In 1997, working out of a spare bedroom in his home in Saitama Prefecture, Spencer Wolfe started his company AINEO (Greek for praise), a consulting firm building contact centers (customer service centers) and dealing rooms.
It was a risk as he had no customers, just some technical skill and an idea. But Wolfe persisted and his entrepreneurial spirit paid off. Today, AINEO is Japan’s fastest growing cloud communications service, helping major brands as well as small companies communicate better with their customers and each other.
AINEO offers three main services. TRIBE Support, a high tech IT engineering service; QuickerWeb.com, which provides cost-effective business email collaboration, at partner-centered attention with boutique style; and third — and the company’s fastest-growing sector — Circle Communications (formerly known as iPBX hosting), a secure and cost-effective cloud phone service which offers chat, phone, video and document-sharing in one app.
Japan Today catches up with Wolfe to hear more about the past, present and future of AINEO.
Where are you from and what first brought you to Japan?
I am originally from the Seattle area in the U.S. but spend more time in Texas these days. I first came to Japan with a U.S. judo team for a month in 1986. I had studied Japanese in high school and university, so I came back to Japan to work in 1990. I was with Ricoh for four years and then moved to AT&T where I worked for another four years.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I felt I could do something better in the communications sector than what was available or being offered by other companies. It was a risk, though. When you go from working at a company with 150,000 employees to just one person, it’s pretty scary. I got two phone numbers in Tokyo and forwarded them to my home in Saitama where I had a spare bedroom with a phone and fax. It was really lonely at first because I had to sell and implement whatever I sold. The trouble is, when you are implementing a technology, there is no one getting new projects. I quickly learned to surround myself with a spunky team that I like to see myself. There was no cloud computing in those days, but I knew communications technology and it paid off. So now, here we are — in business for 22 years.
Tell us about your main services.
Every technology we develop, distribute, or engineer helps our customers communicate more effectively. One is TRIBE Support which is like the IT manager in your office. However, we are focusing less on this and more on the cloud. Our second product is QuickerWeb collaborative business email. The bulk of our business, though, is Circle Communications.
Instead of installing a phone system or mail server in your office, it’s all in the internet cloud. We have added hundreds of customers each year with thousands of users. The whole process seems to be speeding up now with more and more organizations wanting to cut business risks and operating costs by getting to the cloud.
Our customers used to be mainly foreign-based multinationals but now they are all Japanese. Originally, we were servicing foreign companies because some of our software supported English only. When we introduced Circle, we brought some tech from Europe, localized it, developed provisioning and billing systems around it, and put everything into Japanese.
How has 2019 been so far in terms of sales?
It has been a fantastic year. We have such a reliable and robust service, now every day we get a new order. Some of our customers have tens of thousands of employees and others have four or five. It doesn’t matter because our system supports it all.
Is it a competitive business?
In Japan, there is a lot of competition but mainly they are insecure open source-based systems. Circle is GDPR compliant. That is a European standard for customer data protection. Everyone is required to be compliant otherwise you can’t operate in Europe. Our core service is phone based, whether it is the phone on your desk or an app on your iPhone or Android device. Within the Circle app, I can call someone, chat with them or SNS them. The competition doesn’t have everything integrated like that.
How do you get new customers?
We have 20 sales partners selling Circle in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and elsewhere in Japan. They are real estate companies that bundle phone services with new spaces, system integrators, individual sales agents, architectural firms, building owners, travel agencies and many other industry-related sales organizations.
I hear you are going to rebrand your iPBX Hosting service.
Yes, we’ve already started but it’s official on November 1. iPBX Hosting will be officially renamed Circle. It brings the whole gamut of services full circle, so to speak. There are a lot of apps and systems to update from softphones for your computer to mobile devices.
Circle gives you the ability to have everything in one place — chat, phone, video and document-sharing in one app. It is a communication commodity. Everybody needs it and that’s why we have had such good growth in our business.
What areas of the business are you hands on?
I used to be pretty hands-on in all the business areas. Now I have a really good sales team and we have amazing partners that see how Circle becomes a key part of any business they bring. I am more involved in the systems side, financial systems, digital marketing and getting that level higher. Our strength is we have the best, most reliable and secure service in Japan nationally. We encrypt every communication between you and your team. Our challenge is showing the market that there is no other business communications cloud that can compete with our Circle Communications at this point.
How many in your team?
Currently we’re approaching 20 players. Our sales partners are our distributors, while our employees are our players. Really, it’s all about teamwork. We’ll probably be hiring more developers along with some other positions we are filling now as we move forward.
Do you like to meet customers?
Yes, I do. Recently, I went to a meeting of a large company in Shibuya with many group companies. It was fun to talk with them because I could hear how they are using our service and what features they would like us to add or modify. We’re in the world of software these days; that’s why so many Japan-based manufacturers seem to have lost their way. Meeting customers is the best way to bring Japan’s technology usage levels higher to get more done for our country.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
We’re keen about work-life balance at AINEO. Our team work hard between 9 and 6. I believe that if you work until late, you’ll be tired the next day and less efficient. Also, if you have a strong family life, you’ll be a good player on the team.
The last two or three years I have been trying to spend more time with my children. Sundays are family days. We got rid of our TV and we noticed that we talk a lot more.
Recently, friends managing other businesses have said I have become a MAMIL — that stands for middle-aged men in lycra; in other words, cyclists. I bought a British bike that folds up and I take it with me on business trips and ride another bike on weekends. It’s a great way to explore the cities I go to. I go to Europe a lot because we have software suppliers in Germany and Sweden. Japan also is a great place to ride with the cycling paths along rivers and nice mountain roads, it’s hard to beat Japan for cycling.© Japan Today