Anna Kitanaka speaks to Enfour
Nearly every man and his dog owns a mobile phone in Japan nowadays. From six-year-olds to sixty-six-year-olds, it’s now not only the conventional way to keep in touch but is used more and more as a mobile computer rather than just a mobile telephone.
A company that caught onto this trend way before any of us had even heard of the word ‘PDA’ is Enfour, a Tokyo based multilingual text handling company that has been on the market and earning the trust of major multinational corporations such as Nokia and Apple since 1992.
The company is not only unique as they are foreign-owned and have broken into the tough Japanese business world, they are also a family company, with President Richard Northcott and his sister, vice-president Tracey Northcott staying firmly involved in the business. We asked them for their secrets to success.
How did you start the company and why?
Richard: Enfour started by making font solutions for Japanese designers in the early 1990s. It was the early days of DTP (desktop publishing) and Japanese text handling was way behind that of European languages. US companies either didn’t understand the problems or didn’t consider Japan important enough to make special solutions.
Tell us about the name Enfour?
Tracey: The first company in the Enfour Group owned by the whole family. There are four people in the family and our surname starts with “N” (en)—hence the name Enfour. The Japanese company was started by Richard as he has lived here since 1986. There are now more than five companies in four countries that have the name Enfour included.
The Japanese market was big enough
for niche products to do well.
Why particularly Japan?
Richard: What started out as a side business copying floppy disks and putting them in envelopes by hand grew into a business. More importantly, I had seen Tokyo during the bubble and knew that the Japanese market was big enough for niche products to do well. It seemed like a land of opportunity. Obviously, there are obstacles to entry for a lot of businesses, but computers were still in the frontier days.
How did the company become a success?
Tracey: We try to anticipate what customers need before they realize they need it. We try to push the technology envelope to enable devices to deliver services that are above their original technical specifications to give users a richer experience. For example, in the past and still today, we create solutions that allow devices, (PDA’s, then mobile phones, and now smart phones, etc.) to input and display languages that were never possible on their original software specifications. We manipulated software English-only devices to work in a Japanese environment; we are now creating solutions to display multiple languages on mobile devices. It is all about taking the devices on the market now and making them even more useful to a larger audience.
Did you encounter any problems in Japan, being a foreign company?
Tracey: Nothing special. We don’t consider ourselves a foreign company. We are a foreigner-owned Japanese company. But our products are made mainly for the Japanese market Being foreigners has only been positive—we think out of the box.
What sets Enfour apart from the others?
Tracey: We spend so much time on things that you really don’t notice until you compare with companies that don’t care about what we do—for example, word wrapping and hyphenation with English content. Indexing, text-to-speech and katakana pronunciations for native Japanese speakers. Most companies don’t care about that but (we feel) it makes a huge difference to the usability of mobile sites.
How has the feedback been so far?
Tracey: I have had a number of people thank me when they find out that our company has created a product they use and enjoy. Also, people tend to know our brands rather than the name of our parent company so when we tell people what we do, we often have to mention some of our brands and people will often say, “Hey I know that product—it is really cool”.
What are the future aims of the company?
Tracey: To spread our portfolio of language solutions and also move into global markets. Communication has always been at the core of our vision. Enabling people to communicate wherever and whenever they need it and in the language that they need it in. Language is a ubiquitous need and people are traveling more than ever. So we are expanding our services to meet these needs while remaining true to our vision of allowing and enabling better communication for all.
What service would you recommend the most at the moment?
Tracey: TangoTown is now in its sixth year of development. It is more than just a simple language look-up or study companion; it is a complete communication package. You can translate between multiple languages and have the results “spoken” to you with our text-to-speech additions. TangoTown really takes people from straight off the plane with no Japanese, to advanced kanji tools for the fluent Japanese speaker—plus we try to add some fun to your day.
The hardest thing for some people is getting past the idea of a phone just being for calls and texts. There is so much more they can do and it really is easy and cheap if you have the right carrier plan.
Enfour Group, Japan