How Seven Women Helped Save a Struggling Japanese Internet Company

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Photographer: Kimimasa Mayama/Bloomberg

A Sony staff member demonstrates a game on an Xperia phone.

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Photographer: Kimimasa Mayama/Bloomberg

A Sony staff member demonstrates a game on an Xperia phone. Close

A Sony staff member demonstrates a game on an Xperia phone.

Source: United Inc. via Bloomberg

A screengrab of CocoPPa's home screen sample. Close

A screengrab of CocoPPa's home screen sample.

Source: United Inc. via Bloomberg

A screengrab of CocoPPa's home screen sample. Close

A screengrab of CocoPPa's home screen sample.

Source: United Inc. via Bloomberg

A screengrab of CocoPPa's top page. Close

A screengrab of CocoPPa's top page.

Japanese dot-com United was in trouble. The company, which sells Internet marketing and consulting services, went public in 2006, and over the next three years, the stock price dropped more than 95 percent. United, which operated under a different name at the time, had limped along since then.

Following a merger and a name change in December, United is on a tear. Its shares are up more than 2,300 percent this year. At the heart of the company's recent success is a group of 10 mobile developers, comprised mostly of women.

A team of seven women and three men designed CocoPPa, an application for Apple and Android mobile devices introduced last year. The app's bizarre mission statement: "Let's make the cutest home screen in the world."

The women grew up using emoji (or emoticons) to decorate text messages written on feature phones, making them well-suited to create apps that appeal to the like-minded. United has crowdsourced a catalog of about 200,000 icons and wallpapers, featuring cartoon bunnies and other adorable critters. CocoPPa has been downloaded about 10 million times, up from 530,000 in December.

"I have only female staff handling app content," says Hiroki Teshima, a director at United. "All I do is give outlines of our concept, and they will come up with ideas."

United's smartphone division has grown to 30 people. The group's feminine approach is paying off big time. The global proliferation of smartphones has helped United export Japanese culture abroad, luring users looking for "kawaii," or cute Japanese designs. In fact, 86 percent of CocoPPa's downloads are from outside Japan, says Teshima.

He attributes CocoPPa's rapid growth to positive word-of-mouth. To capitalize on the global success, the company may add Spanish and Portuguese versions to provide instruction on how to use the app, Teshima says. The lack of localized content hasn't seemed to hinder the app's growth so far.

"CocoPPa is visual, so there is no language barrier," says Teshima.

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