Visiting Kenja Corp at Roppongi Academyhills

A virtual start-up company

From right to left: Ted Katagi, CEO of Kenja, Monthakarn Baipowongse, intern at Kenja, and myself.

This is the first time I will be entering the majestic Mori Tower, and I’ve arranged to meet my MBA classmate Monthakarn Baipowongse ‘under the spider’. Just like in my case, her internship is the last official part of the Globis MBA experience, and I wanted to share her experience as an intern in a virtual company with you.

Kenja is all about cloud computing, offering a platform where you can communicate in ‘rooms’. Like other cloud services, you can upload files, share calendars, but Kenja is much more. It’s a one-stop solution to have everything you need to keep connected in one platform, from chat and sharing files to video conferences and setting appointments, with a user-friendly self-explanatory design .

Because Monthakarn and I shared our internship advisor, I had been hearing stories about her experience, and I was able to visit Kenja in the Academyhills library. I interviewed Monthakarn and Ted Katagi, Kenja’s CEO, on the 49th floor of Mori tower on a beautiful bright day. The view from the large glass windows was spectacular, the space open and bright and welcoming, it seems like a nice place to work.

Ted Katagi: “Rather than paying a lot of money for a private small office, I chose to work from more public locations from the beginning. In fact, when we were only 3 employees, we used to gather at a local Starbucks to work. I decided to relocate to Academyhills because of the excellent location and services they offer; we can use the public spaces or reserve a private room when necessary. But still, all our employees are extremely free in choosing where they do their work, be it at home, here, or in a different location.”

The virtual company is a new trend, but is not yet well-known or accepted in Japan. You will find many freelancers working away in locations like this one, but as soon as a company has more than a few employees they tend to revert to the traditional system. Kenja now has 12 employees, but because of the nature of the development work, not more than 2 or 3 employees have met each other in real life. Even Ted Katagi, as CEO, has only met 3 of his 12 employees in the flesh. In fact, Kenja Rooms was basically developed as a tool to communicate effectively with the employees, who are working not only in Japan but also in other Asian countries and Europe.

Pros

For employees, the flexibility the company offers is certainly appealing, to work when and where is most convenient, it’s a dream many people share. For Ted Katagi, it means that he has access to global talent wherever they might be located. Many of his current employees are referrals from other developers he has employed, it’s a close-knit community.

For a start-up, the fact that he has no need to have an official office structure is also helpful. The overhead cost can be kept low, and any work that is not directly related to the development of the product, like HR or accounting, is outsourced.
The fact that the employees are located all over the world actually means that a lot of thought goes into being effective at work. At Kenja, there is a daily morning meeting through video conference, where all employees share the work they are currently busy with. The daily meeting also means that any new developments can be swiftly dealt with; the mindset of CEO and employees is extremely flexible.

Cons

It takes a special kind of person to work at a virtual start-up; people have to be able to deal with the absence of structure and the freedom and flexibility this job comes with. Because the company is still in start-up phase, the number of employees is limited, there are no set job descriptions, and depending on the necessity people fill in different roles. This can be a challenge.

Ted Katagi: “When you interview someone you have not met in real life, of course you try to figure out if this person will fit in your company or system. I try to pick people very carefully, what I look for are people that are self-motivated and that don’t need day-to-day instructions. This kind of job can be quite tough, you need to get used to meeting virtually and setting your own boundaries when to work and when not to. Rather than selecting people on the basis of a skill set, I look for people with the right mindset. Skills can be taught, after all. However, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I’ve had instances where an employee was moonlighting other business on the side, which taught me to temper the trust I have in people with a system of checking on their work regularly. Still, after those initial glitches we have now arrived at a stable system, and I firmly believe that the advantages outweigh the challenges.”

Interning at a virtual company

Monthakarn tells me that although the daily virtual meetings are very useful, there is of course a difference in how you interact with your colleagues. Socializing over a cup of coffee is only possible with the people she meets in the office, but she compares this to being part of a department in a bigger company where you also only know the people you interact with daily.

Monthakarn: “This is my first working experience in a virtual company, and being responsible and having discipline can be hard, but it’s a great learning experience. We are pushed to be inventive and creative, can learn new things and try out new things without fear of failure. Then again, because of these new things popping up and changing strategies and external circumstances, it’s sometimes hard keeping to promises and deadlines. There can be a lot of talk, and sometimes I feel like it just gets in the way of delivering output. It is however a very stimulating environment and I love being a part of it.”

The virtual future

It definitely seems like the virtual company has a lot going for it, it’s certainly well suited to the global community and the new needs of companies with employees in several locations. Now if only more traditional companies would start using services like those Kenja is providing regularly to lower their ecological footprint and save time and expenses, everybody wins.

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