With over 30 years of experience working with families in 30 countries, Gymboree Play & Music is a global leader offering age-appropriate activities for parents and young children to play together. Nicole Yamada began Gymboree in Japan after deciding that she wanted to run a business that would touch people’s lives. Now in its fourth year here, Gymboree has grown to include two locations and hundreds of students.

When and why did you decide to start Gymboree in Japan?

My husband and I opened our first site in Moto Azabu, Tokyo in April 2006. After living in Japan for an extended period of time, I knew that I wanted to start a business that would enable me to bring over a product or service from the US that would have a large impact on the Japanese people and culture. When researching which franchise businesses from the US were not yet in Japan, my mother introduced Gymboree, and my husband and I thought it was a great idea.

What are the Japan-specific challenges your business faces here?

Since I started and am managing the business with my husband, who is Japanese, I do not face any particular challenges related to language or being a foreigner. I feel our biggest challenge in Japan is convincing the Japanese that the skills children acquire from participating in our programs are just as important as the skills they learn at cram schools. Japanese parents send their children to school a lot earlier than parents in the US, so we have many competitors who target the same age group.

Who or what gives you inspiration?

I would have to say that my inspiration comes from my family. I grew up in a family of extremely hard workers and perfectionists, which is why I can handle the long work hours that come along with owning and running your own business. My parents have a private practice in psychiatry and social work, and are always thinking about what is best for their patients. I admire them and wanted to get involved in a people oriented business that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Looking back, what has been the best business decision you have made?

The best business decision we made was to open our first location in Moto Azabu. With so many embassies nearby, the area is very international and has helped bring in many new customers, both Japanese and non-Japanese. When we first started, more than 50 percent of our customers were from abroad, and had heard of Gymboree or attended Gymboree in their home country. Having this base of customers from the beginning made it easier to attract Japanese customers, and now our customer base is 80 percent Japanese and 20 percent non-Japanese.

What sets Gymboree apart from other similar businesses?

In Japan, I think that a key difference between us and other schools is that since our classes are mostly mommy-and-me and are taught in a bilingual environment, we are neither a preschool nor an English language school. Also, designed by experts, our age-appropriate activities help develop the cognitive, physical, and social skills of children as they play, and we do not use flash cards or textbooks. Our programs are also recognized for their unique approach to parent involvement, which encourages participation in and understanding of each child’s development.

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs here?

If you are going to start your own business here in Japan, make sure you spend an extensive period of time learning the language and researching the needs of Japanese customers. Japanese customers often expect a higher quality of service than customers in other countries, and you will be required to meet these expectations to succeed here. Also, make sure that you are ready and willing to work 24/7 until your business can operate without you.

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Gymboree Play & Music