Jaypan: Designing interactive and engaging experiences for web
Jay Friendly heads Jaypan, a Yokohama-based development agency specializing in designing and implementing highly interactive and engaging experiences for the web.
Tell us your background.
I was born and grew up in a small town near Vancouver, Canada. I spent the first 24 years of my life there, graduating high school and attending the local university.
When did you first come to Japan and what brought you here?
I came to Japan in the summer of 2000, after I finished my last year of university. In that final year, I was living with a roommate whose ex-girlfriend had come to Japan to teach English to children. She was really enjoying her time here, and had told my roommate about it. He had decided to come to Japan himself, and while we were living together, he was in the process of obtaining a passport and a visa. At the same time, his future company was sending him all sorts of documentation, paperwork, and information about the job, apartments and the lifestyle. Of course, he was getting excited about his impending trip to the country, which in turn got me interested in this idea of traveling to Japan. Unlike many people who come here, I never had any particular interest in Japan, and my love for this country came after I came here and experienced it.
On the day my roommate moved out of our house, I was watching his moving truck pull away, and having no real plans on what I was to do next, I decided that I would also come to Japan. My friend set me up with the recruiter for the company he was to enter, and I called them and arranged an interview. Four months later I was on the plane for what I thought (and promised my mother), would be a year-long working vacation in Japan. But, as the end of that year was approaching, I was just becoming conversational in Japanese, and really enjoying living here, so I decided that I would go home when I was ready. Apparently I’m still not ready, because I’m still here.
What jobs did you do before starting your Jaypan last year?
The first year and a half, I worked for a nationwide children’s English school as a teacher. I really enjoyed teaching kids, but it started to burn me out after the first year. As anyone who has taught children knows, to do it right requires a high level of energy day in, day out. So when the foreign manager of our prefecture was moved to head office, I put forward my own name to take over his position. I spent three and a half years as the Shizuoka Area Manager, and in terms of personal growth, it was the most productive time of my life. I had to learn to look at things as a boss, which was a new experience for me. I was managing a team of 14 teachers, aged 19 – 55, from countries all over the world. I have to admit, I didn’t do very well at first, and I ended up with some teachers who were very unhappy with my performance. I had to really reflect on the job I was doing, how I was doing it, and evaluate myself and my actions from the perspective of my teachers. As such, I restructured my entire method of management, and by the end of my 3.5 years in this position, I was receiving awards from head office, respect from my teachers, and I was extremely satisfied in my job.
Unfortunately, at this point, the company decided they were switching to a Japanese-only management system, and all of a sudden I and 20+ other foreign managers, were out of a position. We were offered teaching positions, but the idea of going back to teaching didn’t appeal to me at this point, so I went on the search for another job.
In university, I had been required to take Computer Sciences in my first year. I loved this course, and even though it was not directly related to my studies, I spent more time on the assignments for this class than I did on any other class any year. I’ve always loved puzzles, and programming is the ultimate puzzle. During my years in the eikaiwa industry, I started focusing the programming knowledge I had on building websites as a hobby, putting together a small portfolio.
So, I used this knowledge, my portfolio, and my Japanese skills, and found a Japanese company in Yokohama that hired me as the technical chief. My job position entailed maintaining the company websites, doing some translation, and taking our foreign associates out when they were in Japan. This however left me with a lot of free time, so I created an information-management system that we licensed out to our clients that allowed them to share information between remote branches of their companies, uploading files, attaching videos and images, and setting up a system of notifications and access levels. As I was a one-man division in the company, I had the freedom to decide what direction we needed to go, and how we would implement this system. I was also responsible for creating system documentation and training videos, and for traveling to our client’s locations to give them direct training on system usage. I spent six years at this company, which was an amazing experience that improved my Japanese level, business ability, and programming skills.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
The time was right. I had reached a plateau in the publishing company in terms of personal growth. I was at a point where I could do presentations in Japanese, and could build most anything I wanted on a website. However, the company was not a web design company, so I was limited on my ability to utilize these skills. I had started freelancing about three years before I left the company, and as my freelancing business expanded, I realized that I could make the switch to doing web design and development full-time. I felt that I had the abilities and drive to go out on my own and make a success of it.
What sort of company is Jaypan? What are your services?
We are a web development and design company. We build web systems and applications. This is a little different from a standard website, which generally is built in HTML and will not change from day to day. Our websites are dynamic systems, which can involve anything from social networking, information dispersal, and integration with 3rd party systems (such as YouTube or Facebook). Beyond this, we specialize in creating user-friendly, beautiful websites. Our core principals are that a site needs to be easy to use, easy to look at and easy to understand.
Do you have many clients?
One thing I learned early on in my freelancing years was that taking on too many clients at once resulted in a loss in quality, due to time pressures and the accompanying stress. For me this was not acceptable. I build websites because I love building websites, and if I cannot take pride in each and every product we produce, then I would rather go back and teach children.
As such, we never take on more than three projects at a time, and that is only in the overlap when one project is ending, and a new project is beginning. Usually we will have two projects on the go, so that we can focus properly on these projects and ensure that the client receives a quality product, and has a smooth experience along the way.
Once a project is done, our client relationship shifts to one of maintenance and updates, occasionally adding new functionality, and generally each client only requires a few hours of work per month. So we do have many clients, but only 2-3 main projects at any given time.
Designing websites must be a very competitive business. What are your strengths?
This industry is very competitive, particularly with the global economy. It is impossible for us to compete with other companies on price, as people can have websites made cheaply in poorer countries for peanuts. That said, if there ever was an industry in which “you get what you pay for,” it is this one. Many of our clients have been people who have gone the cheap route, and ended up with systems that are buggy and/or user unfriendly, and that is if they even end up with a site at all. Many clients have paid a lot of money to a company only to have them disappear with no method of contact. Most of our clients have been through some sort of situation in the past that has caused them to reconsider their intentions of getting a site built as cheap as possible.
As such, we don’t even try to compete on price. Rather, our focus is on quality of product, and quality of service. I personally take care of all client interaction, and from my past experiences, I’ve found I’m able to match my level of lingo to the client’s ability to understand that lingo. We also maintain a client website with a private area for each client where we can conduct communication regarding the site, keeping everything structured, organized, and in one place. And finally, we implement automated testing systems in our websites during development that are used to ensure that newly added functionality does not break previously developed functionality.
Of course, by not competing on price, we limit our customer base significantly, since the trend in the world is to try to get the most inexpensive product possible, but fortunately we’ve found that a market does exist, and these are who we target.
What is Drupal?
Drupal is an open-source Content Management Framework (CMF). This is a fancy way of saying it’s a frame on which a website can be built. Consider building a house – you can go and cut down a tree, mine some ore, and use these to create hammers, nails, and beams with which the house can be built. Or, you can buy a hammer and some nails, and use these to build the house. Drupal is built on the PHP programming language (the wood and ore), and is a framework (the tools and beams). We use this framework as the basis for most of our systems, with the exception of systems for clients who want a system built from scratch. Drupal is open-source, and used by tens of thousands of websites across the world, including The White House, Al-Jazeera, PayPal and Zynga. There is a dedicated security team, who search for security holes, and any user can report these security holes if they find them. As a result, Drupal is generally more secure than custom solutions, which only receive testing from a small group.
There are other systems out there to compare with Drupal, Wordpress being the best known. However, Drupal is generally thought to be the most robust and secure of these systems, which is why we use it in Jaypan.
I’ve spent the past five years working with all aspects of Drupal, including coding, caching, multilingualism, database management, security management, 3rd party API interfaces, deployment strategies and system backups. Jaypan has been certified on Drupal.org as a Drupal service provider, and we make the effort to put tutorials on our site for techniques that are not found in other, both to help the community, and to show prospective clients that we actually know what we are talking about. And to show our belief and confidence in Drupal, Jaypan.com is built on the Drupal framework.
How are you marketing your company?
So far, we have not had to advertise to find clients. Approximately 2/3 of our clients come to us through referrals. Our other method is SEO (Search Engine Optimization). We have coded our site in a search-engine friendly manner, so that it shows up high in the search results for our targeted key words. We also maintain a strong presence in the Drupal community, and the mentions of our name, along with links to our website, give the search engines the information they need to decide where we should appear in the search results. We do also have a FaceBook and Twitter page, but these are generally just used to create an online presence, rather than to source new clients.
How many staff do you have?
At the moment there are four of us, myself, a full-time front-end developer, a designer who works on a contract basis, and a part-time assistant who takes care of testing, translations, bookkeeping work and office management. We are intending to add a new full-time programmer next spring, so that I can focus more on running the business, interacting with clients and overseeing our projects.
Is this a 7-day-a-week job?
Not at all! I love my work, and I love this industry, but I am a believer a healthy work-life balance. I am a family man, and spending time with my family allows me to come into work rejuvenated, which allows me to work more efficiently, and produce a higher quality of work. I try to make things as comfortable for my staff as well. We dress casually, listen to music, and I don’t have them work overtime. I try to add small benefits as well, such as extra days off over the legal limit, freedom in choosing what days and times they want to work, and letting them leave early if we have a gap in the schedule. In this industry, many of the jobs can be soul-destroying, and as my staff is essential to the success of Jaypan, their quality of life is just as important as my own. I want my staff to be proud to work for Jaypan, and to enjoy their time here.
So to answer the question, I work six days a week, eight hours a day. This allows me to wake up and have breakfast with my son and take him to school, then come home for dinner at night and put him to bed. It’s a simple life, but a satisfying one.
How do you relax when you are not working?
I go to the gym two to three times a week, as I find this is good for both the body and mind. I also try to spend as much time with my wife and son as I can. I play guitar, read, and occasionally go hiking – Kamakura is beautiful at this time of year.