Lauren Rose Kocher is the founder and director of the Vegas PR Group, an international PR and marketing agency based in Tokyo.
We discussed her career and current company, as well as the current status of Japanese startup scene.
I came to Japan 15 years ago, after I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2008. I had been studying Japanese and came to Japan as a student for a summer in Hokkaido. After college I decided to move to Tokyo and I worked as an English teacher, but also applied to every non-teaching job I could find, and ended up at a company called Kyodo Tokyo, which is one of the oldest concert promoters in Japan. There I worked on tours of international musicians and it was my first music industry job. It wasn't a startup, it was a very established company - they brought the Beatles to Japan in the 1960s. Concert promotion and events can be old-fashioned, but I learned so much, and my Japanese language skills improved. I also made a lot of contacts in the music industry.
When I left that job, one of those contacts introduced me to Sony Music Japan, as they were looking for a fluent English speaker with music industry experience and Japanese ability. So I started working at Sony Music Japan in the business development and special project division. In the beginning I worked on the group One Direction, with Japan deals outside of the record label agreement - such as a fan club, merchandise, and endorsements. After that a variety of other artists, both international and Japanese.
Sony Music was an amazing job. Most people who work there are incredibly kind and knowledgeable, I was there six years and I loved it. But then I left in 2019 to found an event ticketing startup, Zaiko, with three other co-founders. And that was the first time that I worked at a startup, not an established company in the music industry.
When I started Zaiko, the other co-founders were technical and I was the “music industry” person - working on sales, marketing and business development. During the COVID pandemic, we were one of the first companies to offer paid live streaming events and grew quickly, from 12 people in January 2020 to over 70 employees by the end of the year. We sold $100 million USD of streaming tickets during the pandemic. During those years business went up and down in several cycles but then kind of settled and around that time I left my role as COO and transitioned to an advisor position. This past January I started a new business, called the Vegas PR Group - so it’s been about six months. I view this new venture as a start-up, although we don't have VC funding and there's no tech product involved yet.
I had a general interest in Japan, even in high school we had Japanese exchange students and I tried a Japanese class, although not a serious one. But then at my college, foreign language was a requirement and my personality was such that I wanted to study what I thought was the most difficult language. I literally thought, “Wow, if I learn Japanese, I will be so smart.” In retrospect, not a good reason. (laughs) And I remember thinking, maybe I won’t have a chance to study such an interesting language later in life, so I should do Japanese or Arabic or Chinese. And that was it. I just really enjoyed the challenge of it.
Japanese companies and Japanese content have a real need for English-language PR and marketing. Our agency Vegas PR tends to focus on the entertainment industry, working with musicians, record labels and other entertainment IP like anime and film. We also have three startup clients.
There’s so much content, products and organizations in Japan with a global audience, but they don’t do proper international marketing or global PR campaigns. And currently not many agencies can assist with this, you’d have to hire an overseas PR company, but those non-Japanese companies don’t understand what they are selling because they aren’t in Japan and you need people translating back and forth. However we operate seamlessly in both English and Japanese.
A lot of our current work is writing and distributing English press releases, or putting together social media strategy and content. We’ll also pitch interviews to media around the world, refine client strategy and messaging, come up with creative campaign ideas. In these first six months, our work has reached the media in over 20 countries and in seven languages.
Some positive things about running a startup in Japan - it’s easy to start a company, but only if you’re Japanese. It’s more difficult if you’re non-Japanese but not impossible. And the government has a huge variety of financial support for small businesses, if you can navigate the Japanese paperwork.
Another good thing, especially compared to the US, is the national system to give employees health insurance and other social benefits. You don’t have to worry that if your people get sick, they can’t afford it. The government also supports parental leave, and provides unemployment insurance.
One difficult thing for startups here is that due to strict labor laws, it’s difficult to fire people. I do think that is good for the broader society - it's terrible to be able to fire someone for no reason. So I'm glad that those worker rights are there but at the same time, if you're a startup and you make the wrong hire, you cannot easily remove them. So you need to be very careful when hiring. A final negative thing is that major Japanese banks will reject most startups who apply for business accounts, so some startups use their founder’s account or online banks.
My main advice would be if you do not speak, read, or write Japanese, you need a Japanese partner who you can trust. Whether that's your first hire or a co-founder, or maybe the recent start-up support hubs. You should assume your clients, your users, your bank, the tax office, the insurance company, your landlord, etc. - all require Japanese. -
Another piece of advice is localized products and marketing. In the US, for example, marketing these days for startups is very polished, casual, simple. In Japan, often that doesn’t work - Japanese UI/UX design is different - it’s crowded, and it over-explains. Imagine screenshot after screenshot with arrows. It looks messy, from a Western perspective where startup products and marketing have become super slick and minimal, but it’s that “messiness” is the visual language that people here are expecting. And so if you push against that too hard you might alienate potential Japanese users.
The food is the best part of Japan. I like healthy food and I don't eat much meat, rather lots of rice, miso soup, veggies and tofu. My partner is Japanese and he is an amazing cook. We have two children under 2 so it’s difficult to have dinner at restaurants these days, but I also love eating out in Tokyo.
The infrastructure of Japan is another area I appreciate - transport like trains and buses, as well as well-kept public facilities. I’m American so I’m always comparing Japan to the US, but the social and physical infrastructure in Japan is so much stronger. I know Japan’s not perfect - single mothers here have a terrible situation, there is no gay marriage, trans people cannot transition easily, there’s much to improve. But I still feel like I live in a country with a social safety net and I appreciate that. I wish there was even more, raise taxes and give people free university, free lunch, free childcare, etc. But anyways I appreciate what’s there and I hope Japan offers even more of that support for families and people’s lives.
Vegas PR : https://vegaspr.jp/