Rakuten is one of Japan’s biggest tech companies, yet it’s still relatively unknown in Europe.

It began as an ecommerce marketplace but has since diversified into areas such as instant messaging and banking.

CEO Hiroshi Mikitani aims to raise Rakuten’s profile outside of Japan with expansion plans driven by further acquisitions.

Mikitani, known as Mickey, detailed his strategy last week at Le Web in Paris.

His ultimate aim is to position the Rakuten brand as the centre of his global empire with three business divisions built around it: ecommerce, finance, and digital.

Rakuten bought Play.com for £25m in 2011 and is still in the process of switching it from a DVD and CD ecommerce store into a broader marketplace for third-party sellers.

The site will be renamed as Rakuten.co.uk as part of a restructuring plan that will consolidate all of the company’s online marketplaces.

Play.com's new look

Mickey hopes it will be able to mirror the success of Rakuten’s Japanese marketplace, where he said it has a “huge marketshare.”

A big proportion of the Japanese site’s traffic and sales (40%) come from smartphones, with mobile transactions set to grow above 50% in 2015.

Mobile is seen as key to the company’s future global growth and Mickey aims to become “a major player in mobile services.”

This is what spurred the acquisition of messaging app Viber earlier this year for $900m. Investors and analysts were underwhelmed by the deal as they’d hoped Rakuten’s major overseas mergers and acquisitions were coming to an end. 

But Mickey is confident that Viber’s potential for mobile gaming, digital content and commerce will enable him to grab a bigger share of the market from other players such as Line and WeChat.

He said:

In my opinion, Viber has the best technology, clearest voice connections, video works very well, and we recently launched public chat. It’s the most secure messaging app in the world.

Mickey emphasised that the quality of Viber’s voice chat service will be its major selling point in the future as users will want messaging apps with a combination of high quality text and voice communication.

It currently has 250m monthly active users and is adding 600,000-700,000 users every day, but it will still be a big ask to overhaul WeChat and WhatsApp.

Company culture

As part of the Q&A Mickey was asked why the new wave of Japanese tech companies have struggled to make an impact globally and whether Rakuten would be able to buck this trend.

He suggested that one main difference in Rakuten’s favour was the decision taken four years ago to force all employees to communicate using English.

Mickey described it as one of the most aggressive programmes in Japanese business history but said it had been a success.

It’s a very sensitive and difficult issue, but the outcome was significant. 80% of the engineers we hire are not Japanese, so we’re very diverse and our excellence comes from our diversity.

Having all employees communicate in the same language helps with integrating Rakuten’s foreign acquisitions into the company culture.

It also enables the company to more easily adapt to the characteristics of each local market.

Mickey said that if you need a translator to speak to someone “it’s almost impossible to become true friends or family.”

For more on Rakuten’s APAC competitors read our posts on Tencent and Alibaba, or download the new State of Mobile Marketing in Asia Pacific Report.

David Moth

Published 15 December, 2014 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

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