The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The best thing about being a founder is being able to do whatever you want, meaning you have full control over the business, and full decision-making powers.

That’s what Oya Koc, co-founder and chief executive officer of Japan-based on-demand interpretation services provider Oyraa, told The ACCJ Journal when asked why she started her own company. “At the end of the day, even if your employees make a mistake, and even if that mistake escalates, you have to take responsibility. I enjoy even that.”

Koc says she takes full ownership of what happens at Oyraa. “I seek out new opportunities and, every day, meet other founders, CEOs, and high-level people. That’s an intellectual and physically active game.”

Via Oyraa’s smartphone app, users can call a pro­fessional interpreter any time and receive real-time language support.

Having struggled to gain traction in its first year, the company is now expanding, as well as generating revenue and profit.

What’s more, Oyraa is looking to expand beyond Japan. The company has a near-term goal of entering markets in Asia. Then they want to move into Africa and beyond.

Global Consultant
Oyraa connects its users via three-way conversations with third parties, allowing interpreters to act as linguistic intermediaries who reduce language barriers.

This leads to the question: How is the platform monetized? Clients pay the interpreter after a call, Koc explained. Calls are charged by the minute at an average rate of ¥100.

“So, a one-hour call will be around ¥6,000, which is trans­ferred to the interpreter. Oyraa deducts a 20-percent service fee.”

Is there a growing need for such services in Japan? Yes, Koc says, pointing to the everyday struggles—beyond a need for interpretation—that non-Japanese people face here.

An example: “As a foreigner, you may receive a letter in Japanese, which you may not be able to read, let alone machine translate. What you can do on our app is take a picture of the letter—or anything that you’d like to have translated—send it to an interpreter or translator, and receive the translation.”

Beyond services for individuals, Koc anticipates demand among companies for interpreters and translators to increase. She points to global events such as the Rugby World Cup 2019, which ended last month, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Looking even farther ahead, Oyraa has plans to expand their services beyond on-demand interpretation. The company aims to become a platform for solving linguistic challenges no matter the industry.

“We don’t want to be only a translation service, but also a service where you can call an expert in any field that can talk to you in a certain, precise language. Let’s say you’re a Chinese citizen who wants to naturalize and become a Japanese citizen. You will want to consult a Chinese-speaking Japanese lawyer. We want to provide that service.”

Technical Talent
Originally from Turkey, Koc was born in Ankara and raised mostly in Istanbul. She majored in electronics and tele­communications engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul.

“I was always good at math and sciences rather than social sciences,” she recalls. “Math and science were like a game for me. I really loved being a student and solving problems.”

It was in part due to her interest in telecommunications that she decided to relocate to Japan, where she would stay initially for a two-month summer internship.

“At the time, I was super interested in semiconductors, and I was looking for an internship position. I ended up in a factory run by Omron Corporation in Shiga Prefecture.”

That was 2006. One year later, she visited Japan once more—again interning at the same company—and at others in the years that followed.

Eventually, Koc decided to relocate to Japan for graduate studies and conducted research in precision engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In her first career move, she joined global management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Tokyo. In her third year at BCG, the idea of Oyraa came up.

Friend Whisperer
Koc remembers receiving calls during her time at BCG from foreign friends who lived in Japan. They called asking her to interpret for them due their lack of Japanese.

“One of them was at the immigration office, trying to explain their situation. They asked me if I could say the same thing, but in Japanese.”

On another occasion, a friend whose daughter was admitted to the hospital with a high fever called Koc, asking for help communicating with medical staff.

“That was a really critical thing,” Koc said, thinking back to the condition of her friend’s daughter. “She was in a hospital, and I’m not an interpreter, and I don’t know medical terms.”

Noticing that such situations were occurring more and more, she wondered whether there was a professional, on-demand service she could introduce to her friends.

There was. However, those she found were all aimed at companies, not regular people in need, like her friends. And most offered only a subscription model; there were no pay-as-you-go options.

“So, I thought, what if I make a platform for freelance, professional interpreters, and leverage a global setting so that the service is available 24 hours a day? This means, even if it’s 3:00 a.m. in Japan, an interpreter in another country, say the United States, may be awake and available to take the call.”

The answer was Oyraa.

Will to Win
In the early days, Oyraa struggled to create a minimum viable product (MVP), and to build a cohesive team.

“Creating a company is a very challenging journey. There are many ups and downs. It starts off as your baby. It’s like a living thing that you love, and you want to give it your best. So, when good things happen, you feel 10 times happier. But when bad things happen, you feel 10 times down.”

Having learned lessons from those early days, the company now has a strong team to lead its future progress—including a dedicated product development team.

“I decided that I couldn’t take any risks, so I outsourced our product development to a software company,” she said. That decision was a game-changer: within two months, Koc had a new product—an app that she could show to investors to raise more funds.

“Then we started growing the team. We hired customer support, sales, marketing, a product manager. Everything started to work.”

What does Koc think now, looking back at that difficult time?

“It was challenging mentally, because you have to make things happen with limited resources and limited financial and human power.”

She said she decided to do whatever it took to make the business a success—and it has worked.

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.