Kyoto, Japan

Thomas Bertrand's story is a fascinating blend of ambition, culture, and entrepreneurial spirit.

The founder of Ship&co hails from France. Several years ago, he ventured to Kyoto, Japan, with a plan to study for a year. But Kyoto had something else in store for him. Thomas fell in love with the city, its culture, and the opportunities it offered. What began as a study abroad experience evolved into a life-altering journey.

Two decades later, Thomas is thriving as an entrepreneur in Japan. Reflecting on his unexpected yet rewarding journey, Thomas says, "I thought I'd be here for one year, and I'm still living here!"

His story is a testament to the power of embracing new challenges and adapting to an entirely different cultural landscape.

It began with a blog

Before Thomas became a well-known entrepreneur in e-commerce circles, he was a curious explorer, chronicling his experiences in Japan through blogging. In 2005, inspired by his daily life in Kyoto, he began writing about Japanese culture, cuisine, and the nuances of living abroad. He didn't realize it then, but this decision would start his entrepreneurial journey.

His blog quickly garnered attention from readers across the globe, fascinated by his unique perspective on life in another country. Thomas explains, "I started to write a blog about life in Japan. Thanks to my blog, I got many connections and met many, many interesting people." His writing gave readers a glimpse into a different culture and opened doors for Thomas. He started attending events and networking with locals, expats, and fellow enthusiasts of Japanese culture.

As his blog grew in popularity, Thomas saw an opportunity that would eventually lead to establishing his first business, Bento&co. He noticed that readers were interested in the Japanese lifestyle and, in turn, purchasing products from Japan — something that wasn't easily done in the early 2000s. Thomas saw an unfulfilled demand and knew he could fulfill it. His newly formed connections and understanding of Japanese markets allowed him to visualize a business that could bridge the gap between Japan and the rest of the world.

That's how Bento&co was born: Thomas leveraged his blog's readership and connections to launch his online store in 2008 with a beta version of Shopify.

Specializing in selling bento boxes and related products, Bento&co snowballed, catering to customers in over 100 different countries. Considering he had the idea on a Friday and within ten days had launched, while it was no "overnight success," it was undoubtedly a swift pivot that led to a fully-fledged international business with its very own bricks-and-mortar shop in years to come.


The journey of an expat entrepreneur

Being an expat entrepreneur in Japan, a country with a distinct and rich cultural heritage, brought significant challenges for Thomas. However, he believes it offered him distinct advantages, significantly shaping his business endeavors.

Unlike a native entrepreneur, he felt free from Japanese societal expectations and pressures. He could approach business with a fresh perspective and an experimental mindset. Thomas says, "I think being a foreigner helped me to not care about [societal expectations] … just try to see if it works." This fearless approach allowed him to try new things and adapt when necessary without fearing judgment or failure.

Thomas also suggests that due to cultural expectations, in his experience, many Japanese entrepreneurs might hesitate after a single rejection, whereas he would persist and try again. His resilient attitude and different cultural background helped him stand out in the competitive entrepreneurial landscape.

The language barrier was also challenging but didn't hinder his progress. Thomas's view of his status as an expat is overwhelmingly positive. He notes, "I think it's mostly positive energy."

His foreign background is an asset in a city like Kyoto, where people appreciate French culture. Being in a smaller city than Tokyo helped him to establish valuable connections, and his French background facilitated those relationships further. He points out that being "a Frenchman in Kyoto" often made him memorable for new business connections.

Building Ship&co

The genesis of Thomas's second business, Ship&co, was inspired by a pressing need and frustration that Thomas identified in his first business, Bento&co.

He was shipping orders daily from Japan to over a hundred countries. He recognized the need for an efficient system that could streamline the process of printing shipping labels from international couriers. "We needed an app to easily print off like FedEx, DHL, UPS, shipping labels, but the apps that existed already on Shopify were mostly made for North American sellers," he recalls.

Thomas and his team initially created a solution for their own use. This led to the establishment of Ship&co in 2017, a platform designed to cater to the specific needs of international sellers operating from Japan. In the process, the company also secured a partnership with Shopify. It launched its app on the Shopify App Store, marking a significant milestone.

However, the growth of Ship&co did not stop at Shopify, as Thomas and his team recognized the potential to connect with a larger audience. They expanded their reach to eBay, Amazon, and other Japanese e-commerce platforms. They even attempted to integrate with various international postal services, including France and Singapore, to cater to a global user base.

Thomas states one of his most significant achievements to date was securing contracts with some of the leading shipping carriers in Japan. "I got a contract to integrate with API from the two major shipping carriers in Japan — Yamato Transport and Sakawa Express — and because they don't have a public API, it took me about a year to discuss and negotiate with them to get access."

The evolution of Ship&co was not always smooth, with obstacles like the initial unpreparedness of the Japanese market and the complexity of integrating with foreign postal services. Despite these hurdles, Thomas and his team's dedication and innovative spirit helped the company grow into a versatile e-commerce solution provider. In his own words, they do "the hard bit" to help facilitate the thriving of other e-commerce businesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges and opportunities for businesses worldwide, and Ship&co was no exception. With the growth of Shopify in Japan fueled during lockdowns, Thomas saw a unique chance to expand his user base organically. He reflects on this unexpected turn of events: "Covid happened, and Shopify grew a lot in Japan. And it helped us to get many users organically."

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

With his roots as a student exploring Kyoto to become a multifaceted entrepreneur, Thomas's story is rich with lessons and insights for those eager to dive into entrepreneurship. Thomas's philosophy is one of action over overthinking, of reaching out and connecting rather than getting lost in the details.

"If you have an idea, go out and get customers, make connections, and work out the details later," Thomas advises, reflecting on his experiences.

His journey from blogging about Japanese culture to building businesses like Bento&co and Ship&co shows that understanding your audience, creating valuable connections, and recognizing opportunities are crucial to realizing entrepreneurial dreams. Success doesn't require perfection from the start; it requires responsiveness, adaptability, and fearless pursuit of your vision.

Ambitious goals for Ship&co

Today, Thomas's eyes are set on the future. He envisions substantial growth, with a target to reach 10,000 to 50,000 active users monthly in Japan.

But it's not just about numbers; Thomas wants to deepen his engagement with the Japanese market, recognizing its distinct e-commerce culture and potential for growth. "We really want to focus on the Japanese market because it's our core value," he says. While the allure of expanding into other Asian countries may be tempting, Thomas acknowledges the unique challenges of different markets. He emphasizes the importance of focusing on what he knows best.

As an early adopter of Shopify, his understanding of the Japanese market's unique needs positions Thomas and his company for success. In an age where globalization can lead companies to chase after every opportunity, Thomas's strategic focus on one market illustrates a wisdom in specialization. The platform's impact on his entrepreneurial journey is clear, as he states, "The platform itself [Shopify] makes it super easy to sell online and to create tools for other sellers. And that's making a big difference, compared to Amazon, for example."

Thomas Bertrand's journey from a curious student to an influential entrepreneur underscores the importance of embracing opportunities, understanding your market, and having the vision to see where technology can take you.

His story is a guiding star for aspiring entrepreneurs, illuminating the path to success through innovation, determination, and strategic focus on the right market. His love for Kyoto and Japan's unique culture brought him there, but his entrepreneurial spirit made him stay and thrive. As Thomas continues to forge ahead, his entrepreneurial mindset is a testament to the power of embracing the unknown, seizing the moment, and being an early adopter in a world of endless possibilities.

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