IT startup barters its way into niche

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

At around noon on a recent weekday, the Roppongi branch of Shamrock by Abbot Choice, a Tokyo-based Irish-style pub chain, had a bustling lunchtime crowd.

Koichiro Tawa reached for a menu and ordered a hamburger special — with melting cheese, a green salad and mashed potatoes, along with a separate plate of rice. It’s a dish that is familiar to him, as he visits the restaurant almost daily. But his relationship with the pub goes a little deeper than that of a regular customer.

Last October, Timers, a Roppongi-based startup firm selling smartphone apps where Tawa is chief operating officer, asked — through the company website and fliers it distributed to the area’s establishments — whether any local restaurants would offer the firm’s five employees free lunches as “barter” for creating a website for their eateries.

The response was huge, with 20 businesses — including five beauty salons — applying to partner with the company. Earlier this year, after careful consideration, Timers decided to tie up with the chain pub, Tawa said, noting he liked the way its owner was open to the idea of exploring various ways to collaborate instead of merely exchanging lunches for the firm’s website design expertise.

“We are such a small company we can’t afford to have our own canteen,” said Tawa, 26, who set up the company in May 2012 with a former colleague of his at Hakuhodo, a major ad agency. “Before this project started, we had visited various different places for lunch, but we didn’t have much interaction with the restaurants apart from ordering dishes and paying the bills. We wanted a place nearby where we could not only go visit regularly but also feel a sense of community.”

Under the six-month deal, the five employees of Timers, which markets Pairy, a smartphone app for couples to exchange messages and photos, were each given 30 coupons per month, which they could use to order a lunch, or a beer or drink, at any time. In exchange, Timers talked at length with the restaurant’s owner to craft a website best suited to the pub chain’s needs.

Not only that, the firm coached the pub’s staff on how to better mobilize social media to boost its profile.

The employees were encouraged, for example, to use Instagram to take various shots of the pub, its ambience and dishes, which would then be automatically uploaded and updated daily on the chain’s corporate website.

The unusual deal — especially in Roppongi, crowded with high-rise condos and office buildings — has caught a lot of public and media attention, and several companies approached Timers asking for tips on how to forge similar relationships with eateries.

One such inquiry by a Japanese man who runs an IT startup community in Britain led to a deal with a local pub where the group is now offered lunches for hosting various community events there, Tawa said.

This type of business has big potential, particularly for businesses offering different services and commodities, Tawa added.

“You do become more attached to businesses if you deal with them through exchanges of goods, rather than money. IT firms, for example, are ideal for such deals, because they are often disconnected from the areas their offices are located in; they don’t have factories and their employees can pretty much work from anywhere,” he said. “Using their skills and technologies, however, the firms can contribute much more to communities.”

But for initiatives like this to become more popular, businesses need to approach it as a “community project,” not as a cost-saving measure, he added.

Tawa said he now visits the pub not just for lunch, but to hold business meetings and hang out after work. “I’m friends with the branch manager on Facebook, and when I see him putting up a post saying he’s caught a fish, I feel like coming here (at night) to order a dish featuring the fish,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling to have.”