Navigating an Ed-Tech Startup’s First International Business Trip

I’ll be in Japan in a mere seven days. This will be my first overseas business trip—and I’m filled with equal parts excitement and nervousness.

Earlier this year, Listenwise partnered with a Japanese education company, JIEM (or EduLab in the U.S.). Not only did JIEM become a distributor of Listenwise in Asia, it also became a strategic investor. Since our partnership was formed, we’ve had many phone conversations and emails preparing for a test of our product in the Asian market. Now it’s time to meet our partners in-person and learn more about our potential customers.

But before any of that, I needed to brush up some business etiquette.

I didn’t know much about Japanese business culture except for one thing: You must use two hands to give your business card to someone else. When you receive a business card, you should take time to study it.  This blog post informed me that I should carry at least 100 business cards for my one-week trip. I don’t think I’ve given out 100 business cards in the U.S. in the last six months.  

There’s more. It’s frowned upon to write notes upon the card—which might be difficult for me, as I usually jot down notes about each person I’ve met. I’m planning on writing down specific details in a notebook instead. (After all, these details make for great follow-up conversations and thank-you notes!)

I’ve also learned you shouldn’t ask for things directly in Japan. For example, this Business Insider article says you shouldn’t ask for a fork even if you’re struggling with the chopsticks. Japanese people rely on what’s unsaid and believe the best form of communication is indirect.

I’ve never thought much about bowing. The consensus on the internet seems to be that Westerners aren’t expected to bow to their counterparts; instead, they can shake hands.

Japanese business meetings sound like a minefield for the uninformed. Seating around a table is based on job title and hierarchy—which presents some challenges if you’re not completely clear on your status relative to everyone else. My game plan? I will follow the lead of my American colleague who is CEO of another ed-tech startup. I will wait until he’s seated and sit next to him.

I also learned that Japan has a gift-giving culture, so it’s important to come with gifts for your hosts. I’m bringing chocolates made locally in Boston. Hopefully, they don’t melt in my suitcase (and I don’t fall prey to any late-night chocolate cravings). Interestingly, the Japanese consider a gift’s presentation to be equally or even more important than the gift itself. These will be the best-dressed bonbons around.

The last helpful tidbit I’ve picked up: Although the purpose of my Japan trip is to strengthen the relationship between Listenwise and JIEM, I shouldn’t expect any immediate concrete results. Meetings in Japan are more focused on gathering information than making decisions on the spot.

I can’t wait to meet our partners—and practice my new etiquette!

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4 thoughts on “Navigating an Ed-Tech Startup’s First International Business Trip

  1. Ah this post brings me back! I’ve been lucky to travel to Japan for business many times. If I may I could add some thoughts. After years working with Japanese clients I find some cultural things are overblown, but some are very true. Re business cards, I always ended up following their lead. When they are traditional Japanese, you’ll see them standing business card in hard, looking incredibly formal. Then you need to follow their lead, study the card, say something about their business title. Quite often though you’ll find a ‘Westernised’ person, who’ll be very much as you expect the norm in the West. So you need to be flexible. You are right, bowing is not really expected of Westerners. The biggest difference I’ve found is in the culture of meetings. Japanese tend to plan and think through everything. They will rarely given direct answers to direct questions. Any questions they raise are probably very well planned. Also, depending upon how much travel around you are doing (is your partner looking after you the whole way?). Japanese cab drivers do not speak any English. I resorted to for every single meeting I’d have printing a Japanese map, English map and the phone number of my contact all printed out and ready to go. I learnt this through a very painful first few trips. Also, if you are planning on travelling on the brilliant underground then make sure you buy a pre paid SUICA card… makes it a lot easier than buying every time. Added bonus you can use it at the little shops to buy water/sandwich etc when running between meetings. Japan is a great place to do business, hope you enjoy!

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