How Some Setbacks In My Business Motivated Me To Get Leaner And Cut Expenses

Published: January 18th, 2020
Bemmu Sepponen
Founder, Candy Japan
Candy Japan
from Tokushima, Japan
started July 2011
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Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.

Hi, I’m known simply as “Bemmu”. My main project is Candy Japan, which is a subscription box for Japanese sweets — once you subscribe, you start getting surprise boxes containing Japanese candy and snacks by mail up to twice a month.


I’m an ex-pat in Japan and started the business from my apartment back in 2011, and it has continued to support my life here since then, currently making around $1000/month in profit.

Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?

It’s actually been shrinking.

Candy Japan at its peak was making around $5000/month and seemed like it would still continue to grow rapidly. However, the opposite happened and the trend turned into a steady decline instead.

Even if you don’t find a way, at least you don’t have to be unhappy about it, as you’ll get used to the struggle.

I’ve tried promoting the site through ads, writing content, reaching out to YouTubers, posting on Instagram, etc., with little success so far. I also tried introducing tiers with the idea that having cheaper subscription options available would increase the percentage of visitors to the site that subscribes, but that hasn’t seemed to have an impact. Perhaps I should have gone the other direction and provided a premium option instead.

One upside of the decline is that it has made me leaner, motivating me to cut out any extra expenses. For example, I factored out a recurring billing system that was costing about $100 / month and started using just Stripe subscriptions directly instead. I didn’t do that in the beginning, because the option didn’t exist, but even after it did, I kept putting it off because $100 out of $5000 felt like nothing, but out of $1000, it’s suddenly quite significant.

I also started doing more of the things I had been paying others to do before, such as support, writing, and photography. Doing these myself hasn’t only saved money but has made me better at the tasks. It’s also made me realize that delegating something that only takes a few hours a week isn’t that effective because there is always some overhead from delegating tasks, such as verifying that it gets done properly, keeping track of payments to freelancers, etc.

I also became more careful about sticking to my budget for the candies we (I still have shipping help) put in the box. I also shop around more to get the candy at a sweeter price (sorry).

What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?

Mentally it has been a strange experience going through such a steady decline; having fewer and fewer customers each month. At first, I found the trend depressing, while also pushing me to think of a way to fix the leak, but after being unsuccessful for long enough, at some point I got tired of being unhappy about it and sort of just accepted the reality of it. Now I feel more detached about it but do still try anything that comes to mind to stop it.

I think there are four main reasons for the decline: the honeymoon period being over, overall interest in Japanese candy waning, changes in Google rankings, and increased competition.

By the honeymoon period, I mean the initial wave of interest to my business itself, and to subscription boxes in general. When the business is no longer new, and the concept of subscription boxes is no longer hot, blogs don’t find it interesting to write about any longer. No more free traffic and backlinks.

The second reason is that there is less interest now towards Japanese candy in general. When starting the site I was riding on a wave of interest originating from very popular videos of Japanese candy getting posted on YouTube, which resulted in a lot of search traffic from people who wanted to know more about it. It seems this trend has mostly died down now.

Third, since I happened to be the #1 search result for “Japanese candy” at that time, much of the queries driven by the YouTube trend landed on my site. Neither of those two reasons is now true: there aren’t that many searches for it, and even if there were, I no longer rank for them.

Finally, there are so many similar candy subscription businesses out there now, that even my own wife had trouble finding the site when she wanted to show it to a friend.

What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?

Right now I would be satisfied to just level out the decline, and then come up with other side-projects to pick up the slack. The ideal situation would be to have perhaps three profitable projects going on, of which Candy Japan would be one.

I know just the approach that is needed here: just release a lot of stuff, and iterate on anything that seems to be getting a positive response. I’ve kept a list of my projects, and with 48 experiments released, 5 ended up counting as “successful” — I seem to have 1 out of 10 chance of success whenever I release something.

Based on that, I need to try at least 10 things to have a fair (~65%) chance of success with at least one of them.

During 2019 I released a site for getting a temporary fax number, a retro real-time chatroom, and an animation generator, but not enough to really have a good shot at finding the next thing. Instead of doing new projects, I focused more on self-study and spending time with my son (no regrets there!).

For 2020 I hope to increase the pace of new attempts by spending more time applying the things I learned during the past year. For instance, I did online courses on Swift and deep learning, but haven’t actually done anything with those yet.

Luckily our cost of living here on the island of Shikoku, Japan is cheap enough that I have no immediate worries, and can still keep trying new things for a long time to come, so let’s call that my 5-year plan as well.

Have you read any good books in the last year?

My entire list is on Goodreads, but my favorites this year were mostly older works of fiction, so I won’t go into those (but I’ll just remind you that he who controls the spice controls the universe).

As for entrepreneurship books, I found the book on Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance fun to read, as I learned more about him than what I had randomly encountered just from online articles. Another page-turner was Revolution in The Valley, which tells the Macintosh creation story. It really paints an exciting picture of what it was like to work at Apple during those times and is also very funny.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?

Even if you don’t find a way, at least you don’t have to be unhappy about it, as you’ll get used to the struggle.

Where can we go to learn more?

Don’t just learn more, but go over to Candy Japan and subscribe right now lest you miss out on any of the surprise boxes we have planned for the coming weeks ;-)