The journey from 200 failed apps to 5 million users.

Founder Spotlight of Nanameue (Yay): Takahiro Ishihama

Takahiro Ishihana — Founder of Nanameue

Founded in 2013, Nanameue runs the largest anonymous social media app in Japan, “Yay!”, with more than 5 million users. In 2021, Nanameue raised a $15M round from Headline Asia, Infinity Ventures Crypto (IVC), Akatsuki, FFG, DG Daiwa, and other prominent venture capital firms.

Despite his recent progress and success, the founder of Nanameue, Takahiro Ishihama has come a long way. This interview will look into his days when he was a student and his visions for the future.

What were you passionate about when you were a student?

I would say, learning English.

To tell you a secret, I didn’t get into the college that I wanted to get into, as my scores were not good enough. I was quite good at math and other subjects, but I didn’t do well in English. To overcome such frustration, I become overly fixated on learning English.

I joined and spent lots of time in ESS (English Speaking Society), which is an English debate club with the purpose of attending the national cross-college English debate tournament. I did pretty well and even became a finalist in the tournament.

Later on, I went to San Francisco as an exchange student for a year in 2012 to further improve my English skills. Without knowing anything about Silicon Valley and startups, I was exposed to the culture and atmosphere of “startups are cool” in San Francisco, and I witnessed how Airbnb, Dropbox, and Github were growing exponentially.

As your passion changed from learning English to startups, what did you do to pursue such passion?

I founded Nanameue and I developed more than 200 apps.

Before that, when I was still in the US, I worked for Concept Art House to help Japanese gaming companies redesign their game characters into a more American style and I got a taste of [working for] startups there. Then I learned programming from my friends and by myself, and developed several mobile apps just for fun.

In my senior year in college, I started Nanameue, where I developed mobile apps for clients as a contractor, but also developed our own app. We were having so much fun developing all kinds of apps, including casual games. Staying up late till 3 a.m. every day, we have released more than 200 mobile apps! At some point, we decided to only focus on developing social media apps. We believe that all social media apps eventually would have identical features and what would differentiate a social media app from others is the community. Under such a thesis, we built different apps that were specifically targeted at different verticals of communities, such as gamers, mothers, and younger girls.

Is Yay one of the 200 apps that you developed then? And how did the other apps turn out?

“HIMABU” was one of the 200 apps, which is the former version of Yay.

The vertical market that HIMABU went after was students, and it was very clear that it hit the bull’s eye. We had run other apps that took six months to reach 1,000 users, while HIMABU hit the 1,000-user mark in just a few days since its release, with zero marketing and zero media exposure. Very quickly, almost all of the high school students in Japan got to know about this app, and at one point we had eight million users!

On the other hand, we did fail many times and we learned a lot. For example, we were very confident in one of our apps, which was quite similar to Vine at the time (or TikTok nowadays), but it turned out to be a huge failure. Some of the other apps have been doing pretty well, and we are gradually converting those users to our main app, Yay.

We learned two things. Firstly, we started to understand how the App Store and ASO (App SEO) worked. Secondly, we learned that the hardest thing was not the initial traction, it was how to maintain a healthy community after we got the initial traction. To do so, we needed to make sure the content on our social media is not toxic or harmful.

Source: https://nanameue.jp/en

Source: https://nanameue.jp/en

Why did you rebrand “HIMABU” to “Yay”?

I understand there have been some incorrect information and rumors circulating online, and that’s our fault, as we didn’t do a good job in press releases and external communications at the time.

Basically, just like how Facebook used to only focus on college students and only later on let the general public come in, we wanted to let the mass audience know they could now join this community. The name “HIMABU” (“Bu” means a student activity) implies it’s a service for students, and we had put too much emphasis on the concept of “student-only” in our previous marketing effort, so that’s why we went through a rebranding.

Yay is a great service, and it’s operated by a great team. I noticed that the majority of your team members are foreigners. Why so?

In the beginning, it was out of necessity. But now, it’s because of our vision.

When we just started out, we were recruiting engineers, but we could only attract very few candidates. We started to post our job openings on international job posting sites. We found out many engineers actually want to work in Japan, but they were worried if they could handle the relocation. To have them come work for us, we provided support on everything from applying for a visa to finding a place to live, getting a cell phone, etc. I think we were the only startup in Japan providing such support. Now 70 percent of our team members in Japan are foreigners.

On the other hand, as mentioned before, we realized it was crucial to monitor the content and make sure it was healthy, but we didn’t have enough manpower to do so. Then we considered outsourcing and we went to the largest content monitoring company in Japan, but the fee they charged for a single month was equivalent to all of the money we had in our bank account. Out of necessity again, we established a small team in Thailand and started monitoring content there. Later we moved to a larger office as the traction and the team grew, and we also started developing AI technology to do the monitoring. Now we have about 70 people in our Thailand office.

Although it was out of necessity in the beginning, I think we are blessed to have such an international team. As our next vision is to expand globally and move into Web3.0, the team members who come from diverse backgrounds could provide all kinds of information and ideas that a Japanese team would not be able to provide.

Your journey has been a unique and interesting one. What would be the next step of your journey?

In short, we are moving into Web3.0.

It sounds like we are doing something new, but our mission and beliefs have not changed. We truly believe in democratization of the Internet. So far, what Yay has achieved is democratizing the behavior of posting on social media. As Facebook, Instagram, and other social media tend to lead users to compete for “likes”, practically only the popular people and the influencers get to do postings and have engagement on social media. Yay has become a safe digital space for ordinary people to share their feelings and stories. Yay is the best metaverse.

With Web3.0, social media will be further democratized. In the past, the social media platforms earned all the profit, even though it was the users who generated all the content on the platforms that contributed to such profit. We believe Yay could become the next generation of social media that rewards the users who contribute to building the social community.

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