How our SaaS startup broke into the Japanese market without a physical presence

Breaking into Japan is often one of the biggest challenges a growing tech company will encounter. The country is home to some of the world’s most advanced software and hardware leaders. For the startups that cater to these companies, “cracking Japan” is inevitably part of their growth and expansion roadmaps.

But the barriers to entry are high. From language and culture differences to the need to tailor offerings for a Japanese audience, many early-stage tech companies write off Japan as impossible or too difficult to break into, even if the country is inevitably part of their growth and expansion roadmap.

In 2014, our company attracted its first Japanese client when we were featured on product discovery platform Product Hunt. While this initial awareness got us on users’ radar, awareness alone wasn’t enough to sustain and grow a reliable pipeline. We grew this initial interest to 400+ of our highest paying clients over the past eight years by making community — both virtual and in-person — central to our offering and our approach to relationship-building, all without having a dedicated presence in the county.

As a SaaS company with a community-led growth model, our journey to breaking into Japan might be different to companies with other models, but the core tenets remain the same. Here’s what we learned along the way.

Follow the first user(s)

The tech community in Japan is extremely active and interconnected, so a single customer can play a disproportionately large role in facilitating your expansion there. Our experience is that if the first users like it, they’ll be your number one ambassadors. If they don’t, their indifference will also speak volumes. With this in mind, your product should be ready for prime time before you begin working with Japanese prospects. Japan is not a testing ground for MVP products.

As much as companies want to “be in Japan,” they don’t always spend enough time in the country.

Once you have even the smallest amount of traction or market adoption, consider setting up Japanese-language mention tracking. It can be surprising how quickly – and publicly – word about good technology will proliferate through social channels.

Our first user was a developer at one of Japan’s largest emerging tech companies. As Bitrise began spreading throughout his organization, we began seeing a number of new customers organically popping up at other companies as well.

Through our mention tracking service (we use, we were able to see how the user adoption we were experiencing directly correlated with local discussions about us on social media.

We began engaging directly with the community after flagging a Japanese tweet about Bitrise by someone live-tweeting from a developer conference. The tweet included a poll about what developers use for CI/CD, and Bitrise ranked highest among all the other local companies. When we responded to thank them, our response blew up among the Japanese developer community. They were happy that we knew they existed and that we were interested in engaging.

This initial spread all happened from a single customer. From there, we decided not to let luck dictate our expansion, and began proactively building on the organic interest we had generated.

If you want to “be in Japan,” you have to be in Japan

As much as companies want to “be in Japan,” they don’t always spend enough time in the country. Instead, they often build an office and hire locals before they even visit. They hire strategic partners to get their documentation localized and get their foot in the door with local users or customers.

In order of execution, going to Japan before setting up shop seems more sensible. We know this, because our early customers were thrilled that we would actually travel there to be in the community before hiring anyone.

Our first time in Tokyo, one of our early adopters, DeNA, hosted an event for us with 500 to 600 mobile developers. Once we showed up and began connecting in person, our reach within the community began expanding beyond what would have been possible via social media alone.

For instance, we discovered that the best place to meet the mobile developer audience in Japan is at the DeployGate office on Friday nights. The CEO of DeployGate is the lead singer of a band that performs around town wearing luchador masks, and he plays the videos. Everyone in mobile gathers there to eat and drink together. There is no way to be an insider to this event if you’re outside of it. You simply have to be there.

That’s where we met Rakuten, which has now been a user for years.

Make the best use of your time with the community while in town

Despite the known opportunities in the country, the Japanese don’t often get to meet or interact with the people responsible for the products they use. So when you do begin investing in the community, they will invest in you.

Prior to COVID, we were traveling to Japan four to six times a year. This is relatively inexpensive compared to the costs — and limitations — of trying to penetrate the market from afar, and it means a ton to the community. We now travel there regularly to speak at meetups that our customers set up around our visits.

We set up live interpreters and use the same interpreters every visit. When you’re translating very technical material, it’s important to brief them extensively, especially on what not to translate into Japanese, since some technical words should just be said in English. We also schedule meetings with all of our clients and record customer stories in their offices.

Whether or not these things make sense for you, the most important thing to do while you’re there is to show up and be a part of the community — however your industry and company needs.

Acknowledge and appreciate, rather than just sell

Consider not selling during your first trip or conversations. Instead, make it your goal to meet people, learn what they appreciate, and what makes sense for them culturally. This approach works whether you have existing customers or not.

You’ll likely also discover that the reality is quite different than what others tell you. During our first several visits, we deliberately didn’t bring sales people. We traveled to Japan with a mindset of pure acknowledgement and discovery. We had received a lot of anecdotal advice to the effect of, “You have to bow or bring gifts, or they’ll walk out of the room.”

Of course, no matter how insulted they might be by something you do, that’s not going to happen. Shaking hands was totally fine. But when we brought gifts, people thought it was weird – or at least, unexpected – coming from foreigners. The main rule of thumb is that you don’t want to be more Japanese than the Japanese. Yes, they have their customs, but if you’re trying, they appreciate it.

Also, don’t underestimate how far good swag will go, especially if it’s Japan-first swag. We created our first Bitrise hoodies in Japan and have given them to every attendee at every meetup we’ve ever participated in. We had plushies and a human-size mascot suit made for a conference. We left the suit with one of our customers and now people wear it while they’re drinking.

Bitrise mega plushie that doubles as drinking costume in Japan.

Bitrise mega plushie that doubles as drinking costume in Japan. Image Credits: Bitrise

We also found a manga artist and created a series of comics featuring the life of a mobile developer and how difficult it is. These started as digital first and are distributed through our Japanese twitter account. We also print them and create stickers featuring the characters.

Bitise Japan manga comic strip. Image Credits: Bitrise

The key is to figure out the best ways for you to contribute and actively pursue them.

Continue growing the community virtually through your product’s UX

For companies that want to scale their user or customer base in Japan without a physical presence, it’s incredibly helpful to find people where they are and let them connect over things they’ve built or want to use.

SaaS platforms are uniquely suited to offer their user communities opportunities for interaction directly through their products. Platforms that let users submit open source contributions, for instance, further attract users who want to try them out and exchange ideas.

Our platform has what we call a “Step Library,” where users can submit open source ‘steps’ — or workflows — that others can use to automate common parts of the mobile development process. These steps solve painful problems for users, so they generate a ton of engagement.

Our Japanese users have been responsible for introducing very specific steps for Japanese services that they need. For example, DeployGate is an app distribution platform that is huge in Japan, but virtually unknown elsewhere. We would have never built this step on our own, but it was built very early on by our Japanese community.

While not all of these steps can or should be replicated by every company, there certainly are unwritten rules for breaking into Japan, even before you have a presence: Show up, invest in the community you want to work with, understand them before you sell to them, and then figure out how to expand your relationships and presence from there.