Personal Blog to Profitable Business: the Story of TokyoDev

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev
Paul working on a computer connected by a network of people
Image: Amanda Narumi Fujii

この記事は日本語でもお読みいただけます。

TokyoDev started out as my personal blog talking about developer life in Japan, but has evolved into a job board that is a thriving business that is my sole source of income. But even more than that, it is incredibly personally fulfilling. The site has literally altered the trajectories of hundreds of people’s lives by helping them get their first developer job in Japan. It has been very rewarding for me to see that impact first-hand.

When I first started the blog, I wasn’t intending to make a business out of it. My journey has been one of slow organic growth over the last 15 years. This is the story of how the site has evolved from its humble origins as my personal blog to a flourishing job board and community that serves tens of thousands of visitors per month.

Registering the domain

I registered tokyodev.com in 2008. At the time, I was working as a software developer at a company in Tokyo, and had decided it was time to start exploring new job opportunities. I had been using a Hotmail email address, but I felt having my own domain would make me look more like a professional. I didn’t think hard about it and chose tokyodev.com as it was short, descriptive of me, and available.

The “professional” email address never became relevant, as I ended up starting a consultancy with two of my former colleagues. For the next couple of years, the domain lay empty, with nothing more than a simple personal profile on it.

Starting a blog about tech events in Japan

In 2010, I attended RubyKaigi, Japan’s largest Ruby conference. As the creator of Ruby is Japanese, the community around the language is one of the most vibrant developer communities in Japan. Around this time, the success of Ruby on Rails had created a global interest in Ruby. RubyKaigi changed from a primarily Japanese event, into an international one, with many speakers attending from overseas.

I noticed many of the overseas speakers were hanging out with each other, or international residents like myself. While I appreciated the opportunity to get to know them, I also saw the divide between the global Ruby community and the Japanese one. I felt I was in a unique position to bridge the gap as a foreign developer living in Japan.

So after RubyKaigi, I launched Tokyo Rubyist Meetup, an event with the goal of bringing together Japanese Ruby developers and international Ruby developers. In addition to starting my own event, I wanted to make sure I was also an active participant in the existing Japanese community so I started attending a lot of developer events in Tokyo, probably an average of one or two a week.

My original blog
My original blog

As I attended some amazing events, I wanted the rest of the world to know what was happening in the Japanese community. So I started blogging about them on tokyodev.com.

A fateful email

In August 2011, I received an email that started

I recently discovered Ruby on Rails, fell in love with it, and found your blog and your company website while looking for Ruby-related work opportunities in Japan. I just wanted to get in touch with you to introduce myself, learn about your personal journey in Japan, and see if you have any pointers for me towards starting my career in Japan.

This was the first time I’d ever been contacted about the blog, so I was enthusiastic about being able to help someone who was just setting out on the same journey that I had taken. I started composing an email that got longer and longer. As I was writing my reply, I realized that the content of the email could be of use to others too, so I decided to post it as an article: How I landed a software developer job in Japan.

The article as it originally appeared
The article as it originally appeared

As far as I’m aware, it was the first English-language article on the topic, and so naturally it became the #1 result for queries like “software developer job in Japan”. This attracted more questions about finding a job as a developer here. To answer their questions, I wrote more articles in response, and things started to snowball from there.

Starting a mailing list

Occasionally, I’d come across software developer positions in Japan that didn’t require any Japanese skills. These often weren’t being advertised anywhere, and I’d just hear about them due to being active in the community. So in October 2012, I started a mailing list to circulate information about those positions.

Over the next two years, I would send a total of twelve emails about job postings to the mailing list. By November 2014, it had accumulated 345 subscribers. While this is a meager number in internet terms, I’d already heard that several people had gotten jobs through it, so clearly it was making a difference.

Commercializing the mailing list

When I’d started the mailing list, my motivation was to help people, and didn’t have any goal of building it into a business. But as I was hearing more success stories, I also learned that recruiters in Japan typically charge 30% of the new hire’s annual compensation. While the mailing list wasn’t exactly the same service, I was obviously leaving money on the table by not charging companies for it.

So I decided, why not pick up some of this “free money”? As long as I priced the mailing list in a way it wouldn’t deter companies from posting to it, I could still help developers as before. I decided the best way to do that was to follow the recruitment model, and charge a success based fee.

Because companies came via personal connections I’d made through things like networking events, though I made a simple contract, I relied on essentially the honor system. Candidates would apply directly to the company, and if they hired one of them, they’d let me know. And sure enough, it worked, with the first company posting to the list under the agreement making a successful hire.

The original page advertising the service
The original page advertising the service

As I made more postings, companies who I didn’t have a connection to started to approach me on their own. Even though I had no personal connection with anyone at these companies, I still relied on the honor system and asked them to declare to me who they hired. When I tell people about this, they’re often incredulous that it worked, but this is one of the great things about doing business in Japan — you can count on your clients honoring agreements they make.

That’s not to say that there’s never been a case where a company has hired someone and not told me about it. When I’ve confronted them about it, the company will typically chock it up to a tracking problem on their end, and pay the fee owed. But these incidents were so rare, it wasn’t worth my time to put more safeguards in place.

Transforming a mailing list into job board

By 2018, TokyoDev had gone from a mailing list with a few hundred subscribers to one with over five thousand subscribers. Additionally, I had gone from having so few jobs that I could only send an email every couple of months, to having so many jobs that I could send emails almost every week.

TokyoDev as a job board first
TokyoDev as a job board first

The site was still primarily my personal blog, and the job listings were only available through the mailing list. Over time, readers pointed out some disadvantages of this approach, such as not being able to see past listings, or not being able to easily share listings with their friends. This led to me adding a “job board” section to my blog, where I’d list the positions that I posted to the mailing list, and later I worked with a designer to relaunch the entire site around the job board.

Becoming a “real” business

In 2019, TokyoDev became my largest source of income, eclipsing what I was earning from my main job. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this was the year things took off, but I can point to a number of factors.

First, at the end of 2018, I landed Indeed as a client, after one of their engineering managers participated in an event for CTOs I hosted. Indeed had been making waves in the local tech scene for hiring large numbers of international developers and paying them well above market salaries that were more in line with US salaries than Japanese ones. Having Indeed as a client meant there was a recognizable name when other prospective clients came looking.

Second, as it was now a job board as opposed to a mailing list for a semi-personal blog, I was operating and communicating as a business. This meant that other businesses, like Indeed, were more comfortable with me, and so it was easier for the various stakeholders to get on board.

Third, as I had been onboarding new clients with higher success fees, the average revenue per hire had significantly increased.

Fourth, one of the early startups that had used me was experiencing a lot of growth themselves, and so hired six or so developers that year via TokyoDev.

Finally, it was becoming increasingly common for Japanese startups to build up international engineering teams, and so the market as a whole had grown a lot since I had started the mailing list.

With the success I was having with TokyoDev, I decided to make it my primary focus, and moved on from my other job.

The impact of COVID-19

In early 2020, as COVID-19 gripped the world, Japan basically halted the issuance of new visas. Many of the people hired through TokyoDev were overseas and looking to relocate to Japan, but this was no longer possible with Japan’s stricter immigration policies. Because I had been charging a success fee that was predicated on hires being able to get into the country, growth slowed, and in 2020 I only generated slightly more revenue than the year before.

But then TokyoDev experienced explosive growth in 2021 and 2022. Part of this was that all the hires that had been paused during 2020 were now able to enter the country, so I was able to receive the success fees for the last year. Another was a systemic change to how companies approached hiring globally.

Before COVID-19, almost all Japanese companies operated exclusively in person. That flipped during the pandemic, with almost all of them moving to be remote first. Whereas previously their hiring process defaulted to in-person, during the pandemic, everything moved online. This made it easier to accommodate overseas hires in the new standard way of doing things. What’s more, because Japanese companies were becoming more comfortable with remote work, companies could start hires on remote contracts while waiting for visas to be approved, which sped up hiring and onboarding, leading companies to be more willing to take a chance on someone overseas.

Expanding the business beyond myself

Since TokyoDev had almost no costs, virtually all the revenue it generated was essentially going into my own pocket. I wondered what I could accomplish if I reinvested the money in the business instead. I also felt a twinge of guilt that I was enriching only myself on the developers using my site.

In 2022, I decided to grow the business from just myself, to one that got other people involved on an ongoing basis. I now have six people working for TokyoDev on retainer contracts (no one beside me is full time though).

One neat part of this is that TokyoDev itself has sponsored the working visa renewals for two of them, so I’ve had a first hand view of the process. It was quite easy for us to do, and I’ve been able to use my personal experience as a way of reassuring other companies that it isn’t something they need to worry about.

The TokyoDev blog has grown from having me as its sole contributor, to having eight other authors. This has allowed TokyoDev to highlight the experiences of developers beyond my own, and we now have articles from software developers on what it’s like working in Japan as a woman, as a Filipino, and as a person with a disability. These authors have come from the Discord community, and being exposed to a diversity of perspectives has been one of the great benefits of it.

I’ve also started to sponsor developer communities in Japan (particularly those that help women in technology). These sort of communities are what inspired me to start TokyoDev in the first place, and so it’s been nice to have things come full circle and for me to be able to contribute back to the community that has helped TokyoDev grow.

From a purely business perspective, it’s hard to tell if these expenditures are causing TokyoDev to grow or become more profitable. As we approach the end of 2023, TokyoDev is in a similar place revenue-wise to last year. But in the last year, the US tech market has crashed, and while Japanese tech companies didn’t get hit as hard, the job market has gotten more competitive. So without this investment, perhaps we would have been in a worse place.

However, from the perspective of our central mission, to help international developers start and grow their career in Japan, it has been without doubt a win.

TokyoDev in its current incarnation
TokyoDev in its current incarnation

Why did TokyoDev work?

TokyoDev was by no means an overnight success. I’d already been blogging for five years before I even tried to commercialize the project, and it took another five years before I saw any significant return. This might seem like an eternity if my goal was to turn it into a business from the beginning, but because I didn’t have financial ambitions with it, it never felt like things were progressing too slowly with it.

But looking back over my story, it might seem like everything just fell into place, and that it was pure luck I could turn it into a successful business. There is one central thread I noticed though: my opportunities came from events, communities, and personal connections.

I posted about the events I attended to share them with the world. This led to personal connections with people who were interested in what it was like to be a developer in Japan, or how they too could become developers in Japan.

Through the events and communities I was a part of, I heard about job postings that I never would have seen elsewhere, and were the source of my very first customers on the mailing list. People were willing to try posting jobs on my mailing list for a fee, and I was willing to trust them to tell me about their hires, all because we knew each other.

The next step into working with a major company like Indeed also came through an event. Making myself visible at events made that connection possible by putting me on the radar of someone at Indeed who had the power to take a chance with TokyoDev.

I hope this helps demonstrate the value of being an active part of communities where people help each other. TokyoDev’s central mission is also one of helping other people, and we have been growing a community that is helping more and more people all the time. Most recently, we have been focusing on growing a community on Discord that has been successful in connecting both people outside and inside of Japan.

I’m excited to see where TokyoDev can go next.

More about the author

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev

Paul is a Canadian software developer who has been living in Japan since 2006. Since 2011 he’s been helping other developers start and grow their careers in Japan through TokyoDev.

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