On the Move

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2002

Office Noa's Nancy technology may be just the thing for video on the small screen.

by Bruce Rutledge

NORIKO KAJIKI, CEO AND president of Office Noa (http://www.nancy.co.jp), infuses even the drabbest corporate setting with color. She likes discos, wears flashy clothes, smokes with an elegant cigarette holder and delivers her corporate message with a flair that is part executive in the boardroom, part mama-san in the local pub. During a recent meeting, Kajiki frequently broke away from her corporate spiel to take pictures of her male guest with the cellphones and PDAs laid out in front of her. "Does that make you nervous," she would ask coyly, then continue her spiel.

"The merit of being a female company president (in Japan) is that I can enter a business meeting casually," she says. "When men get together to do business, they exchange business cards and lots of papers and they're really serious about everything. I'm different. I cut to the chase, show them the phone or the product I have, and in a short time, we can get very close."

In a short time, Kajiki has gotten very close to companies on several different continents, finalizing 16 alliances during the summer months of 2002 with companies such as J-Phone, Vodafone in Europe, Voice Stream in the US, LGT in South Korea and AIS in Thailand to use her video-streaming software, Nancy. "By the end of December 2003, I want to be holding a glass of champagne and celebrating the fact that Nancy is the de facto world standard," she says. As we went to press Kajiki clinched a deal with China Mobile to use Nancy in the Middle Kingdom's first movie mail service.

Simply put, Nancy is software that is about half as heavy as MPEG but does the same thing: It allows users to watch video. Nancy is being used in J-Phone's Movie Sha-Mail and Sharp's Zaurus PDA, for example, and the company has signed agreements to have it in the Sony Ericsson P800 handset, Nokia handsets and other big-name products.

Keeping Control
Kajiki and her team of 25 or so engineers, salespeople and support staff resemble in some ways the tech startups of several years ago that have too often faded from sight. Office Noa has an outrageous number of foreign alliances for such a small company, and they're all driven on a mixture of Nancy technology and Kajiki personality. Kajiki keeps three packed suitcases in her office -- each one containing clothes suitable for different climes. She seals every one of the company's deals herself and claims all the traveling and negotiating is "fun."

But Office Noa has some major differences with the long-gone dot-coms. For one, Kajiki says she has "absolutely no interest" in leading her company to an IPO. "I own 100 percent of this company, and I want to run it the way I see fit. If other investors were involved, I'd have to explain everything I'm doing. I don't have time for that," she says. "I've had requests from all over the world to sell shares in the company. And I've refused them all. Everyone knows Office Noa is not for sale."

Another difference between Office Noa and the startups of the Net bubble is Office Noa's corporate roots. Basically, Kajiki launched her company in the 1980s as a dispatcher of 'companions,' the Japanese-English term for those attractive young women who grace booths at exhibitions in Japan, and 'race queens,' the women who pose beside the winning cars at auto races.

Kajiki got an early start in business by working part-time for an art dealer while she finished her junior college degree. "It was before the bubble, so I was dealing with the real rich people," she recalls. "It was around then that an associate told me, 'You are going to be successful in business; you should run your own company.' That's how I got the startup money -- from someone I didn't really know that well. And I told them, 'If I lose all your money, sorry'."

"There's a lot of money in that business, so they were employing all these pretty women. We'd go out to dinner and discos and have fun. I like that kind of thing. So I decided I could be the manager of these freelance models," she says.

A key turning point in Kajiki's career came in a swank Tokyo restaurant when she was just 20. "One of my friends was approached by an older customer in a restaurant who said, 'Please be my model'," Kajiki recalls. "She came back to the table and told me what happened and said she thought that because the restaurant was so expensive and well reputed, this guy wasn't likely to be just another weirdo. Then she asked me to be her manager.

"So I went up to this man and introduced myself as my friend's manager and politely asked him his name. It turned out he was the president of Yanase. Now he's the chairman," she says. For the next three years, Kajiki's friend worked as a model for Yanase, and Kajiki worked as her manager. Kajiki and Jiro Yanase struck up a friendly working relationship, and when it was time for Kajiki to name her fledgling company, he offered to choose the all-important moniker.

This was an offer Kajiki couldn't refuse. But she had to choke back her disappointment with Yanase's selections: Shardy and Heart-to-Heart were the first two. The last one on the list, Noa, was the safest. "I looked at the list and told him, 'chairman, we'll take Noa'."

It's in the Name
But the name that is driving Kajiki's company these days is Nancy. "We decided not to give our technology a name filled with numbers," she says. "We have Western female names for all our computers and for all our product development projects. Nancy was one of those." Nancy has been in the works for about nine years. It was in the early 1990s that Kajiki felt Office Noa needed something new to keep it relevant after the bubble. The companion business was fine during the boom years, she thought, but the 1990s was the age of 'multimedia.' So they set their sights on that and soon began focusing their R&D energies on MPEG.

Why MPEG? "Japanese were sometimes called 'yellow monkeys' by Westerners," Kajiki begins matter-of-factly, "and the yellow monkeys were bashed when it came to high tech (in the early 1990s). Westerners would say, 'That's our territory.' But we found one niche. The Walkman and mini-components pointed to the Japanese skill in making things small. We wondered if we could compress or reduce the technology used in MPEG."

That sounds like a perfect formula for the keitai age, but at the time, cellphones were far from Kajiki's mind. Office Noa was focused on CD-ROMs and all the technologies along the way to Hi-Vision TV. Cellphones were a footnote at best. She headed to Silicon Valley to gauge the level of interest in her fledgling technology in 1996 and found that several big names there, especially Apple, were interested if Office Noa would work exclusively with them. With Apple, she almost bit, she says, but a key person who had developed Office Noa's trust announced that he was quitting Apple, and that was enough to scare Kajiki away. Who says the importance of face-to-face business has faded in Japan?

Narrowing the Focus
Kajiki has a clear independent streak about her. She decided any exclusive alliance with an American company would reduce her ability to run the company in the way she likes. So, after walking away from Apple and others in 1998, she turned her focus on how to make Nancy viable in Japan: focus on cellphones.

By 2000, Nancy was ready to go into keitai. Kajiki decided to show a live rock concert at Tokyo Dome via cellphone at 9,600bps in December of that year. It wasn't fast -- the frames seemed to click off one by one -- and there was no sound, but plenty of young cellphone users thought it was cool enough to watch on their handsets. Soon the Japanese media and even Reuters were beating a path to Office Noa. Nancy had come of age.

Kajiki readily admits she's no engineer. She sees her role as an 'interpreter' explaining the technology in simple terms to other clients as well as to the public at large. She regularly gathers groups of teenage girls in her office to see what's hot with the young consumers who fueled the rise of i-mode and plenty of other fads. "Japan is a really crazy market," she says. "In China, Korea or the West, people look at price first." Not in Japan; the land of early adopters.

Kajiki has already set her sights well beyond Japan's shores. She says she's confident Nancy will be the de facto domestic standard for viewing video on cellphones and PDAs sometime before the end of this year. The popularity of J-Phone's Sha-Mail service has boosted her confidence. But now she wants to take on the world. Is it too much for this 25-person company tucked into the cozy Azabu-Juban neighborhood of Tokyo? Kajiki seems unfazed by the prospect of failure as she lights up another Mild Seven Superlight. "Anyone can do this. You just have to try. That would be my message: Don't be afraid to try." @

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