Business / Corporate | Taking the Lead

For Lifull president Takashi Inoue, emerging tech and a touch of altruism are key to success

by Cory Baird

Staff Writer

Takashi Inoue wants to transform his company, Lifull Co., into a one-stop shop for important lifestyle goods and services, where customers don’t just make purchases but are able to get information about what they are buying as well.

Adding to Lifull’s varied product offerings — which already extend from the company’s flagship real estate information services to insurance, nursing care and flower delivery — Inoue’s vision is creating what he ambitiously calls a “life database.”

“By combing the latest technologies we are aiming to provide the most optimal matching services (for people) to find everything from real estate or jobs to health care,” Inoue, the company’s president, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Without taking a breath, Inoue can fire off the technologies he believes will be integral to his company’s goal of creating more convenient services for users. This includes using blockchain technology to allow users to invest in real estate, using augmented reality for potential buyers to remotely tour real estate listings, and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to find a better match for services. And Inoue appears ready to put his ideas to the test after spending roughly ¥15 billion in May to acquire Mitula Group Ltd., an operator of a number of global real estate aggregation websites.

The purchase marked the company’s second major overseas foray, following its 2014 purchase of Trovit Search, S.L., another aggregation website for property, vehicle and job listings, for roughly ¥11 billion. Both located in Spain, the companies combined host information on around 400 million properties and job listings around the world.

Inoue says his company’s acquisitions are only the beginning, with plans to expand to 100 subsidiaries by 2025.

“We want to do the same thing — whether we have 100, 200 or 300 companies — we want to make sure that all of the business are connected by the fact they contribute to a more full life for people,” Inoue said from the company’s office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The purchases of Mitula and Trovit were made possible by Lifull’s growing cash flow from its successful domestic real estate portal, which provides information on and links to thousands of real estate agents. The service has been in operation in various forms since Inoue founded the company under the name Next Co. in 1997.

While Lifull does not sell or rent apartments or housing directly, it generates revenue by partnering with real estate companies and hosting advertising on its websites. After working for a real estate subsidiary of the massive conglomerate Recruit Holdings Co., Inoue decided to start his own venture to address opaqueness and inefficiencies in the real estate industry — problems he still believes exist today. “It might be rude to say, but many parts of the real estate industry still use old-fashioned, 20th-century, analog technology,” said Inoue.

The 49-year-old president said he wants to bring real estate into the 21st century, by employing blockchain and other emerging technologies “so you can complete the whole real estate process (purchasing, renting or investing) online.”

Inoue said that one goal for the real estate business is to also develop a lending and investment platform where borrowers can loan money in a crowdfunding system, and where users can invest in small amounts around $100. Although he wants to shake up the real estate industry, Inoue insists that these services will only be one point in a growing roster of offerings. As the company expands across both services and subsidiaries, Inoue says that, rather than micromanaging all employees, most of the decision-making is being delegated directly to managers, with the aim of creating an atmosphere where new technologies or services can be developed.

Lifull’s holding company can no longer accurately be described as a startup business, having brought in ¥26 billion in total revenue through the first three quarters of the firm’s current business year that runs to the end of September.

Inoue says his hands-off approach to running his businesses is a concept that’s becoming mainstream in Japanese management circles, despite the fact that it runs against the stereotypical model of heavy-handed, bureaucratic parent companies.

“When I bought Trovit in 2014, many within the company thought the Japanese management style would be very bureaucratic, as this is something many business schools still teach about Japan,” said Inoue.

“But Japan’s management style today and that of the past are completely different. New business leaders in Japan have a strong desire, in fact, to disrupt past things and create new innovations,” he added.

Part of the reason a new generation of Japanese entrepreneurs may be willing to test uncharted waters may lie in the fact that a growing amount of money is available to fund new ideas. From 2012 to 2017, total capital raised by startups increased to ¥279 billion from ¥63 billion, according to the Japan Venture Capital Association.

However, Inoue believes that the proliferation of startups in Japan is not just driven by a desire to earn large returns on capital.

“Rather than only making money, many young startups in Japan want to make amazing global services that have the ability to change the world,” he added approvingly, as he elaborated on how his own business is among those operating for more than simply profits. One such project is Lifull’s business focused on revitalizing rural areas by working with over 500 municipalities to sell abandoned housing and to potentially spur new businesses in rural areas.

Inoue said that his desire to make businesses that can have a social impact is the product of his management style, which centers around making decisions “altruistically” — a concept he believes was at one time entrenched in Japanese business philosophy.

And Inoue believes that selflessness will become more accepted by business, as large leaps in productivity will leave humans and businesses searching for more than simply producing shareholder value.

Inoue is clearly not one to shy away from thinking in abstract terms, even when it comes to his business. Whether he can translate these ideas into the creation of a global commerce giant, however, is yet to become clear. The company expects revenue to reach ¥34 billion for the total 2018 business year, and is aiming to achieve ¥50 billion by the 2020 business year — ambitious, but not groundbreaking. That said, whatever has inspired or shaped Inoue’s vision, running a company with a degree of altruism in an industry where customer satisfaction is pivotal could well pay off.

This section runs exclusive stories on top business leaders and executives interviewed by The Japan Times.