The mobile Internet is a raging success in Japan--thanks, in large part, to Kazutomo Robert Hori. The company he founded, Cybird Co., helped pioneer the "mobile content" business, providing information services that Japanese cell-phone users can't seem to live without, including reports on surf conditions and horoscopes. Today, Cybird boasts some 3.4 million paying subscribers and is a model for thousands of Japanese wireless-related ventures.
Hori, 36, credits his success to the lessons he learned in his first, ill-fated Net venture launched in 1994. Paradise Web Co. was a content provider geared toward PC users, but it failed to attract the advertising support it needed. As for consumers, no one used credit cards for online payments in those days. Frustrated, Hori began thinking of new ways to make money online.
One day, as he was checking out his cell-phone bill, he had a brain storm. "I thought, wouldn't this be a great way to charge for access," recalls Hori. His idea: Have the carriers collect the fees for online content through their monthly bills. That would be more palatable to Japan's plastic-averse consumers. So in 1995, he started discussing a payment scheme with J-Phone Co., the No. 3 cellular operator. In 1998, after thrashing out the details with the carriers, he launched Cybird. Today, all three Japanese mobile operators offer the service, enabling Cybird to charge a monthly fee of 80 cents to $2.40 for each service subscribers sign up for.
In hopes of replicating his success, Hori has set up offices in Europe and Hong Kong and in April partnered with a unit of chinadotcom corp. to distribute wireless content to China. Hori, an avid surfer who was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in the port of Kobe, acknowledges the challenges of venturing outside Japan. "We have to respect the conditions of the local market," he says. But wherever mobile Web surfers gather, he's ready to test the waters.