An Unusual Turn of Events! Why did the founder of “popIn” create an “unusual scale”?
In October of this year, a new scale that overturns conventional concepts goes on sale. The scale is covered with a soft bath mat made of diatomaceous earth, which can be removed and washed, and has no meter display. Placed at the front of the bathroom, the scale looks completely like a bath mat. However, by simply undressing on the bath mat and wiping oneself after bathing, the system automatically measures one’s weight before and after bathing. After standing on both feet for three seconds, the weight data is transmitted to a smartphone via Wi-Fi.
The product is called “Smart Bath Mat,” and when the project was launched on April 7 on the Makuake website, it exceeded its goal of 32.68 million yen by the end date of June 29, and was covered by many media outlets. The project was developed by Mr. Cheng Tao, President of “issin.
He says, “From my own experience as well as the advice of doctors, I realize that weight control is the basis of health management. When we surveyed the reasons for not using a scale, the number one reason for men was ‘too much trouble’ and for women, ‘escape from reality. We thought that if we could create a product that is integrated into daily life and allows people to weigh themselves unconsciously, without the need to look at the numbers every time they get on the scale and feel happy or sad, the hurdle to weight management would be lowered.
Since “issin” has just been established, Mr. Cheng is a newcomer in the healthcare industry, but he is widely known as the “founder of “popIn” in the web industry and startup circles. In July 2008, while a graduate student at the University of Tokyo, he developed the content recommendation platform “popIn” and started his own business. It has been adopted by many web media, including the display of related articles and advertisements on news sites and analysis tools for operators.
In June 2015, “popIn” became a subsidiary of Baidu, the largest Chinese search engine company, but Cheng continued to represent the company after the M&A. In 2017, he started hardware development, a change from his previous software development. 2018, he developed a projector, speakers, and LED In 2018, he launched “Pop-in Aladdin,” a 3-in-1 smart light that combines a projector, speaker, and LED ceiling light. The product, named after “Aladdin’s Magic Lamp” from “Arabian Nights,” has become a hit, selling over 200,000 units in total and boasting the top share of the home projector market in Japan.
Although the development processes for software and hardware differ in many aspects, Mr. Cheng is a “genius engineer” who has created a highly complete product in a short period of time in both cases.
I am not a genius at all! I am from Henan Province in China, and I came to Japan because I failed the university entrance exam in China. I came to Japan to study while working and entered the Tokyo Institute of Technology. There, too, I took the graduate school entrance exam with the intention of staying in the lab, but failed because I failed to prepare for the exam, despite the fact that the pass rate for internal admission is said to be 95%. I was in the process of applying to stay in school rather than stay in the lab, but as it happened, the graduate school of the University of Tokyo was available on my schedule, and I was lucky enough to be admitted. I was not at all excellent, and it was a series of failures and tightrope walking (laughs).
(Laughs.) However, his entrance into the University of Tokyo proved to be a great opportunity for him.
Today, many universities support student entrepreneurs and industry-academia collaboration is thriving. However, when Mr. Cheng was a graduate student, the University of Tokyo was the only university that had both an investment company to support entrepreneurship and an organization to manage patents. The software development that led to the start of “popIn” was not intended to be a start-up.
When my idea was accepted at the graduate school, they provided me with the necessary equipment. In Japan, the “iPod touch” was popular before the “iPhone” was released. I wondered if I could somehow obtain the expensive “iPod touch” as research equipment. While thinking with this ulterior motive in mind, the idea that would later lead to “popIn” was born.
Although the idea was born out of a desire for the “iPod touch,” the software developed later received high praise at a presentation in Silicon Valley. Although still in the development stage, he was encouraged by those around him who were convinced of its potential and decided to start as an entrepreneur while still in graduate school.
As a student, I didn’t know anything about management or how to write a business plan. One of the investors, perhaps out of concern for my situation, told me, ‘I will write a business plan for you, so you can go ahead with the development. …… It is not possible for an investor, who makes investment decisions based on the business plan, to write a business plan. That’s how bad of an entrepreneur I was (laughs).
It may have seemed like a funny story in the early days of the company, but the development of “Pop-in Aladdin” was also carried out on a tightrope. A Chinese partner company produced the parts, and domestic manufacturer VAIO performed the final assembly process, but before the manufacturing process could be finalized, Cheng raised crowdfunding to secure a shipping date.
VAIO turned us down three times, and finally agreed on the fourth try,” Cheng said. But when I found out that the manufacturing process takes at least three times longer than software development, I went to ……. VAIO’s excellent staff and a Chinese company that was contracted to produce the parts worked together to get the product shipped in time, but I was prepared to have to refund the money to the investors. I was prepared for the possibility that we might have to refund the money to our investors.
It is not unusual to solicit crowdfunding before a manufacturing partner has been decided. However, it is quite bold to proceed with the development of hardware for the first time using this method. When I pointed this out, Mr. Cheng replied, “That’s right. That was a strangling development (laughs),” he said with a laid-back smile.
Both the recommendation platform “popIn” and the 3-in-1 smart light “popIn Aladdin” were successful businesses. Mr. Cheng, the developer of these products, left “popIn” in April to focus on his business at “issin,” which he started in April. The “Smart Bathmat” is his first product.
It is sure to be a hit product, with growth in general pre-orders as well as support purchases. However, what was the background behind the decision to leave the highly profitable business that he founded and “focus on the business in the healthcare area of ‘protecting the health of the family'”?
My father passed away, and my mother is undergoing medical treatment. Before my father died, he lost so much weight that I could tell by video calls that he had no physical problems. I feel that if I had focused on his weight changes, I could have taken steps to help him. I myself had multiple numbers caught on a physical exam and was instructed by my doctor to manage my weight, which inspired the development of the “Smart Bath Mat. Pop-in Aladdin” is a tool to enjoy time with family and create memories.
And the “‘Protecting Family Health’ Health Care Domain” can extend healthy life spans and increase time spent making memories with family members – I believe that as a hierarchy, we are working in the area above. If more devices like the “Smart Bath Mat” can be integrated into daily life to provide “unconscious” health care, many diseases may be prevented. I would like to come up with ideas for this purpose and make use of my past development experience.
The realization of the importance of health care was the driving force that propelled him into this new field. But that’s not all. “Originally, I like to surprise people, and I always seek exciting challenges. Fourteen years after starting the company, ‘popIn’ is now at a stage where it can grow without me. Now that I am turning 40 myself, I decided that I should move to an environment where I can challenge myself more freely. I hope to continue to create products that offer magical experiences,” he says happily. Even though he has been successful in the past, venturing into new territory is risky. He is ready to take the plunge, but has his family ever objected?
When I formulate an idea, I listen to the opinions of my wife and children while experimenting at home. My wife, in particular, is the most important person who gives me a ‘definite’ opinion (laughs). (Laughs) “My family is my companion who I am excited to develop with, and in fact, they are the ones who support me the most.
The idea he came up with for the “Ipod touch” blossomed in the place where he was led by his failed entrance examinations. The boldness he gained from his success has led to the creation of a magical product and a future that protects the health of families. Fortunes and disasters are like a twisted rope. Being “blessed” with failure is one of our abilities.
Profile： Cheng Tao
Born in 1982 in Henan Province, China. He came to Japan at the age of 18, graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and entered the graduate school of the University of Tokyo. While still in graduate school, he developed the recommendation platform "popIn" and started his own business, growing it into one of the leading software companies providing recommendation functions, analysis tools, and native advertising for web media. In April 2022, he started issin and developed "Smart Bathmat," a product that differs significantly from conventional scales. Currently, he is developing a new product to "protect the health of the family" following this product.
Photo courtesy of： ISSIN (2nd photo) Photography and text by： Miho Kuwata