Managing business cards on the cloud

Sansan Global sets its sights on becoming No 1 in Singapore before expanding in S-E Asia.

AT his previous job, founder of Sansan, Chika Terada, had to wait six months just to get an appointment with a potential client, only to find out that his higher-up knew the exact same person he had tried so hard to reach. If only he knew the contacts his bosses had. And this was the inspiration that led to the creation of Sansan - a cloud-based business card management service.

Founded in 2007, the Tokyo-based startup established its Singapore subsidiary, Sansan Global in October 2015, employing Rio "Popeye" Inaba to helm its operations in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region. Explaining that his previous boss gave him the nickname due to his physique, Mr Inaba goes by the moniker Popeye these days, saying that the name stuck as it's easy to remember.

In an interview with The Business Times, Mr Inaba highlights that the power of business cards as a networking tool should not be underestimated. Instead of going through the arduous process of rummaging through name card boxes or manually keying in contact information, he says, using a cloud platform not only saves time and money but increases efficiency.

How it works

Essentially, Sansan's service enables companies to leverage their contacts in a collaborative way. Once employees have set up accounts, they can either use the mobile app or a customised scanner to register data from business cards. The system then transcribes information onto the cloud, creating a comprehensive database.

A key feature of Sansan's app is the ability to share contact information within an organisation, regardless of hierarchy or department. As Mr Inaba puts it: "Sometimes you need to reach out to somebody you don't know, so you need to get the right introduction. At the end of the day, business card information is a company's asset."

He adds that sharing business contacts is akin to sharing knowledge, and will not only generate better sales, but add a personal touch where clients' preferences may be keyed into the system for posterity.

"If my co-worker has met that person before and leaves a memo that this client prefers red wine instead of white, I can access the system and know this even without asking. So these kinds of small things, it's a big thing, particularly in Asia where relationships are so important."

Additionally, Sansan's system automatically detects similar entries so that information remains relevant. Say a colleague scans a business card with a name you previously registered into the database. In the event that your contact gets a promotion or switch jobs, you'll receive a prompt and be updated on his/her new particulars, making follow-ups fuss-free.

Asked about what makes Sansan stand out from competitors in the market, Mr Inaba cites two things - simplicity and accuracy. He asserts that if a service is not simple, people will not use it.

"There might be similar products, but I think we can bake the pie bigger. Right now, not many people realise that they can manage business cards with the cloud, so our responsibility is to enlighten business users that there's a solution."

Though some have likened Sansan's system to LinkedIn, Mr Inaba says that Sansan's service is more accurate as people are less likely to lie about their designations on a business card, as opposed to LinkedIn where credentials are keyed in by users themselves. On this note, he states that Sansan's system provides an accuracy rate of 99.9 per cent.

In Japan, where Sansan has an 80 per cent market share, the company's service is also adopted by banks and the government which values privacy highly. Mr Inaba points out that the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) is very strict in Japan and that business card information is considered personal information which should not be readily shared.

Interestingly, to comply with Japan's PDPA, Sansan had to innovate and come up with a piece of separation technology where information on business cards are cut up into pieces to be validated by different operators. These are then placed back together like pieces in a puzzle, so that no one operator sees a person's business card as a whole during the validation process.

That Sansan managed to secure substantial financing - 3.98 billion yen (S$53 million) to be exact - is also testament to the fact that the company is doing well. Among others, investors include, the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan and Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm DCM Ventures.

Mr Inaba highlights that this was made possible as the company has been experiencing tremendous top-line growth, with revenue doubling every year and about 5,500 corporate users worldwide. Within Singapore, clients comprise mostly of business owners and small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Examples of organisations that have adopted their service include Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Albirex Niigata Singapore FC.

That being said, Mr Inaba affirms that a challenge is the divergent needs of various markets. Before relocating to Singapore, Mr Inaba was in the US and Indonesia. He explains that even within a country itself, certain areas might be more into the business card culture than others. According to Mr Inaba, not many people exchange business cards in the West Coast as the business culture is more casual and people shake hands by way of introduction. However, in certain markets such as the East Coast and Central US, people still use business cards.

For Mr Inaba, venturing into new markets bring about both challenges and excitement.

"So the challenge is that you have to go into the market to find out the problems by yourself. Unless you go, you never know," he says.

Citing that few people change jobs frequently in Japan, Mr Inaba adds that he did not realise executives in Singapore had problems retaining contacts when some salespeople would switch jobs every one to two years, taking their clients' information along with them.

For this reason, digitalisation of a company's business contacts is useful and Mr Inaba is sanguine about prospects for the Singapore market, where the business card culture is still very much alive.

Future plans

Besides Japan and Singapore, Sansan also has plans for further expansion. In the long run, the company intends to penetrate larger markets such as the US and Europe. Nonetheless, for the next two to three years at least, Sansan has its sights set on the South-east Asian market where the company sees huge potential for growth.

Mr Inaba says: "For us, the Asean market is big with over 600 million people. However, one thing we have to make sure is that we have to be No 1 in the Singapore market because it's the centre for Asia and so advanced."

He adds that founder Mr Terada's vision is to incorporate the system so seamlessly that it becomes part of an office's infrastructure, much like the ubiquitous copier or printer machines we see in workplaces today. Joking that being acquired by Salesforce could be an option in the future, Mr Inaba is hopeful that an initial public offering becomes plausible in time to come.