Drone UGV Business Department
Vice Senior Manager
I started my career in the automobile industry where I worked as an IT engineer after acquiring a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. After three and a half years, I moved to a digital innovation consulting firm that had just been spun out of a Japanese IT developer. I provided consulting in areas such as new product launches, new product development and target costing. Wanting to have a greater impact on society, I decided to further my studies at IESE Business School and am now working for the Drone UGV business department at Rakuten. It’s a relatively small department, where I can play a wide-ranging role with a hand in everything from strategic planning to operations.
The right place to make the most of my unique strengths
Before my MBA, I was focused on three points for the next step in my career. The first was to work in the Japanese manufacturing industry, which I believe is at the core of the Japanese economy and an area in which Japan can outperform other countries. Based on my experience as a consultant, I was confident that Japanese manufacturing companies would need collaborators to achieve business innovation, especially tech companies with strength in customer insight.
The second point was to lead a small organization. I thought that immediately putting to use the knowledge I gained as a result of earning my MBA would be the key to accelerating my career. Being a part of a small organization would naturally force me to deal with a wide range of managerial issues, and because I would understand how a large variety of businesses work, I could create a different type of value.
The last point was to find a business where I could leverage my previous study and experience. I believed that I could create unique value by combining my MBA studies with my background in engineering, manufacturing operations, digital and corporate IT.
Based on that, I decided that a business development position at Rakuten would be a good option. In my application essay I wrote that “my short-term goal is to become a manager of the business development department of Rakuten, launch a new business using a new technology, and make a profit in the next five years.” Fortunately, I secured an internship opportunity in the Drone UGV Business Department and later a full-time position.
Hands-on problem-solving to launch drone delivery services
In my current position, my mission is to develop drone delivery solutions, launch a commercial service and improve profitability. That may sound simple enough, but there are many challenges across various fields. The first, and most obvious, are the regulations. Because delivery drones are still an emerging product and service, the associated regulations are still being developed. For now, the standards are similar to that for manned aerial vehicles, which often imposes restrictive hurdles on us.
We also face wide-ranging challenges in business development. The drone delivery industry is still developing, so no concrete value chain currently exists. To help this industry take off, we will have to create it ourselves, working with other stakeholders and combining our respective capabilities.
Another major issue is technology. Most players in this industry are startups with cutting-edge but immature technologies, so ensuring safety — which is essential when providing a commercial service and flying drones over people — can be a challenge. We have to find a way to turn novel technologies into reliable products, to provide safe and convenient delivery solutions.
I am involved in all areas that seem critical to achieving our mission, including developing business strategies, reaching out to other companies and identifying possible opportunities for collaboration, leading hardware development, analyzing the facts and enhancing operational efficiency. There are very few companies in which I would be able to enjoy such hands-on experience in so many fields, and I relish having this opportunity.
Effective collaboration with diverse partners
Because our business unit is currently focused on the Japanese market, our team culture is more Japanese than other departments. Still, we all come from different backgrounds and diverse skillsets, including one manager who was a personal trainer for professional athletes, and another who was a star EC consultant in Rakuten’s commerce company. Combining them to create one integrated team is sometimes challenging, but always rewarding.
We also have many engineers from India and Europe. Rakuten is a global company with an international culture, but at the same time, my non-Japanese colleagues have really embraced Japanese culture. Sometimes I feel that they are more Japanese than I am!
I work with many partner companies, both inside and outside Japan. Collaboration with partners is vital for creating competitive solutions, and we often work very closely together. Our individual work styles may be different, but I think we are able to collaborate more effectively than many other Japanese companies. I think that the diversity in our company helps us understand and work effectively with a wider range of people. Rakuten’s Englishnization also helps remove language barriers.
The chance to help remote communities
Generally speaking, our solutions can benefit rural areas the most. These communities face many challenges such as depopulation, aging demographics and limited access to private-sector services. In our work, we aim to always be user-oriented and contribute to society by solving real problems faced by our customers. It fills me with great satisfaction when our work can help provide a better life for them.
One good example would be our mountain lodge delivery project. Most mountain lodges have only two ways to access goods from the foot of the mountain: delivery by helicopter or on foot. However, helicopter delivery operators recently announced that an increase in delivery fees would be required in order to continue servicing certain lodges. This is a critical issue for mountain lodges, which rely heavily on helicopter deliveries, especially for essential supplies such as petrol.
Together with other players in the industry, we tried to come up with a solution to this deleterious situation. We launched a proof-of-concept project with them this year and successfully delivered items from an altitude of 1250m to two mountain lodges located at around 2800m in altitude. Many challenges still remain, but this sense of contributing to a major social issue gives us added motivation to achieve the goal of developing a drone delivery solution for mountain lodges.
In addition, the small size of our department also helps make my work feel more rewarding. Engaging in hands-on activities to address a wide range of issues gives me a sense that I am really driving the business and creating value for clients and partners. Though I sometimes feel stretched beyond my abilities, this also encourages me to work harder and continue moving forward.
Opportunities for Growth
Putting business theory into practice
Since our team is relatively small, I have to cover a broad range of functions. My primary role is in strategic planning, whereby I liase with other parties and develop business partnerships with them. Among our most important partners are drone manufacturers, and I am responsible for working with them on technology development. I have to manage these projects and make sure they are delivered successfully. To that end, I create and update project review guidelines on the back-end, while also providing hands-on support at service sites from time to time.
Working at Rakuten has helped me deepen my understanding of what I learned during my MBA. Having worked as an IT engineer and digital consultant, I had less of a background in business prior to my MBA. Now, however, I’m dealing with various business issues, from strategy to human resources. My MBA provided the foundation, and I am building on it through hands-on application.
For example, I learned a lot about teambuilding in my current department. At first, when developing our team and rules, I based it on the culture of my previous company, which was a consulting firm. However, that approach didn’t seem to work in our department. I eventually worked out that, contrary to the generalist approach taken by consultants, my team members were specialists and were used to handling tasks within the domain of their specialty. I had understood, in theory, that the best organizational structure differs from company to company, but this experience really helped to drive the point home.
Onward and upward
The short-term goal I set before my MBA remains unchanged. I intend to launch a new service using a new technology and make it profitable, and I believe that we can achieve this in the drone delivery industry.
In the longer term, I’m interested in being more involved in open innovation. I understand that collaboration is vital to creating innovative services, so I want to work closely with partners and leverage our combined resources to generate innovation at a rapid pace.
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