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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008
Firm plugs consumers into funny USB goods
Thanko posts sales of ¥500 million by specializing in humorous PC accessories powered by computer ports
Working in an office during the summer can be an uncomfortably sweaty experience, and Hiroyasu Yamamitsu, president of humorous PC accessories maker Thanko Inc., spotted a business chance there.
The company began selling a USB Cooler Cushion at its shop in Akihabara, Tokyo, in June last year. The device is powered from a personal computer's USB port and comes equipped with a small fan and ventilation holes. The item sold "pretty well" last summer, Yamamitsu, 42, said, adding he expects even better sales this summer.
Yamamitsu loves what he does. He always thinks of potentially amusing goods, travels to China and Taiwan to look for such PC accessories, and checks Web sites to see if the products he is considering are already available on the domestic market. He realized that the idea of using PCs as a power source and controller opened the door wide to creating playful electronic merchandise.
Goods sold at his shops go beyond the realm of PC accessories.
For those who get sweaty around the neck, the company offers the USB Necktie Cooler, or a set of special ties and a small fan that can be inserted in the knot. To cool off one's hands while using PCs, the company sells a mouse with a built-in fan and ventilation holes.
Apart from goods that fight perspiration, the exercise-shy can use a mouse that comes connected to electrical muscle stimulation patches to put on the stomach or arms to shape up their bodies.
"PCs have become household goods. Now everybody has one and can use them, but the variety of PC accessories is poor," Yamamitsu said. "I want to develop products that have a strong impact on people, without which PCs wouldn't be considered complete."
Companies began making humorous USB goods a few years ago because they realized the computer ports supply enough juice to power toys that would normally require at least one AA-size battery, said Koji Date, editor in chief of PC Watch magazine.
With sales of ¥500 million, Thanko is arguably Japan's largest funny PC accessories maker, according to Date. However, there are no statistics available to show the market size of PC peripherals, let alone humorous goods.
Yamamitsu took Thanko to the top in only five years. He founded the company in Akihabara, well-known as the place where computer geeks buy PC-related goods, in June 2003, shortly after he left Japan Trust Technology Inc., a midsize PC peripheral seller.
Thanko, which makes products at a joint venture in Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong, and imports from other companies in China and Taiwan, now has three Tokyo shops; two in Akihabara and one in Ikebukuro.
His passion for weird PC accessories grew when he was with Japan Trust, which sells CD drives and other commonplace PC peripherals.
"That company deals with only normal stuff. I came up with a lot of product proposals, but all of them got turned down," he said.
One day, he found a Chinese company that makes USB-powered watches with an MP3 player function. He checked that no Japanese companies were selling them and proposed that Japan Trust import them.
When the proposal was rejected, he felt certain he would be better off setting up his own company — and he was right. In Thanko's first month, the watch generated revenue of ¥5 million.
Since then, he has kept looking for "unique, funny and useful" PC accessories. "My standard for product choice is: No matter how stupid it looks, it has to be useful," he said.
His approach has proved successful.
The products that do the best are actually not all that odd. USB AM/FM Radio, which allows easy digital recording of broadcasts, and Easy Desk Aluminum, for using a laptop while lying down, are the firm's top two selling products.
Yamamitsu is proud of both, which he developed from scratch with his Chinese partner, Wang Zhendong.
Wang, who came to Japan to take an MBA course, was an intern at Thanko from spring 2004 to early 2007, and Yamamitsu, who by then had many weird product ideas, detected in Wang rare technical skill and entrepreneurship.
In April 2006, they together set up Thanko Global Technology Co. in Shenzhen. That gave Yamamitsu an outlet for his wild ideas.
Now half of Thanko's products are produced by the joint venture, while the other half are purchased from companies in China and Taiwan. Japan is Thanko's sales and marketing center and accounts for more than 90 percent of its business.
Thanko also sells Easy Desk Aluminum and Silent Mouse, which does not make a clicking sound, to the United States, Europe and South Korea, Yamamitsu said.
Some Chinese employees left the Shenzhen venture and began selling some products directly, but they did not last long, Yamamitsu said. He is confident his management knowhow — especially his marketing analysis and cost control — is hard to copy.
He is also confident PC giants such as NEC Corp. and Sony Corp. will not enter the weird accessory market because its size is too small or difficult to quantify.
A quarter of sales comes from retailers, while the remainder are individual consumers, half of whom make contact via the Internet, Yamamitsu said.
He continues to be optimistic that his bet on weird USB goods will prove successful for a while. PC Watch's Date said the public will not grow tired of them.
"We shouldn't seriously analyze the specifications and usefulness of these USB goods," Date said. "They are the type of products we should introduce as silly and lovely joke goods."