Mercari Japan CEO Hirohisa Tamonoki: Bringing the best experience possible to both users and employees
“I was the most surprised of all. ‘Why am I being put in charge of Mercari Japan?’”
In October 2018, Hirohisa Tamonoki was appointed to lead the Mercari marketplace app business in Japan. Tamonoki started his career working in customer service part-time at GMO Cloud. Fifteen years later, he’s on the front line of management as leader of Mercari’s business in Japan.
In his year and a half working at Mercari, Tamonoki has been involved in many projects across various fields, including CS, global recruiting, HR, and product development. What does he think about Mercari now? We sat down with Tamonoki to discuss the management and organizational issues he faces and his vision of Mercari’s future, all while going through his past career and how he reached his current position.
Playing a supporting role
– Everyone at Mercari calls you “Tamo-san” as a nickname, so is it okay if I call you Tamo-san in this interview? (laughs)
Tamonoki: Of course!
– In October 2018, you were appointed the person in charge of the Mercari business in Japan. Can you introduce yourself? I’m curious what your student life was like.
Tamonoki: Sure. I’m from Odate in Akita Prefecture, known as the hometown of Hachiko. I lived in Odate through high school. When I was a high school student, I hated school. I couldn’t keep up with studying, and I have nothing but bad memories of it. (laughs) Apparently if I had skipped a few more days, I would have even been held back a year… But I wanted to go to university (Tokyo), so when I was a senior, I studied really hard, and got into Waseda University.
Hirohisa Tamonoki (Mercari Japan CEO)
– So you were the kind of kid that just wasn’t trying hard enough?
Tamonoki: Maybe. (laughs) I think I was the type of kid that just wasn’t motivated until my back was up against the wall. Even in university, I remember I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to graduate until the very end. But I managed to stick with it and graduate in four years.
– After graduating from university, you started working at GMO Cloud (a company providing cloud hosting services and security services), right?
Tamonoki: No, I actually started working at GMO Cloud part-time when I was a student. I wasn’t looking for a full-time job, but I had to pay back a university scholarship, so I started looking for a part-time job, and found GMO Cloud. At the time, I was part of a band with some friends, and we created a website on our own domain with a rented server, so I had some knowledge already. I thought “hey, maybe I can do this!” and applied.
– What were you doing when you first joined?
Tamonoki: I was doing CS work—customer support. After I was promoted to a full-time employee, I was involved in the server hosting business and launching new businesses and subsidiaries. After that, I left and started working at Pixiv, which runs an online community for artists.
– What did you do at Pixiv?
Tamonoki: I did a lot of things. First, I listed up all the work that founder and then-president Takanori Katagiri (currently CEO of DMM.com Ltd.) was doing. At the time, it was very incomplete as a business, so I held a number of positions at once, including system development, marketing, HR, and business supervision. I joined as a full-time employee, but at the end I was even able to become a company director. I think Pixiv was where I was able to build the foundation for my work.
– You were more of a generalist than a specialist, then.
Tamonoki: I was a jack of all trades, yes. (laughs) Actually, while I was a director at Pixiv, I joined a company called Animate (a store specializing in anime merchandise) and launched a new subsidiary (Animate Lab). I was appointed representative director and CEO in January 2016, and was in charge of Animate’s IT business. After that, I spent a year or so helping the business scale before leaving. I also left Pixiv at the same time, and joined Mercari as an executive officer in February 2017.
– It sounds like you’ve been involved in businesses in a variety of positions and roles—part-time, full-time, executive, and even CEO. Looking back at your career, what is your outlook on work?
Tamonoki: Unfortunately, I don’t have anything fancy like that. Mercari is full of talented members, and I’m the total opposite. I’ve always felt like I have to work twice as hard as everyone else because I’m not as talented, and so I’ve just managed to crawl my way up. But if I had to say, I guess it would be “accomplishing everything expected of you.”
– Accomplishing everything expected of you?
Tamonoki: Yes. At GMO Cloud, I was expected to use my knowledge of rental servers and programming to improve CS, and at Pixiv, I was expected to use my experience working at GMO Cloud, a publicly listed company, in order to grow the business further. My experience at GMO Cloud is absolutely what helped me grow Pixiv’s business. At Animate, I was expected to use my experience at Pixiv to help them break into the IT field, and I think it was my past experience that let me produce the value expected of me at the executive level.
– I see. Is it the same at Mercari?
Tamonoki: I think so, yes. I joined Mercari because I felt like I would be expected to use my past experience to achieve Mercari’s mission: create value in a global marketplace where anyone can buy & sell. I had known Shintaro (Mercari CEO) for a long time, and his vision really resonated with me. But I didn’t really think much about what I actually wanted to do at Mercari. I guess I’m not really the type of person that knows what they want to do and is set on achieving it; I’d rather support someone else. I want to use the knowledge and experience I have to help someone, somewhere. Looking back on my career, I think this is my strong point.
Mercari’s strength: Communication unique to C2C services
– Next, I’d like to hear about your career after joining Mercari. Tamo-san, can you tell us what you’ve worked on?
Tamonoki: The list is endless. But there are two major categories: global strategy and CS improvement.
– You joined in February 2017. What did you do first?
Tamonoki: When I joined, all Shintaro said was “Tamo-san, you can do everything, so I want you to watch over all of Mercari.” (laughs) I visited our CS locations in Sendai and Fukuoka, and our overseas office in the US, and spoke with the local members there. As a result, I realized that at the time, our CS in the US was the area with the most issues, and immediately set to work to solve them. On top of that, we needed to capture global talent in order to become a major player on the world stage, so I launched a recruiting project. At the same time, I established the Global Operations Team (a team to promote diversity by breaking down language and cultural barriers, including but not limited to translation and interpretation support) within the company as part of creating a structure to welcome global members.
– It sounds like you committed yourself to the US for a while.
Tamonoki: I did. Right now, Mercari US is running something called CSAT (a customer satisfaction measurement tool). I actually created the foundation for that system with the Global Operations Team. We were able to build a system for global recruiting, and drive the business well. While I was doing that, Mercari CS in Japan reached out to me, and I started seriously focusing on CS improvement. That was February 2018.
– What kinds of issues did CS face at the time?
Tamonoki: To put it simply, most work was overly dependent on individual employees. As Mercari’s GMV (gross merchandise volume) grew and grew, CS got busier and busier, but they didn’t have any systems in place to scale the work up to match.
– What do you mean by “overly dependent on individuals”?
Tamonoki: Mercari CS had a lot of cases where they had to rely on the experience of the members who had been around since the beginning. Mercari wouldn’t be where it is now without them, and I don’t want to discredit that. But in order to grow a company or business, you need to create systems so you aren’t relying on people too much. Of course, they were trying, but they couldn’t keep up with how fast GMV was growing. In order to strengthen and grow Mercari even further, it was necessary to take the plunge and work All for One to change things.
– I see.
Tamonoki: I went around to all the CS offices in Tokyo, Sendai, and Fukuoka, spoke with the CS teams as much as I could, and unearthed all the issues they had. It took quite a long time before I was able to really grasp all of what was going on. I feel like I didn’t make a big drastic change all at once; I untangled the mess it was in, and took it step by step, making sure I was on the right path as I went. I spent two quarters on CS improvements: one quarter understanding the current situation and one quarter working on the systems to help.
– What did you start with?
Tamonoki: It’s important to tackle issues within the organization, but I decided to first prioritize our users—the ones that were having problems in the first place—and focus on increasing the speed at which we respond to inquiries from users. At the time, there were many cases where we weren’t able to respond within 24 hours, but now, we respond to around 99% of inquiries within 24 hours, and many of them within 6 hours.
– What were the main points you looked at to improve this?
Tamonoki: We started measuring every action, keeping track of things like AHT (average handling time: the average amount of time it takes from starting work on the inquiry to closing it) and CPC (cost per contact: the average cost required to handle one inquiry) to figure out what our weak points were and what we needed to fix. We spent a lot of time building this foundation. But it worked even better than we expected—it helped a lot with our allocation of members, and as a result, we succeeded in speeding up our responses. After that, we focused on sorting inquiries into categories and designing a priority system, and created a CS team that can handle all sorts of inquiries unique to C2C services extremely quickly. In order to get an idea of what kinds of inquiries we were getting and how we were responding to them, I looked at our response history per user over and over… It was really difficult, but I was also really happy.
– Happy? Why?
Tamonoki: I was happy to see that so many users were enjoying buying and selling things with each other on the app. There’s a lot of communication we have with our users that you only really see on C2C services, and I remember being really moved at how interesting it was. I wanted to hear more from our users, so we decided to start measuring NPS (net promoter score), an indicator to measure customer loyalty. Even though we were swamped with issues to fix, seeing users enjoying Mercari reminded us of our hopes and Mercari’s potential. We were thinking, “If we can get through these issues, Mercari will become even better.” Now, every time I find an issue, I jump at the chance to try and solve it. Maybe I’m too obsessed with my job. (laughs)
Beyond Customer Experience x Employee Experience
– And after that, you were appointed as the person in charge of the Mercari business in Japan. Can you tell us about the background behind that appointment?
Tamonoki: I don’t think my stance has changed—like I said earlier, I do what’s expected of me. But I was the most surprised of all. “Why am I being put in charge of Mercari Japan?”
– Really? Then let me ask you a question: why do you think you were chosen?
Tamonoki: Seriously? You want me to praise myself? (laughs) I don’t know. Uhh… I guess if I go by the results, it might be because I have the motivation and ability to achieve the goals I set for myself. In particular, I think I was evaluated well on the CS improvements I mentioned earlier. It takes a lot of strength to change something in a company or organization. I’m extremely honored to be chosen as an executive with that kind of responsibility.
– Did Shintaro give you any sort of big mission?
Tamonoki: When he first told me he wanted me to be in charge, there wasn’t anything in particular. But as I had one-on-one meetings with members, I looked for the issues they were having. The two keywords I came up with were CX (customer experience) and EX (employee experience).
– And you wanted to work on these as a set?
Tamonoki: That’s right. Through my work in CS, I learned how important it was to hear the voices of users, and felt a strong desire to improve CX as much as I could. I think improving CX is really just the same thing as completely understanding Mercari’s users. But understanding users completely is really difficult. You can look at examples from all over the world, but there’s still so many unknowns, and no one’s found the optimal balance between quantity and quality. I want to thoroughly explore CX and make it so Mercari is working on global-standard improvements to the user experience. In order to achieve that, I want to make sure the people working at Mercari have the best possible experience too. Can our employees say Mercari is the best place to work? Are they proud to work here? Learning about our members helps us learn about our users. Good EX leads to good CX, and good CX leads to good EX. I think they’re two halves of a whole.
– Did you hear a lot of concerns about EX from Mercari members?
Tamonoki: To be honest, while Mercari is growing incredibly rapidly and decisions are made quickly, there are many cases where there isn’t enough sharing of information. For example, a number of members told me things like “we don’t hear about the management strategy enough” and “it’s hard to talk to upper management.” Honestly, it hurt to hear things like that. But if people think that there’s a gap between management and those on the ground, I want to do something about that. I really want to make it seamless. Recently, I’ve been more conscious about transparency, by doing things like sharing minutes of manager-only meetings to the entire company.
– I see. Why do you think members think that? Is it physical distance or mental distance?
Tamonoki: I think it’s not about physical distance, it’s about whether we’re aware of what the other is thinking. It means the members want us to be more open about what’s on our minds. I don’t want us to look so busy we’re not approachable, I want us to make time to sync with everyone. Honestly, I’m probably guilty of this too. But this helped me realize that I need to fix it.
– If you only share the results and not the thought process behind them, it’s harder to get members to understand and agree.
Tamonoki: Right. The company’s priorities, and even our directions, change so rapidly. Management also make decisions and judgement calls quickly. It’s like we’re building the bullet train tracks while we’re already on the train. It’s total chaos. (laughs) But I think it’s important to convey the message and visions of management to the members, even if it’s chaotic.
– I don’t think there are any companies out there that can maintain perfect communication even as the number of employees and offices grows. But Mercari may be able to change that with enough awareness and planning.
Tamonoki: Right. Is it really the right move to optimize everything just because we have more members now? Is it really important to make more rules than truly necessary? I don’t think that’s always the case. Maybe it’s good to have meetings with lower hurdles. I want to come up with systems for communication such that everyone, management and members, knows more about each other. I want to hear more opinions, so I’d like to be more proactive about setting up events and other opportunities to talk with Mercari members.
– It looks like we’re almost out of time. To wrap things up, can you tell us about your vision for Mercari?
Tamonoki: As Merpay, our new financial service, expands our payment services, I think Mercari will be expected to provide value in a unique user experience. With Merpay, Mercari will become not just a C2C marketplace, but a place where people, things, and money all mix together, providing a really interesting experience and getting people to use our services more and more. I want Mercari to become a service that people are excited to use and deeply satisfied with.
– “A service that people are deeply satisfied with” has a nice ring to it.
Tamonoki: We’re in an era that’s full of things, and the options we have for buying things and paying for things are increasing every day. Because of that, I think a service people are deeply satisfied with is a service that will be popular with users. If you have choices, you’re going to choose the one that’s unique and that you’re satisfied with, right? And if you have a deeply satisfying experience, you’re going to tell those around you. Making people satisfied through our service might be my goal for Mercari. Wouldn’t it be awesome to hear people saying that life would be boring without Mercari? I want to work with everyone at Mercari to create a service that will become a big part of everyone’s lives.
– That sounds good! Let’s work together to create even more value for Mercari!
Tamonoki: Let’s do it! I can’t wait to see it!
After graduating from Waseda University, Tamonoki joined GMO Cloud K.K., where he handled CS work, a server hosting business, and the launch of new businesses. In 2010, he began working at Pixiv Inc., where he worked in business supervision, including system development, marketing, and growth, as a company director. He was appointed representative director and CEO of Animate Lab, Inc. in January 2016, and promoted its IT business in the retail field. He joined Mercari as an executive officer in February 2017, and was appointed CEO of Mercari Japan in October 2018.