Crowdsourcing in Japan: How a handful of companies are changing ideas about work

Crowdsourcing has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. It has usurped traditional ways of finding work, gathering information and getting projects large and small off the ground.

The category can be segmented into sub-categories like “Crowdfunding” (Kickstarter, IndieGogo, Crowdcube), “Cloud Labour” (Elance, oDesk) and “Distributed Knowledge” (Wikipedia).

Even the social media platforms most of us peruse daily might be considered as one way of capitalising on shared knowledge. Cloud Labour can reduce the cost of hiring freelancers and outsourcing work quite dramatically when compared with traditional methods.

In Japan, the two most prominent Cloud Labour platforms are Crowdworks and Lancers but they are Business-to-Business focused, unlike US platform Fiverr and comparatively young Japanese start-up Coconala, which are more Consumer-to-Consumer oriented.

Crowdworks and Lancers operate on the basis of matching skilled freelancers with employers. Lancer boasts around 240,000 members, having taken on more than $200 million worth of work. It’s interesting to see how far these companies have come since their establishment.

For instance, Coconala’s main message, “Your skills can bring happiness to someone”, takes a decidedly more casual approach to adding value in society. The site offers peer-to-peer instruction or assistance with a particular want or need – like gardening or cooking.

It’s a “free market where you can buy and sell your skills, but things aren’t bought.” On a global scale, crowdsourcing has consistently challenged pre-conceived ideals of what project “value” truly means.

Coconala offers users the opportunity to advertise within or buy from twenty fixed categories including proofreading, dating advice and SEO services. There’s also a “miscellaneous” section, under which users have listed a range of anonymities, even stretching as far as “I will make up a lie” (… a really elaborate one?)

Takeshi Hirano of The Bridge interviewed CEO of Crowdworks Kōichirō Yoshida in 2013, two years following the launch of the business. At that time, Yoshida stated, “It will take some time until the mindset of individual workers changes dramatically. But the overall cost effectiveness could motivate companies to use crowdsourcing as ‘the fourth resource’, after hiring permanent workers, temporary workers, and outsourcing.”

By November 2014, Crowdworks had already built up a significant database of workers and had accumulated 180,000 registered freelancers. Although rival company Lancers has been active for four years longer than Crowdworks, the latter have already reported total project value of over $110 million since 2011.

On 22 January this year, Crowdworks accepted the “Japan Start-up Award” which was presented by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

Perhaps what these companies, along with Coconala’s “free market” style proves is that now is a fitting time to fully integrate crowdsourcing as a viable alternative to traditional working in Japan. It might be a gradual shift, but it is certainly part of a bigger, growing trend.

By Melissa Francis of Tokyoesque – a cultural insight agency linking the UK and Japanese markets.