Candy Japan 2015 Q1 update
In 2010 I started a "Japanese sweets of the month" subscription service called Candy Japan where I send subscribers random surprise candies twice each month in exchange for a monthly payment of $25. I've tried to keep actively blogging about it with unusual openness, perhaps in a bit too revealing detail even, ever since launch. So here's an update on what's been happening since the last post.
The subscriber numbers have stayed pretty steady, currently at 970. Staying over 1000 is important not only as a psychological milestone, but because Japanese postal mailing discounts start at 1000. Whenever I've gone slightly under, I've tried to bump it up to this number by sending review boxes. You can apply here if you have a blog and would like to write a review. I will send more review boxes out when I have some extras to send again.
It's been a pretty eventful start of the year, but not totally in a good way. I've been consumed by practical matters that haven't really improved the service from a customer point of view but that have been things that I've either been forced to do or I chose to do to lessen my workload.
Firstly switched from paying taxes in Finland to paying them in Japan. Not for tax optimization, but simply after living three years in a new country, in the Finnish system taxation shifts to that country. Since I passed that time limit, it was time to do the switch.
Doing this switch required filing a lot of paperwork all in Japanese, so I had to learn new vocabulary and redo some books. This ended up taking a lot of my focus for the beginning of the year. It was actually a kind of nightmarish situation. I felt completely overwhelmed, as while I manage to get my point across, my Japanese still isn't super advanced.
For a while I was so worried about doing things correctly. I started stressing about all the paperwork I had to do, maybe making a bigger deal out of it in my head than it actually would be if I approached it calmly. My days were filled by reading about tax treaties, checking how to file paperwork in Japanese, meeting with the tax office, emailing and calling the Finnish tax office. It even started impacting my health as I started to eat more and not sleeping well just as a stress response.
One of the most difficult parts was that at first it seemed that I would need to split my income into "Japan based income" and "foreign income". But in my own books I was just getting a lump payment that was a mixture of both. I spent a week trying to write code to parse credit card processor statements that would go through all the past activity to split it into the required categories, only in the end to discover that actually I didn't even need to do that, but I put it on GitHub in case the codebase would be useful for someone out there.
I tried to find a manufacturer in China to manufacture boxes and packing tape more cheaply. I contacted three companies through Alibaba, asking for quotes and a template file to design the illustrations, but had trouble getting straight answers on how to proceed, so ended up just continuing to work with the current Japanese manufacturer. So that went nowhere and was again a bit of wasted effort.
I tried to learn more about how to make videos and about photography in general, with the idea of creating some interesting content for getting the club more known among new members. While I've learned a lot of stuff, I'm yet to actually make any videos.
Improving customer support
I had trouble keeping up with customer support. Although there isn't that much of it, there is enough that if I'm focusing on some other task for a while, enough will pile up that I'll start to dread starting to go through it. After only thinking about taxes for a few days, it felt terrible that my reward for that effort was a big list of support tickets to go through. To combat this I made two changes.
Firstly I took an evening to go through past emails and look at what are the most common reasons people email. I discovered about half are requests for free review boxes and the other half are people asking for updates on their orders. I added some new ways for people to get this information themselves by improving the order page and by adding a Zendesk trigger to reply automatically to review requests. This reduced the amount of incoming email a lot.
The second thing was finally getting a newer smartphone and installing the Zendesk app on it so I would get push notifications on new messages. While I won't necessary answer them right when I get a notification, it's a nice reminder to soon make the time to go through support tickets. Now I'm responding to new questions in less than 24 hours on average.
One task I really dreaded was dealing with bounced packages. Sometimes when you mail a person, they have moved or are not home when a package is delivered. In those cases the package often gets returned back to my home. When you send thousands of packages, if even a small fraction of those gets returned, it means that if I'm away from home for a bit I'll get piles of mail. For each piece of mail I would need to contact the person by email to explain that their mail was returned and somehow make it up to them.
I guess I'm being generous, but even in the cases of wrong addresses I've always taken the blame and tried to make things right, even if technically it isn't really my fault. I feel the club is doing well enough that in edge cases I can always just assume the blame, as it won't end up being that big an expense and I'll have pure conscience that I'm running things well. But to make things a bit easier for myself, I "outsourced" dealing with these returned packages.
I wrote some Python to print barcodes on the back of packages and now they just get scanned if packages are returned, firing off an automatic email explaining the situation to the customer. This means customers have a better experience (faster response) while requiring less work for me. Most importantly, not driving my wife crazy by having our mailbox constantly full (it only fits three packages at a time).
While subscriber numbers have kept up, it was a pretty challenging start of the year. After finally wrapping up my studies in the end of 2014 I was hoping this year would be just fun-filled awesomeness, but it hasn't turned out like that so far. Hopefully now that I have things under control again, I can start making more changes to more visibly improve things.
If you would like to try some Japanese candy. In addition to the candy, we also send a twice-monthly newsletter out only to subscribers, containing some more updates from us. You can sign up here.