Eric and Manami Turner of Japan Dev didn’t make a cent during their first year of business. The couple promised their B2B clients no upfront costs, but they didn’t realize how much that promise would test their patience and motivation to keep the business running.
Japan Dev is a job board for developers, programmers, and others who work with dev teams. Companies post their available jobs and interested applicants apply for them on the site. But the Turners don’t get paid until an applicant accepts a job.
Luckily, three years after Japan Dev launched, revenue has climbed to over $60,000 per month. So, how did they go from having no income in a year to five figures in one month?
Dreams of Living and Working in Japan
Eric Turner first visited Japan when he was 17, living in a small town called Nishio for a month-long program. After returning to the US and starting college, Eric continued his Japanese lessons at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also studied computer engineering.
When he finished his undergrad, Eric wasn’t ready to face a life behind a desk as a software developer. Instead, he kept thinking of returning to Japan and living there “for real.” After applying for a job as an English teacher, he moved to Oyabe in the Toyama prefecture in March 2013. He hasn’t returned to the United States since.
A year after he arrived, Eric left Oyabe to live in Tokyo. He craved a big city experience and was ready to pursue software development as a career. While at a language exchange in 2014, he met Manami. Their friendship later evolved into love, and they married in 2017.
While Eric loves Japan’s people and culture, he admits that the environment for foreign IT workers can induce serious culture shock.
“You may have heard some negative things about the IT industry in Japan,” Eric says. “That’s because a lot of old-school, legacy companies dominate here. They don’t have the best environments for foreigners, especially if you’re not great at Japanese or used to the culture.”
How Solving a Problem for Himself Helped Others
Eric jumped from one company to another during his time as a software developer. First VASILY and then Gunosy, Quipper, and eventually, Mercari. By the time he became an engineering manager in May 2019, he knew which companies valued diverse workers and offered positive work environments for expats.
Eric then listed the progressive, internationally-minded businesses on Reddit and other social media sites. He wanted to help people who might be in the same shoes he was in.
“I wanted to build a product based on my own experiences. I wish that this had existed when I was originally searching for a job.”
Then Eric thought other developers might want to add their insights and experiences to his list. So in 2017, he mocked up a landing page for these reviews. Manami, who specializes in user experience (UI/UX) design, agreed to help him build a website.
Over the next two years, that project would grow into the earliest version of Japan Dev. It offered company recommendations and firsthand accounts of working there.
“I wanted to build a product based on my own experiences. I wish that this had existed when I was originally searching for a job because I had few options when I first moved to Tokyo,” Eric says. “Thankfully, I was able to find someone to hire me.”
When Japan Dev launched in April 2019, the developer community loved it. But he couldn’t move forward until he’d addressed two main problems: how to monetize the business and how to let developers apply to listed companies directly on the site.
Making Peace With Businesses to Turn a Profit
While developers appreciated Eric and Manami compiling this list of good businesses to work for, they also wanted to know what jobs were available and how to apply. So the Turners rebuilt Japan Dev into a functioning job board, complete with job listings and access to applications.
But to encourage companies to list, the Turners first had to take down the review portion of the website. “Companies are very protective of their image,” Eric says. “And we had this site where people could submit pros and cons about companies because we wanted to be authentic.
“But that was untenable,” he adds. “Few companies were in this niche, and if we annoyed them, we’d have a big problem.”
While Eric and Manami did contemplate charging applicants to use the site, Eric ultimately wanted free access for developers and tech workers who might be out of work at the time.
To make a profit with Japan Dev, the cofounders needed to monetize this small group of progressive businesses. If they’d launched the business with this B2B model back in April 2019, the couple could’ve saved themselves the hassle of turning a company list into a job board. This was Eric and Manami’s first mistake in not prioritizing revenue.
Eric started researching B2B marketing tactics so he could ask businesses to post on his site. He claims this was the hardest part of the entire endeavor since he had no sales background up until this point.
“I did cold outreach on LinkedIn a lot, connecting with people and sending these messages,” Eric says. “I cringe when I look back at those messages now. They were super long, and I didn’t understand the concept of being benefit-driven. I didn’t understand how to sell, so I would talk way too much about myself and the vision I was trying to achieve.
“It was awful,” he adds. “It turned out that they just don’t care. They want to know how we’ll create value for them.”
The Turners created that value by leveraging two aspects of Japanese work culture.
Workplace Traditions That Gave Japan Dev the Advantage
First, Eric explains that, in Japan, it’s common to commit to one company for life, working for them until retirement. And since these employees are long-term investments for most companies, CEOs hire recruiters to find the perfect match for their open positions. But these recruiters charge anywhere from 30 to 35 percent of the yearly salary as compensation.
In recent years, Japanese employees have started jumping between companies more often. This second phenomenon means that companies now pay recruiters more frequently since they need to replace more open positions.
When pitching Japan Dev to these businesses, Eric tells them they’ll pay less. He won’t vet applicants as thoroughly as a recruiter – no interviews, for example – but the couple will improve the job listing copy, build company profiles, create application landing pages, and send out weekly job alerts. The founders only get paid when a client hires someone.
As a result of those promises, the Turners signed contracts with several employers, including Mercari and Indeed. But in Eric’s B2B marketing research, he didn’t realize that he should be making just as much of an effort to attract potential applicants as he did businesses. As a result, Japan Dev earned no income for the first year because no companies hired any candidates.
Keeping a Marriage and Business Intact During the Pandemic
Eric says that this penniless year tested his and Manami’s marriage the most. They were quarantined in their one-bedroom apartment, trying to keep Japan Dev alive. The couple set a lot of boundaries, trying to keep their work and personal lives balanced.
“Those twelve months were pretty tough,” Eric says. “Manami and I would finish our day jobs and then start working on the site. We had clients and contracts, so we had to work on it. We’d get questions from companies during the day and then we’d respond at night, updating their job listings and fixing bugs. Japan Dev finally started earning revenue toward the end of 2020.”
That revenue came courtesy of a complete overhaul of their current marketing strategy. Cold outreach was not enough, so Eric and Manami tried “every marketing channel imaginable.” Eric started writing a blog to increase their SEO traffic, though it took a while to see results. He also started a newsletter with weekly job alerts.
While SEO and the newsletter did most of the heavy lifting, Eric also built the Japan Dev brand on social media.
Once he and Manami started posting testimonials of company and employee success on their website, business skyrocketed. They also improved the copy on the site: Split paragraphs, bolded text, and less jargon helped leads who landed on their page know exactly where to go to become placements.
“We realized it wasn’t just about being pretty – we wanted to achieve a result and have these people take an action on the site,” Eric says.
Japan Dev’s increasing success meant that both Eric and Manami could quit their day jobs about halfway through 2021.
How to Stabilize Fluctuating Revenue
Aside from additional marketing tactics, Eric also attributes Japan Dev’s growth to the waning pandemic. Their target audience couldn’t move to Japan to look for tech jobs with the borders closed. So when things started opening up in 2021 and 2022, a new floodgate of hirees opened.
While the Turners know that this will slow over the next few months, they have other methods in mind to keep the business growing.
First, they want to increase their use of testimonials to showcase the company’s legitimacy and success as a job board. This opens the door to a pay-per-post model where Eric and Manami claim fees upfront for each job listing and placement.
Eric also wants to expand his blog to focus on the struggles of moving to Japan for work. Instead of just offering advice about companies to work for, the blog could also be a resource for workers looking to get visas or find affordable places to live. If the blog grows large enough, the couple could start charging for ads or find other ways to monetize it.
And of course, the Turners want to keep finding companies to list jobs on Japan Dev. Eric hopes to soon create a portal where CEOs and hiring managers can access and adjust their job listings, taking some of the workload off Eric and Manami.
It is still a two-person business, after all, with all of the administrative, financial, marketing, and developing work falling on them. But Eric couldn’t ask for a better partner.
“She is amazing,” Eric says, praising Manami for her design skills and handling tasks that require a native Japanese speaker. “Having someone with the skills to complement your own, someone you trust, is really valuable.”
“We could have cut the time where we ran on nothing but willpower.”
Eric and Manami could rely on and motivate each other during their difficult first year, but not every entrepreneur is in a partnership. Eric cautions others to avoid his and Manami’s mistake of not prioritizing revenue first.
“We could have cut the time where we ran on nothing but willpower,” Eric says. “You have a certain amount of motivation when you start. That’s your currency. And the more time goes by, the more your motivation runs out. So you need to get to the point where you are making real progress and earning revenue because that is the true motivator.”
It took one failed version of the site and a year of no income for Eric and Manami to learn that hard lesson.
Despite those mistakes, the couple also built a service that combats outdated workplace values. They tackled a decades-old recruitment practice and made hiring easier for both companies and international employees. And the Turners maintained the best partnership, professionally and personally, even when growth seemed impossible. Newly motivated, Eric and Manami can now evolve Japan Dev into the all-in-one developer resource of their dreams.
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