Guide maker blazes trail to success

Inventor Yasuyo Fukui built a business on helping Tokyo subway riders find their way

by Hiroko Nakata

When Yasuyo Fukui decided to start her own company 11 years ago, she was an inventor, not an entrepreneur.

Her best-known creation is a guide to stairs, escalators, elevators and bathrooms at subway stations in Tokyo.

The guides, posted on columns at every subway station operated by Tokyo Metro Co., are also useful for commuters who want to know which cars are closest to the exits or transfer points.

The 42-year-old inventor is now president of Navit Co., with annual sales of ¥700 million.

Besides the railway platform guide, Navit provides practical, everyday information ranging from the price of groceries to housing market updates by tapping into a nationwide network of 25,000 housewives.

Before setting up her first firm, Idea Mama, in 1997, Fukui used to invent small things such as a teething ring equipped with a strap for hanging on a baby’s ears, and was a member of Hatsumeigakkai, a group of inventors.

Then one sizzling summer day in the mid-1990s, accompanied by her 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter she walked onto a platform at JR Nishinippori Station in Tokyo. Pushing the baby in a carriage, she was exhausted looking for an elevator, and suddenly she was struck by the idea for a platform guide, she said.

“We were really tired of the heat and only wished to go straight to an exit,” Fukui said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Because subway travelers can’t see outside to orient themselves, she believed public demand for such a guide would be stronger in subways than at surface train stations.

She soon got to work taking notes and photographing the exits, bathrooms, stairs, escalators and elevators of 256 subway stations in Tokyo.

It took five months for the creative housewife to complete the Tokyo guide.

Because her activities followed close on the heels of the fatal sarin attack on the subway system by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, she was questioned several times by police while she was doing research at the stations.

The next obstacle was to sell the guide.

Fukui took her idea to 74 publishers. Only three published the guide in their magazines.

She then found a wider market for her information by doing business with Tokyo Metro, East Japan Railway Co. and a car navigation software maker, among others.

After Fukui succeeded in selling the guide, a third challenge emerged: business expansion.

To achieve sustainable growth for her company, Fukui seven years ago created a network of housewives. At first she asked them to provide information about such things as the food floors of department stores and which shops had longer lines of shoppers waiting for such items as sweets.

Now the network, which has grown to 25,000 housewives, gathers a wide range of information for Navit’s Web sites or its corporate clients, including daily food prices at supermarkets, details of local cram schools and the state of local real estate markets.

Fukui said her goal is to increase the company’s sales to ¥1 billion next year and the number of employees to 50 from the 31 at present.

But for Fukui, an inventor by nature, that is not her ultimate goal.

“I want to invent things again,” she said. “After my company grows enough, I plan to retire at 50 and start inventing things again as a hobby. I really like doing low-cost inventions.”

In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.

Highlights of Yasuyo Fukui’s career

1997 — Fukui launches startup Idea Mama.

1998 — Former Teito Rapid Transit Authority, now Tokyo Metro Co., introduces Fukui’s map on platform columns.

2001 — Fukui launches Navit Co. to take over and expand the business of Idea Mama.

2002 — Navit increases capital to ¥148 million from ¥10 million.

2006 — Navit raises capital to ¥158 million.

2007 — Navit lifts capital to ¥168 million.