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NOV 6, 2020

3 Big Lessons from Tiny Bubbles on Reaching the World

By Melissa McIvor
iStock/FGorgun

Sometimes a new product arrives with a bang, sending consumers rushing to stores, cash in hand. Other innovations appear more quietly, often on the B2B stage, and reach consumers indirectly. The microbubble is the latter, and it’s made a big splash behind the scenes over the last few decades. Smaller than one hundredth of a millimeter, microbubbles are now used in ultrasound gene expression, drug delivery, and even cancer therapy.

But that’s nothing compared to what the ultrafine bubble (UFB) can do. At one nanometer in diameter, UFBs are roughly the same size as the coronavirus (though their impact will be far more positive). What do they do? They clean.

Water Design Japan is the first to patent a UFB nozzle, and like many green tech companies, their dreams are big. Founder and CEO Kazushi Fujita built the company not for profit, but for positive impact on future generations. His team came together with similar goals, finding motivation and meaning in the promise of tiny bubbles.

Domestically, Water Design Japan’s technology rapidly gained them a foothold in the housing market. When the team set their sights globally, however, they realized they had a lot to learn about communicating value far from home.

Success would inevitably come down to learning three important lessons.

Water Design Japan celebrating its 2020 win at the Osaka Regional Startup World Cup | ©Water Design Japan

Lesson #1: Know Thyself

If you don’t know who you are or what you stand for, you’ll quickly find your company has nowhere to go. Water Design Japan’s product is a nozzle—essentially, a conduit for bringing UFBs to the world. So they needed to know their bubbles inside and out.

The negative charge of UFBs contrasts the positive charge of most surfaces, enhancing the cleaning effect. | ©Water Design Japan

UFBs have unique cleaning applications because their natural negative charge and tiny size enables them to work their way through and underneath buildup to pry it loose. With Water Design Japan’s nozzle, the obvious application is water pipes. UFBs can extend the lifespan of piping infrastructure, reduce the use of chemicals, limit the need for maintenance, and ensure water drinkability.

The potential impact is huge—and timely.

“A lot of countries really need to replace their water pipe systems, but what they’re going to replace them with is the same thing,” says Natsumi Ito, head of marketing and PR for Water Design Japan. “So in fifty or sixty years, the same thing will happen. Not to mention, these old, rusty pipes can’t be recycled or reused.”

There are also applications in factories and hospitals. In a proof of concept arrangement, Water Design Japan implemented its UFB nozzle into the cleaning of dialysis machines in multiple hospitals across Japan. Four years later, maintenance costs on those machines are down a whopping 80%.

Most businessmen would see nothing but dollar signs in such results, but that isn’t central to Water Design Japan’s mission. The goal isn’t to sell, sell, sell. It’s to change, change, change for the better.

Staying true to that big-picture mission gave the company strength through future obstacles.

Lesson #2: Know Thy Audience

Water Design Japan has done well domestically, pairing with big names in the Japanese housing industry. But for bigger, lasting impact, the team was eager to expand to the global stage. They had the technology. They had the ambition. But they soon met with a harsh reality.

“Japanese companies have a reputation for great technology,” says Ito, “but when it comes to marketing and global expansion, most of the time, we fail.”

Some of the reasons are easy to guess: language barriers, cultural differences, even physical distance. And while familiarizing yourself with the language and cultural norms of a target market certainly doesn’t hurt, all of these factors come down to one thing.

Adaptability.

The problem isn’t unique to Japan. The American retail juggernaut Walmart has struggled to adapt outside of North America, and there are scores of companies that have failed in China. Like them, Water Design Japan was shocked and confused. All of a sudden, they were pitching to interested parties . . . and never hearing back.

Water Design Japan had faith in (and proof of) the cleaning potential of UFB technology. | ©Water Design Japan

They had faith in their technology, so the problem had to be elsewhere.

Ito recalls the “aha!” moment: “Just translating the PR and pitch decks into English wasn’t enough. English presentations have fewer words and more visuals. Japanese presentations have text all over everything. We had to change rapidly—and completely.”

Because they did, they now have partners from Indonesia to Brazil. Some cultures are more aggressive and emotional; others are passive and soft-spoken. All of that bleeds into business communication.

And that is the true lesson. Adaptability doesn’t enable you to work effectively with a single partner—it makes you a stronger company all around.

“Most of the time,” says Ito, “the person who actually succeeds globally is the one who completely changed.”

Lesson #3: Know Thy Allies

So imagine you’ve got your product, and you’re learning to be more adaptable. Once you’re out in the big wide world, you’ve still got to be ready to beat down the competition.

Or do you?

Something funny is happening in the green tech industry: companies that seem like they should be competing are, instead, collaborating. Water Design Japan is finding that to be a huge asset.

“We don’t think of other green tech companies as enemies or competitors,” says Ito. “We want to work with them.”

This means everything from exchanging business approaches to introducing clients who are looking to become more sustainable. It’s a shared mentality of a two-way street to a common goal, and it’s defining the growing industry.

©Water Design Japan

Even better, the mutual support isn’t begrudging, but enthusiastic. Ito talks of Water Design Japan’s green tech partners like talented friends. One such friend is AC Biode, a company designing new batteries for e-mobility, as well as methods for transforming plastic waste into carbon.

“All this green technology is new technology,” says Ito. “There are a lot of people who are going to be skeptical. They’re going to ask questions, have expectations, and all that.” Support from allies makes those hurdles easier to clear. It also gives your company a big boost toward its ultimate goal.

Bonus Lesson: Know Thy Failure, and Try Again

“Have your eyes open and try everything you think might be possible,” says Ito. “Try and fail and learn from it. Keep doing that really fast.”

This fast-paced method is working well for Water Design Japan. It has helped them iterate a product to take on the grand goal of realizing a better future. It has helped them adapt to a global market that has no patience to wait for a young company to catch up. And it has helped them make friends in the green tech community.

“At the starting point,” says Ito, “we had to just try and try and talk to so many different industry people to see who’s going to be interested. And if they didn’t have interest, it was next, next, next.”

To keep up that momentum and stay motivated when a lead doesn’t pan out, Water Design Japan goes back to its guiding mantra: “Tiny bubbles will enrich our lives.”