, Rob Walling and that crowd. I went to MicroConf one time and read his book, which is really good for getting started. And then also read “The Lean Startup”. It had a big impact on me. 

So okay, I'm going to start a company with an MVP and, my rationale was that advertising is just too difficult for ordinary local businesses, they can't do it. Google Adwords is just way too complex for the average business owner to understand. And so then I said, okay, I’ll name the company Connect-Local which just turned out to be a really pathetic name for various reasons and it didn’t really resonate with anybody. People keep calling it Local-Connect, which I couldn't even get a trademark 'cause it was too amorphous words. But the whole premise was that who needs local advertising the most? I thought it was music schools and dance schools. So I created this lead generation service where we would advertise on Google AdWords as well as Facebook drive traffic to landing pages and we would hand these leads to these schools that so desperately need them. And I could automate the whole process, because I'm a techie guy. 

00:18:51 Jeff 

With automation and then you know some outsourcing, I could do it fairly easily at a reasonable cost. I thought, well, reasonable cost to me. 

00:19:05 Jeff 

But yeah, so I launched the system, went to like a couple of dance school conferences which I'd never done before. 

00:19:16 Jeff 

I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a booth, and I got to talk to dance school owners and those types of people. And yeah, I built myself up to four customers (studios) and the goal was 50. 

00:19:35 Jeff 

And then I realized yeah, over time that there is no way that the business would ever work for me. It was too much effort to get somebody to sign up for a $250 a month package and even the customers that I had weren't seeing the value of it. and so I shut it down almost as quickly as I started it up. So within a year from starting up to launching and then shutting it down. 

00:20:16 Josh 


00:20:17 Josh 

Had you tested that minimum viable product beforehand, or had you connected with some of those people are meeting at the booth before you launch the product. 

00:20:33 Jeff 

Yeah, that's a really good question. Here's what I did, I think this is kind of a good hack and I can't remember who suggested this, I posted on Reddit that you can get a free $20 Amazon Gift certificate if you have like a 15 minute interview with me to talk about your school. And luckily the Reddit staff OK’d it, somehow it got past the spam team.

00:21:08 Jeff 

So, a number of people signed up and I interviewed dance school and music school owners, I think I talked to like 10 of them. When I asked them questions like do you need more leads?, ‘in my case it was students writing me more so…’. What do you do to get them? Does your website work? 

00:21:30 Jeff 

I think you want to do advertising? If you did, this just sounds interesting to you. I did a lot of this up front work to see if it would work. And the feedback was mostly positive. 

00:21:46 Jeff 

It’s one of those things where you have to try it, right?  You have to actually get them to pay actual money and drive the results before you can really understand if this business model is going to work. Even though I did all that work up front, you still have to go through the minimum viable product. Get it out there and get the feedback first.

00:22:12 Josh 

Right, yeah, I think you know until people actually commit to putting the money down, it's really hard to, you know, even if you had 100 surveys, what someone says to you and what they're actually going to do with their wallet, are different stories sometimes. 

00:22:34 Jeff 

Yeah, the really astute founders that I've seen in different founders circles have a way, and they must be really good at sales, but they have a way of collecting money from would-be customers before they start development. 

00:22:50 Jeff 

I don't have that kind of sales skill. 

00:22:52 Josh 

Yeah, yeah, that puts pressure onto deliver. Okay, well so you close that up early enough that you saw the writing on the wall, and during that time had you been developing another idea. Or was it just starting from scratch? What other things do you know? Are there any holes in the market? How did you get to your second? 

00:23:21 Jeff 

Yeah, it's interesting, 'cause of course I'm trying to bootstrap. You know, a self fund, launch a company. 

00:23:30 Jeff 

A little bit of income would be helpful. 

00:23:34 Jeff 

So on the side, yeah, people ask me,, ‘hey Jeff can you help me with my AdWords account? Can you look at my website analytics?’. I think even for a couple of people I just volunteered to do it for free just to get the experience and stuff. 

00:23:51 Jeff 

And I also did some consulting, international consulting at a local agency. And so just different things on the side. And then after I shut down the Connect-Local stuff, I just decided, well I'm gonna be a full time consultant. 

00:24:11 Jeff 

But I think the website went up about the same time as the first version. I think I used Wix to create the website.

00:24:21 Josh 

I started there, too. 

00:24:23 Jeff 

Yeah, two hours, that's the first one. And it started off as individual consulting. 

00:24:32 Jeff 

Then I got more clients, I think in the early days I went to a lot of local meetups. 

00:24:40 Jeff 

ACCJ in Japan is a good place to meet influential people. 

00:24:46 Jeff 

I would, yeah, there's just different local meetups, the Tokyo Business Meetup and whatnot. And talk to a lot of people. Got a couple of how do I say, “clients”, and ramped it up from there.

00:25:03 Josh 

Great! Okay, so it was getting official and then eventually you got your logo and you know all of that was ironed out. 


00:25:16 Jeff 

Yeah, I guess Zo Digital Japan, as an entity, is only two years old right now. So we started as GK or Godo Kaisha, I've taken it from there. Before that I was basically a sole proprietor. 

00:25:37 Josh 

So you've been in Japan for a while now? What's something you've changed your mind about regarding Japan? 

00:25:46 Jeff 

Well I think it's when you've lived in Japan as long as we have, you go through these stages. It's kind of like the stages of accepting someone's death or something. You go from like euphoria to wow this is just an amazing place! Look at all these tall buildings. These fast trains, the wonderful food, the beautiful land. You know the onsen, the lakes. 

00:26:17 Jeff 

And then, especially when you start working here and you start to get frustrated and you realize there's this inertial mass, and if you could only change these ten things, perfect.  And after a while you just kind of come to a certain amount of acceptance like this place is always gonna be like this.  And some people can't accept it and they go back to their home countries. Somehow you kind of, accept the way things are and you just try to deal with them as best you can. 

That being said, I mean in Japan life is changing and I think there's gonna be a lot of good things that come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now we're talking now about the Hanko system finally going away. 

00:27:20 Josh 

You know, that's great. 

00:27:23 Jeff 

Other companies have suddenly not just said okay maybe work at home is okay, but it's actually a requirement. That's a big leap for a lot of companies. I don't know if I answered your question. 

00:27:42 Josh 

Yeah no, that was great. 

00:27:45 Josh 

I'm wondering with your company as one. Have you thought, I mean, are you now to a point where you could be location independent? 

00:28:01 Jeff 

In some ways I already am, I do spend 6 to 8 weeks out of the year in California. I have family in California. I want the kids to spend time with their grandmother, their aunts, their uncles speaking English, right? Just understanding and getting used to American lifestyle. 

00:28:27 Jeff 

So yeah I do go back quite a bit and this the arrangement that I have supports that. I think the biggest limitation when I do spend time in the US is that, if there's a client that wants to meet me in Tokyo and I can't be there.

00:28:48 Jeff 

So there's always that, and so far that hasn't been a big issue for me.

00:28:55 Josh 

I think what led me to that was I was remembering another entrepreneur that I had interviewed and that was one element that they brought up. That sort of, you know they've been in Japan for 20 years but they needed each year, or almost each year, a little bit of a break to kind of, that sort of reset in a way, kept the passion for Japan rather than like you were alluding to some people. It just sort of builds up, and if you only dwell on those little negative things that bother you that could push you away. 

00:29:35 Josh 

Yeah, I was wondering if you had some of those or you know just uniform vacation or like return to the family.

00:29:42 Jeff 

Yeah, I think the reset factor is definitely part of it. You know you feel like you can. I can go back and being in American again, talk about football or whatever.

00:29:56 Jeff 

Complain about Trump like everybody does, or whatever, being American is all about. 

00:30:04 Josh 

Now, okay, well, I think there's a great spot. We're gonna take a short break. We'll be back with the Shinkansen speed round. 

Welcome back. Jeff, where were you born? 

00:30:16 Jeff 

So, I was born smack dab in the middle of the United States on a military base called Fort Leonardwood, Mo. 

00:30:26 Josh 

Look at. 

00:30:27 Jeff 

There are no memories of that. Yeah there for like a month or two and then we were gone. 

00:30:34 Josh 

And where do you currently reside? 

00:30:36 Jeff 

I'm in Tokyo. Been here for 16 years. 

00:30:39 Josh 

Okay, and how old are you now? 

00:30:42 Jeff 

I'm in my 50s. 

00:30:45 Josh 

What do you do for stress relief? 

00:30:49 Jeff 

That's an interesting one. I mean running your own company and having two kids that are quite young. 

00:30:58 Jeff 

There's no stress relief when you come home after work, so to speak, in this house. But there might be times maybe once a month where I can get out on my road bike, and ride along the Tamagawa River up into the mountains. I wish I could do that more. I'm lucky if I can do it once a month. That's my goal. 

00:31:27 Josh 

Now, what is a Japanese food or drink that you are sort of hooked on? 

00:31:32 Jeff 

So I think I've gone full circle because I was a big wine aficionado when I lived in the Bay Area of California. 

00:31:40 Jeff 

I came to Japan, I was really into Nihonshu (Japanese Sake) for a while and even Shochu. That phase kind of came and went. 

00:31:54 Jeff 

Now I just really enjoy a good craft beer. I feel like in Japan some of the craft breweries have finally gotten their act together. There are some really good beers now. That seems to be the drink of choice these days, especially in the hot summer time. 

00:32:14 Josh 

Yeah, okay. Do you still see the appeal of living in the Tokyo Metropolis or do you have desires to be in the countryside? 

00:32:31 Jeff 

Really good question. I think I'm getting to the point in my life where living in the middle of Tokyo is kind of, what's the right phrase here? “getting old on me”. 

00:32:50 Jeff 

So I am contemplating moving out of the city to maybe a quieter place or a little bit closer to nature. Yeah, there's definitely some allure to that. 

00:33:05 Josh 

Okay, what book would you recommend for Small Business Japan listeners? 

00:33:10 Jeff 

Can I recommend two books? I think this book has probably been discussed before, but the E-Myth Revisited, I think it's Michael Gerber who is the author. 

00:33:25 Josh 

That's a really good book. 

00:33:28 Jeff 

Especially when he talks about the three, I think it's called personalities or three hats that you have to wear. You have to be an “entrepreneur”, but you also have to be a “technician” and you also have to be a “manager”, and these three personalities are often at conflict with each other. 

00:33:47 Jeff 

And when you're starting a company, you don't think about that, but it becomes a very big issue. Yes, you have to deal with all these things and nobody is good at all three. That's what I'm learning about myself. 

00:34:00 Josh 

Right, right, that's you know that's a difficult thing for a lot of people to grasp, and I think it sounds like the way you're bringing on freelancers and things, that you're hiring out some of the technicians. 

00:34:14 Jeff 

Absolutely! And that's been hard. I'm, as you know, a technical guy and it's difficult because I wanna jump in and do it all myself. And it took a while for me to step back and find some good people. I have some good people now that can execute. So, the other book that I think might be interesting, I mentioned it before, I think it's called “Start Small, Stay Small” by Rob Walling. It's probably out of date. 

00:34:48 Jeff 

I mean, it's maybe 10 years old. I think about 10 years ago when he wrote that. 

00:34:54 Jeff 

But I liked it because it was actually a blueprint of the steps you gotta do, some resources. And he brings up a lot of points that are so true about starting a company. Points that you don't think about. Like what do you outsource? Do you outsource sales? No, absolutely not. You should always do your own sales. So you outsource development? Absolutely, even if you're a technical person. I never thought of stuff like that. 

00:35:30 Jeff 

So at the time when I was starting my own company, that book was really good. 

00:35:35 Josh 

Okay, yeah I haven't heard of that one out. Sounds great. 

00:35:40 Josh 

So how does your brand stand out from the crowd and get attention? There must be a handful of digital marketers out there. 

00:35:51 Jeff 

Yeah, there's actually not a lot of smaller agencies that can handle an English account management and then be able to execute in Japan in Japanese. there's a couple of agencies. But I think one advantage is my background. I come from a technical background. I also have a lot of user experience. 

00:36:20 Jeff 

And then also, I'm kind of good at reading or understanding data. And I enjoy it. I really like diving into a client's analytics and I love it. I mean this is what you live for. It’s finding that smoking gun or the silver bullet and say hey if you fix this one thing you might be able to double the number of leads that you get what how you find those.  And it's like yes! 

00:36:49 Josh 

Right, right, yeah, yeah, that makes for a very happy customer I would think. 

00:36:55 Josh 

Have you found it difficult in Japan to sort of sell those services or to prove the ROI with some of the maybe older companies? 

00:37:09 Jeff 

Yeah, it depends. Having a good case study is a really big help. Or just being able to show that you've been able to demonstrate some level of success with a similar company, often helps a lot. We do help a lot of startup companies or relatively young companies. So that seems to be our sweet spot. 

00:37:44 Jeff 

They're looking for a more entrepreneurial type person, company and so that seems to be the type of client that we resonate with the best. 

00:37:56 Josh 


00:37:57 Josh 

So with everything that you have going on somehow, you found the time to organize a local monthly meetup yourself. Can you tell me a little bit  how did that get started? 

00:38:10 Jeff 

Sure, so the meetup is called Tokyo Digital Marketers. I started it maybe four or five years ago. 

00:38:21 Jeff 

So I had left my company. I'd started my own company and had failed. I sort of realized I really didn't know that many digital marketers out there.  So maybe I should start joining some digital marketing meetups. But there were none. 

00:38:40 Josh 


00:38:42 Jeff 

Yeah, so I signed in to meetup.com, posted this meetup. I think I got five friends to show up and I got five other people I didn't know. So yeah, actually we got 10 people in the room for the first meetup, and I was just like, wow! this is great! It was only 10 people and the speaker was really really good. And I felt really really bad because he was giving this great talk that should have been recorded. Then it was only in front of 10 people. 

00:39:20 Jeff 

But it got started.  And we moved locations. 

00:39:26 Josh 

Did you start in, like coffee shops kind of place, like small scale little places like that?

00:39:33 Jeff 

The first place wasn't a coffee shop. I always made it a point to have a speaker. So I always got a room somewhere. 

00:39:44 Jeff 

And then eventually we got like a really good space through a connection that I have with the Japanese agency. And that space is just really, really nice. Nice space. But you have to, if you're running a meetup, you just have to put the time in, every month. Recruiting speakers is probably the most challenging thing for me, finding a good speaker and then making all the arrangements and stuff. But it was a lot of work the first year and a half. 

00:40:20 Jeff 

But now it's kind of propelled itself forward. I have Sayuri Nishimoto, she's been great at helping me organize. She's a co-organizer now. 

00:40:32 Jeff 

We have 50 to 60 people show up. We have 2200 people or something like that on our event list. And so it's been really good. It's helped me make a lot of connections. A lot of people who have come to the event, 

00:40:52 Jeff 

Some people are looking for jobs and people have found jobs through the event. People have found connections. I think even some of the people that you've talked to on previous versions of your podcast have been to the event and that's how I know them. So yeah, so it's just been real. 

00:41:13 Jeff 

I had no idea it would turn into this, to be honest. I had no idea what it would turn into. 

00:41:19 Josh 

Great network that you built. 

00:41:22 Jeff 

It's fantastic and yeah it helps in so many ways. Finding, helping me find people. 

00:41:33 Jeff 

I don't say I get a whole lot of clients through it, but just the connections I think are huge. And there are opportunities. People come to me with all types of requests. I'm always happy to share. I introduce people in the meetup and say “maybe you should talk to this person over here”.

00:41:53 Jeff 

So yeah, it's been great. And yeah, I would just say, if you're starting your own thing in some field, I would really recommend trying to start a local meetup. And get some people who do the same technology, the same thing that you do. Get them into a room and start talking. You never know. 

00:42:20 Jeff 

You create your own luck, right? And quoting somebody else, but that's what you do. You get them into a room, get them talking, and then sometimes good things come out of it. But if you don't take the initiative, it's never gonna happen. 

00:42:37 Josh 

Yeah, that's great. Yeah well, what is another piece of advice you would have for someone wanting to start their own small business in Japan. 

00:42:49 Jeff 

Here's one, try to go solo, like as an individual “kojin-jigyo”  in Japanese, as long as you can. Because like once you incorporate, now your taxes are much more complicated. Everything's just a bunch more complicated. I realized my life was so much more simple as an individual than it is now. So yes, stay as an individual for as long it reasonably makes sense. 

00:43:31 Josh 

Okay, did you find that, was there a perception shift with your clients when you were able to officially say okay, I'm no longer a sole proprietor, or was that irrelevant? 

00:43:47 Jeff 

No, that's that's well, it's hard to say, alright. But definitely the level of clients that were willing to engage with me, and say ‘okay you’re an official company.’ You know we have our About page. Japanese companies' About-pages always have that table of what I think is completely useless info. But you know Japanese people check that to see if you're a valid business, right? 

00:44:18 Jeff 

And so having that page to be able to say, hey, we're incorporated. We had this much capital and all those things. It's just been really, I think it's opened some doors in terms of the size of clients that we can go after. 

00:44:37 Josh 

So what is something you're excited about right now? 

00:44:42 Jeff 

Well, I mentioned before, if the Hanko system goes away. Japan is accepting work at home. There's a lot of good things I think are gonna come out of this whole pandemic situation. So yeah, so I'm looking forward to that. Another interesting thing is I think LinkedIn will eventually take off. Eventually it's gonna make it here in Japan as well. There's been a lot of resistance to it right now. 

00:45:24 Jeff 

I honestly think over time that people will accept it just like they accepted Facebook or they accepted Twitter. But will the adoption rate be anything like those SNS networks? Absolutely not. It's going to be a very slow ramp. But yeah, I think corporate-wise, I think eventually it's gonna make a big impact. 

00:45:51 Josh 

With your experience in Silicon Valley, and being in the heart of Tokyo and the startup scene there. Are you seeing any similarities or they just complete different worlds? 

00:46:12 Jeff 

Silicon Valley, it's an amazing place, and there's so much talent there, and there's also this very entrepreneurial way of thinking. When I lived in Silicon Valley, I felt like every 4th friend that I knew was talking about starting a company. 

00:46:   Josh

So it's like a TV show?

00:46:36 Jeff 

Yeah, I mean people just, and most of 'em don't do it, but they at least talk that way, right? But like here in Japan,  there's obviously people who have that mindset. And it's wonderful to talk to these people and I've seen a bunch of startups. There's all kinds of funky startups in Tokyo. It's just the numbers are much fewer, and Silicon Valley, of course has this whole infrastructure for supporting startups, including VCs and all these other feeder companies. 

00:47:22 Jeff 

But in Tokyo it kind of has that, but it's just nowhere near the scale. 

00:47:29 Jeff 

But I think another big difference is it's so expensive to get started that the only grand ideas seem to get funded. You know through Y-Combinator or whatever the case may be. You know the big VCs they're looking for pie in the sky stuff, right? That's what gets their attention. 

00:47:56 Jeff 

Yeah, that's hard to do. 

00:47:58 Jeff 

Not, that's not something I honestly want to be part of, but yeah, so I see a big difference there. 

00:48:08 Jeff 


00:48:11 Jeff 

Like I said, there's a bunch of startups and there's some really interesting ones. But there's just not the scale or the infrastructure to support it in terms of like, the mindset of the VCs and whatnot. 

00:48:25 Josh 

Well in your industry, in the digital marketing world, do you see any changes or disruptions coming? 

00:48:38 Jeff 

Continually. There is always disruption. 

00:48:46 Jeff 

So it's all a matter of what's the next thing. 

00:48:53 Jeff 

I think when you talked to Donny Kimball before he had some really interesting thought provoking stuff. But I think in my world, I'm dealing with a lot smaller companies. Donny tends to deal with larger companies. I'm dealing with companies like startups or recently funded companies that wanted to enter Japan for the first time. For us, it's all about getting some kind of traction and the old way used to be, you run some ads, drive it to a landing page, get a couple leads ,or get a couple sales and be done. Or if you want to scroll back, even 15 years ago it used to be like you run a television commercial or direct mail or anything. But yeah, even but even now ads are continually getting more expensive. 


00:49:55 Jeff 

Especially, things like Facebook ads are very expensive now in the US, much cheaper in Japan but still increasing. And of course running search ads, they're also very expensive these days. You really gotta be careful about the ROI and in many cases it doesn't work anymore.  So you need to reach an audience, you need to find other ways. Social media is good. Most of the clients we work with, they tend to be in specific niche and writing good content for SEO content marketing. There's a content explosion going on right now. 

00:50:46 Jeff 

It's going to continue, but at least for the next few years. Yeah, you can still surf that wave. 

00:50:54 Jeff 

YouTube is huge, right?  There's a land grab going on in YouTube right now. Get there first, and if you can get there first and establish yourself as an influencer, you can subside or exist on that for a long time. 

00:51:14 Josh 

Yeah, Donny made some interesting comments about social media and his approach to creating one piece of content and then focusing on distribution of that which is sort of opposed or opposite to like a Gary Vee style of like be everywhere all the time. And kind of like see what works. Which side of the fence do you fall on? 

00:51:45 Jeff 

I think I'm not a big follower of Gary Vee 

00:51:51 Jeff 

But I read, what was the name of the article? Like 100 ways to repurpose content or something?

00:51:58 Josh 

OK yeah.

00:52:01 Jeff 

I mean, yeah, if you already established yourself as an influencer and you have this crowd of 1million followers or 500 thousand followers, you can tweet out stuff like ‘Oh yeah, I went to the bank today. ‘

00:52:18 Jeff 

I don't think that works for most of us to be honest. I think it's more of, you have to decide the channel that works for who you're trying to target. And sometimes it's just straight ads. It's an ads channel, because we have a client. Social media is not going to work for his business and then you know he has to do it all through search because, kind of like needing a plumber or something? 

00:52:56 Josh 

Yeah, the average person only really needs it. 

00:52:25 Jeff

There’s those and there’s others that want to build a relationship as a multi-step funnel type of thing. You want to nurture them along to point when they are ready to purchase. I think you can’t just say it’s one-size fits all, I think a lot of it depends on your niche.

00:52:50 Josh

Is there something you feel in Japanpreneur community should know about that we maybe didn’t cover?


I think there’s just lots of local events that used to be. I’m sure those spout out again. There’s quite a few. I would encourage you, if you’re in Tokyo or if you’re just visiting Tokyo, to join in some of those events and talk to other entrepreneurs. I’ve made quite a few friends. Talk to them and talk to others. Like I said establish relationships, put a LinkedIn account and continue the relationship from there.


Have you taken your local events online?


Yeah, the last two had been online events. That’s also been a challenge for us. We had this thing that worked really well in person events. How do we carry that over to the online case? We had to change some things. We tried to, what we think we’re the values, what we bring, that kind of atmosphere we create. Sayuri and I have worked really hard to try to transition that over. But to be honest we’re still learning how to do online events. 


Right, as we all are.


Jeff, if there’s any japanpreneurs out there who want to get in touch with you or find out more about Zo Digital Japan, where should they go?


The best way is to visit the website, or I’m also on LinkedIn, that’s probably the best way to reach out. I’m not a big twitter guy but I do have a twitter account.


Tokyo Digital Marketers group would probably pop up on Google search?


Absolutely! It’s on Meetup.com, I think it’s meetup.com/Tokyo-Digital-Marketers/


Jeff, thank you for being my guest today.


Thanks again for having me.


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