Profile #21: Philippe Khin – Solo founder of SewaYou

Paul: Philippe Khin is the Tokyo-based founder of SewaYou, an app that helps you easily find language partners in your area.

Philippe and I talked about him coming to Japan as an exchange student, starting his career in Japan as a software engineer, where the idea for SewaYou came from, developing SewaYou as a solo builder and raising initial venture capital, and much more.

Hi Philippe. Thanks very much for speaking with me. To start, please tell us a little about yourself.

Philippe: Hi! My name’s Philippe, 26 years old, I was born in Cambodia and grew up in France and it’s been now around 5 years that I’ve been in Japan.

I’ve been building solo SewaYou (an app that helps people find language partners in their area) since I came to Tokyo 4 years ago, in my spare time and at weekends after my full-time job. I quit my last job at Microsoft Japan 10 months ago (at the time of this writing) to go full-time on SewaYou after getting my Permanent Residency in Japan.

We’ll get into SewaYou in a moment, but first of all, you came to Japan originally as an exchange student during your master’s degree in France. Tell us about that experience.

Basically, my university has a partnership with Kobe University for an exchange year program, and the same for Shanghai University for a pre-graduation research project.

I chose Japan because growing up, I was exposed like many others, to the Japanese culture and fell in love with the Japanese language at first, and my interest in the country keeps growing and wanted to have a real experience here. 

After spending an exchange year, I had a 6-months internship in a big and traditional zaibatsu Japanese company and saw the ins and outs of the work culture here. I was wearing a uniform at work (to write code!), and we had the afternoon radio gymnastic (ラジオ体操, warm-up calisthenics set to music and broadcast on the radio). It was pretty fun and I got to meet a lot of other international interns with whom I became friends.

After that, my university offers the possibility to spend 6 months in Shanghai to do a pre-graduation research project. I wanted to have as much international experience as possible, so I went there but then I decided to start my career in Tokyo after graduating.

Why did you decide to work in Japan after graduation and how did your career develop here initially?

After spending one year and half in Kobe, Japan kind of helps me grow as a person, just by the fact that I needed to overcome the language barrier on a daily basis. Japan is a great place to work and start your career in tech, back then I started to do my job hunting remotely from Shanghai a few months before graduating.

I started my career as a web developer in Tokyo, working for a big insurance company headquartered in France. From the beginning I started to work on SewaYou in my spare time and wanted to work on it full-time, but as a foreigner with a normal working visa, it wasn’t quite possible to work on SewaYou full-time with the visa I had.

I stumbled across the existence of the Japan’s Business Manager visa and Permanent Residency status (PR, 永住権), both of which would allow me to run and legally operate a company in Japan. Back then I was (and still am) working solo on building SewaYou. Finding a Japanese representative or co-founder for the sake of working full-time on SewaYou via a Business Manager visa wasn’t something I wanted to opt for, so the Business Manager visa was not attainable for me at that time (I had already quit cold turkey my full-time job at the insurance company for two months when I realized that I couldn’t get that visa)

So against my will, I decided to go back to the workplace to play the longer game, that is obtaining PR so I wouldn’t need to worry about the visa thing for good. Going back to work would allow me to gain more experience and save more money to survive after getting the PR presumptively after 3 years (based on the points system with 70 points).

I joined a mid-sized Japanese startup called STYLEPORT for 7 months as a full-stack engineer. The product was technically complex and really exciting to work on. I learned a lot and my colleagues were really nice and friendly.

Then a Microsoft Japan HR person reached out to me for a Technical Trainer job opportunity. It wasn’t a software development job, but rather a job that requires a lot of soft skills (public speaking and good communication).

I thought that if I wanted to be a company CEO in the future, I can’t be content with just good technical skills but also soft skills, so I accepted the offer and it also shortened the obtention of the PR from 3 years to only 1 year (3 years will be a long wait…!). So after one year of work, I applied for PR, got it a few months later and the next day I announced my resignation. It’s been now 10 months that I’m working full-time on SewaYou.

Tell us about starting SewaYou. Where did you get the initial idea and how did you start?

During my first weeks in Tokyo, I was helping some international friends who couldn’t speak Japanese with logistics and administrative tasks like opening a bank account, mobile line, registering address etc.

Those tasks required some level of proficiency in Japanese, and even though back then I had freshly got my JLPT N1, I found myself improving a lot in speaking in Japanese because it was a 1-on-1 interaction in real-time, I was acting like an interpreter for my friends and the administration staff.

If my friends had that issue, other foreigners in Japan must also experience that.

So I came up with the idea of matching/connecting foreigners in need of interpretation help with local Japanese people who volunteered to help out while practicing the foreign language.

The name “SewaYou” comes from the Japanese word ‘Sewa’ (世話) which means help/assist/take care of, and the English ‘You’ (あなた), which illustrates basically a platform to connect people for mutual help: the foreigner got their issue solved and the local had a chance to practice their learning language by interacting with the person they are helping.

Then I started to build a static/web app-ish prototype MVP in 4 months, back then my coding skill was as good as a new grad. I promoted it to some expat Facebook groups and people liked the idea and SewaYou got around a hundred users signing up. But then people tend to use it for casual language exchange, so I decided to focus on that aspect of in-person language practice with people around you and the need is also bigger in that area.

Covid obviously had a massive impact on people meeting face-to-face. How has it affected your progress in growing SewaYou? What pivots did you have to make and what lessons have you learned?

After Covid hit, I’ve started to focus a little bit more on online features of the app, like voice/video call/message, allowing people to correct their partner’s sentences so they can still practice online, etc…

Knowing that Covid will end one day and that things can get back to normal, I took that opportunity to spend my limited time improving the app and make hard-to-make decisions related to the app infrastructure which requires a lot of refactoring but is a good investment for the long term to make it more scalable. Basically, laying the ground for future and more crucial features while improving in terms of both software extensibility and maintainability.

Also drastically improving the user experience on the most used screens and features, overall making the app more robust and ready to host more users and make it much more user-friendly.

As you mentioned, you left your job at Microsoft last October to focus full-time on SewaYou. That’s a brave step! Tell me about this decision and what are your goals for SewaYou now that you’re working on it full-time.

Yes, I quit Microsoft Japan in October 2021 and made a LinkedIn post about it. The post somehow went viral, attracted some attention and somehow I got my first step into the startup ecosystem with other founders and got introduced to some potential venture capitalists.

In total, I spoke to one VC and a few angels without much follow-up, so that didn’t result in an investment but it was a good learning experience (learning to create a pitch deck and pitching etc…) and I got to make new connections with other founder friends.

With one year-ish of savings set aside, I didn’t feel yet the urge to go into the fundraising mode. I feel that the app wasn’t good enough to secure an investment with good terms. Being a solo founder without any team members and track record (eg: exited/second time founder), I don’t have much leverage except for the quality of the product I’m building, the value it provides, and me as a person. The bet is pretty much just on my executing power and my ability to put into reality the vision for SewaYou and to attract talent in the future.

Fundraising is also really demanding – time spent on trying to pitch, to network or to cold reach investors is time not spent on building the product.

In February I also incorporated SewaYou as a Japanese 株式会社 (a kabushiki gaishi joint stock company), to be ready to receive future investment and also having a proper legal structure and separate my personal expense with the app server fees and operational costs.

As a tech founder, I’m more biased toward making the app better, so I just spent the following 3-4 months just coding, improving the app, trying to get more tractions, talking to users…

So in May, I implemented the payment system and a Pro membership to validate the need of the product, and got my first few organic paid customers. There were actually people wanting the product enough to pay for it. It was also the first time that I made money from my own project/company.

Coincidentally at around the same time, a Japanese ex-colleague reached out and introduced me to his friend who had recently started a VC fund. We had a Zoom call with other investment committee members, demoing the SewaYou app without a pitch deck, talking about the long term vision and so on. Then we met in person over coffee and after the meeting, they decided to invest in SewaYou.

The goal now is to expand SewaYou beyond a one-man company and reach more people, so I’m trying to find/hire a bilingual (content) marketer/videographer to join the team! (see below)

You started a YouTube channel and have been creating videos about some of your experiences, such as getting Japan permanent residency in four years. Tell us about why you decided to start creating on YouTube and what you will be covering moving forward.

Documenting your journey and sharing your work is something that can be really valuable to others but also a way for you to track your progress to look back. There are no two identical journeys and stories, so you can always learn from someone else experience. By sharing my journey I hope there will be things that can resonate with some people. It can also be a powerful medium to reach out to potential collaborators in the future that might lead to business partnerships, hiring, etc.

Overall, there isn’t much content on YouTube about building a tech startup as a solo foreign founder in Japan, so I decided to share my two cents.

Future content will be about my journey building SewaYou, how a solo founder survives and does whatever it takes to thrive, and overall the startup ecosystem in Japan.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m a night owl person, sleep at ~3am and wake up at ~11am, shower, get ready and directly have a quick lunch outside. When a lot of people have the afternoon slump, my most productive hours are actually right after lunch.

I work every day from a cafe shop (sometimes with friends) with my laptop coding (a lot), sometimes writing blog articles, sometimes shooting/editing YouTube videos, sometimes getting on the mic for a podcast interview/invitation, meeting people, sometimes attending events (as a listener and sometimes as a speaker).

I also spend time trying out or benchmarking a lot of software and apps to get inspiration for features and design, use and read app reviews from competitors to find what people dislike/like about a specific app in the same niche, and talking to users.

Having a meeting or call at like 4pm in the middle of the afternoon can entirely derail my productivity for the day, so I try to always have an empty block for the whole afternoon (from 2pm to 7pm) to have a deep work session. I hit the gym at around 8pm then have a quick dinner outside or at home with my girlfriend, relax a bit and start my second work chunk of the day from around 11pm to 2am, shower and watch one episode of Netflix and sleep.

On a day when I have an in-person meeting in Tokyo (I live at the border of Kanagawa and Tokyo), I usually spend the rest of the day working at a cafe shop nearby and come back home walking + cycling (renting) for like two hours just to clear my head while listening to an audiobook or podcast.

What are some of your goals for the future?

I’m often frustrated by products that promise you a quick way to become fluent in a foreign language in a few months. Mastering a language to an advanced level is a long-term commitment, but the upside is so huge.

Growing up speaking Cambodian (and French afterwards), my world drastically changed and my horizon widened when I unlocked the ability to speak fluently English and Japanese, not only for my career but for all the friendships and relationships and business opportunities that come with it.

With SewaYou and my personal experience, I want to help people so that nobody has to regret all the opportunities in life they might miss due to the language barrier.

As for personal goals, to live a life that I have control over, stay healthy, be able to free up more time for hobbies and try to get better at Chinese.

Quickfire questions

– what’s the most important piece of advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

Do not prioritize building your business over your health or other aspects of your life, like relationships, and family/friend time, and learn to save/invest money earlier.

– what do you wish you’d known about living in Japan before you moved here?

The Japanese administration system is messy/buggy when you don’t have a Japanese name with kanji.

– what advice would you have for someone considering founding a startup here?

If you’re serious about building your startup in Japan, you should be equally serious about mastering the Japanese language to an advanced level in parallel.

– how do you learn new skills?

Learn X for Y. Don’t learn a new skill unless you have an immediate need and a concrete application for it. Then do, make mistakes, rinse and repeat. Like they said, “All Things are Difficult Before they are Easy.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, and games?

– Books: no favourite ones, but I enjoy a lot biographies (Steve Jobs, etc.) and the founding history of tech startups that now became behemoth companies like Airbnb, Super Pumped, Instagram, Snapchat and The Cold Start Problem.

A bit geeky but very insightful: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

– Games: Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls and Final Fantasy.

– Podcasts: Indie Hackers and My First Million

Drew Terry of also recommended Dark Souls in his interview with me. What is it with Tokyo founders and dark action role-playing games?

– what do you miss from home that you can’t get in Japan?

My mom’s cooking!

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

Coldrain (Japanese rock band) concert ticket.

Finally, do you have any asks from our readers? How can they support SewaYou?

You’ve studied enough Japanese/English, it’s now time to practice!

Like many people, Covid has had a big hit on our social life. So if you want to make new friends while bringing your language skill and overall communication skill to the next level, please try out the SewaYou app, kindly write a review on the app store if you like it or to show your support (it’d be tremendously helpful).

And….we’re hiring a marketing/videographer! If you’re:

– based in Tokyo
– bilingual (Japanese native, business English)
– a fan of marketing and content creation (social media, YouTube videos, blogs …)
– **willing to build the future of SewaYou together as the first member of the team**

drop me a message on LinkedIn or Twitter (or refer a friend who might be interested!)

You can see the full job description here.

I also document my journey building SewaYou on YouTube, subscribe to the channel if you want to follow along.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Philippe, I really enjoyed it. Best of luck in your continuing adventures building SewaYou.

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