If you happen to be at the West Walk of Roppongi Hills before White Day (March 14), you’ll see a pop-up wagon selling Harney & Sons Fine Teas, Vosges Haut Chocolat and other items by Wonderlily Co Ltd. You might also see CEO Yuri Yasuda as she drops by, like a good general, to see how everything is.
A passionate and dynamic lady, fluent in Japanese, English and French, Yasuda, whom everyone affectionately calls “Yureeka,” says she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. After spending much of her childhood in the U.S., she finished her education in Japan, obtaining an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Comparative Cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo as an anthropology major.
Showbiz beckoned at first and Yureeka did some modeling and TV work. She has also appeared in many magazines and still does occasionally. She has introduced her personal fashion styling/wardrobe in Oggi magazine, her favorite bars in Tokyo Calendar, did a 4-page interview recently for GQ Japan about Japanese men from a “global woman’s perspective,” and writes a regular column on art for Commons&sense magazine.
In 2007, at the age of 24, Yureeka established her company Wonderlily Co, with the goal of acting as a bridge between Japanese consumers and the global market by correlating international trends and local consumer tastes. A trip to New York in 2010 got her started on the entrepreneurial track when she spotted two products she felt confident would be popular in Japan – Harney & Sons tea and Vosges chocolate.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Yureeka to hear more.
How did you go from showbiz to business?
I had done modelling and navigated music programs on cable for Sony Music and started appearing as a guest on one of Sanma’s TV programs, just by chance and curiosity. He found my “Japlish” to be super funny and assertive personality to be “different”- and invited me back numerous times. I didn’t really think about it too much. I used to ask my friends to come along and be my entourage because I didn’t have a manager when this all began. I eventually signed up again with Sony Music Artists. My management thought I would be better on the entertainment “tarento” side which was a booming industry in Japan. I actually was good at it since honestly, all I had to do was just be myself, but “selling my personality and life” wasn’t what I wanted to carry out as a job. Maybe for fun yes, but to build a career in? No. So I took a break from the entertainment world to try and work out what I really wanted to pursue.
What did you do?
I was in New York in 2010 visiting my father and taking a break from Tokyo life when I discovered Harney & Sons teas in the Gramercy Park Hotel. I was never a big tea drinker but this was something I had never seen before, especially the many fusion-flavored blends and the way it was beautifully packaged and presented in whole-leaf silken pyramid sachets. I thought it could be something Japanese people could like. I contacted Harney & Sons and was able to get in touch with the vice president. A few visits to their HQ in upstate Millerton and some presentations later, I acquired the exclusive license for distribution in Japan.
It was the same immediate hunch I had with Vosges, when I fell in love with their blackpearl truffles (black sesame, ginger, wasabi flavor) upon strolling into their trendy boutique in Soho. Vosges is a Chicago chocolate brand known for their exotic flavors. The concept is to travel the world through chocolate. Each bar/spice/recipe represents a country. It was relatively easy to get the exclusive agreement to distribute them in Japan as well; the paperwork and customs clearance not so much, but I had professional assistance when needed.
Starting your company must have been a risky venture for you.
I didn’t think of it as a risk. Even today, I don’t think of business in terms of risk. My view is to try your best and if it doesn’t work, it’s not really failing. At least you know what doesn’t work, which in itself is making progress. It is always a matter of moving forward, taking action, and not overthinking things. In the midst of everything, I often find the solution.
Where are your products sold?
The tea is sold nationwide at Dean & DeLuca locations and high-end lifestyle stores such as Bals, Cibone and Conran. I am still debating if I should approach supermarkets or not. We do regular events at all major department stores including Seibu Sogo, Daimaru, Iseatan Mitsukoshi, etc. Besides retail outlets, we supply leaves to the Roppongi Hills Club, the Conrad and Peninsula and hopefully, some more hotels in the near future. For seasonal promotions, we have pop-up wagons and stores. The one at Roppongi Hills West Walk did phenomenally well in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day and it is there again for White Day.
With Vosges chocolates and chocolate BBQ potato chips, they are in Dean & DeLuca and Bals, though I want to try for foodie catalogues more than stores because I only need to import a specified volume.
I have two independent online stores and one under Rakuten marketplace, which offers exclusive items in addition to the regular lines.
How are online sales?
Online sales in February doubled from January, probably due to the pop-up wagon for Valentine’s Day. This year I want online sales to be at least 30% of total sales. Last year, it was 10-20%.
What is your best-selling item?
Hot cinnamon tea. It is a blend of black teas, cinnamon cloves, orange-peel and spices available in decaf as well. We have sold more than 65,000 over the past three years. Cinnamon is the best seller for Harney & Sons in both the U.S. and Japan because it is like none other. It has so much body and character. It has no sugar, no calories, but is naturally so sweet - it can be enjoyed as a dessert beverage.
It’s important in the Japanese market to keep introducing new products. In the U.S., there are close to 300 blends but for Japan, I have chosen 50 based on my own preference and also what would represent Harney & Sons NYC the best. Our newest product is a tea-infused cookie line exclusively for Dean & DeLuca and online – Earl Grey x bitter chocolate, Hot cinnamon x oatmeal crunch, Mid-summer peach x pistachio, and Soho x coconut. We currently have a huge island display at their stores.
How do you market your products?
My network of business contacts and friends in fashion and media, as well as word of mouth are the best PR methods. Events are a factor as well in directly appealing to new customers. The Japanese market in general always wants something new and “exclusive.” I’ve done tea collaborations with various companies besides Dean & DeLuca, such as Louis Vuitton and Hudson Market Bakers. Mercedes-Benz is coming up. We are currently taking part in the New York Fair, which is a department store event at Seibu Sogo. It’s sort of a traveling fair of various New York brands. It started at Shibuya Seibu, and then moved to Ikebukuro and Yokohama.
How do you approach potential clients?
I like to be frank with people, whether it is a stern old-school-type Japanese department head to friendly foreign F&B directors; I think I speak with a lot of confidence and enthusiasm in my brands… which may be a bit over the top sometimes. But that works to my benefit most of the time. And I am always sincere in what I say obviously. One of the achievements of the past year which helped broaden my business spectrum is setting up a tea station at Google headquarters in Tokyo. The F&B manager loved the quality of tea and also its colorful packaging. The Google office is so much fun. In fact, they want me to give a lecture to the staff at some point. I am happy to promote the fact that tea is a healthy beverage and has many benefits especially for those who lead an intense corporate life. I want to build and spread tea stations in other companies as well.
How do you think the sakes tax hike from April 1 will affect business?
I already raised prices on some products earlier this year because the yen-dollar exchange rate has a far bigger effect on the business. When I first started, the exchange rate was 80 yen to the dollar; now it’s over 100. Furthermore, the fluctuating price of ingredients impacts our business, too. After April 1, there may be some downturn at first, but I think consumers who enjoy our brands will continue to buy them.
What is a typical day for you?
I don’t have a routine but often I get up around 6 or 7 a.m., check emails from New York, then go back to sleep for three hours – or try to. I head to the office around 12 noon. I have a good team—three full-time staff, three outsourced professionals (for web design, event direction and accounting) and I use interns at the pop-up stores. I am in and out most days. I used to worry about a work-life balance. I would be out, wondering if I should be at the office and that would stress me out. Or I would be in the office and think I should be out at an opening somewhere and that would stress me out. Now I just go with the flow and do both. It is who I am and I am enjoying my life. I sleep at an alarmingly late hour.
I work weekends and holidays when necessary. I like horseback riding whenever I get the chance. I organize dinners and enjoy good food and wine with friends, like to visit the latest art exhibitions for inspiration, and zone out at home for some solo time.
Where do you get your energy from?
I guess it comes from my passion for my job, or maybe it’s just my personality. I’ve always been bubbly and gregarious. I have a lot to be grateful for and try to always keep a positive attitude.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Having the platform and power to materialize ideas into a final tangible/visible product. Although I’m dealing with a simple commodity like tea, I want to make it more than that. It’s promoting a higher lifestyle. It’s not only wholesale transactions for me. With the right ideas, the amount of creative opportunities have been bountiful - collaborations with fashion brands and dealing with embassies, club parties, student and alumnae events, charity fundraisers, designing various tea desserts and cocktails at amazing bars and eateries, launching original sweets and gift sets, launching my original line of pet bottles at convenience stores. There are myriad opportunities. It’s not only limited to tea being just a beverage, but it can be incorporated in so many aspects of life. It’s fun to select what’s right for the brand and for its future ... and see the results and reactions of clients and customers thereafter.