Online entrepreneur brings Japan to the States
Arizona Republic
Jan. 22, 2008

Justin Schmid


It's more than 5,800 miles from Tempe, Ariz., to Tokyo, but one Arizona company can get fans of Japanese pop-culture artifacts such as anime, robots and other toys there in just a few seconds.

Rinkya is a proxy-bidding company that helps Americans bid on items in Japanese online auctions despite the language barrier and other technical obstacles - and it raked in more than $4 million in 2007.

So far, more than 10,000 bidders from across the country have created accounts with Rinkya. The company has averaged about 25 percent revenue growth every year since it started in 2001, by charging a commission based on the price of each item clients purchase using the service.

Rinkya has its roots in company founder Heather Russell's first visit to Japan in 2000. She moved to Tokyo soon after and discovered that many of her friends back in the States had a yen for rare cels - or images on celluloid - from animated Japanese anime movies. She began selling them to collectors who couldn't penetrate the language barrier.

But as the digital revolution shifted anime away from the use of cels, "I realized my market was about to go kaput," she said.

However, Russell guessed that if people wanted anime cels, others must be clamoring for Japanese kimonos, toys, guitars and furniture. So she started Rinkya.

Jason Kiningham, owner of Red Hot Robot, a Phoenix, Ariz., shop that specializes in unusual toys, says proxy-bidding services like Rinkya can help diversify his selection. Each week, customers ask for Japanese items that are not available from his sources.

He has tried to bid on sites such as Yahoo!Japan but found out just how difficult it is to bid solo in Japanese.

"You get lost, and you have no idea how to check out," Kiningham said. "You have no idea what their policies are."

Even if you wind up winning an auction, many Japanese sellers won't ship out of Japan, he said. That leaves a large mess for an American bidder to clean up, all in a foreign language.

The few collectors Kiningham knows who get Japanese items typically have contacts who speak the language or live abroad. A service such as Rinkya, he said, can level the playing field.

Collector Natalie Carpenter, 30, of Las Vegas, is part of Rinkya's target audience. She first became aware of Rinkya while attending a collectors' convention. Because Carpenter doesn't have a Japanese address, she wasn't even allowed to register for a Yahoo!Japan account. She crunched the numbers for several proxy-bidding services and chose and

"Price is the key for me," Carpenter said. "I don't want to pay 38 to 45 dollars for a $5 item. Between the commission, handling and shipping, it can get out of hand quickly."

She seldom uses her Okshon account, however; she's made a friend in Japan who is willing to bid for her.

For those without friends in Japan, though, Carpenter believes a proxy service can help get items that normally wouldn't be available.

Russell says her service also provides a rush that collectors can't find on domestic Web sites. It's the same rush she felt as a Godzilla fan moving to Tokyo and being able to see campy monster movies on the big screen every day.

"It's exciting to find a treasure you can't find on American Web sites," Russell said. "I know how my customers feel!"

About Rinkya

- How it works: Like eBay, Rinkya breaks its Web site into categories to help people browse for different kinds of items. To bid, users must sign up for an account. Once they fill out their information, they will receive further instructions via e-mail within 24 hours.

- Employees: The company employs about 20 people in Japan and the United States.

- Its name: Heather Russell thought "rinkya" was a nonsensical but memorable combination of syllables, but it turns out they translate into "link shop," an appropriate name for her enterprise connecting Americans to Japanese auctions and online shops.

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