When Yasmine Djoudi and Thomas Pouplin moved from France to Japan for their studies, they noticed a persistent problem among their fellow students: they had a lot of free time and not too much money to spend.
That was hardly a revelation. But at the same time, they became familiar with Japan’s army of white-collar workers who crowded the trains at the end of the day, exhausted, with no time to even pick up their laundry. The duo figured they could help both groups with one #startup.
Djoudi and Pouplin launched Ikkai in Fukuoka in 2016 to help match students with individuals who needed to hire someone to do daily odd jobs. After a few months, however, they realized the website they had created was increasingly being used by companies to recruit students for short-term jobs rather than individuals who needed help with personal chores.
So Ikkai started exploring more ways to help students with their future job-seeking prospects. Gigging with corporate clients can give the youngsters a much-needed head start in terms of work experience. The startup also gathers a lot of relevant data in the process, which could be useful further down the line to both recruiters and job-seekers.
With Japan’s unemployment rate currently around the 3 percent mark, people are not exactly out of options for jobs. But as the salaryman lifestyle takes an increasingly high toll on people’s wellbeing, the gig economy that has sprouted in other countries could suddenly seem appealing to Japanese youth.
Ikkai realized the service was increasingly being used by companies rather than people who needed help.
“The thing we knew and others didn’t seem to realize is that students in Japan are not lazy and actually want to learn things and polish their skills,” Pouplin says.
The startup isn’t without competition. Tokyo-based Anytimes is another website that lets people post odd jobs for others to take up. Zehitomo also matches workers to short-term gigs and just raised US$1.5 million from 500 Startups and other investors. Ikkai’s founders feel their specific focus on students and corporate clients set them apart. That said, Matcher has a similar focus on helping students land future opportunities by pairing them with older, established professionals.
At the moment, Ikkai has 157 client accounts and about 1,500 students on its platform, with a gross merchandise volume of around US$180,000 last month. “Yes, we have fewer users than other platforms but most of our users are active,” Pouplin points out.
Ikkai just raised US$180,000 from individual investors in its first external funding round. Its backers include lawyers, finance people, and marketing specialists mostly based in Japan.
The company will spend the money on an expansion to Tokyo, where it will be able to reach more students. It will also update its tech to improve service and gather data more efficiently, launch an iOS app, and hire engineers for its Fukuoka headquarters and sales people in Tokyo.
Currently it is eyeing more Japanese cities beyond the nation’s capital, but looking ahead it would like to expand to other markets, like Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s also looking toward China, but has a slightly different idea for that market. “The Chinese market already has big players in the sharing economy and we won’t probably be able to compete on that side,” Pouplin says.
Instead, Ikkai’s data aggregation offering would aim to provide job market insights in terms of skills and personality traits employers are looking for. “All of that information tends to be neglected by recruiters nowadays,” he explains. Ikkai plans to get the relevant data for China by partnering with a local sharing economy company and put it to use.
The founders chose Fukuoka to headquarter Ikkai as it’s a special economic zone in Japan. It’s also a sister city to Djoudi’s and Pouplin’s home town of Bordeaux. That, combined with their love for Japanese culture, was what brought them there in the first place.
“The city is working hard to gather entrepreneurs and help startups a lot,” Pouplin says. For example, it helped them get a startup visa. Other factors, like the relatively low cost of doing business, the less stressful day-to-day life compared to Tokyo, and the founders’ existing network of students to tap for the service, cemented the decision.
“The difficulty with a marketplace is to reach that sweet spot between having enough job providers and students,” Pouplin explains.
The startup has had difficulty convincing universities of the value of their service so it falls back on direct communication with the students to get them on its platform. “We believe that our service will be extremely beneficial to students in the long run – we need universities to understand that,” he adds.
Converted from Japanese Yen. US$1 = JPY 112