“It’s unavoidable that the identity of a person who wears glasses is closely connected to their glasses. After all, those glasses are part of who the person is.” This is how 41-year-old Masataka Nakajima, CEO of Scramble Co., Ltd., the producer of Groover Spectacles, explains his philosophy.
In 1998, Nakajima joined his father in operating the eyeglasses retail store in Nakanoshima that his father had been running since 1975. While helping customers select frames and fitting them to customers, Nakajima began to see a need for frame designs that weren’t already available in the market, designs that would really define the wearer. By the early 2000s, Nakajima was trying his hand at designing eyeglass frames himself, using feedback from his customers to come up with frames in distinctive shapes and lens sizes calculated to make the wearer feel good about themselves as a person.
At first, it may seem a curious jump to make, from retailer to product designer. But Nakajima had originally studied graphic design and before joining his father’s business he had worked on designing packaging. This makes his drive to design easier to understand.
A bumpy road to success
Driven though he may be, Nakajima’s road has not been an easy one.
When he first started designing frames, Nakajima had no means of production, so he had to outsource production of prototypes. Then he had to somehow show those prototypes to customers and convince them to buy. It wasn’t until 2007 that he was actually able to land his designs on a few noses. It helped that some of his friends were willing to buy his designs, and he even got some print magazine coverage that started to spread the word.
Still, progress has been slow. He began to attend trade fairs as a means to heighten awareness of his designs and he began to get some orders from stores across Japan. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters caused a bit of a set-back, as both sales and trade fair attendance dropped that year.
Expanding to production and export
Like many SMEs (small/medium sized enterprises) in Japan, Nakajima believes that export is an essential part of his overall business plan. His earliest attempts at export were to Taiwan, where he worked with a partner to generate sales. While there were some sales, he doesn’t feel the venture was particularly successful.
In 2014, Nakajima tried attending an exhibition in Paris. Interestingly, this brought his designs to the attention of a number of Asian distributors and generated orders. His designs have enjoyed particular popularity in Hong Kong ever since, with China and Korea also showing promise. Customers are attracted to the uniqueness, or perhaps individual expression, his designs offer.
It was around this time that Nakajima decided there was enough business, both domestically and in Asia, that he should start up a factory and go into production for himself. He was spurred on by the financing practices of Japanese banks, which are apparently more willing to extend loans for factories than for retail activities. The first bank he approached rejected him based on their view that eyeglasses are a declining market. The next bank specifically asked him if he had expansion plans, which motivated him to develop the growth plans for frame production that enabled him to secure financing.
It also helped that Japan’s leading eyeglass frame manufacturer, which has a century of history and about 90% of the market share, had decided to close down its Tokyo production facility and consolidate operations in western Japan. This meant that there were skilled craftsmen in the Kanto region now available for him to hire. And quality eyeglass frames such as Nakajima wants to make require specialized skills to produce. Nakajima now employs five such skilled craftsmen in his factory.
Yet he reports that the biggest challenge he’s faced so far in his venture has been getting his factory up and running. He chose to site the factory in Kanagawa largely because of local support that was available to him to do so. Since he was born and raised in Kanagawa, it was a fortuitous confluence.
Nakajima also turned to JETRO for assistance in 2016. JETRO's support enabled him to attend an exhibition in the U.S. later that year. On the heels of the exhibition, he started making cold calls on retailers on the U.S. West Coast. Sometimes JETRO staff even accompanied him. And they continued to support him, even in dry periods when he wasn’t selling anything.
Persistence and dedication to the craft
Nakajima chose the targets for his cold calls based on the fashion appeal of the individual shops, eschewing chain stores for boutique shops. He tried phoning or writing before his visits but usually got no responses. Thus he resorted to his cold call tactics. Between his tenacity and his designs, over time the cold calls, and repeated visits to show off new designs, proved to be a successful practice. Only two stores he visited showed no interest whatsoever in his wares.
Still, it took about two and a half years before he began making substantial sales in the U.S. “There have been plenty of times when I’ve thought of giving up. It’s tough going.”
Although it’s been a long, hard road, Nakajima has persevered. In addition to support and assistance from JETRO and Kanagawa Prefecture, now he’s also got sales representatives for the American Midwest and West Coast, as well as in the Asian countries where his products are selling well. He’s also displaying his products at trade exhibitions five times a year, in Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York. The reputation of his designs is slowly building, both overseas and in Japan.
'There have been plenty of times when I’ve thought of giving up. It’s tough going.'
In keeping with his philosophy that eyeglasses are an intrinsic part of the wearer’s identity, Nakajima is always trying to design frames that are distinctive (he says he doesn’t like the word “unique”) and make a statement about the wearer. There are even some celebrities, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Britney Spears, who own his frames.
At the same time, Nakajima has conducted market research in the U.S. that showed his designs are particularly popular with older American women and African-Americans. To build sales with the former demographic, he’s even looking into a tie-up with a major American cosmetics company that will leverage the strengths of both participants.
Now that Nakajima has established a factory, a means of producing both prototypes of new designs and filling orders for designs, he feels empowered to be more creative in his design work. Yet, Nakajima says that when he’s showing samples of his designs to generate orders, the designs already feel “old” to him. He’s already thinking about the next season and new designs.
Indeed, it seems Nakajima is a man who is always ready to face the next challenge, never wanting to declare victory or rest on his laurels. “I can’t really identify any particular success I’ve had. The past is the past and I want to look forward. I’m still ‘on the road’ to wherever it is that I’m going.” Nakajima notes that being an entrepreneur is a lot of responsibility and various worries. But he accepts that and just gets on with things, managing the business he’s built while also looking for new areas where he can innovate.
'I’m still ‘on the road’ to wherever it is that I’m going.'
An example is a science/technology project Nakajima is now working on with eye doctors, trying to develop special lenses with laser display or that will project by laser directly into the wearer’s eyes. Still in its early stages, he’s now considering what more he can do with this project and where it might go. It could be an interesting merger of lens production with utilitarian frame design.
While Nakajima has come a long way from where he started, he still keeps going, developing new designs and now, new products. This enables him to help consumers and also to satisfy his own drive.To find out more about Scramble and Groover Spectacles, see the company's official website here: http://groover.tv/
This is the eighth story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces 12 businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.
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- Iwai Sesame Oil: The taste of one family business 160 years in the making
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