The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

On June 11, The Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC) brought to a close a five-month process, as part of which 54 individuals from 14 nations were divided into 12 teams, with a goal to create 12 business plans for companies with real Japan market entry needs.

With support from the JMEC community, corporate sponsors, as well as 17 chambers of commerce—including the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ)—the awards ceremony acknowledged the great rivalry and awe-inspiring hard work of all participants.

For a behind-the-scenes insight into JMEC, The Journal caught up with entrepreneur Debbie Howard, emeritus president, ACCJ, and a judge at this year’s JMEC awards and Betsy Rogers, JMEC assistant program director.

The Journal also spoke with Andrew Scott, a young executive in Tokyo and a member Team Galileo, whose business plan for Pink GmbH won them this year’s first prize; and Joice Chan, general manager, BIC Group Ltd., and a JMEC alumna.

What is it like to be a winner?
Scott: It feels amazing. It’s one of those things that, when you work as a team to win something, it means more than when you’ve just done it by yourself. Because . . . you have had to overcome some extra barriers, like little disputes [with team members], and then, at the end of it, you have the prize in your hands, together [with your team], it feels amazing—it’s something else.

What was the main thing you learnt from this process?
Scott: Aside from learning about the extremely strange and particular industry that we were asked to research for the project—which was void-free soldering, and if you can tell me what that is, then I’ll salute you—the big thing was, when you are . . . in your day-to-day job . . . you kind of forget about the things that you bring to the team, in a way, because you take it all for granted. And sometimes you forget about the things that you don’t do so well. [At JMEC] you learn about other people and how they interact with you. It is [also a] really great experience as a self-development exercise.

What did you make of JMEC before you joined?
Chan: I knew not of JMEC until I received mail in my inbox two days before the submission deadline for JMEC20. I jumped at this opportunity and I am now proud and happy with my spontaneous decision. After participating in JMEC, I think it is a great program for both locals and foreigners in Japan [as it enables] a global mindset.

Do you have any tips for future JMEC participants?
Chan: As a JMEC alumna with no previous business management experience, I suggest future candidates digest what there is on offer in the lectures, and communicate well with mentors and consultants [as well as] with their own teams.

What did you learn from JMEC?
Chan: The JMEC experience gave me the ABCs in doing business. It also gave me confidence in approaching clients and developing my business.

What was your impression of the quality of the participants at this year’s JMEC?
Howard: Excellent. We always have a great group of participants, and I think what impresses me most is how well (and creatively!) the diverse types of members from a variety of work backgrounds come together to meet the challenges they are presented with.

What do you look for in a good team and business plan?
Howard: I look for practicality and logic, as well as strong market research evidence (and a good, strong marketing approach) to support each team’s recommended course of action. As a foundational aspect, I also look for neatness and accuracy, since the real business world does not reward sloppy work.

Why do you think JMEC is important?
Howard: It is an extremely productive way for the foreign business community to literally “help itself” by collectively developing and improving the business skills of the very types of young professionals that we wish to be able to hire.

I don’t know of any other program in Japan (or anywhere in the world, for that matter), that does such a high-quality and sustainable job. JMEC participants have produced over 200 business plans over the past 21 years!

The other important aspect of JMEC is the strong international business community that we’ve created over the years. Since 1993, JMEC has accumulated1,072 graduates, and the JMEC community—including participants, lecturers, mentors, and advisors—is over 2,000 strong. It is a virtual “who’s who” of “doing business in Japan,” and serves many as an important network going forward.

What is your secret to success in the Japanese market?
Howard: As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never give in. Never! Never! Never!”

What do you look for in a good team and business plan?
Rogers: We do our best to put participants in balanced groups according to their native language abilities, industry background, nationality and personality.

We pair each team with a mentor and a consultant, who help guide the team, provide feedback, and introduce them to key contacts in the industry to interview and gather information.

The business plan needs to present a solution to the statement of work as directed by the Project Client. Their research and financials need to support their ideas. As for what is a good business plan, it is a culmination of the above plus the three judges’ feedback.

The judges read each plan three or more times. In addition, they focus and take the lead on one third of the plans. They score each business plan and also score the team’s oral presentation of their plan and ideas. The team with the most points “wins.” I put that in quotation marks because every team wins.

To write and present a business plan for the first time with a group of people you have only known for a few months while giving up your weekends for four months is a challenging task. During this time, participants may get married, juggle overseas trips, or have babies—[you name it].

In addition, while the top three teams win prizes, such as airline tickets, a tablet, or a cool bag, the difference in the number of points between the first seven teams is really quite small.

Why do you think JMEC is important?
Rogers: The format allows people to be creative and to think “outside the box.” It is a chance to take on a leadership role, a role that a participant may have limited opportunity to undertake in his or her own company.

JMEC is also an opportunity for participants to see if they want to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, start their own business, or learn about industries and markets outside their current field of work. At ¥125,000, it is an affordable exercise.

We also have a number of companies that regularly send employees through our program to give them more international business experience—Hewlett-Packard Company, Louis Vuitton Malletier, the Tokyo American Club, and Custom Media K. K.

For more on JMEC information sessions, starting dates, application deadlines, costs, or a chat with alumni and organizers, please visit JMEC online (www.jmec.gr.jp/) and on Facebook.