RICOH360, a “cross-industry platform service” that uses 360-degree images.
We asked Akio Inaba, the man who has been the driving force behind business services that use 360-degree image data, about his experience gained through developing services and about his thoughts on the platform business.
Joined Ricoh in 2008.
Has been responsible for RICOH360 business development from 2020.
Enjoys practicing and watching rugby with his son.
The Desire to Provide Something That Is Indispensable to Many People
Joining Ricoh as a freelance professional
I joined Ricoh in 2008. At the time, there was a position referred to as a “free professional” that meant you could work on whatever you wanted at Ricoh, and I was hired for this role. I first gained some experience working for a year in sales for the Thermal Media Division located in Numazu. Coincidentally, Numazu was where my grandfather ran a confectionery manufacturing company with about 2,000 employees.
I majored in economics at University, where I chose to research the subject “Japan, a Postwar Manufacturing Superpower.” I have always been interested in manufacturing and always felt strongly that “I wanted to create something new and do something creative.” Later, I transferred to the new business development department where I was involved in providing and selling manufacturing industry systems that used new technology to major manufacturers.
Moving to a 360-degree world with the desire to provide something that is indispensable to many people
When the project that created manufacturing industry systems that I was working on was scaled back, I transferred to the 360-degree camera department. At the time, there was an idea to incorporate and use THETA and camera images into a platform, and this concept really resonated with me.
However, I had been building a relationship of trust with customers while responding to their needs during the manufacturing industry systems project that I had been working on, so I felt bad for the customers. Then I also realized that if the systems were something that the customer really needed, then I could not give up on it.
A business cannot continue operating if it is not indispensable to many people. In the end, it will cause inconvenience for customers. This thought has stayed with me even today and is at the very core of what I do.
THETA 360.biz, a real estate service
At the time, while RICOH THETA was at the center of our business, several people and myself were about to begin a service that used 360-degree images for real estate that would lead to a platform concept.
This service is now called THETA 360.biz. It is a service that enables you to virtually view the inside of real estate property using images captured with a 360-degree camera.
A major real estate portal site was interested in how different this service was compared to other companies, and so became a customer.
The value of being able to view the inside of a room in 360-degrees without actually needing to travel to the property spread throughout the real estate world where competition is fierce. This was a time when I could feel the response to my sales expertise as the situation saw Ricoh capture companies with portal sites across industries, and we competed for portal companies against our rivals even within the area of real estate. Based on customer feedback and market understanding obtained through sales, we transformed the payment structure and the form of provision.
As I learned about the market, I noticed that there was a limit to the number of companies who ran a portal site, and considered whether we should change our approach in order to deliver indispensable value to many people.
Conversion to a SaaS business
To deliver value to a greater number of customers we changed the process to acquire customers by collaborating with external partner companies so that we could encourage small to medium companies and individual customers to become active users of our service.
We found customers on the web who are interested in this service and provided a free product trial so they could verify the value of the service before entering an agreement. We continuously provided new functions using image processing. This has produced a service that customers will continue to use, and as a result we were able to create a SaaS business from early on within Ricoh.
Through the development of this service, I noticed that it was possible to learn in real time what the industry and customers needed by actually selling the service to customers and having them use it.
I consider it important to gain insight that will lead to value sought by even more customers, after collecting customer feedback while building the market for our service and summarizing this feedback, rather than just building the market for the service as part of sales. I also consider it important to maintain an awareness for improving our product service based on this method I have just described.
The challenges involved in moving to a global service
In 2019, THETA 360.biz was making steady progress in collaboration with leading real estate companies in Japan, and we were able to start providing functions that make use of the accumulated 360-degree images to create a thriving business.
However, I was aware that the Ricoh business does not just end in Japan.
So we developed the service globally with a focus on the U.S. The service itself was not developed in Japan. It was developed and deployed in the U.S. Its main market is the U.S. so we considered it best to develop the service locally in the U.S.
The service is now being used in over 100 countries, centered on the U.S.
Aiming to Be a Japanese-Developed Platformer
Approach to the construction industry
Since many customers in the construction business have purchased RICOH THETA and around 30% of THETA 360.biz customers are based in the construction business, I believe that there is a lot of opportunity for us to expand in the construction business.
The construction industry has a large GDP and IT investment is also increasing. However, we know that there are many serious challenges such as the aging manufacturing population, the surging cost of building material, and overwork.
If things remain the same, we will no longer be able to make things.
I feel a responsibility and hold the belief that we can use the power of 360 degrees to somehow resolve these industrial challenges.
However, based on my past experience working with customers in the manufacturing industry, I know it is necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of the business and provide services that are relevant to the business. Therefore, I knew that I could not do this if I was feeling half-hearted about it.
RICOH360 and partner companies
I considered it necessary to collaborate with partners who have a lot of influence in the industry to provide value to many people over a faster period of time. Construction covers an extensive market so it is better to join up with partners as a platform.
It is best to go to a specialist for the best results and coordinate with each other on areas of expertise.
Currently, there are a great deal of people from partner companies who think in terms of 360 degrees and are interested in our service, so we have started working with these people. I believe that if we can work together with companies that want to innovate in 360 degrees and drive them towards their goal, the value of 360 degrees will spread to the partner company users as well as other users.
Becoming a Japanese-developed platform provider
When you think of a platform, you first think of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple). However, I think that we can become a Japanese-developed platform provider that combines both hardware and services with RICOH360.
Ricoh has been providing value to business customers in particular and this should give us a head start in the B2B sector.
If RICOH360 can demonstrate a realistic approach in business, it will become a role model for which Japanese companies, not just Ricoh, aim for, and I feel that this is a worthy goal.