Bespoke is the developer and operator of “Bebot,” a concierge service chatbot (an automated AI program users can talk to) aimed at foreign tourists. Created with the idea of delivering “an experience beyond that of a guidebook,” Bebot is currently available in four countries, assisting 35,000 travelers every single day.
Akemi Tsunagawa is the CEO of Bespoke, which was also one of the participating companies of the X-HUB “US East Coast Course.” We asked Tsunagawa about how the company established a business presence abroad, the challenges they have faced, and the importance of entering acceleration programs for startups thinking of expanding overseas.
- Bespoke was founded in 2015. Did you intend from the beginning to expand your Bebot service overseas?
- Our staff hails from all over the world, from France to China, Poland, US, Malaysia, Italy etc. so we don’t think of the world as just “Japan and everyone else.” When we were established in 2015, I just happened to be in Japan, and that’s when the number of foreign visitors started increasing along with the demand for inbound tourism. Additionally, Japan was and is a huge market so we just naturally started with it.
- At the time, there was no company offering chatbot services for foreign tourists in Japan. We were the first so we didn’t have to worry about price competition and were able to decide ourselves what was the best market price for us.
Then in Singapore’s case, their government’s Tourism Board heavily subsidizes the hotels there. By taking our service to Singapore, we can have the hotels cover 70% of our expenses with their government subsidies, allowing us to sell our product there in the same price range as in Japan.
- Does this mean you got market quotations from countries other than Japan and Singapore?
- Yes. Besides the chatbot, our service package also includes collecting user data, helping raise sales per customer, customizations for improving profitability, and consulting.
- But we only offer those packages in Japan and Singapore. In all other countries, our service is just the chatbot, making it very inexpensive. However, that low price caused a bottleneck so we weren’t able to make any sales. Now, we’re working on improving our sales tactics and systems for such countries.
- We’ve heard that you often travel abroad. What is your primary role at the company?
- I’m involved with everything besides development. Most recently, I’m most preoccupied with making big deals with local governments and airports, etc.
Even on the development side, the project manager and I decide everything. What else? I also handle the publicity, staffing, meetings with investors. I also used to take care of the back office, but we recently hired someone to take over all the administrative tasks, which really saved my life, hahaha. I used to spend my Sunday nights calculating company expenses or handling employment paperwork.
- What overseas expansion strategy do you have in mind for Bebot?
During the past year, I visited many countries for work and witnessed their large markets for myself. This convinced me that the market currently showing the most growth is Asia.
Of course, I also visited countries outside of Asia, and they had a lot of strengths like when it came to staffing or people who had researched implementing Bebot. However, because of their different business culture, work was going very slowly over there, which reaffirmed by beliefs that there must be a more attractive market closer to home.
Then we hired a new technology officer from another company, causing us to completely redraw our technological roadmap, leading us to arrive at the idea of an overseas expansion.
- Asia has really shown a lot of growth. The rapidly expanding China in particular seems to have a really big market. Are you also planning to expand there?
At this stage, we are not planning to focus on China because we think that our service works best with countries whose native languages aren’t English or Chinese.
For example, even if you wanted to introduce a Japanese-language chatbot in Japan, the country has many hotel reception desks where guests are treated with the best hospitality, so there probably wouldn’t be much demand for it.
China might seem like a very attractive market, but when you think about their levels of automatization and multilingual support, you get the impression that they don’t need a Chinese-language chatbot. It’s the same with English as many people in China are able to speak the language. Go to any tourist spot and there’ll definitely be an English map there. There’s just no need to develop an English-language program there with high costs.
Why then are we expanding to the US? Because the US is a very attractive place as a base of operations for the development, research, and recruitment of our service. We are firm in our beliefs so we have no plans to grow our service in the US. I think it’s very important to ascertain the characteristics of your service and the market before you start development.
- Bespoke already has many clients abroad but last year you decided to enter the X-HUB East Coast Course. What did you think of it?
- What I liked most about the X-HUB program was that it gave me a chance to meet Travis Sheridan, the president of the Boston-based VCGI (Venture Cafe Global Institute), among other amazing people. Even now, Travis and I chat every day, and he’ll do things like help us with our business strategy or introduce clients to us, all without me ever asking, hahaha. Also, the program was organized by the city of Tokyo so it gave us a lot of credibility when doing business with clients.
- In comparison, acceleration programs and other courses of this kind are usually organized by private companies so their contents tend to be very specific and might not be a good match for the individual needs of participating companies.
- Of course, if your presentation gets covered in an article, it will mean good publicity for you, and you might get support in the form of prize money. You might even get to meet some amazing people, which is what happened in our case. Startups that have just been founded should most definitely enter programs that match their current phase of development.