February 20, 2001, 3:14 PM — LOVE AND DOTCOM DREAMS were in the air when Jim Moliski attended his former classmate Richard Chen's wedding in the summer of 1999. During a break in the reception, Chen, who had gotten his MBA with Moliski at the University of
California-Berkeley, brought up the idea of starting an e-mail marketing concern in Japan. Moliski was all ears. He had just made a tidy profit by selling a U.S.-based dotcom he had founded to handle direct e-mail messages to consumers for other companies. Although Japan was still in a nasty recession, Moliski and Chen wanted to provide the same services there and were excited by studies showing the exploding number of Japanese consumers going online. But Moliski, a Florida native, hadn't counted on Japan's distinct economic and cultural landscape. Right from the start, Moliski and Chen had trouble attracting the right people to work at their startup, called OptoMail. Japanese workers are famously loyal to their employers and wary of working at startups. Infrastructure was also an ongoing issue; it took more than six months to get high-speed Internet access in the OptoMail office, and telephone service was exorbitant. Office space is outrageously expensive (rent for OptoMail's 15-person Tokyo office is more than $10,250 per month). And e-commerce has not yet taken off (Japanese consumers are leery of online fraud, and most don't use credit cards anyway, preferring cash and wire transfers to pay for purchases). To top it all off, the large Japanese companies Moliski and Chen are targeting for e-mail marketing seem to prefer doing business with companies they already know.
"You have things good in the United States, believe me," says Moliski, 33, who spends half his time in Tokyo and half in Berkeley, Calif., meeting with the U.S. parent companies of potential Japanese clients.