The Vice President Speaks! The Story Behind the Birth of PayPay and Its Future Growth Strategy

PayPay Inside-Out introduces many of the people in PayPay and its corporate culture. This time, Vice President Baba makes his first appearance. He told us anecdotes from the time when the name “PayPay” did not even exist, and what PayPay is today from the perspective of a vice president. We took a peek into the mind of Baba-san, who we could tell was both passionate and warm-hearted.
Hajime Baba PayPay Corporation Executive Vice President & Director, COO, Corporate Officer, Business Operations Group Head He joined Japan SoftBank Corp. (currently SoftBank Group Corp.) in 1988, and has served as President & Representative Director of SB Power Corp. (electric power business) from 2015, Corporate Officer and Division Head of the Consumer Business and Energy Business Promotion Division of SoftBank Corp. from 2016, and from July 2017, Director of Classi Corp. In May 2018, he became Corporate Officer and Senior Manager of the Lifestyle Promotion Office, Product & Marketing Division in Softbank Corp. Since June of the same year, he was appointed Executive Vice President & Director, COO, Corporate Officer of PayPay Corporation, and in April 2021, was also appointed Business Operations Group Head. He enjoys going to the sauna and playing golf.

Growth Strategy and PayPay Right Now

PayPay has entered a new phase with the introduction of payment system fees in October. What is PayPay’s vision for the future and what are some current challenges?

PayPay was able to complete its third year with numbers higher than expected compared to the original plan from when it was founded.

The fact that we have exceeded our lofty targets means that we evolved into a platform with an immense number of users and merchants. We now know that the company can sustain itself in the payment business if it makes good use of this substantial platform. But it’s not enough to just maintain it, right? We need to make sure we’re making money! Or else we cannot keep the company going.

That’s why going forward, as I mentioned in the recent press conference, it will be crucial to create a profit-generating system. Having said that, it would be meaningless if PayPay provided a service which was only financially advantageous for PayPay and not for the merchants. We need a system where merchants become profitable and therefore PayPay also makes money. We would like to use this kind of system as a base for future growth. Growing together with merchants; this is what PayPay should aim for.

Please tell us about the current PayPay. What is your idea of “PayPay-ness”?

We have all sorts of people at PayPay—from various countries and with different careers—and we just cannot neatly classify them. That’s why I cannot say “this is PayPay” per se, but I think that undefinable quality itself is PayPay-like and I find it wonderful. There are no set guidelines as to what PayPay has to be like, or how our employees must behave. This is why you can work here regardless of your nationality, place of residence, or background. I hear the word “diversity” a lot lately, but because PayPay is unconventional, I think the ideal form of diversity is already in play here.

In an environment that takes advantage of this diversity, you will get multiple opinions. In our discussions, job positions don’t matter. We debate and make decisions as to what is right or what is user-first based on data. I think it’s becoming a part of PayPay’s culture for everyone to push forward with what’s been decided through such decision-making processes.

I am quite impressed by your frequent responses to our internal Slack posts. What are you mindful of when communicating with employees?

When you work remotely because of the Covid situation, it’s hard to have casual conversations. When I was working at the office, I used to talk with people about their work when they would pass by, or did some chit-chat with those sitting near me.

So after WFA started, I created a Slack channel where people could talk about anything, like we used to when we were at the office. It wasn’t so much about communication but more about me wanting to talk to everyone!

At the beginning, I asked people who were close to my desk at the office to join the channel. We would greet each other in the morning, talk about our plans for the weekend, mention which stores adopted PayPay, or discuss the latest news. We’ve decided that anyone can come and leave this channel whenever they please, so that people can talk to each other as if they were just passing by. Some people may feel a little hesitant to leave, but if you want to, you can do so without any worries. I am trying to create an environment where anyone can talk any time.

Reflecting on the Past Three Years

What was PayPay like when you first joined the company? I heard you went to India?

Yes, we went to India with 12, 13 people! We went to see what they were doing at Paytm, a payment service provider that Softbank Group has a stake in. We found out that the QR code payment business was already established in India more than in Japan. Paytm provides the most widespread mobile code payment system in India, and its QR codes were everywhere, even in small, privately owned stores and food stalls.

Actually, there aren’t many ATMs in India. When I asked a Paytm representative how they managed to popularize QR code payment, I was told that they first increased the number of offline stores, then increased the number of online stores, and that the service would become ubiquitous if people could pay utility bills with it. There was no special scheme. It was normal and made a lot of sense (laughs).

Paytm has been working at this “normal” diligently, and QR code payments actually became popular in India. So we came back to Japan to try it out.

Then, we tried to sell something that didn’t even have a name, nor did we have any real product to show. All that we had was a concept. We were doing what I call fantasy sales. I think our sales reps were having a really rough time back then.

The PayPay app and the first 10 billion yen campaign were finally launched as a result of the efforts of many people and begging companies here and there to adopt PayPay. I’m the type of person who easily forgets about hardships, but I still remember that my blood pressure was high from all the work we had to do when the campaign started (laughs).

In hindsight, if there’s one thing I would say after experiencing the first 10 billion yen campaign: app release campaigns should not be over in 10 days! Even if someone who never used PayPay gets interested, it will take a month or so before they hear about it from an existing user, learn about it, and try it out themselves.

There’s one interesting story from before the rollout of PayPay, when we decided on the name “PayPay.” All the employees looked really uneasy (laughs). The people involved were thinking in the direction of the now mainstream “company name + pay,” but I didn’t want to include any hint of a company. Whether you give it a name related to SoftBank or Yahoo! JAPAN, it will give the impression that only people who use their services use the new app. I wanted to make it more neutral, so that there would be no biases. We wanted to make it a payment system that everyone in Japan uses, regardless of what services they were already using. So I thought that the name of the service should not be based on an existing company name, and made it clear that I opposed “company name + pay.”

After it was decided that it would be PayPay, some people were embarrassed to even say “PayPay.” But I confidently told them that in three years we will become a company that everyone will want to join. Isn’t that what actually happened?

After that, the company expanded at a ridiculously fast pace. What do you think were the main factors for that?

First off, there were external factors. The cashless rewards business project and Myna Points were significant. The members in product team dealt with these external factors quickly and created the app with a user-first mindset. The product members are always giving their all to create the best possible products, and the resulting appeal of PayPay became another growth factor.

We are aiming to create a super app, but it’s not enough to just have a large number of mini apps available. We need to think about each service from the user’s perspective. Product people and service reps need to work hard to understand the users’ needs and desperately think of ways to make our services more convenient. The app has to be usable by anyone and everyone, as well as have a universal design. We must look at it from various perspectives.

What are you intentional about when running a rapidly growing organization?

Listening. Now, after three years, we have people from the financial industry and payment businesses joining more than ever. However, when we first started, our employees primarily had experience in selling cell phones or ads, and had nothing to do with finance or payments. In order to set up and get business going with people who have no experience in those fields, we had to come up with ideas backed by data instead of arguing whose opinion was right. We are on equal footing, regardless of position or work history. Allowing people with evidence and data to voice their opinions in a discussion regardless of their background is becoming the culture at PayPay. I think this resulted from the company’s unique growth process. That’s why I always make it a point to ask for opinions, ever since we started the organization until now.

Future of PayPay

Please tell us what challenges PayPay is currently facing

One issue we now have is that even though PayPay has been running various campaigns for the past three years, there is a segment of the population that we have not reached yet. How do we approach them, and how do we communicate with them if our current methods are not working? We need to be an organization that can think through the means and processes to achieve that end, then implement them.

We want everyone in Japan to use PayPay, but we still don’t have enough users to be able to say “everyone in Japan.” No matter how good the product is, it’s pointless if there aren’t enough people using it. With our marketing and sales capabilities, which I am now in charge of, I would like to contribute not only to increasing the number of users and merchants, but also to growing our revenue and the number of payments.

What kind of people do you need in order to realize PayPay’s future vision? Also, what do you think are the characteristics of people who are active in PayPay?

To work in PayPay, you need to be able to talk based on data, be logical, and have the ability to analyze numbers.

Above all, I would like to work with people who have a passion for making people happy through the information revolution. Personally, I have a lot of respect for Son-san (Representative Director, Corporate Officer, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank Group Corp.), so I would be happy if they also like him.

A message to those who are interested in joining PayPay.

Joining PayPay = getting with the times. I would say, if you know what you want to do at PayPay, why don’t you just come and join? Even though you may have some concerns before joining the company, I want you to challenge yourself and do what you want to do. It’s not like you have to decide what to do after you join.

And it’s okay if you fail. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes twice, but I do want you to keep getting out of your comfort zone. It’s no good if you’re not up for challenges.

So, if you have high expectations for yourself or are looking to make a change in society, come to PayPay!

Editor’s note:
Baba-san was all smiles from the moment the interview began and throughout the photoshoot. He has served as director of multiple group companies and is often seen in the media, but he is very friendly, and we had a great time talking about our hobbies during breaks. I felt that his simple yet passionate way of speaking and how he values communication with others are the reasons why he is so respected and well-liked.
Edited by: Keiko (PayPay Inside-Out Editor)​​​​ * Employees’ affiliations are those of the time of the interview.