|

Tokyo upstart offers freeters mobile flexibility

Otetsudai Networks connects employers with staffing problems to aspiring workers for short-term temping tasks with cell-phone service

by Lisa Katayama

Ryoji Kaneko is always looking for work. It’s been six years since the 25-year-old aspiring actor moved to Tokyo from his home in Hyogo Prefecture, and he’s still waiting for his big break. He can’t get a regular side job because the auditions and the occasional gig require him to have a flexible schedule. To pay for food, transportation and the occasional fishing trip, Kaneko relies on Otetsudai Networks.

Otetsudai Networks is a mobile staffing service that connects employers and workers for random, short-term temping tasks using text message and GPS.

Founder Masaru “Sunny” Sunagawa, 36, came up with the idea while getting his MBA at Harvard Business School. Investing in his belief that the concept of real-time online resale could be applied to human resources, he launched Otetsudai Networks on all three of Japan’s mobile- phone carriers in the spring of 2006.

“By crossing location-based GPS with eBay’s business model, you can sell labor as a resource,” says Sunagawa. “Until now, there was no resale market for manpower.”

Otetsudai Networks is the first in a line of location-based services planned by the Tokyo startup.

Let’s say a restaurant is short-staffed on a Saturday night and needs an extra hand washing dishes in an hour. The manager logs onto Otetsudai Networks via his mobile phone, fills out a simple criteria form and hits “send.” Otetsudai Networks instantly dispatches hundreds of text messages to potential workers within reasonable distance to arrive at said location at said hour to alert them of the opening. Within minutes, responses arrive in his inbox with potential employee information — qualifications, ratings, sometimes even a photo and a personal message expressing interest. If the candidate doesn’t fit the bill, the manager can turn them down. If he finds someone suitable, he hits “hire.” The employer pays Location Value a finder’s fee equivalent to 50 percent of the job’s expected salary by credit card; the worker just has to pay transportation costs to get to the job site. I visit Location Value at its office in Uchi-Kanda, central Tokyo, on a rainy Monday afternoon. Sunagawa is a clean-cut young man with neatly combed hair and the intensity of an Ivy Leaguer. To really understand how the service works, I decide to try it myself. At 12:35 p.m., I post an ad to the network soliciting three workers to participate in a focus group at 4:30 that afternoon. I would pay them ¥2,000 each for one hour of their time.

There are certain limitations on what I can ask for. For example, the service is not open to those who claim to be under 18. “We think high-school kids should just study, not work,” Sunagawa says. “If an underage person signs up (using their real birthday), they will get an error message.”

Labor laws prohibit selection based on gender or age; it is possible, however, to suggest a certain age range in the comments section. I write a vague description of the type of subjects I’m looking for, hit “send” and wait.

Applicants to Otetsudai Networks jobs have a couple of ways to promote themselves over their peers. A skills section allows them to include past experience in different fields (IT, baby-sitting, waiting tables). A simple rating system determined by past employers gives responsible, proactive candidates a clear advantage.

Kaneko, the actor, has seven double-circles, five single-circles, three straight lines, and no X’s or skulls. They’re equivalent to an A-F grading system, and both employers and employees alike are required to fill them in after a job is done. Kaneko, with his mostly positive ratings, is a stellar hire. “I use this service a lot,” he says.

Almost instantly, the network tracks down 450 potential candidates who are within four hours by train from Location Value’s headquarters. The first text messaged response arrives at 12:43 p.m., exactly eight minutes after the ad went live. The applicant is a 19-year-old female, 15 km away, with only one rating — a bad one. The bad rating makes me wonder if she’ll even show up, so I decline her application. Within the next hour, I get half a dozen text messages on my cell phone with the candidates’ ages, work experience, ratings, and how many kilometers away they are. Some have unofficial stamps of certification for certain skills (data entry, tech support, event staff, baby-sitting); others are total newbies.

I end up picking four people — three male, one female — but the female changes her mind at the last minute when I tell her she can’t bring a friend. She sends me a couple of text messages, and when I call her back, she hangs up the phone. I n April 2007, the Japanese government mandated that all cellular providers add GPS to 3G phones. Since then, location-based social networking services have become pretty commonplace. U.S. think tank ABI Research predicts that, by 2013, the location-based mobile market will be worth $13.3 billion. But Sunagawa’s objective is to capitalize on the buying and selling of time, not to spew out yet another entertaining time-waster. “We’re not interested in the nice-to-have business,” he says. “We’re interested in transforming the need-to-have business into a real service.”

Japan’s workforce is rapidly changing — a recent survey found that a majority of Japanese between the ages of 18 and 30 care more about freedom and flexibility than lifetime employment and guaranteed income. Otetsudai Networks aims to capture this niche by providing a simple, interactive way for employers and workers to find each other in real time. So far, it’s been pretty successful — more than 70,000 users have signed up since its launch. “It’s the long tail of the workforce,” says Sunagawa.

But why would an employer want to hire temporary help at such short notice? Sunagawa explains that, five years ago, it cost an average of ¥50,000 to hire someone, including advertising fees. Today, it has doubled, leading many places to run short-staffed.

“On average, you need to have 10 people to operate an izakaya (Japanese pub),” explains Sunagawa. “Right now, most izakaya are averaging about eight workers per night. They’re constantly short of labor.” Establishments can usually get by with eight, but at peak hours, they often find they could use extra help. Izakaya jobs usually require little training — someone who has worked in restaurants before, for example, can figure out the night’s work in just minutes.

Sunagawa sees potential for the service to proliferate to other specialty sectors as well. “We’re talking to doctors and nurses about trying to get this into the medical sector,” he says. “How great would it be if you could find a housewife with nursing experience just minutes away from where a patient suddenly falls ill?”

Yahoo! and Recruit have a similar program, called ShotWorks, that allows users to find short-term, part-time work on the fly. “The diversification of employment patterns is the biggest change in the labor market in Japan,” says a representative from Recruit. “Right now, there’s a great need for on-demand human help.”

Sunagawa is already working with major corporations such as Softbank and Mitsubishi Shoji, Japan’s largest trading company, to expand Otetsudai Networks. He plans on applying the work-based model to other aspects of daily life — such as dining, exercise and travel — later this year. The details are still confidential, but all promise to fill niches created by the constant mobility and cell-phone dependency of modern Japanese. I t’s 4:35 p.m., and I’m sitting across the conference table at Location Value from my three part-time, very temporary employees. There’s Kaneko, the actor; Fumiya Hatakeyama, a licensed hair stylist who recently left his full-time job because of inter-salon politics; and Ryoji Tsutsumi, an aspiring film director who just stumbled in after taking a nap on the Yamanote Line. For each of them, Otetsudai Networks is an indispensable part of their day-to-day life.

“I can’t take a job that will pay me a month later,” Tsutsumi says. “I need money today to buy food and shelter.”

Otetsudai Networks isn’t just for freeters. In fact, 25 percent of users are students; another 10 percent are housewives.

But for the three that have showed up for my impromptu focus group, their livelihood depends on those text messages from Location Value that arrive at random intervals throughout the day.

Without it, Kaneko would have to go back to Hyogo; Hatakeyama may still be stuck at his old job; and Tsutsumi might be sleeping in Shinjuku Park every night.

As if to prove a point, Tsutsumi opens up his backpack to show me the sleeping bag he carries around for those nights when the cash doesn’t roll in. “If this site didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here.”