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Taking risks to succeed | Q&A with Sansan regional CEO Edward Senju

Written by Taro Ishida Published on     6 mins read

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Japanese cloud-based contact management firm Sansan went public in 2019 after reaching unicorn status the same year.

Edward Senju is the ASEAN regional CEO of Japanese cloud-based contact management firm Sansan, based in Singapore. During his eleven years at the company, he has overseen Sansan’s efforts to expand internationally, including launching in India and in Southeast Asia.

Founded in 2007 by entrepreneur Chika Terada, Sansan provides a CRM (customer relationship management) solution designed for enterprises or medium-businesses. It allows users to scan and upload business card information to the cloud to then share these contacts within an organization.

In 2012, the firm also released a free app named Eight, which targets individual users. The platform digitizes business cards and allows users to link their Eight accounts with other social media platforms to automatically connect with new contacts online.

Sansan went public in 2019 after reaching unicorn status the same year.

Senju recently talked with KrASIA to share more about his personal journey and his time with Sansan.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): You have lived in different places like Japan, Mexico, and the US. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey and how you felt living in different cultures??

Edward Senju (ES): My parents are both Japanese, but I was born in Mexico. Around that time, in the 1980s, Japan’s economy was booming. My father was a banker and he was working for a small rural type bank. But even these small banks had branches all over the world and they moved to Mexico for work. I was raised as a Mexican because my maid was kind of like my mother at that time. We came to Japan for a very short time, and then I went to the US when I was like five years old. I grew up there until I was 12-13 years old. At that age, I didn’t feel like a Japanese person. I was born in Mexico and I was talking Spanish but I kind of lost it when I went to the US. I went to Japan to attend university and then started working in Oracle. At that time, I finally felt that emotional feeling of being Japanese.

The reason why I chose Oracle was that I really wanted a unique professional experience. When you join a Japanese company, you’ll see everyone the same way, how they work and dress. Even during job hunting periods, everyone needs to dress up in a boring suit. I saw that and thought, okay, there’s no reason to spoil my personality and throw it away to just join a big Japanese company. I decided then to pursue working for a global company instead.

Kr: After some time working at Oracle, you moved to Sansan which was then still a startup. What were the differences in the work culture between a corporate firm and a startup? 

ES: I was trying to move from Oracle because I had enough of that big corporate culture, especially with people working in silos. One person sells databases and only does that. Another person only oversees partnerships. All Japanese companies have this silo structure so your power within a firm is weak.

The founder of Sansan, Chika Terada, put me in charge of human resources, so I was the person who needed to create the culture. Our concept was to make a company where we really wanted to work, and I didn’t hesitate to change things away from the basic customs of Japanese culture. Compared to typical companies, it was much freer.

However, when I was talking about this career change, people would say I was crazy. People were saying that a company that digitizes business cards won’t grow. They would also ask me why I wanted to throw away my career. Yet, the people who joined Sansan were the ones who overcame these doubts, so we tried to outline a different culture in our company.

Kr: Many Japanese startups and companies tend to mainly target the Japanese market. Why has Sansan taken an outward approach?

ES: Initially, we were trying to focus on business connections. The business card was the tool to manage the business relationships. We wanted to define these business encounters by exchanging cards as our domain. If we think from that perspective, there’s no way we should be limiting it to Japan so, from the initial concept, we had this global plan. Our founder, Terada, worked in Silicon Valley for a while doing investments over there. Our co-founder, Kei Tomioka, was born in Hong Kong and worked in China, so our team had global experience already.

Sansan’s Singapore team. Photo courtesy of Sansan.

Kr: You mentioned that Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki has inspired you during your career. In what way did he inspire you?

ES: He brought a big change to our company. One of the biggest problems we had before our IPO was scaling. You need courage to actually scale. When we launched our consumer mobile app, Eight, we wanted to market it for a monthly USD 10 plan for individuals. But when we did the projections, the numbers were too low. We asked ourselves, ‘why do we want to put in our time and work on this? How can we change how people meet?’ We were pretty much struggling for two months.

We were looking for ideas and then Nobukazu Kuriki came to one of the conferences that we attended. In his speech, he said that startups are climbing a mountain where they can’t see the summit. This guy was risking his life to share his mountain climbing experiences. He climbed without oxygen and live-streamed everything so to share that excitement with others. This made us ask ourselves, ‘what’s the most challenging thing that we can do?’ So we decided to make the app free and truly believe in what we were doing.

We released the product in 2012 and it boomed in popularity. Kuriki himself came to our company to use our product as he was collecting donations for his climbing expeditions and needed a platform to manage these connections. We offered him our services for free. Three years after that, he died going down Mount Everest. He fell down a crack but until the last moment, he didn’t quit his expedition. I think about this whenever we discuss risk. It is nothing compared to what he did.

Kr: Due to the language barrier and a very different culture, Japan has a reputation for being a difficult place for foreigners to work. Is this still the reality or has it changed over the last few years?

ES: It is changing slowly compared to the past. If foreigners want to take more important roles, companies and the way they position people needs to change. In the past, managers were the people who spent 10-15 years at the company and after that time, they could take a test to become a manager. That was the basic structure of the human resources departments, and there was no way for foreigners to come in and take that test, which was also completely in Japanese.

Recently, however, more people are changing jobs instead of staying for 10 years or so in a company. People now understand better the concept of startups, so they are moving around a lot more than before. If it gets more flexible, there is potential for foreigners to step in and take managerial roles.

Compared to other countries, Japan doesn’t have the culture to write things down. One example is the job descriptions. A typical job description in Japan will just say ‘full-time job.’ It doesn’t define what kind of job you’re going to get. The company just needs you to fulfill basic skills. In Japan, we look for people, and then, we will put them into the position to meet the needs of the company. But overseas, jobs are related to a specific position and they are described in a very detailed way. Foreigners are used to this type of job description. This maybe causes difficulties and is something that needs to be changed. 

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