In June, the Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC) announced the winners of its 16th annual business plan challenge for aspiring entrepreneurs and executives, with 18 different nationalities among the 55 participants. This year, nine project clients received individual business plans for at a fraction of the market rate, prepared by teams under the mentorship of senior Tokyo-based businesspeople.
Participants sign a non-disclosure agreement before starting their business plans because JMEC requires them to be privy to clients’ confidential information. Many clients immediately, or later, put into action the business plans, with a number becoming lucrative additions to their portfolio of products, services or business solutions.
JMEC is a non-profit organization supported by these chambers of commerce in Japan: American, Australian & New Zealand, Belgian-Luxembourg, British, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Enterprise Ireland, the Netherlands, Swedish and Swiss. JMEC also receives corporate sponsorship from the business community in Japan. The dual objectives of the program are to provide hands-on business training to individuals living and working in Japan, while helping foreign businesses to enter or expand into the Japanese market by providing high quality, reasonably priced business plans.
JMEC’s program director is Laura Loy, who has been with the organization for the past 3 1/2 years. Originally from New Mexico, Loy spent two years in Kumamoto before taking up her job at JMEC in 2007.
GP sat down with Loy to hear more about JMEC.
Is the program getting more popular each year?
Definitely. It was a challenge three years ago to fill the number of slots for the program. We have now capped it at 60 participants. Last year, we had 100 applications.
When does the cycle start for the 17th project and what costs are involved?
JMEC 17 program information sessions will be held in September and October for anyone interested to learn more. The deadline for participants is Oct 22. They pay a fee of 125,000 yen each. For project clients, the deadline is Nov 19. Their fee is 1.2 million yen; however they qualify for an early-bird discount if they apply and pay in full by Sept 30. Their fee is then 990,000 yen.
How does a business plan originate?
JMEC was originally created to help foreign companies enter the Japanese market. Recently, there has been a demand by companies already here who wish to expand, launch a new product or service, and maybe target a new market niche. The companies come to us and tell us their needs. Oftentimes, they don’t have people in house with the time to do market research, so they prefer to contract it out to a neutral body to take a look at. Because the JMEC teams are neutral, they typically come up with out-of-the-box solutions that are more difficult to achieve by a team more closely involved with the project.
I will meet with all potential clients to see if what they want is a good fit with JMEC, so that they get a good business plan and the team gets a good experience. I also look to see if it is something that can be achieved by the team within four months.
What happens next?
After clients have been accepted and paid their fees, we put together a short thumbnail description of the projects, but not enough to reveal what company it is, to the 60 participants and ask them to rate their preference. Then we put the teams together. For 10 projects, there will six participants per team. We balance professional skills and nationalities. From the first Saturday of November, we begin a series of lectures by businesspeople to help give the participants the resources they need to be able to write a plan. This goes on for five Saturdays in a row.
What is the average age of the participants?
About 32. All have a Bachelor’s degree and at least two years of work experience in any field. This year, about 30% of the participants were Japanese. All the participants are very passionate. What they are doing is like a mini-MBA, and it can lead to a job. A few years back, the project client hired two members of the team to implement the plan they had written. It’s a logical step for a company entering the market because they already have this pool of six people they can draw upon.
What happens after the lectures?
In mid-January, we brief each team on their project. At that time, we ask the project client to appoint a liaison officer. Each team has a business mentor. The team then has two weeks to put together a statement of work. Once the team, mentor and project liaison officer have all signed off on it, from that point, the teams are working pretty constantly with the help of their mentor and a financial consultant, as well as support from the JMEC staff. Each team member devotes about 10 hours a week to the project. The teams don’t meet at coffee shops because of the confidentiality. Usually, it is at a team member’s home or office, or occasionally at the client’s site.
When is the judging done?
Before Golden Week, the teams turn their final business plans in to JMEC — four printed and bound and one digital copy. We send three of the printed copies off to the JMEC judges and one copy to the client. The judges have a month to review the plans. Then the teams come to Temple University, which is one of our sponsors, for a whole weekend and they have an hour to make their presentation to the judges, including 30 minutes of Q&A. The winners are announced in June at the annual JMEC Awards Ceremony.
Can you tell us about some successful plans in the past?
The most well known one is Lloyd’s, which participated in JMEC 2, 1994-1995. The company asked its JMEC team to come up with a simple way for customers to conduct foreign remittance transactions. The result was Go Lloyd’s: Fly Your Money Home, a service widely used in Japan today. But there have been many other successful JMEC plans over the last 16 years — too many to list.
How well known is the JMEC competition?
The chambers of commerce have introduced us to a lot of potential clients who are now aware that they have this option to get a high-quality low-cost business plan. Overall, our strongest resource is alumni and word of mouth is incredible.
As program director, what do you focus on?
Since we start the program year on July 1, I spend much of the summer preparing for the upcoming lecture series and competition, contacting chambers and getting the word out to their members. I go to a lot of networking events.
Find out more about the work of JMEC and how it helps foreign business in Japan.