Hiroko Shimo

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2000

CEO, Onna.com

Another female Japanese Netpreneur pushing a woman-centered online community? Another content site targeting that tantalizing demographic, the female Japanese surfer? At first, Onna.com CEO Hiroko Shimo struck us as someone we should have included in our April feature on Japan's groundbreaking women Netpreneurs, but we were surprised to discover that Onna.com is based Stateside. Shimo was here in Japan to attend the Venture Business Support Symposium hosted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as an example of -- get this -- an American venture business. What's more, Onna.com's pitch session to a VC in Israel last December may have been a first: a US Net startup staffed by Japanese entrepreneurs pitching in Israel to obtain backing for a content venture targeting female surfers in Japan and worldwide. Web business is nothing if not global. Accompanying 30-year-old Shimo on this trip to Tokyo was Nicholas, her five-month-old son, already a veteran (albeit in utero) of many a late-night entrepreneurial planning session, and Hisami Ohshiba, Onna.com's VP of marketing. Editor at Large Daniel Scuka caught up with them after the symposium.

What, exactly, is Onna.com?
Hiroko: Onna means "woman" in Japanese, and we intend to provide content and community focusing on women. There are many other media -- print, radio, TV -- but they are one-way, [and broadcast] to the audience only. We wish to create [a channel for] the authentic voice of our users, and reflect what they are thinking, what they want, and what they need. Of course we have our own message that we wish to communicate, but we also want the content to be provided from the users -- from their point [of view]. Onna.com will have an e-com solution for selling products, and we'll have reviews, articles, and content related to women's issues. For products, we'll have our own recommendations. We'll also provide a unified messaging system that includes email, voicemail, and efax.

Where's your audience?
Hiroko: We're located in the US, and our audience is primarily in Japan, but also includes Japanese women living overseas. And of course I want to share [women-focused issues] with women all over the world. Women especially like to talk, to discuss problems. We will create a space where people will come [to share their opinions].

How big is your audience?
Hiroko: We think we'll get 500,000 active members in the first year. It's a big number, but we think that since we're targeting all Japanese-speaking females connected to the Net, we'll be successful. Hisami: Women control some $11.1 trillion in household assets in Japan. Mail order is big. We just need to tap into a slice of that to be successful.

What's an example of an issue Onna.com will cover?
Hiroko: There are many issues such as career, relationships, and travel, and of course, I'm interested in ... babies! [Raising children] in Japan is really, really hard. [From] kids and education [to] choice of baby carts and car seats -- there are many issues. So if I lived in Japan, I would want to get information from all over the world, and find out what [women] in different countries are thinking. Also, I didn't know how difficult living in Japan with a baby [could be], especially with small babies -- one or two months old. So, [if women] can share opinions and feelings -- feelings of stress -- and maybe speak up, say 'This is a problem,' or something like that, they'll feel better. Of course, in Japan, there are telephones, but that's one to one. With the Internet, we can talk to lots of people -- one to many or many to one. Hisami: Basically we created Onna.com to get inspired, and inspire others -- by women, for women. That's our theme. Japanese women enjoy the freedom to go shopping and to travel. But after they get married, they have a baby, and ... bam! They have to face reality: a husband and a mother-in-law. They are skilled, but they have no opportunity to use their skills. We want to create a community at Onna.com where they can share and get inspired. And this is not only a business. With the Internet, women finally have a chance to participate.

When was Onna.com established?
Hiroko: The company was established in October 1999. We are headquartered in San Francisco and have an office in Tokyo. I got the idea for a women's site in June of last year. Actually, I wanted to start a business of some sort, and I started writing a business plan and finished in August.

And your launch date?
Hisami: We did a soft launch in May, and the full launch is scheduled for August.

What's the difference between doing your business in Silicon Valley and in Japan? If you're targeting Japanese-speaking women, shouldn't you be here?
Hiroko: Good question! I lived in Japan until I was 26, and then I got married to an American and went to the US. When I started Onna.com, I tried to raise money in Silicon Valley first -- it's close and the Internet is quite hot. So I spoke to a VC and he said, "Let me think about it -- Japan's a little far." So, I decided to try raising money in Japan. I tried to talk to VCs here, but [I was asked a lot of questions like] "Why do you need a women's site?" "What's the difference -- is it a portal or what?" Of course, all the VCs were men. I brought along my business plan for Onna.com -- and that raised even more questions: "What's this name?" "It's too strong." or, "It's too direct." Some of the VCs even suggested that we use a cutesy name -- they told me that's what Japanese women would like. I'm a Japanese woman, and here was some Japanese man telling me what I would like -- I didn't like that. So unfortunately, I couldn't raise money in Japan.

So you had no money, and you went back to Silicon Valley?
Hiroko: Yes -- we tried again. We were introduced to an Israeli VC. Actually, I didn't go to the pitch meeting -- I was pregnant [laughs]. This was in mid-October, and I couldn't fly due to airline restrictions on pregnant women. Our people were successful, though -- the VC was able to make a quick decision. We picked up $3 million in our first round.

So you set up in the US because that's where you were and that's where you could get funded?
Hiroko: Yes. In the US, if you get an idea, you can find the people to help you implement it right away. In Japan, it's very hard to find the right people. The whole environment (in the US) is better for us. Things move quickly.

How can Japan become more friendly to entrepreneurs?
Hisami: Japan needs people who can help entrepreneurs. Professor [Sachio] Senmoto said that in our culture, nobody accepts someone who has failed -- and that stops people from becoming entrepreneurs. In the Valley, it's different. Like Hal Nissley, chairman of International Angel Investors, has said: 'I don't believe a person who has never failed.' Failure means that someone has experience. There are no role models in Japan. If people cannot see -- visualize -- how to run a successful business, they can't succeed. But you know, in Japan, there are lots of educated, sophisticated women, and they're the key group for the Internet economy here -- they've got tremendous purchasing power.

What got you thinking you'd like to be a Netpreneur?
Hiroko: I've always felt like I wanted to do something and that I wanted to help women. I realized that I had to get into a position to do that -- otherwise no one will listen to me [laughs]. My husband's brother runs a restaurant -- I used to help him out, so I really got interested in business. I was sure that I wanted to start a Net business, and I thought I had to go to school and get an MBA: that's the Japanese way of thinking! (laughs) But my husband said, 'No. Just do it.' I thought, 'OK, I'll give it a try.'

Do you still think you need an MBA?
Hiroko: No! [Laughs]. I'm learning plenty right now!

What keeps you going each day? How do you improve?
Hiroko: Well, personally, I have to look after Nicholas. But in addition, I try to learn from my mistakes. When things go wrong, don't beat yourself up -- learn and go on to do better tomorrow.

Will there be an Onna.com IPO?
Yes. But in the right environment.

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