How Bento&co Partners with YouTubers and Bloggers to Drive Sales

bento and co

On this podcast you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who partners with creators that have established audiences to drive traffic to his store. 

Thomas Bertrand is the Founder of Bento & Co, a company that brings you the best bento boxes directly from Kyoto, Japan.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why showing the behind-the-scenes of your business can be great content for your customers.
  • The differences between selling to the European, US and Japanese markets.
  • How to evaluate whether a YouTuber will be a good fit for your product and brand.

Learn More: Find out how to make money on YouTube.

Listen to Shopify Masters below…

Show notes:


Felix: Today I am joined by Thomas Bertrand from Bento and Co. brings you to Best Bento Boxes directly from Kyoto, Japan and was started in 2008.

Welcome, Thomas.

Thomas: Hi. Thank you, Felix.

Felix: So tell us a bit more about your store and what are some of the most popular products that you sell?

Thomas: Oh, we sell mostly Japanese bento boxes, and also a lot of Bento accessories, Japanese kitchenware, typical Japanese bento boxes and plastics, the one you can use everyday and put in the microwave. Most, like ... a lot of [inaudible 00:01:45], so rice bowls accessories are selling very well, too.

Felix: Awesome. So tell us a bit more about your experience. What's your background? How did you get into this kind of business?

Thomas: So I live in Japan, since 2003, but I am from France, actually. In 2003 I came here to study at [inaudible 00:02:04] University for 1 year. I thought I'd be here just for 1 year, but it's been now 13, 14 years, and I'm still in Kyoto and I really love this city. So just after I graduated I decided to stay one more year here and one more here and then I just decided, yeah, if I want to stay in Kyoto, to find a good job, I should maybe make my own.

And actually, in 2005, I started my own blog. It was in French, only it was just about Kyoto, about life in Japan. Thanks to my blog, I just learned how to use internet. Before I would just check emails and check news on the internet, but thanks to my blog, I bought a camera, I did some podcasts, too. I just took pictures of everything interesting I saw in Japan and talked about life in Japan.

I wrote about [inaudible 00:03:01] 1,000 readers everyday and just people who just like Japanese culture, so I just felt maybe I could do some business for my blog. So it was in 2006, Shopify just came over as a bidder. On Shopify, I created an account. At first I just sold, like, some tee-shirts and Japanese stuff for my blog on small Shopify shops. But it was really in 2008, I was a freelance writer. I just decided to sell bento boxes just like as a record from Doug, God, it was like something ... even now, it's like quite magical. I just ... I was talking to my mom on Skype and she told me, "Yesterday I read this article in a magazine about Japanese bento." And just in my head, it just popped up, I said, "Bento! Bento boxes! I should sell the bento boxes." I like food and I know people at my work like Japanese stuff, Japanese culture, so I just thought ... I'm sure Japanese bento boxes will sell very well. So I decided in late October 2008. About 2 weeks after that, I opened my, first shops, it was a French [inaudible 00:04:32], about 10 products at the time. And yeah, that's how things started.

Felix: Makes sense. So you had a blog. So you moved to Japan to study, you decided you wanted to stay there. Rather than find a job, you wanted to start your own business.

Thomas: Exactly.

Felix: So in 2005 you started a blog. So most of these readers were not Japanese. Right? These were people maybe from back home or from France or international audience ...

Thomas: Yeah. Yes.

Felix: ... that was interested in Japan because they weren't there. They kind of got to see the world through your eyes. So you built up this blog audience and then your business mind, your entrepreneurial mind, kicked in and said, "You know, I have an audience that built up a lot of traffic." You said 800 to 1,000 visitors a day, which is great, I guess, amount of visitors to start with. So you knew that you already had a lot of an audience to work with, but then you needed to find something to sell. So you were selling just tee-shirts at first and then you talked to your mom and then you guys, or you, came up with the idea of selling bento boxes.

So how did you launch this to your blog audience? I think there are other listeners out there that might have a blog, that might have a following, and are already thinking about the best way to kind of monetize that audience. Like, how were you able to launch it through to that audience?

Thomas: So I had the audience but also what was very important at that time is, thanks to my blog, I got a lot of connections both in France and in Japan. In Japan I met foreigners who lived in Kyoto and Osaka and some were web designers, programmers. I was actually not into this kind of thing. So I have two friends here I met thanks to my blog and they helped me to start the first shop. So one was a web designer, one was a [inaudible 00:06:27], and so we just choose, I guess, like a free template on Shopify at that time and modified it, and we [inaudible 00:06:35], we took pictures of products we bought. So yeah ... actually, so the blog was not only about the audience and potential customers, but also like connections I got here.

And in France, thanks to my blog, which was about Japanese culture and everything about Japan, I met a few journalists because before they came to Japan, they just found my blog and they contacted me and said, "Okay, I'm going to Japan for some document. I would really like to meet you and talk about Japan." So I kept with contact and when I started my shop, I sent like a press release to one of them and some of them were friends who were in PR and that's, thanks to them, like I got major coverage from the stops in some French magazine and newspaper.

So there for like about 3 years I just worked my blog like everyday. I spent about 1 or 2 hours everyday on my blog and it was, like, you know, just passion, just for free. But I really loved it. And I just realized after that, that it was really, really helpful for me to start my shop because, you know, if you start an online shop, even if you have great products, I mean, no one to buy them is no one to talk about them. It's almost nonsense. So yeah, it was really helpful to have this blog since about 3 years before I started my business.

Felix: Yeah, it makes sense. I think that that's a really important point is just when you have a blog or you have a You Tube channel or a podcast, whatever you have, if you have an audience you're building, it's not just the audience that are going to end up buying your products but it's also to all the people, all the connections, like you were saying, the connections with people that could help you out with building your store. You know? Web designers was something that you came across. But then also all of these kind of PR, journalists connections that you had to help you, you know, launch the business. I think that's a great point that sometimes is overlooked. It's not just about building an audience of buyers, but you're building an audience of possible influencers and connections as well.

How did you roll this out? Because let's say someone has a blog or they also have some kind of a You Tube channel, some audience they built. You weren't just like, "Hey, now I have stuff you can buy." Right? Like how did you, I guess, introduce them to the products that you were selling? Did you sell them through your blog or did you have a separate store that you drove the traffic to from your blog?

Thomas: Exactly. So my blog was a [inaudible 00:09:10] at this time.

Felix: Okay.

Thomas: Pretty old. So yeah, it was on Shopify from the start. I count from 2006 on Shopify, where I sold one or two tee-shirts with my blog header image for it. So I used my Shopify account to start my first bento [inaudible 00:09:36] shop.

And the thing is, even before the shop was launched, I talked about it on my blog. I was like really open about it. I said, "Okay, I got this idea. I want to sell bento boxes." Now I'm going to try to get some from some Japanese maker, which was not that easy. When you are a foreigner that wants to buy some stuff from small to medium companies that are in Japan. They don't have any email to contact. You have to send a fax or have to call them to get some products. Things like that.

So I talked about everything. I think people were like just very interested in this process, how to start a business in Japan. Like when you are a foreigner, it's not only about starting an online shop; it's as a foreigner in a very special country as Japan. It was another point, I think, which made the Bento and Co. interesting at first is I am not Japanese and, yeah, I mean, I'm in this country that many people like. So yeah, I talked about that and that was interesting, I guess.

Felix: Yeah. I've seen other entrepreneurs do this, where they are very transparent and give you the behind-the-scenes of them starting a business or running their business. And it's creating content.

I think, initially, when people see or hear about this kind of content, you'd think that only business owners, only entrepreneurs, will be interested in this kind of stuff. But you found that your audience that weren't entrepreneurs, that weren't business owners, they were still also interested in this kind of content about you starting your business?

Thomas: Yes. Exactly. Actually it was even some friends just, like, read my blog everyday and they saw me starting this project. Actually, two of them, just a few months after I arrived, just said, "Okay. I'm going to do the same thing. I'm going to also sell something online." And so I was real happy, very happy, like I was inspiring them. At first it was like a real small project, with almost no money, but yeah, people get inspired.

Felix: Yeah.

Thomas: And I figure so many people just want to quit their job and start their own business.

Felix: Yeah, that's very true. It seems like entrepreneurs are a small kind of circle. But I think what entrepreneurs can do is just give inspiration and motivation as well. And that might not be starting a business, but just be starting some kind of project, something on the side, and just being able to see someone have these goals and set out to accomplish them. I think everybody can kind of relate to the motivation and inspiration that comes from that, so I think it's great content, regardless if your audience is interested in starting a business or not. Just kind of sharing your journey, I think, goes a long way to connecting with your audience and your prospective customers.

Was it difficult to start? I know you mentioned that it was difficult, specifically, to work with the manufacturers for stocking these or for creating and getting these bento boxes. Was it hard, also, just to start a business in a country that you weren't from originally, like you didn't grow up in? Like what kind of difficulties came with that?

Thomas: So a good thing is I didn't have any visa issue. My wife is Japanese. I was married just like since 2 months before I started Bento and Co., so I didn't have any visa issues and my wife works with me in this company now but we are 15 people now. She was here with me from the start and so she took care of every legal thing. Yeah, papers we had to deal with and like to contact Japanese manufacturers. [inaudible 00:13:42] was not that difficult.

I think like when you ... before you ... when you think about, "I would like to start my business," and you think about is there legal issues? Do I need to ask someone if I can do that? Do I need to get some certification or whatever? I think you just, like, give you some break, like things that make you not ... having the first step, like even to the ... the most important thing was really the first step. And when I decided I'd like to start this business, nothing could stop me. So I did not have any of these questions in my mind. And I knew I just wanted to sell bento boxes online and I knew it would really be okay and I could make money with it.

So the only thing I have to do, at first, was like bring to my tax office and just told them, "Yeah, I'm going to start a business online." They said, "Okay. That's good. Just give us your home address." And that's all. And it was ... actually, that's the only thing I had to do.

And then, yes, it was just how to start. So just get some stock and get your website ready to launch. And that's all.

So every time I had some people asking me about how to start a business, I think it's just launch your products, even if it's not 100% ready at first. Which we're never ready, actually. You just have to launch it. Yes. That's the most important thing. It's not about legal issues, about papers you have to fill. It's about you. Will you start it or not? Right?

Felix: Yeah, I think it's a really good point about how, I think ... especially, I guess, new entrepreneurs that are starting out. We tend to think we need permission from this person or this person. We need permission. We need to do this and we need to get these privilege of starting a business. But what you're saying, and I think it's 100% true, is that you've got to give yourself permission. You have to give yourself the runway to get started. Don't think so much about what could go wrong and what I need to do before I can launch. Just get it rolling. And then, as you go along, you really encounter what you really need to do to launch the business. But if you spend too much time kind of planning and thinking about 'Am I allowed to do this?' or 'Am I allowed to do that?' I think that's going to slow you down too much.

I think this is a really good point about how you were saying that you would never be ready to launch, it will never be ready to go. Do you remember some of the things that you kind of had to figure out after launching that maybe you weren't 100% comfortable with during the very beginning, that you had to kind of quickly figure out for your business?

Thomas: Exactly. It was logistics and preparing shipments. It was a total mess at first. We first opened the shop on November 23, 2008, and got first order about 1 hour after that.

Felix: Wow.

Thomas: Yeah. Thanks to my blog and people knew what I ... it was not [inaudible 00:17:09]. It was ... yeah, due to a lot of different blogs. And people read my blogs after [inaudible 00:17:14] and I talked about it. Although this guy in Japan was launching a [inaudible 00:17:19] shop selling bento boxes. So it was a very niche market but I had people talking on their blog and so I got traffic and we got orders every day since the beginning.

And so at first we didn't have any cartons to pack orders so when people ordered like just one bento boxes, we wrapped it in some [inaudible 00:17:41] and craft paper and shipped to them like that. And I guess like maybe 5% of this got lost or like broken during transport. So yeah, we had to figure out how to do it better.

Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. So are most of your customers outside of Japan?

Thomas: Yes, 100%.

Felix: Okay.

Thomas: At first, 100%. The website was in French only. We started at first to sell in Euro and not in Japanese Yen. And it was a good choice. And we opened a website in English 1 year afterwards. So we [inaudible 00:18:23] and we opened a Japanese website in 2011. And we also have a B2B website now.

Felix: Okay. So what has been, I guess, a key difference is I think that you're in a position that's, again, a perspective that's very different than maybe a lot of listeners because you started selling to the European market then to the U.S. market and then to the Japanese market. What are some, I guess, key differences that you've found from selling to those different markets?

Thomas: So French and English websites, we pretty have the same best-sellers. It's almost weird that they're the same. But bento boxes culture is not the same in every country. For example, in U.S. and in other countries in Europe, kids have lunch boxes at school. Right? But in France, not at all. So most of our French customers, we are still we present at about 40% of our revenue, they are just like, yeah ... [inaudible 00:19:27] so others who just want to bring a nice lunch box at work. But we sell a lot in U.S. and Australia, mostly mom want nice lunchboxes for their kids. So that's the biggest difference we have in the market.

Felix: Did you do this kind of ... did you do any kind of research before launching into these new markets or did you find out about this along the way?

Thomas: Yeah, not at all. We just figured out ... answered that after that. Yeah, but [inaudible 00:20:01] a lot actually quite well-known blog about bento, bento recipes, called, and Mackey [inaudible 00:20:14] blog helped us a lot to get orders from U.S. and over in English-speaking countries. And thanks to our blog we learned a lot about reading the comments of readers was really helpful for us to figure out what kind of different products we should add on the website as well.

Felix: Makes sense. So today, like what are some of the key ways or the biggest sources of traffic? Is it still from these blogs that you've built relationships with?

Thomas: No. No, because, sadly, most of these blogs are not like where ... some of them disappear, some of them don't work so much anymore. It's moved to some You Tube channeling now, some Facebook group, Facebook pages. Also a lot from Instagram we get traffic. Also a lot of our [inaudible 00:21:20] traffic and we'll sort expand money into AdWords a lot and sometimes on Facebook ads.

Felix: Cool. So let's talk about each one of these.

So the You Tube channels. How did you connect with them? So these are like influencers on You Tube that are reviewing your products? What kind of people ... where are they coming from, from You Tube?

Thomas: So yeah, we have some customers who review our products on You Tube. Sometimes we have some You Tubers ask us to send some samples and we get a review. And most of the time, we don't that, but only if we think the quality of the You Tube channel is okay. If one we want to do and the image we want to present, yes, we do it sometimes. But there's a quite famous You Tube channel called Cooking with Doug. They have about 1 million subscribers. And it's a Japanese woman introducing Japanese recipes online and it's quite fun because she's always with her dog in the kitchen. So we have a partnership with them, actually. They are so famous among Japanese food lovers, we now try to do something else on the You Tube videos and so we have a license contract with them and are going to launch a bento box with their logo over chopsticks. So it's something that I'm really happy to do. We're going to start next month. So yeah, that's the first thing on my desk were the biggest things we're going to do is a partnership with a You Tube channel.

Felix: Yeah. Definitely want to talk about your licensing experience in a second. But about this You Tube channel, I think other listeners out there are thinking about partnering with other influencers, other You Tubers, to review their products or talk about their products. So what's that process like? I guess now, the size that you are, it sounds like a lot of You Tubers are reaching out to you. Early on, did you have to kind of find You Tubers and kind of convince them to talk about your product?

Thomas: Actually, at first, not on You Tube. It was people who have bento blogs. But now, if sometimes still [inaudible 00:23:49] blogs; we are more on Instagram or Facebook. So we have about 3 or 4 bloggers. We just now moved to over social media now and we still have some [inaudible 00:24:04] with them so we send them new products and [inaudible 00:24:09] use them in a recipe and then show them on Instagram, on Facebook. Yeah, it's been quite useful for us.

Also like every year since 2009, we do the International Chef Bento Contest. So every year is a special theme and we ask people to, according to the theme, to send us a picture, a nice picture, of a bento.

So every year we also partner with bloggers, more like Instagramers, to put on Facebook, [inaudible 00:24:42] of bento, of Japanese food. Even if we don't ask, for instance, ask for money because they like what we do because we know them since 2009, so almost like 5 or 6 years, for most of them. And so they are just happy to talk about us and talk about this contest, especially because every year we buy a ticket to Japan for the winner. So it's something they're happy to share with their audience.

Felix: I see. So it's interesting you're seeing a shift from the people that you knew, the relationships that you knew, from the bloggers. Now they're migrating over to Instagram, to Facebook, and to You Tube. Is that what's happening?

Thomas: Yes. Yes. I think it's like just easy for them to create content and to get a wider audience, I guess.

Felix: Yeah. I think that's definitely true. I'm starting to see that a lot more and different influencers have different, I guess, natural interest in different mediums. Like some people like to be on video more, some people like to post pictures more than writing content on a blog, so that makes sense.

How do you ... when these You Tubers that ... or I guess new You Tubers that you haven't met before, is there a process you go through to analyze and make sure that they're going to be a good fit for your products?

Thomas: Yes. Exactly. So the experience taught us that if it's someone who just reviews a lot of, tons of products, it doesn't work. For us, it has to be, first of all, something about Japan. Not Asia, but Japan and food. If it's not about that, it's not really interesting for us.

Even since we sell bento boxes and, at first, our first customers were ... most of them, like my blog readers, so they're interesting to Japanese culture. So when, like the red [inaudible 00:26:52] knew about bento. But now it's not only that. Sometimes they don't know anything about Japan, so I'm not really interesting to [inaudible 00:27:01] it's like all type of culture and whatever. They just, like, want a nice lunchboxes and they write sometimes in some woman magazine or some recipe magazine about bento boxes. Especially many in France, also in U.S., there's like many mainstream, like not blog or magazine about Japan, but like, yeah, some media for mostly women or about food. We talked about bento boxes. So we got enough customers who just don't have any interest in to Japan but they want Japanese bento boxes.

So, yeah, big change in our orders since the beginning.

Felix: Yeah. That's a good point about how you don't want to look for You Tubers that are just reviewing a bunch of different products because the audience is not built around the Japanese culture. You're looking for an audience that's going to these You Tubers because they're talking about Japanese culture and then it makes a much better fit. I think that's a great, great point because, you know, you're most likely ... if you're an entrepreneur out there that's thinking about working with influencers on You Tube, you're most likely going to run into people that are looking for free products for reviews, or are maybe paid for reviews, and they're not going to necessarily have the audience that you're looking for. So that makes sense. You want to find You Tubers that are already creating content that attracts your target audience, but they're not like only doing reviews. I think that's a great point.

So let's talk about ... I just want to talk about a licensing deal in a second. But let's talk about Facebook pages next. You said that a good portion of your traffic comes from Facebook pages as well. Is this your Facebook page or other peoples' Facebook pages?

Thomas: Mostly our Facebook pages. We have about 45,000 followers.

Felix: Awesome. So what's your strategy for growing that Facebook fan page?

Thomas: Oh, we post at least almost every day and sometimes six times per day. And we post pictures, sometimes video, lately a lot of .gif, which works very well, more than pictures or videos. We saw some robust growth on Facebook also lately. It's good to have, like ... yeah. If it's just about pictures of cute bento boxes it might work. Again, we can get some 'likes' and some 'shares', but even, I mean, we also are looking to create like quality content. Right? So to be that, we make [inaudible 00:29:50] our brand and to keep our brand like we really want to be. So, yeah, we just need to create good contents and not only showing things you're going to see somewhere else. So like creating original content is something we try to do almost every day.

Felix: Very cool. So you're ... I think the point you're trying to make, too, is that you're not just posting pictures of your products; you're posting content outside of just bento boxes.

Thomas: Yeah. Exactly.

Felix: So this original content you're creating, what's the process behind that? What kind of original content are you creating and how do you create it?

Thomas: Oh, so like almost every week we talk here with two people are the English marketing here at Bento and Co., and we say, "Okay, we have these new products." Like, lately it was we started selling some food, actually, to prepare some Japanese [inaudible 00:30:44]. So we just started to sell some sauce. So yeah, we made some posts and we talk about that kind of products, that kind of food, and not only about our products, but the thing, like, we introduce also Japanese culture. Right? It's not only about selling an item. It's not about selling one product. It's selling an interesting world culture of food and selling some ... yeah. Mainly on Facebook page it's more about interesting Japanese culture, more than our products. And we talk about that and we search for this kind of nice pictures on Instagram and we ask sometimes if we can share their pictures. We do ourselves some cooking here and take pictures of what we do and share them on Facebook page.

Felix: And they're usually this kind of repurposing content from Instagram, from other Instagrammers, that's like they're usually pretty receptive to that? They're usually okay and happy to let you share their photos on your Facebook fan page?

Thomas: Yeah. Most of them, like in U.S., some of those are customers. Like one of them is a girl from Singapore and she wrote a bento recipes book and so we sell her book on our shop. So, I mean, we're almost like friends, actually.

Felix: Very cool. So how do you actually ... you know, you're growing this Facebook fan page, you're posting a lot of great content to it to grow and get you to come back. How does that actually turn into sales? Like how are you driving them from the Facebook fan page to eventually buying products from your store?

Thomas: Mostly, like, if you're out there, if you put a link in your Facebook post it will not show up. Right? So like if you have really good products with really nice, fun pictures, we are going to just add the pictures and some text. And sometimes we don't add a link into the post. But we got like comments and sometimes the comments are, "Okay, where can I buy these?" And we try to [inaudible 00:33:08] the link. It seems to work better like that.

Like, if you want to talk to more people, you just like make a post with a really nice .gif for pictures and with a link to our shop, our product page, and you have to boost your post by your Facebook. So, yeah.

Felix: I see. So you've found that when you just post a link directly to your store, Facebook's algorithm does not give it much visibility. But when you're posting pictures of the bento box and then in the comments you might even include the link, it's usually ... gets more organic reach.

Thomas: Yes.

Felix: Very cool. But if you didn't want to just post a direct link, you've got to pay Facebook some money to boost the post. Yeah.

Thomas: Exactly. It works better like that.

Felix: Makes sense. Cool. So let's talk about Instagram. So the Instagram traffic that you're driving, is that also from your own Instagram or do you work with other influencers on Instagram?

Thomas: We have our own Instagram and a lot of customers just like share pictures of their orders when they arrived or a bento they have just prepared. So yeah, it helps a lot. Yeah.

Felix: And what's your strategy there for getting more, I guess, more followers on Instagram?

Thomas: Sometimes, especially during our bento contest every year, we have some hashtags and we ask people to share the hashtag. Yeah. There's no special strategy with this one.

Felix: Sure. With Instagram, having the hashtag thing is important because you guys have a hashtag. I guess #BentoandCo is the hashtag. How do you ... I think hashtags are a great way to kind of concentrate the conversation around a specific topic, but how do you just begin to promote something like a hashtag? How do you get people to check out the photos that are being tagged with #BentoandCo? How do you encourage people to start posting photos with using that #BentoandCo hashtag?

Thomas: So once we didn't have the #Bento hashtag. We had a different one called #ILoveBento, hashtag #ILoveBento, and we tried this strategy, like took a picture of your bento and show it to #ILoveBento and we thought like if a lot of people tried to begin to share a hashtag, they're going to ... at the end they're going to understand it's about us and it might work. But I think it did not work really well. I think if you share a hashtag it has to be the name of your shop unless you are really big already and you can attract a lot of followers or viewers [crosstalk 00:35:56].

Felix: Oh, I see. So you're not ... originally you weren't pushing the #BentoandCo hashtag.

Thomas: Yes.

Felix: But you're saying that you need to come with a hashtag that is a little more generic and not based around your brand and then dominate that hashtag. Is that what you're getting at?

Thomas: Yes. Where I [inaudible 00:36:12] it, I think it's quite difficult if you're, like, not big, like me.

Felix: You're saying that it's difficult to, I guess, use hashtags or use hashtags specific to your brand if you're not big?

Thomas: To use a hashtag which is not specific to a brand.

Felix: Hmm. Okay. That makes sense. Cool.

So let's talk about the licensing then. So that's something that's brand new, it sounds like, for you guys. How did you come up with ... I guess, what's the process? How do you even begin? I think there are probably listeners out there, too, that are thinking about working with others to license their products. So give us an idea, like, what does it mean to license your product?

Thomas: So we don't license our product. We both license. We made a contract with actually two brands, [inaudible 00:37:00].

Felix: Okay.

Thomas: To use their logo, to use their brand, and to make bento boxes with their logo. So we have an exclusive distributor and exclusive reseller online.

Felix: Oh, I see. So how did you identify these brands to work with, to purchase their license?

Thomas: So the first one, I talked before, Cooking with Doug, a You Tube channel, we have like ... so 1 million subscribers on You Tube, and over [inaudible 00:37:32] just love Japanese food. So it was perfect for us. And actually I don't remember exactly ... oh yes. They introduced us in one of their videos last year. Last year or 2 years ago. I can't remember. So because we also have a shop, a brick and mortar shop, here in Kyoto and so they visited us and we made a video about me and our shop in Kyoto. So that's how our first contact.

And we contacted them again end of last year. Yeah, "I was interested to know if you're okay to do something more with us?"

But at that time we told, "Yeah, yeah, we'd like to do something with our brand because we are just, like You Tube channel, but we want to also sell products."

"All right, then."

So it was just a perfect match between them and us and they have a really large audience similar to our customers and so a well-known brand among our product potential customers. And us, at Bento and Co., we know how to buy products from Japanese manufacturer, we know how to make products, original products, and we know how to market them and to sell them online or in our shop in Kyoto. So yeah, it was a perfect match.

So we had some discussion about what kind of contract we should do and so we ended up with a license contract. So basically, in this contract, we decided a percentage. Like, for example, if we're going to make 1,000 bento boxes and we're going to sell 1 bento for $20, we're going to give them a fee of a few percent. That's how it works.

Felix: That is very cool. So you're identifying brands that already have the target audience that you are going after and then partnering with them to purchase a licensing, or work out a licensing deal, with them. So what are some key terms in a contract like this that you have to think about, for any listeners out there that are thinking about purchasing a license?

Thomas: First, just to be exclusive. So we don't want other similar brand like us to be able to make a bento box with [inaudible 00:40:10] chopsticks like over [inaudible 00:40:13] actually. So it has to be that exclusivity. And then so also about a period of time so we don't want others to, like, if our contract ends in 1 year and a half, we don't want them to make the ... to be able to sell the same kind of products right away after our contract ends. So, yeah, it was two things we ...

Felix: Exclusivity and then also kind of a time limit on when they can ...

Thomas: ... yes.

Felix: ... and also, is there a time limit on the ... not time limit but is there an expiration date on the licensing deal, too, that's important? Like when it will end?

Thomas: Sure. I mean, it was our first time for both of us, so we decided on one year and a half at first. But I'm sure there's going to be going well and I'm going to sell a lot of products with them, so I hope we're going to renew with contract for more than 1 year or 2 years after that. We will see.

Felix: Yeah, it makes sense.

So I want to talk a little about shipping logistics. I think that you have a unique perspective here, since you sell globally. What kind of issues have you run into because you have to ship, sell and ship, you know, to all the way around the world?

Thomas: A lot of issues. Actually we are more of a marketing, selling online, like we are ... most [inaudible 00:41:37]. And the thing may be I love the most is relationships. So we have customers ... we ship orders in 95 different countries until now. Mostly France, U.S., Canada, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong. We also have customers every week in Russia, Israel, in Brazil, in Chile, in Mexico, in China. Everywhere. So like it's really super exciting. It's really fun to like proof a shipment and to ship them everywhere.

At first, we used only Japan [inaudible 00:42:16]. So they also are like international services. Pretty cheap. But from the beginning, I knew it was not extra efficient. If we ship something by air mail, it's not only expensive, but it takes time. Sometimes it's 10 days but sometimes it's 1 month to wait when you are in U.S.

Felix: Oh.

Thomas: So I guess [inaudible 00:42:41] ship something by USPS, we are not exactly sure when it will arrive in Japan now.

Felix: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Thomas: So from the beginning, I think, from 2010 we had a contract with FedEx here in Kyoto and it went very well and we made a very good deal. So like all our items, more than 1.5 kilograms, 2 kilograms, it was cheaper for us to ship by FedEx than by EMS, like Japan post express services. So yeah, we started to work with FedEx and then we started ... we did try UPS and so now we work with all four of them, depending on size, weight, and shipping destination.

Felix: Awesome. So how you manage all of this because there are so many logistics companies that you're working with?

Thomas: Yes. Exactly. Sometimes it's a big mess. And even when it was only FedEx and Japan post, before Christmas, if you get like 100, 200 orders in one day ...

Felix: Yeah.

Thomas: ... I just [inaudible 00:43:45] like creating shipping letters on FedEx website. And, yeah, now it's ... so 2 years ago we knew we had to do something about that. Like instead of spending like 3 hours or 4 hours every day to create shipping labels so we started to use some app we found on Shopify app store, our new ship station, and shipper. I guess, yeah. So I remembered ... during ... at that time, 2 years ago, [inaudible 00:44:22] was hard because it was not made for Japan base or not U.S. or Canada base sellers. And shipper, we could use it, but it was not really ... it was like [inaudible 00:44:36] very ... it was just started. It was not [inaudible 00:44:38] as an invoice made for customs. We needed an invoice when shipping internationally. It's not only about shipping numbers. You need to create an invoice for customs.

There was many issues. It was not a metrics system. Things like that. So we ended up creating our own system to create shipping labels. So we found an API and we were able to connect with, to integrate with FedEx, DHL, and UPS. So we made our own stamp here. And so, like, instead of spending like 4 hours creating shipping labels we can like 1 hour 15 minutes. But it was not ... still not so good. We had some issues with the API we used so we ended up actually making our own system from the start.

Felix: Wow.

Thomas: So I guess next month we're going to launch with room service on the Shopify app store. It's called Ship and Co., after Bento and Co., Ship and Co. We integrate with FedEx, DHL, UPS, and also Japan post and also [inaudible 00:45:57] coming soon. Yeah. So this is actually at Bento and Co., we have customers everywhere and we ended up with many issues with shipping so we create this own, new thing for us, for ourselves, and we ended up to have a new business, actually.

Felix: Yeah. That's very cool. It seems like you're definitely a true entrepreneur. I'm looking at your site. If we had a bit more time I would have loved to have gone into this. Like things like you have a 4G pocket WiFi [renfa oo:46:28] business, personal shopper service, and now you're looking to launch an app in the Shopify app store. So speaking of Shopify app store, are there any apps that you rely on to help you run the business?

Thomas: Yes.

Felix: Yeah, tell us one.

Thomas: We use [inaudible 00:46:46] Ship a lot. It's not actually on Shopify but it's currently [inaudible 00:46:52]. Right?

Felix: Sure.

Thomas: So we use [inaudible 00:46:54] Ship a lot. We send them out five to six newsletters per month. We have two lists. One is in French, one is to English customers. We're about [inaudible 00:47:14] customers.

Felix: That's great.

Thomas: We use a lot of ... we use Back in Stock [inaudible 00:47:23] cheap. We did good with apps. So like customers get a notification when products are back in stock so we can just add an email of a product page when it's out of stock and they get a notification when it's back.

We use Letter Pro for reviews.

And [inaudible 00:47:47] Strong. It's an [inaudible 00:47:48] program.

That's about all. And there's Ship and Co., the one we made.

Felix: Very cool. So that's coming out next month, you said?

Thomas: Yes. On Shopify. Yep.

Felix: Awesome. So what other plans do you have for the remainder of this year? What are some goals that you want to hit with Bento and Co.?

Thomas: So we do a lot of [inaudible 00:48:13] and since 2 years we do some trade shows all around the world. So we have some booths in France, in Chicago. I was first show. In Australia. Some gift shows all around the world. And so we present a few Japanese manufacturers. All of them, they don't export [inaudible 00:48:41]. There are some language issues of just living. They don't speak or write or read English. So we don't work a lot with other countries. We have some contracts with big Japanese bento box kitchenware manufacturers and we export their products and to [inaudible 00:49:05] we have these over Shopify and B2B web shop and we do some trade shows. And this year we have three trade shows, three more trade shows. I got one in France, one in Melbourne, in Australia, and one in New York. So these are big projects for us.

Also, we have this licensed product coming soon. Next month, I guess, with Cooking with Doug, the You Tube channel. So I hope it's going to bring us a lot of new customers thanks to a very cool Japanese food recipes we do on You Tube.

And we have also this new business Ship and Co. We are going to launch it on the app store, Shopify app store, but we are also connected to eBay and [inaudible 00:49:53] shop, and also some Japanese shipping platform. So actually I spend more time on Ship and Co. than on Bento and Co.

Felix: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Thomas: So, yeah. I think next year with the Ship and Co. service will bring more revenue to the company than bento boxes.

Felix: Wow. Yeah. I think that's great that you're able to kind of set up your business of Bento and Co. in a way that you can step away and focus on other things. Very cool.

So thanks so much for your time, Thomas. So is their website.

And anywhere else you recommend our listeners check out if they want to follow along with what you're up to?

Thomas: I'm on Linked In. You can find me [inaudible 00:50:36] and through Bento and Co., on the "about" page, the "about us" page there is a short story about me. And if you contact us through, I will be happy to reply myself.

Felix: Awesome. So if anybody has any logistics questions, it sounds like a good way to reach out to you, especially since you are releasing an app soon.

So cool. Thanks for giving us so much of your time, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you very much.

Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit for a free trial.

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shopify-author Felix Thea

About The Author

Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.