By Payal Gwalani
Like every salaryman in Japan and across the world, Chika Terada has faced the challenge of managing the list of his key contacts. At times, he would realise that people he approached had already had a working relationship with another colleague of his. Had this connection been established prior to the meeting, he could have been introduced to them formally – a practice that is appreciated in Japanese business culture.
The information gaps within organisations that lead to redundant efforts and many missed opportunities in making new connections and closing business deals often upset him. These were the thoughts that made him think of creating a world where people better connect with their connections, better network with their network, and never miss an opportunity. It was this resolve to bridge this gap by digitising a business’s network, moving the traditional paper-based business cards into the cloud that he found Sansan in 2007.
Physical business card exchange being a tradition that is deeply rooted in Asian business culture, the move to digital alternatives was slow and gradual. “However, rather than simply digitising business cards, what we have created is a cloud-based contact management solution for the entire organisation that enables companies to share their internal network of contacts and connect with others outside the organisation more efficiently,” shares Edward Senju, regional CEO of Sansan for Singapore.
One advantage that Sansan has enjoyed from its initial days is the global exposure and outlook of the team. They understood the way businesses are run in different geographies, and whether they depend on emails, messaging services, or other tools. This helped them succeed in other Asian countries as well in some Western markets.
The pandemic has given a big boost to the business in recent years, with the Sansan Virtual Business Cards getting integrated with applications like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google calendar. Globally, over 4,300 businesses have adopted virtual cards. “COVID-19 has impacted the way we work, with the pandemic resulting in a large-scale move to remote work. Flexible digital solutions have become increasingly essential to everyday work life,” he explains.
Riding the Digital Wave
The idea behind digitising the contact management was that once the information is moved to the cloud, it is of more value to an organisation and constitutes part of a wider digital transformation strategy. Over the years, Sansan has progressed from being focused solely on business cards to broadening it’s digital solutions offering to encompass other forms of paper.
Fortunately for the company, the last decade has seen an ever-growing interest in data and data mining. “This has opened up the opportunity for us to project ourselves as more than a database management system by offering a way to analyse and utilise the connections in their joint contact pool to add real value to businesses,” informs Senju.
He talks about how governments around the world are making digital transformation easier. Like in February 2021, the Singapore government passed the Electronic Transactions Bill to enable electronic bills to be recognised as legally equivalent to their paper version. Citing initiatives like Emerging Stronger Taskforce and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), he added that while the Singapore government is actively supporting the nation’s digitalisation, the private sector too must step up to allow the country to become a paperless society as a key part of wider digital transformation strategies to build pandemic resilience.
When it was launched back in May, the Singapore government’s Emerging Stronger Taskforce highlighted the urgent need for the city-state to create new frontiers in the digital realm. It also urged local businesses to seize opportunities in a growing green economy if it wants to successfully chart its economic recovery in a post-pandemic world.
Senju believes that in this age of digital transformation and green economy, paperless initiatives are being pushed in every market around the world. His company, he said, is ready to help businesses in every aspect of digitisation.
In fact, Sansan takes it one step forward through its Scan for Trees project under which they plant a tree for every business card scanned into their system. As of August 2021, they have planted over 9,200 trees.
The company now plans to focus on paper-heavy departments like finance that still work in a more traditional way despite the global push for digitalisation. Senju shares that in-house research found that as many as 80% of finance and accounting professionals in Singapore were still making trips to the office during pandemic-induced lockdowns just to process paper invoices and other admin documents.
As a solution, they have a new product Bill One that helps digitise operations like invoicing, contracts, and expenses/receipts. It uses a high-accuracy scanning technology, just like the one used for business cards, to intuit and digitise all key information transforming information from a paper or PDF document to the cloud in an instant.
Though paper-based operations and business cards are bound to bounce back in the business arena as people go back to working from offices and attending in-person meetings, Senju is not worried. He feels the new work environment will be hybrid in terms of online/offline operations, so a certain percentage of all business meetings and communications will likely permanently stay in new online environments.
“This will mean that while paper will make a return, the virtual business card will continue to have a place in the new post-COVID or later-COVID hybrid work environment,” he says. He does not see the digital adoption that was forced by the pandemic as a temporary solution but that it would change the way businesses operate in the future.