Isshu Rakusai, 32, was always something of a computer prodigy. He taught himself to program at the age of 12 and launched his first startup, Kamilabo, when he was still a high school student in Kyoto. Its service, Kamicopi, “was like Evernote, but before the cloud,” he tells The Journal.
By his second year of university, Rakusai licensed Kamicopi to Japanese software company Just Systems, maker of the country’s number-two word processing software, behind Microsoft Word. It became a hit, generating ¥300 million ($2.5 million) in total sales for the company—of which Rakusai kept a percentage.
In addition to attracting his first big business deal, Rakusai’s early success also caught the attention of the Mito Project, a Japanese government-led initiative that provides financial support to young IT geniuses.
Project manager Toshiyuki Masui, then at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, became Rakusai’s mentor. Masui was himself a star in the corporate tech world as the inventor of Sony’s predictive text input system for mobile phones.
On a Japanese 10-key keyboard, his system is what suggests full phrases and Chinese characters based on typing the first character or two associated with it.
After completing his master’s degree in 2007, Rakusai relocated to Palo Alto, California, determined to start another venture. Kamicopi had been a hit in Japan, but he “wanted to make tools that would nurture creativity for global users.”
He enlisted two developers back in Japan and got to work building new products as the CEO of the newly formed startup Nota Inc. Around the same time, Masui had also relocated to Silicon Valley to take a job at Apple Inc. There, he was in charge of developing the Japanese input system for the iPhone and its own predictive text function.
Still in contact, Rakusai lived with his former mentor for his first two months in California, while house hunting with his wife. Masui joined the budding startup as a technical advisor.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Over the next three years, Nota had some small successes, one in slideshow creation app Photo Peach, which Rakusai says is still bringing in money. But the startup struck gold in 2010 after Rakusai returned to Japan, with the lessons he learned in the United States in tow.
“In Silicon Valley, I learned the importance of keeping a product simple, so literally everyone from every culture can understand it,” Rakusai says. “That’s a problem in Japan, and something we should [teach] more here. Japanese products are often made for Japanese only.”
That October, Nota unveiled Gyazo, a cloud-powered screenshot app that would become the startup’s flagship offering. It allows users to share screenshots more seamlessly by instantly copying a custom URL to the user’s clipboard. The image link can then be pasted into an email, chat, social network, or elsewhere on the web.
Rakusai approached Gyazo’s launch with a take-over-the-world mindset that was honed in California. Instead of launching in Japanese first, he insisted on launching an English version at the same time.
“I knew that just translating the Japanese version to English wouldn’t work, so we made two completely different versions,” he explains.
“We had a lot of discussions about making the copy and descriptions better. Our press release drafts were written by Masui, then cleaned up by a marketer we hired in the US, then discussed again. There were, and are, always many iterations when we put together a release or an update.”
Gyazo had its big break later in 2010, when celebrity developer Paul Irish name-dropped the service on his personal blog—www.paulirish.com. Irish, an American, is considered a world leader in front-end web development, particularly for Google Chrome. Rakusai’s product wasn’t rocket science, but it worked—and users started pouring in.
Available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, Gyazo is now complemented by an iOS app called Gyazo Shuriken which syncs desktop screenshots with connected iPhones and iPads. An update last year also added the ability to capture GIFs, up to seven seconds long, by drawing a box around on-screen videos.
HUMAN MEMORY MEETS SEARCH
The latest update to Gyazo adds in something called Ivy Search. Finding image files can be a major hassle, even when you’ve renamed them or added tags.
You might recall a great photo of you on the beach in Okinawa, for example, but realize that it’s hidden somewhere among hundreds of images in your unsorted “vacation” folder.
Ivy Search is removing the guesswork for Gyazo screenshots by combining metadata with a sophisticated association algorithm.
When an image is captured, Gyazo scrapes the metadata, including the URL of the site it came from, the title of the page or document itself, what app it came from, its geolocation, and the date and time it was captured. Users can also add their own tags and descriptions to enhance searchability and draw additional associations.
Rakusai and Masui showed a sample search for “Kyoto.” Gyazo’s Ivy Search function returned images of the city itself, Nota’s Kyoto headquarters, headshots of Kyoto University professors, and a bowl of ramen from a local Kyoto restaurant.
Clicking the bowl of ramen then reveals a page full of ramen images, along with seemingly random images taken on that same day. Selecting one of the ramen images then reveals images of Tokyo, the city where that bowl of ramen originated.
The results mimic the way human memories work, the way we can recall moments associated with the mental image that pops into our heads when reminiscing about something.
If you lose your wallet, for example, you immediately start going back through the places you visited and the people you saw around the time that you think you misplaced it, hoping for the location of the wallet to reveal itself.
“We nicknamed it the Gyazo Brain, because it suggests what’s already in your mind,” Rakusai says. “If you have a hazy memory that you saved an image on the same day that you went to a specific restaurant, searching for the restaurant could actually make it pop up.”
Capturing such specific data could throw up some privacy flags, but Rakusai insists that the data is encrypted and only accessible by the uploader. Ivy Search is currently available for Ninja users (Gyazo’s $3 a month premium tier), but a limited version will also soon be launched for the free version.
Nota was bootstrapped until last year, when the startup raised $2 million from Opt, Yahoo Japan’s YJ Capital subsidiary, and Miyako Capital, Kyoto University’s investment fund. After closing its first funding round, Masui came on board full-time as chief technology officer.
As of June, Gyazo boasted more than 10 million monthly active users. Approximately 86 percent of them are outside Japan—an impressive feat for a Kyoto-Silicon Valley hybrid. It’s made even more impressive by the fact that it has two powerhouse competitors back in California: CloudApp and Evernote’s “Skitch” service.
“Users say things like ‘I Gyazod it’ or ‘you should Gyazo it,’ ” Rakusai says. “I think very few services are used as a verb like Google.”
A host of high-profile Japanese tech firms—including DeNA, Cookpad, Raksul, LINE, NTT Data, and Mixi—are already using an open-source version of Gyazo for workplace productivity. The startup is planning an enterprise version called Gyazo Teams.
“Gyazo Teams will be a [software-as-a-service] version of Gyazo,” Rakusai explains. “Images will have completely private URLs so that people outside of the team cannot access them. We’ll also provide custom domain names and logos if users want to share links with their customers.”
Rakusai envisions Gyazo Teams being used for a variety of businesses, from development teams to user support. Instead of being told via email or text chat to click through a series of menus, Gyazo would allow support staff to make simple GIFs that actually show the process.
While Nota maintains a US office in Menlo Park, Rakusai is in no rush to leave behind the temples and gardens of Kyoto. “At our size, I’m very satisfied to be in Kyoto,” he adds.
“It’s easy to get talented engineers here, and most of ours come from Kyoto University. There are no big [startup] competitors, so it’s easy to attract high-level students. Compared with Silicon Valley, I think the [standard] here is actually higher.”
With his dreams of going global already a reality, Rakusai is content with being the local hero of the Kyoto startup ecosystem—at least until the serial entrepreneur gets his next big idea.
J.T. Quigley is a contributor to The Journal and the Japan editor at Tech in Asia.
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