Chinese Entrepreneur Building Startups in Japan
CoinJinja CEO & Co-founder, Lele Xu shares his journey from teaching himself programming to launching several tech ventures in Japan.
Born in 1980, Lele Xu (family name is “Xu”) describes himself as a geek who loves new software (particularly programming) and hardware technologies.
In November 2017, Lele and I co-founded CoinJinja Co., Ltd. in Japan. The company’s mission is to offer services that are highly sought after by virtual currency investors and traders.
Since virtual currencies is a new field and regarded by many as lacking transparency, we thought it would be a good idea to let our users get a closer look at our company and the journey Lele took to build it. We did this interview on Christmas Eve, 2017. Around us, our team members were enjoying a little party along with their families, while doing a little working.
I originally published it in Japanese, but due to popular demand from our user community, am reproducing it here in English.
- Discovering Programming
- Coming to Japan to Experience International Life
- From App Development to Service Development
- Connecting the Dots
When was your first contact with a PC?
I grew up in Hangzhou, home ground of the Alibaba Group (BABA) and the capital city of Zhejiang Province in east China. The city’s greater metropolitan area is the fourth largest in the nation. The city’s West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is amongst its best-known attractions.
The first time was when I was in my second year of junior high school. My father, who was a government employee in China, took me to see the PCs a government agency got to process written documents. They didn’t even have Windows and were running Intel 80386s.
I was probably one of the first ordinary citizens in China to have the opportunity to come in contact with a PC.
My father was putting in a lot of effort to learn about this type of PC, and I started studying, too, when I got a DOS programming book from my older cousin.
Desperately wanting a PC of my own, I made a deal with my parents that if I got good scores on the high school entrance exam, they would buy me one. I studied hard and managed to get them to buy me one. It cost about 9,000 Yuan, equivalent to around $2,000 (USD) today, which was over three times the average monthly salary in China at the time.
You’d better thank your parents then!
Yes. The first thing I made on this PC was a student grade management system for my mom, who was a teacher at the time. I used FoxBASE, which was a combination of a database, which was later merged with Microsoft, and a programming language.
Did you spend a lot of time programming during high school and college?
Yes. I entered several programming contests and managed to get placed second in Zhejiang province.
I later chose to study computer science at Fudan University in Shanghai, One of China’s top universities.
The woman who would later become my wife was studying in the same department, and I ended up spending much of entire college life at her family’s home.
Don’t Chinese colleges have a mandatory dormitory system?
Well, the school computer room closed at night, and there was no electricity in the dorms. Since it was a matter of life and death for me, I played on my PC all night at my wife’s family’s home, which was close to the campus and had electricity.
Coming to Japan to Experience International Life
So, did you come to Japan straight after graduating from college?
Yes. Since I wanted to go abroad, I got a job at a Japanese company in Shanghai. It was difficult to get a visa, so I worked for its Shanghai subsidiary for about half a year, and then came to Japan.
Back then, you didn’t speak Japanese at all, right?
Not at all (lol). It took about three years of living in Japan to be able to speak Japanese.
As an engineer, you were able to work abroad, regardless of the language barrier, huh?
There were many people like that around me. For instance, someone got a job at Sony. My wife is also an engineer, so she also got a job at the same company, and came to Japan with me.
What kind of programs did you write after you came to Japan?
I worked as a systems developer for a large stock brokerage firm for about five years. My last title was a division manager.
You’ve led a very square life (lol)! How did you come to create your own company?
I have always revered Apple; especially, Steve Jobs. When I first started working, I even borrowed money from the company and bought an iPad 2 (lol). It cost nearly $1,000 (USD) at the time.
I continued to follow Mr. Jobs. I even watched the 2007 WWDC in real-time, when he revealed the iPhone.
Back then, I was on a twenty-member team, spending several hundred million Yen over two years, making a system for traders. However, only two people ended up using it.
Compared to this, being able to make an app that could be used by several hundred thousand users seemed incredible to me. However, initially, Apple did not make its SDK [software development kit] public, so people couldn’t make apps. It was eventually released in 2008.
In 2008, I established my first company which specialized in app development. Until about 2010, we had fifteen of our apps on the first page of Apple’s paid apps ranking (at the time, it had up to twenty-five places). That number included our own apps, apps we developed for others, and revenue-share models, too.
We had an app that we developed, with the utmost attention to UX [user experience design], be used in Apple’s TV commercial.
From App Development to Service Development
When did you start RakuNew, which you ended up selling to CCC Group?
RakuNew presents the gadgets on foreign crowd-funding platforms, such as Kickstarter, in Japanese, and lets people easily pledge from Japan.
We came up with the idea in August 2012. It was in March 2013, when we actually opened. Initially, we were offering both foreign gadgets and apparel items, but we grew rapidly after we narrowed it down to only gadgets.
As was mentioned in TechCrunch Japan, there is a good chance that RakuNew was the first EC site in Japan to accept Bitcoin payments. I guess we had a thing for cryptocurrency (lol).
By 2015, two trends were on the rise: visiting Japan and cross-border EC. We decided to sell RakuNew and focus on those.
To be competitive in cross-border EC, capital is required. Since we had limited financial reserves, we sold part of the business to a major Chinese company.
Next after that was Otooku, right?
Yes. Otooku is a service that uses AI to help users buy and sell used cars. There is actually a large gap between the resale value of a used car and the price that a buyer pays to purchase it.
In other words, the broker’s market is essentially a black box, and this is where the profit margin is lost. Since we were clueless about that aspect, we created a service that uses AI to analyze a variety of data related to car sales to value a car and generate a price.
We ended up selling this site too.
How did you come up with the idea for CoinJinja?
As we discussed, our earlier project, RakuNew was the first Japanese EC site to accept payments in Bitcoin. I had been interested in cryptocurrencies for some time and had been wanting to do a project with them.
Over time, the stories from my college classmate, who was doing well in the Chinese cryptocurrency field, further deepened my curiosity and desire to do something.
Finally, I had some inspiration. I realized that it was easy for me to get global news and information about cryptocurrency in English and Chinese. However, much of that information isn’t readily made available in Japanese.
So, around August 2017, we set out to create a website, CoinJinja.com to make cryptocurrency information from around the world available in Japanese.
To complement the site, we initially wanted to make a widget that could be used to view the prices of cryptocurrencies on the same UI as Apple’s default stock market app.
However, unfortunately, we were unable to get approval from the Apple Store with a widget alone (lol). So, we had to add more features. After much thought about the kinds of features users would want, we decided to create the CoinView app. It ended up garnering far more and better reviews than the widget, because we kept adding features.
Although we started out focused on serving the Japanese market, moving forward, we want to grow its user base globally. We have several strong competitors, so I feel energized by the challenge.
Connecting the Dots
What is the common thread that runs through the new businesses that you keep creating?
I have been involved with a variety of businesses so far, and they all have something in common. They all began as a pursuit to offer superior technical capabilities and a better UX.
Fundamentally, you love new things, and you are making the stuff you want, right?
That might be true. I started making apps because I was following Steve Jobs and Apple for many years. I began RakuNew because I love gadgets, so much so that I go to electronics stores several times a week.
I started Otooku because I have changed my car about six times since I came to Japan and have been interested in cryptocurrencies for a long time.
It’s evident in the story about programming I told you at the beginning, that I like new things. I have made my home a “smart home” by integrating Alexa to a “smart lock.” My company office also has a “smart lock.” I also own a 3-D printer.
When I learned that you have a Tesla, I realized that you are set in your own ways (lol).
Yes. It has become my hobby to try out new technology and learn more about it.
That sounds like the engineer in you.
My team consists of people who love to program more than having three meals a day, myself included.
Have you ever thought about going back to live in China?
Never. My wife likes Japan more than I do, and our kids speak better Japanese than Chinese. I may think about going back to China when I have achieved success here to the point where I don’t feel I have further room for improvement (lol).
What are your plans for CoinJinja and CoinView?
I want them to serve as a gateway to the cryptocurrency market for regular people.
Things that make it useful today are likely to keep changing as we move forward. It’s essential to continuously adapt and meet user needs in the best way, as quickly as possible.
Fundamentally, I compete with my ability to develop an idea into a product and the high level of usability of my creations. I don’t see that changing in the future.
You are being a bit cryptic with your answer here (lol).
It’s true that I do have many other ideas, but I compete with an actual product, and not with some concept drawn on paper. My approach is to actually make a product before I begin telling people about it and then work hard to improve it from there.
Brought to You by CoinView
CoinView provides crypto investors with everything they need including market charts, indices, news, and a searchable directory of ICOs. Connect your wallets and exchange accounts to build, track, and manage your portfolio.