CHICAGO Ė Christos Fotiadis is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based ProtoGroup, whose charter is to build solutions that help companies migrate applications between technology platforms.
In the past, he was an integral member of the Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) division. Fotiadis has served in various roles focused on technology and customer and partnership development. Prior to joining Microsoft in 1997, he was the director of technology and education at Microsoft partner NewMedia in Ohio.
In part three of a three-part Q&A, Fotiadis sat down with international expert Michael Muth to discuss Japanese and Greek culture.
Michael Muth: How transparent have you found Japan to be?
Christos Fotiadis: Typically not. Organizations like JETRO and having friends in Japan certainly helps. ďThis is how we do things in JapanĒ shouldnít be a statement anyone takes lightly.
Iíve been corrected lots of times since starting to engage with Japan. My friends say: ďYou canít do that here. You have to do it like this.Ē Iím understanding why things have come to be the way they are in Japan. There is a protocol to everything. Depending if you are the host or the guest determines what that will be. Itís very old school. Even new and young technology companies must deal with it.
MM commentary: Adapting to their culture is difficult but necessary to do.
MM: How do you deal with the bureaucracy and complex distribution in Japan?
CF: It slows us down. Even in our engagement with customers, our sales cycle is longer. In the U.S. when the budget is established, you can count on a transition to the sale here. Over there, you might have to state your case many times before you get traction.
MM commentary: It takes patient investors to help you build a business there.
MM: What progress have you seen with e-Japan: the governmentís goal to connect all Japanese businesses, government offices, schools and homes by 2010?
CF: My friend has 100 megabits to his doorstep. He gets his TV over that wire. He gets everything over the wire, which is the first step in digitizing your lifestyle.
The Japanese government made a lot of investment in enabling everyone with technology. Iím confident that will pay off for them. While we should be able to do this in the U.S., weíre not. I live in the third-most populous city in the U.S. and I canít get speeds faster than 1.5 megabits down and 256 Kbps up. Some of it is a byproduct of how close my house is to the most updated central office and some of it is political.
MM commentary: Broad technology implementation is both a cultural and political issue. The Japanese are ahead of us in both areas. Write your congressman and senator to speed things up here.
MM: In Japan, do you charge in yen or U.S. dollars?
MM: Who takes the exchange rate risk?
CF: Every indication is that the Japanese economy is set to take off again. Unlike the false start in the 1990s, this recovery will be real.
Keeping things in yen is smart and returning that value back to our investors in the U.S. should work out. I want to grow the company there. I donít have a problem leaving the money in Japan because part of the goal is to grow in that region. In that part of the world, you see where indicators are pointing. We want to be a part of that as much as anybody else.
MM commentary: If the yen does appreciate, thatís fine. Regardless, thereís still risk if the yen depreciates. That risk should be mitigated through hedging.
MM: Why is ReGen only available in the U.S. and Japan?
CF: ReGen will eventually be available globally. Weíre working with a potential German partner right now.
Whenever we go into a new locale, we have localization issues and this will bring about delays and development costs. We can take a localized application and turn it into a globalized application. This requires some investment from us for each locale. Our current focus is now U.S. (English) and Japanese (any Asian character set).
MM commentary: A single-country focus is OK so long as you have a plan to address other places.
MM: Have you seen Japan working with other countries in Asia?
CF: Yes. Weíve seen a lot going on in the Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China is coming on strong, too. The Philippines are doing call centers and outsourcing. Some senior technology folks have expressed their frustration with the power going out once a day in India. Thatís not acceptable. Vietnam is trying to come on strong or at least theyíre trying to position themselves that way.
MM commentary: Working with the Japanese can lead you to many other interesting places as well. You can simply jump on their backs and follow them everywhere they go.
MM: How did you study Japanese culture before establishing a business there?
CF: As a kid, I was always fascinated with Japan. Being Greek, we have a long and rich history and so do the Japanese. From a historical perspective, itís really a unique place and I personally took to that.
Iím fascinated by the longevity of certain Japanese principals while struggling to learn how to adopt those ancient principals into a modern product and business approach. I love being in Tokyo. I get a charge out of being there but I donít do as much as Iíd like (from a personal perspective).
Every time I go, I ask new things and always try a new experience. For instance, I have a friend who speaks a little Greek and we have a deal: I speak Greek to him and he speaks Japanese to me. It never works out that way, though. We always end up speaking in English.
MM commentary: Fotiadis is one of the most devoted internationalists Iíve interviewed for this column to date. He seeks to understand the culture and language. Many others pursue international markets or sources to save or make money. Some do it for the exotic travel or to accumulate stamps in their passports.
Like me, he is simply passionate about international business. The international part adds an additional layer of complexity that I find much more interesting than most domestic businesses. His example is also a great way to learn a language. Iím still good friends with my German language-speaking partner in Germany.
MM: What resources have been helpful for you in Japan?
CF: JETRO is a wonderful resource. There are a couple of books including ďSay Yes to JapanĒ and ďJapan UnmaskedĒ. From an American or western perspective, it gives some great insight into things that helped me from stepping into it. I think what Iím doing is normal by American standards. When I get there, I want to mold into the Japanese culture.
I donít want to try to change them beyond what they are willing to accept. I think this is where my Greek upbringing helps me.
In Japan, respect and doing things a certain way is a big deal. As a kid, I learned respect via the old-school method my parents taught us. It reminds me of the Japanese ways, too. That topic in particular is important in Japan and people expect that. It became an easy transition for me. You have to be genuinely engaged and do it not just because the business demands it but because you have to like it, too.
MM commentary: Despite my international travels and work experiences, sometimes I do get impatient with cultures that arenít as results-oriented as we are. I think our lack of respect for authority is a good thing here but certainly not elsewhere.
MM: What languages do you speak?
CF: English and Greek. To this day, though, Iíve never spoken English to my parents in 36 years. To my brother and sister, I speak English exclusively unless we want to communicate and not be detected. Thatís the way my parents ran the household. Though I didnít like it when I was a kid, now I really have come to appreciate it.
Now that Iím trying to learn Japanese, I notice some words and syllables sound a lot like Greek words and syllables. Itís easy to make the sounds. I have some computer software that teaches Japanese. I know a significant investment in time is required and only wished that I had more of it to commit to the activity.
MM commentary: His Greek background is an advantage that many locals donít have here. Though Iíve never found it easy to pound word definitions into my head, foreign languages after your first one tend to get easier to learn.
MM: How did you end up in Chicago?
CF: It was Greece to Ohio and then finally Chicago. There came a time in my late 20s when I had finally decided it was time to leave the Microsoft partner company I was with and go right to Microsoft.
I flew to Chicago for the interview. They said: ďIf you want the job, you have to come to Chicago.Ē Though at first I didnít want to leave my friends, it was probably one of the best things that have ever happened to me. Chicago is a big magnet for the Midwest. Even with our bad weather, I still like it.
MM commentary: For a Michigan guy like me, Ohio can sometimes seem like a foreign country.
MM: Why did you exhibit at BIO?
CF: Because of the industry. Biotech has lots of legislation and a need to protect IP while modernizing infrastructure. We picked up some customers with Lotus and Access problems. They looked at migrating and itíll cost them $200,000 for multiple applications. They said: ďWeíve got to get some relief.Ē The medical industry is one of the last industries that hasnít made a big investment in IT.
MM commentary: BIO was one of the most international trade shows and global economic development expos Iíve ever seen.