Meet Franz Lawrence,
Founder of Holax Delivery
Find out how he made the leap from English teacher to successful entrepreneur!
Holax is truly an original—a sustainable on-demand food (or anything, really) delivery service born right here in Sendai, years before any of the big gig-economy players moved in. Holax was founded by Franz Lawrence who, like many expats, first moved to Japan for work as an English teacher. His success in branching out to an industry other than English teaching is something many hope to emulate, and he’s been kind enough to share his advice and experience with our readers. In our interview with Franz, he tells us about what life is like for a foreign entrepreneur in Tohoku, why Sendai is an ideal city for expat business startups, and his tips on integrating oneself into the local community—both socially and commercially.
Sendai Motions: Hi, Franz! Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
Franz Lawrence: I’m Franz Lawrence from Jamaica. I’ve been in Japan for eight and a half years now, all of it spent in Sendai. I first came here as an ALT, and after three and a half years I decided to branch out.
SM: What made you choose to live and run a business in Sendai?
FL: So when I first came to Sendai, I really liked the environment, I could see myself living here because it was perfect for me: it has the city life, but it’s not too crowded.
And then, as my years passed as an ALT, I saw that Japanese people—they really support business and they spend money. If you have something good they will support it and they will spend. Unlike Jamaica where—no matter how good the idea is—nobody wants to spend any money [laughs]. So when I saw the culture here, I said: well, this is where I would love to start a business because I know these people—if it’s something good, if it’s a great service or a great product, they will buy it. So that’s why I started here.
The people I met in Sendai over the past several years, it’s like family for me. I really like the environment here. I met my wife here, and we have our son together, so Sendai’s our city.
SM: As an entrepreneur, what’s your ultimate or “big picture” goal?
FL: I have two things I try to live by: one is to inspire as many people as I can, and the other is to help as many people as I can. I just want people to look and say “If he can do it, then I can do it.” Because I think anybody can be great if they put their mind to it.
And then in terms of helping people, I’ve realized only recently just how important that is to me. Holax isn’t the first venture I started in Japan.
SM: Oh really?
FL: But Holax the first one I actually stuck with [laughs]. And the reason for that is, the reason is because it’s something bigger than me. It not about money; it’s about helping people—we’re filling a need, filling a real demand. I think that’s what keeps me going—I have more passion for Holax now than when I first had the idea. And I find that very strange, because any other project I did before, like, at the beginning was when I had the most passion. And then, it, it … yeah, it trails off. But with Holax, every day I realize there are so many things I can do with it, and I think that’s because it’s based around helping people.
Since that, I’ve decided that anything I do from here on out, it has to be about helping someone. It can be helping a company, but it shouldn’t be driven by money. If you do well with it, if you make it be the best possible, money will come. So, yeah. I think that’s the future for me as an entrepreneur.
SM: What kind of other business ventures had you tried, before Holax?
FL: So, the first one first one was, like, a shot. I made a shot, my friend and I. In Japan, I saw so many people drinking tequila and I’m like “They don’t like tequila, so why do they keep drinking it?” And so I said to my friend “Why don’t we come up with a shot that tastes good but is just as potent as tequila?” And we did it. I mean, it wasn’t that big of a business, just something on the side for extra cash, right? So we did it during the summer. It did well. I mean, like, when we went to the festivals, in one day, not even one day, in two, three hours we’d probably make, like …[laughs] is the tax guy listening? …
FL: Yeah, off shots. It was an original recipe and we’d pre-mix it for the festivals. And then we’d just pour it, sell it per shot. And the people, they’d drink it and be like “What’s this? It’s not alcohol!” But then it had a kick, yeah? So then you’d have two or three, then everybody was having fun.
Another one was glasses—margarita glasses, the big ones. I imported them from America and sold them to bars. So if you go to some of the bars in Kokubuncho and see those big margarita glasses, they’re mine [laughs]. That one was another side one. It was little different things we tried, you know?
SM: What was the experience of starting a business as a foreigner in Japan like? Or starting a business in general, but like, was there anything different about it since you were not a native?
FL: The experience, um, I mean, it has its challenges, right? I mean, when you just start, all your friends,
those who’ve been here for a long time, they’re telling you “You should get a Japanese to be the face because Japanese trust Japanese more and it’ll probably grow faster if you do it that way.” So that was one of the things. I was . . . I don’t think I ever seriously considered it, but I was listening to the outside, the noise.
And then, because the service was new in our area, it was hard to explain it to the locals. So initially that was a big challenge, how to really explain it to them, what we do, that we could—whatever meal you want from a restaurant or whatever, we could deliver that for you. It was really hard to try and break the ice, right there.
So I would say those things, starting as a foreigner: the image of the company founder, and then breaking the mold for something new, those were two of the biggest challenges.
SM: So those were, like, marketing ones. You didn’t really have any issues on the technical side?
FL: No, actually. Because Sendai is going through a phase now where they want foreigners to start businesses; they’re trying to encourage entrepreneurship. There’s a program called Assista in Sendai, so anybody who’s interested in starting a business, I’d recommend that they go to Assista. They have a lot of experts that offer advice on starting a business. It’s not that hard. Signing papers. It wasn’t that hard.
FL: Yeah, so when I just started, I wanted to help these independent restaurants, right? Because there are so many good restaurants in Sendai that nobody knows about. It’s always run by, like, a small family. There’s no way those guys can do delivery, right? So, that’s how it started, because I wanted to help those small restaurants reach more people.
SM: What’s your favorite part of running Holax?
FL: I would say the delivery. No matter what, I love it. I love doing it; I love meeting the customers. And, if I can, when a customer uses Holax for the first time, I will try to be the one to deliver it.
SM: Oh, that’s cute!
FL: I remember, a few weeks ago, someone new called and I did the delivery. And the person was so surprised [laughs]. They’re like, shocked—they’d seen me on TV. So they were like “Shacho [lit. company president], you’re doing the delivery?!”
SM: What’s the most challenging thing about being a business owner or running Holax?
FL: Um, I guess it’s staffing.
SM: Yeah? Like, finding people to hire, or—
FL: Finding people to hire, and then trusting, letting go. That’s very challenging.
SM: Okay, last question: You’re an expat; you came here as an English teacher—that’s a story that’s real common. You’ve integrated yourself into the community so well, both professionally and also socially. Do you have any tips for other foreigners coming to Tohoku or Sendai—as in how connect with the local community, both in terms of other foreigners and also Japanese people?
FL: Be open-minded. Don’t come here comparing your culture to others’, saying yours is better or whatever. Just come here and enjoy yourself. I would say be yourself, that’s important. But if you’re a rude person then don’t be yourself [laughs]. To ingratiate yourself with others is very important—relationships are key. And it goes a long way—a lot of things that have happened for me, it’s through the relationships I’ve made. And those people will—no matter what you do, no matter what business you’re in—word of mouth is going to be the best marketing option. And those people have done so much for me—in different ways, not just Holax. Because of those relationships I had while I was a teacher, I was able to branch out and do something that I wanted to do.
SM: That’s nice, thank you! That’s all of my questions, but is there anything you want to add or say?
FL: Right now I think Tohoku—Sendai in particular—there are so many opportunities for foreigners. The government, the city, they’re creating opportunities for people to do things and they’re encouraging people to do things. I just want us as foreigners here in Sendai to really come together, because there’s nothing stronger than the power of a group.
Official Website: siip.city.sendai.jp
Hours: 9:00–17:00 (weekdays)
Closed: Weekends and national holidays
Price: Most services are free
English: English-speaking staff available select days, call for schedule
Access: Next door to Sendai Station
Location: AER Building 7F 1-3-1 Chuo, Aoba Ward, Sendai City
Interviewed and edited for brevity and clarity
by Wesley Keppel-Henry