Executive Impact: Neeraj Jhanji

Japan Today - Crisscross News (日本)

Taking interactive media to the next level

Chris Betros

One day back in 1999, Neeraj Jhanji was going to Daikanyama for lunch and he wondered if any of his friends were in the neighborhood and would like to join him. But how to contact them all? It occurred to Jhanji that it would be ideal if the mobile phone would tell him where his friends are. The idea was to create a mobile location sharing service to keep in touch with your friends so you could always know where they are.

Before long, that bright spark became the launching pad for Jhanji's own company, ImaHima Inc (www.imaHima.com), which is now one of Japan's most innovative new media companies. However, Jhanji, 33, has taken ImaHima far beyond the social messaging service.

Today, ImaHima is an interactive entertainment company offering digital contents and services on mobile phones, PC and television sets. ImaHima has entered into partnerships with foreign and domestic companies by co-investing its know-how, technologies, business relationships and user communities in joint projects targeting Japanese consumers in online communities and gaming, mobile contents and micropayments areas.

One of the most exciting areas is Habbo Hotel (http://www.habbohotel.jp/), which is an online graphical gaming environment for teenagers to hang out in, make friends and have fun. Once you choose a character (Habbo), you can personalize its appearance with clothes, hair, skin, etc. Habbos can talk, shout, walk, dance and swim. You can visit different Habbo Hotel public rooms by using the navigator interface on the site or go to guest rooms created by other visitors. Or you can create your own room, invite your friends and have your own party. It allows teenagers to express themselves by creating their own story on Habbo Hotel. The service has over 500,000 registered users in Japan.

Born in New Delhi, Jhanji spent his first 22 years in India. After getting an electrical engineering degree from the University of Delhi and working in technical and marketing roles for Siemens and Unisys, he joined a Japan-focused MBA program at the University of Hawaii. In 1995, a three-month internship with Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) brought him to Japan for the first time. Jhanji worked as the e-commerce strategy consultant with Accenture prior to founding ImaHima in late 1999.

Once he decided to establish his own company, Jhanji got together with a friend to build the ImaHima site. Working out of his apartment initially, everything was chaotic as they got university students to help with the programming and design. He fondly recalls 10 people working out of his small apartment.

Today, ImaHima employs 12 full-time staff of many nationalities in their Nishi-Azabu office. The team consists of designers, illustrators, developers, service delivery teams and site managers.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Jhanji to hear more about ImaHima.

Where did the inspiration for ImaHima come from?
It was in early 1999. I was still with Accenture. In those days, I was doing management consulting in IT strategy and working with several multinational and Japanese clients. One Saturday afternoon, I was going to Daikanyama for lunch and I wondered if any of my friends were nearby. I thought how easy it would be to find out if the right cell phone technology were available. That was the birth of the idea.

Then what did you do?
I had enough of a technology background to get up to speed on Internet programming, so I learned from a friend and built the site. Then I left Accenture. At first, we were working out of my apartment. We had university students to program and design for us, and we were working without salary. My apartment at its peak had about 10 people. My bed was in Terrada storage. You should have seen the place. In 2000, we were able to secure investment and became an incorporated company. It took us three years to get into the black.

How do you define ImaHima today?
We think of ourselves as an interactive media company. We create our own brands and partner with foreign brands to deliver cross-media and cross-platform offerings on mobile and broadband platforms, some television and broadcasting space as well.

What are your main products and services?
We still have our original service ImaHima, and the mobile AOL Instant Messenger for i-mode. Because instant messaging is still text-based, we have taken it to the next level with online rich graphical communities and messaging, such as Habbo Hotel, which is a 3D online interative gaming environment.

We are also doing mobile contents. For example, we made a partnership with Warner Bros to create an official site in which Harry Potter fans can not only talk with each other, but also keep in touch with Harry's changing world. In addition, we own and operate the official Harry Potter m-commerce store.

We also have a comprehensive online and mobile service billing gateway that is linked to every major payment method available in Japan.

How popular are ImaHima and Habbo Hotel?
ImaHima has about 500,000 registered users; so does Habbo Hotel. We are able to cross-pollinate to some extent since most of our communities are focused on Japanese teens and youth.

Which is the fastest growing sector for you?
Online communities. It's one of our cornerstones and enables us to develop our business in directions broader than the games. Now we are developing the Habbo Hotel brand into mobile and merchandising space with an animation possibility on the horizon. We are helping teen consumer brands like MTV connect with their audience better through the Habbo Hotel world which enables product placement, co-branding and immersive branding. Youth brands which want to reach a particular demographic can have their own public space inside Habbo Hotel. There are a lot of expansion possibilities. The teen focus of Habbo Hotel is a long-term play because teenagers in Japan are not as active online as the adults yet.

Can your products and services be used by any cell phone handset?
Yes. We have developed tools to enable our products to be used on any handset because the handset makers themselves have no one standard given the fast-paced innovation in the Japanese mobile industry. One of our tools is the mobile contents publishing system which makes it quite easy to publish and maintain mobile contents sites even though we need to support over 350 different types of mobile handsets. When the user makes a request for content, our tool will choose the right format depending upon the capabilities of the user's mobile phone.

I understand you have also created a micropayment gateway.
Since there is no single easy way to collect money from teenagers, we have developed a prepaid microbilling gateway that makes it possible to bill Japanese consumers for any online or mobile service. This gateway supports virtually all payment methods available in Japan like convenience stores, prepaid cards, ISP billing, mobile carrier billing, credit cards, PayPal, etc, to name but a few. By linking to our payment gateway, any service provider is able to get one-stop access to all payment methods. Based on our own experience, making it easier to pay directly increases the revenues of the service provider.

How do you earn revenue?
We have our own brands like the ImaHima messaging service. In that case, we are offering a service directly to the consumer. There is a subscription fee of 100 yen a month which you pay through the carrier. We have many subscription-based services such as the Harry Potter site as well. In the case of licensed brands like Habbo, we pay revenue share royalties to the licensor.

How do you market your products and services?
It depends on the product or service. Online communities generally work OK via word of mouth. However, since image branding is also important, we have become more active in traditional media. For example last month, we ran a TV ad campaign for Habbo Hotel on MTV Japan. One of the challenges is that ImaHima is the name of our first service and is still the name of the company. Of course, now we offer a much broader service portfolio than that. Early on, it made quite a big name for itself and CNN, BBC, the Wall Street Journal and Japanese TV all did stories on it. We like PR as a de facto marketing means.

How many staff do you have?
We have 12 full-time. It's a multinational team of designers, illustrators, developers, service delivery teams and site managers.

Are you a hands-on boss or do you prefer to delegate?
I try to delegate more and more. In the early stages, everything was so critical that I tended to be hands on. Nowadays, though, I am relieved that I don't need to be involved in the details.

What do you mainly do?
My business partner and I focus on company vision, strategy and business development. I tend to focus on technology management. I think of myself as a new media producer and I look at new directions where we might go and what sort of services make sense. Defining the strategy and concept are my main duties. I still take an interest in making sure the delivery and execution is as smart and efficient as possible.

What is a typical day for you?
I usually start around 9:30 a.m. and might finish around 7:30 p.m., or later. I work a bit on weekends; I'm always thinking and seeing what I can learn from new subject domains, other cultures and industries.

How do you relax when you are not working?
I swim almost every day at the gym, work out or go cycling. Travel is a hobby which I combine with business. Some of our partners are overseas companies. Sometimes I get invited to speak at conferences like the game developers' conference in San Francisco last month.

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