On Wednesday, April 12 Fukuoka Now attended the launch event for Ikkyu Tea, a Fukuoka-based company founded in March 2016 with the sole aim of selling Kyushu green tea and promoting the wider culture and cuisine of Kyushu to an international market. After the presentation we interviewed one of the four founders, Stephane Camus. We think our readers will enjoy hearing his story and hopefully find it inspiring to start their own business.
In Japan: 12 years
Identity : Director / Ikkyu G.K.
We obviously have to start with the presentation today. We’re very impressed with the presentation on Ikkyu. It obviously wasn’t built in a day.
No. So, as with all projects on the internet, it started out with a small idea. It started when we (Aldo, Joelle and I) were coming back from aikido together in the car, discussing how we should start a business in Japan. We thought ocha was a good idea, because it’s light and we like the product. The initial idea was solely for a site from which to sell green tea, but from there you have many possibilities. You could just buy tea from the supermarket and sell them on Ebay, or you could come up with a different idea. So step by step we tried to trim the idea, trying to decide what angle we could take. Of course, we went online and looked at other websites selling green tea, because there are some. In the beginning we were focused on cheap prices, and from our perspective this was a mistake because with tea you have to pay for the shipping. Handling the tea with shipping would be too expensive for us, and if you are paying ten or twenty dollars to ship something from Japan you want to buy a product that is worth it. So that’s how we came up with the idea of having better quality tea, especially with the packaging we now have. I would add to that that I really enjoy working with my partners. They had already worked with growers in Chiran (Kagoshima) where they worked with tea makers, so they already had some contacts and knowledge, and were already familiar with high quality tea. Things have come together.
I’ve heard a little bit about your background in business and specifically IT. Can you give us a brief summary?
Yes, my first job was in France for an American company who later fired me and then hired me again the next day in their American office! So I moved to America and lived for five years in San Francisco. At the time, from my office, we could see a little startup called Google. This was in 2000 as I went there in 1998. We just thought it was an interesting name! So my work there was in computer trials and software testing. Although I enjoyed life in California, staying in the US for long term was not for me, so I quit my job and before going back to France, I took a long trip to Japan. And that’s where I met my wife. We met on the train actually; I sat next to her and thought she was very nice and very good looking. I don’t know what she thought of me at the time, but we married two years later in 2004 and I came to Japan in 2005. And so I’ve been in Japan for over ten years now in Fukuoka. We had planned to marry and stay in France, but I hated my job, it was really bad, so I quit my job in France and the day after our wedding we moved to Japan.
And what did you do for work when you moved to Japan?
So when I moved to Japan I was working for my cousin who has a business in France. I was working for him remotely and that was my first job here. The second job was opening a shop, which was maybe not the best idea I’ve ever had in my life. But I had a little bit of money from working in America, so I opened a shop in Fukuoka. It went under water very quickly because I had no experience, nothing. But during that time my wife and I made a website for a business which sold table cloths, and actually that website is now working really well. So we had this experience of working in Japan in online shopping. I was actually surprised at how well it went and my job became working for Maison decor. Meanwhile my wife was working for a company in Fukuoka, an IT company. The next thing, my brother, who is in France, was an antique dealer, and he suggested that we create a website for selling antiques in France. The idea is that you have this platform for selling, where all these antique sellers would come to sell their products. We started in 2009. This website, it’s called Proantic.com, is the biggest website in Europe for selling antiques. It has 800, almost 900 customers, and there are altogether 70,000 objects at any time on the site. So this is a French company owned by my brother and I. I did a lot for it, including making website and managing IT things like I do for Ikkyu now. With this idea, my brother wanted to gather everyone on the same page because many antique dealers have their own websites and if you’re small on the internet nobody sees you. So we made this big thing and it worked. And when something works like this it’s because you had a good idea and some talent, but mostly it’s about luck. You’re at the right place at the right time. We were in the right place at the right time, and this website became huge. My wife quit her job and she is now taking care of our business in Japan, Maison Deco.
You already have two online businesses; what’s unique about Ikkyu? What’s different this time?
What is different this time is that there’s more risk. We buy tea from the tea makers and in eight months we either need to sell it or throw it away. It’s a perishable product so there is a risk that we didn’t have with tablecloths because our business model was completely different, and it’s not a risk we have with Proantic. Ikkyu is also different because it’s all about exports, so it has to be an international business and we have to make content in English and make it accessible to as many people around the world as we can. Another difference is the network we have to develop with tea producers and investors. When I started with Proantic and Maison Decor, it was just about us and our products. Now we’re trying to develop a global image for Kyushu involving such a wide range of people. We have today, at the presentation, shared our big ideas, but now we need to take it step by step. Chottozuttsu, as the Japanese expression goes. And this is the way I like to work; yes, long term goals are important, but we need to focus on what we’re doing right now. We have just launched our website, and now we need to make it alive, sharing it with people. These are our next steps.
What are you most proud of so far?
I’m not sure I would use the word proud, but I would say I’m most happy about working with people I get along with so well. Each of us has our own set of knowledge, expertise, and strengths. Aldo is a master of design and I know a lot about databases and customer experience, for example. It’s in some ways very similar work to when I was testing software in America, working on the user interface. My understanding is that you should make it simple. Not too much text, but just clicking here or there and that’s enough. So that’s something I’m really happy about; working with these people. Something I’m proud of as well is the process of working with the tea producers. We go to out to visit them, meet their families, go out in the fields, and you can see the knowledge they have. It’s really nice to enrich yourself with this knowledge, and it’s a great pleasure for me to meet these people in these places. The day that we officially created the company with all the papers and receipts, I just felt so proud. Thinking ‘wow, we made our own company in Japan’.
And what have the biggest challenges been so far?
The biggest challenge is probably time management. You need time to think, time to develop, time to take care of your various businesses. So managing the time is hard. More specifically on Ikkyu, my biggest challenge now is to produce content for the magazine site, and also creating links to our website so Ikkyu will become more visible. It’s okay, because we’ve only just started, but I know how it is to run a website and I want to have more visibility so this is the challenge we’re really working on now.
The site was launched recently. What’s the next stage?
The next stage will be to add tea ware. Now we’re selling tea, the next things we want to sell are teapots, cups, and things like that. We do have some now, but they’re not necessarily local to Kyushu. So we want to find tea ware makers whose products we can sell on the website, because we really want to develop this network within Kyushu and share it internationally. There’s also this possibility of business in restaurants. Fukuoka is definitely one of the main food capitals of Japan alongside Tokyo, and you hear about it on the radio and read articles about it often. So we are maybe in the right place at the right time. Part of the challenge is to reach people working in this restaurant industry who will use their influence and share the products they have discovered in Kyushu more widely. And hopefully green tea will be a part of that.
So you said that you’ve been in Fukuoka for 11 years and you were very proud to establish your company Ikkyu here. Tell me, what is Fukuoka like as a place to live and a place to do business?
The main thing about Fukuoka is ‘sumi yasui’, it’s easy to live in. It’s a city that has everything, in my opinion. If you compare it to Tokyo, it’s a village, it’s very small. But Fukuoka is a dynamic place and you can feel it. For example, when the sinkhole opened in front of Hakata station I was seeing articles about it posted by friends around the world. The way that Fukuoka was able to fix it so quickly was incredible. Fukuoka was able to turn something negative into a super positive image. Looking at that, I could see the dynamic of the city as I experience it right now. Fukuoka is one of the rare cities in Japan whose population is still rising. I think it’s also the second biggest student city, after Kyoto, in Japan, so there really is a healthy dynamic. Where I live is a little bit sad, because we still have rice fields but one after another they have houses built on them. It’s a bit of a shame. But on the other hand, Fukuoka is alive. As a place to do business, Fukuoka is often compared to Seattle, which is a link they are really pushing at the moment. I think this is a smart image to adopt, having had experience of the growth in places like Seattle and San Francisco.
Any advice for foreigners interested to setting up a business here?
One thing I would say is don’t do what I did: if you’re coming to Japan go to a Japanese school and learn Japanese for at least six months. I didn’t do it because I was too busy, too lazy. I always had a good reason not to do it. I do speak Japanese now, but it’s not very good and I’m not proud of this. Many foreigners are like this and learning Japanese is very hard, but it’s important. When someone is coming specifically to Fukuoka, I would also say buy a bicycle and cycle around. It’s not all about Tenjin or Daimyo; you should explore everywhere. Try to expand your physical boundaries and move around the city more, it’s definitely worth it.
What do you do in your spare time when you’re not working?
I try to do a lot of things when I’m not working. I look after our four cats, which is way too many cats. I do a lot of aikido as well. People coming to Fukuoka should know that you have one of the greatest aikido masters, Suganama-sensei, living here in Fukuoka. Many people move here specifically to train with him. He’s really one of the greatest men I’ve ever met. I also do a lot of kyudo with my wife, which I love. Doing these things helps keep me in touch with Japanese culture, particularly kyudo which has very few foreigners participating in it. For me it’s a very interesting way to learn about Japanese people. I also have a bicycle, which I love to ride around the city and spend some time thinking on.
In closing, is there anything more you would like readers to know about the Ikkyu project?
I would tell them that, if you’re interested in green tea, you should try to get information about the different types available and find a Japanese person who is willing to explain how to make it properly. That’s a very important point because the way you make green tea will affect the product drastically. Someone who has knowledge of the method will make three completely different cups of tea with the same water. The first time I had this experience I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it. It’s like a punch inside your face, in a good way. Somewhere to go to try tea made properly is Yorozu. It’s a great place to take friends or family visiting you in Fukuoka. You will ask if they’ve ever had tea before, to which they will probably reply ‘yes’. But the answer is ‘no’; before you have tried tea from Yorozu, you have never drunk tea.
You can find out more about Ikkyu by visiting the Ikkyu Tea website. You can also read about Ikkyu’s launch here.
It’s our pleasure to introduce the many interesting non-Japanese living in and around Fukuoka. If you know of someone whose activities might be of interest to other readers, please let us know.