TENGA Inventor Interview vol.01About Koichi Matsumoto
The following is a translation from an interview originally published in 2009 of TENGA Co., Ltd. President Koichi Matsumoto.
Some data has been adapted to reflect the growth of the company in 2015.
Your latest figures say the TENGA Brand has now sold 40 million units in over 40 countries world-wide!
Tell us about how it all began; where did the idea for TENGA come from?
Koichi Matsumoto (herein KM): I graduated from a mechanics college when I was 20, at the peak of Japan’s economic bubble. I started out tuning “super cars” like Lamborghinis and Ferraris – it was the “in-thing” at the time. I also did some work with vintage cars, importing, disassembling them and reassembling to the whim of each client. The pay was terrible, and bad managerial decisions made the company slip. I remember at the lowest point I wasn’t getting paid for nearly half a year, living in my car or on the floor of a friend’s factory.
That sounds rough!
KM: It was, but the job was fun; money wasn’t the reason I did it. I created cars, no two were alike, and I made them to perfection – that made the new owners happy, and making others happy was enough of a reward for me. I was proud of what I did. But after a time I had to face the facts: there was no way I could continue that kind of lifestyle. I moved back to my home of Shizuoka in central Japan, and got a job selling used cars. Until that time I was a jack-of-all-trades – mechanics, engineering, sales and directing. Although in my new position, my main focus was sales, I used my extensive knowledge of cars to explain in careful detail the makings and workings of each vehicle; the pros and cons, I was clear and honest with the customers, and because of this (I believe) I soon became the top salesman at that dealership.
KM: It was then when I first received a decent salary. It was a complete 180 from not being able to pay rent. The salary, commission bonuses, other perks of being a top salesman were great and my life was starting to stabilize, but I couldn’t shake this strange feeling within me. Selling cars was fine, but I never lost the taste of creating. As I said before no two cars were alike when I was assembling and tuning them. My heart told me that I wanted to create new things, things that don’t exist, things that people need. I didn’t have a particular idea in mind, I just wanted to create.
Were you into arts and crafts at school?
KM: Oh for sure! I’d say I was the best! *Laughter* Doodling all day, disassembling objects around me… My grades in art and crafts were always the highest.
Would you say then, that something reignited your passion for creation?
KM: I wouldn’t say “reignited”, it was always there, I was just oppressing those feelings when I was a salesman. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I hated selling these cars; it’s a great job and I was able to make many people happy through sales. It’s just that in all honesty “Selling” and “Creating” are two completely different things. As I said, it’s a feeling from within, and it can’t be stopped – I don’t really know how to explain it any better!
Did you have a plan or a vision in mind of what you wanted to create?
KM: Not at all. Since my aim was to create something new, I started to research what was out there on the market at the time. I looked into electronics, DIY appliances, car accessories, just about anything I could imagine with a “Made in Japan” label. I saw many products and one thing stood out – each product had at least one innovation, a breakthrough function or design element that made it stand out from the rest. For some products, in-store displays on the product and its specs were vital; for example a TV would boast “LED color display; truer, richer blacks!” The feature and its function clearly stated and shown off. Then you have products like clothes hangers – these need little explanation and are simply priced differently – you know which the better hanger is through that alone. Each market, each product has its own genre-specific character and rank in its market. However, almost all the products carried a brand/company name and post-purchase customer care is fantastic. I truly believe this is one of the great values of a product Made in Japan.
That’s very insightful!
KM: This research was my day-to-day outside of work. I’d spend my time walking around stores, researching all sorts of products and coming up with my own insights. One day I decided to take a look at a store with more “adult-oriented” products – I hadn’t been into one of these stores in years! I had always found sex toys to be funny so I thought I’d take a closer look. As I walked into the sex toy area though, I was struck with a sudden discomfort. “There’s something wrong here…” I knew immediately where this feeling came from.