Founder name and position
Founder and CEO
Yasuyuki Toki dreamed of starting a business as a university student. Years later, a change in personal circumstances and a growing passion for his family sparked his idea to set up UniFa. He began his career in Tokyo, supporting startup management at trading company Sumitomo Corporation before spells at global consulting firms Roland Berger and Deloitte Consulting. When his wife’s work took her and their two children to Aichi Prefecture, he left his job and moved to Aichi to be with his family. He founded UniFa, which offers smart technology solutions for childcare centers, in 2013.
What was the inspiration for founding the company?
My kids were going to a childcare center and my sister was working at a childcare center. That was kind of the trigger, but the starting point was when I decided to set up a business and that its theme should be family. The most important thing in my life, my top priority, is my family, so I left my career as a consultant and moved to Aichi-prefecture. That’s why I wanted my business to be about family, too.
Why did you decide on the childcare industry?
I thought that one of the things I could do related to families is to support childcare centers or kindergartens.
In Japan, despite the fact that the number of women who want to work is increasing, there is still a lack of staff in childcare centers, which has been a big social issue. Our IoT and AI devices improve the efficiency of staff in the childcare center and improve the quality of childcare. The technology automates documentation in childcare centers that is normally undertaken manually. Also, when babies are sleeping for example, our devices, named LookMee Smart Baby Monitor can be placed on their stomachs to monitor their body position.
Double-checking with the baby monitor as well as visual inspection has allowed us to improve the quality of our oversight during naps. As a result, staff feel they are doing the job they want to do, and have a sense of worth doing it, which should lower the rate of people leaving the profession, help resolve the issue of lengthy waiting lists to receive nursery care and further support women’s presence in the workforce.
I was also inspired to boost communication in families. Our devices, named LookMee Photo take photos of kids during the day, which parents can then buy. We also offer a digital daily report including photos. This is needed by parents, so they know more about their children’s experiences at childcare centers. It’s also important for staff, as an active record. I thought this approach would be a solution to connect childcare centers and families.
What were your early challenges when you started up and how did you overcome them?
As I started the company by myself without any resources, for example financial capital, physical capital, or human capital, I had a hard time expanding our first service LookMee Photo. I made a decision to ask our old friends and ex business associates for angel investment. They willingly accepted my request saying they had great expectations for my company, which reminded me that I was tackling a big social issue.
How do you find your team members now?
Our biggest competitive edge in recruiting is our purpose, "Creating new infrastructure for society that brings happiness to families around the world" and we continue to attract people who share it. We had one instance where a member of staff referred his wife to work in our company. Family referral is very interesting for our company. Recently, more and more single people have been applying with high aspirations and feel the significance of working on this issue.
What values do you look for in your staff and what kind of traits do you want them to develop?
I don’t want staff who put limits on what they can do. All the people at UniFa need to break out of their comfort zone and continue to improve themselves in order to help create the number one business in the world. I also want staff that can understand and sympathize with our purpose, "Creating new infrastructure for society that brings happiness to families around the world" and have professional and personal strengths that are second to none.
What is the culture like in your headquarters?
Our culture is very diverse. In UniFa, there are a large number of excellent professionals from various fields such as consultants, investment banks, major international IT companies and lawyers. Also, in the engineering department, 1/3 are non-Japanese. Excellent human resources with such diverse backgrounds have become a powerful engine.
What do your staff do together for fun and to help foster a positive team environment?
We have a company meeting once a month that all employees attend and share the company strategy or purpose. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some staff also got together on the weekends to go camping in the countryside.
What is your business model?
We use a business to business to consumer model, so we receive income from both the childcare centers and the parents who use those childcare centers. For example, our products that monitor the children while they are in childcare centers, such as LookMee Smart Baby Monitor and our ICT service, are charged to the childcare centers by a subscription model. The photos taken of the children using LookMee Photo meanwhile, are charged to parents.We finally want to be like M3, which is a platform for medical workers.
How did you start making profits?
Our body motion sensor for use in childcare centers was an industry first, so we have an overwhelming market share. In fact, we have the number one share of the market. It’s given us a high profit margin service, and we also received some subsidies from the local government for it.
Do you have any memorable mistakes or successes?
My most memorable success is winning the global pitch contest at the Startup World Cup in 2017. More than 10,000 companies from all over the world participated. I received a trophy and investment prize money from Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Inc.
What challenges do you face in developing the business?
We have a huge amount of big data, such as kids’ photos and bio data, which is a great thing. But it’s very hard and time consuming to create a new solution for machine learning and deep learning. The fact that it will take a long time is very challenging for us, but it’s a good challenge.
What has been your best decision in your entrepreneurial journey?
Choosing the theme of smart childcare and family communication because I have been very passionate on this topic for a long time. This topic addresses huge social problems in Japan, like the lack of staff in childcare centers and the number of women who want to work but don’t have childcare. Because I’m working on these social problems, many people support me, in recruitment and marketing. I think I have got a lot of empathy from society because I chose this theme for my business.
What do you wish that you had known before you started the company and what would you have done differently?
I should have hired a chief technical officer to join the company as soon as possible after I founded the company. For the first two years of running the company, I didn’t have a technical manager, so that was very tough for me. Having a chief technical officer was very key for us. Now that the company includes a CTO with not only a high skill set but also high motivation, we keep providing high-quality services.
How do you balance your professional and private time?
In these last two years, we have gathered a number of excellent colleagues, and my company has moved to a relatively stable stage, so I have been able to spend enough time with my family. But when I founded the company, I was so busy. My wife helped me a lot with my job and at home with housework and so on. Now she is preparing to found her own company which will address problems for seniors and the ageing society in Japan. Like me, the topic of her business will be family.
What habits or routines do you practice to help make you more efficient?
My work rule is to have dinner with my family once a week. Also, in the morning, I have breakfast with my family.
In the company, I’ve created a management team with members that have very different strengths. When we work as a team, sharing information and with the same vision, each person’s strengths together will help us achieve our mission in an efficient way.
What professional advice would you give someone in the early stages of starting up a company?
I would say, ‘pour your soul into finding a passion.’ If someone can find a particular social issue to be passionate about, they will never regret it because it will make them always want to try to do something good for society. And, if they are successful, they will not only be satisfied with themselves, but society will also be supportive.
I was encouraged to find something I could be passionate about. I found passion in helping families and society through childcare and, as it’s good for society, I’ve found supporters.
UniFa supports child care center front lines by utilizing IoT and AI to realize smart child care centers. Its solutions automate child care center documentation and track children’s physical and mental growth, thereby freeing up time for staff and fostering ties between staff and families.
“Pour your soul into finding a passion.”
What are your top work essentials?
Getting feedback on users’ joys and concerns
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most used app?
Google Maps or Facebook
What’s your greatest skill?
Making presentations and conveying messages to people.
What favorite positive habit have you cultivated?
Keeping a diary. It’s an important asset and treasure for me.
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