It seems outdated, particularly when people rely on LinkedIn profiles and Facebook, but business cards still matter. When people meet in person, they still exchange a tangible card expressing who they are and how they can be contacted. There are a few problems with this traditional method of exchanging information, however. People frequently misplace business cards and wind up searching google to find out the relevant information.

Now a Japanese company, Sansan, has decided that it’s time for business cards to come into the 21st century. The Tokyo company scans business cards so it’s easy to keep track of a person’s contact info. But that’s not all the company is up to. The startup also has a process that tracks each person who is scanned, revealing which people know each other. Think of it as a Facebook for the business set. Sansan’s commercials have been a hit in Asia. They depict the trials and tribulations of the typical businessman who is desperately trying to find a contact at a company.

The game-changing potential of this technology is obvious. It can show hidden relationships, hierarchies and connections, enabling business people to pursue sales leads, or discover other points of contact at a business. According to Chief Executive Officer Chikahiro Terada, “It’s said that there are 10 billion business cards in the world, and that a billion are exchanged every year in Japan. Each business card represents an encounter. There’s so much potential in each one.”

The software also has a human component. After a card is scanned, a person is reviews each one to ensure all information is entered accurately. The data can in some cases wind up revealing the entire company organizational chart. This also helps people track job changes. The software is able to give push notifications each time a colleague finds a new contact. Like Facebook, the software creates a kind of intra-company social network of business contacts. The database that is created can be used to send bulk emails to several contacts at one company, or to multiple companies.

To sign up for Sansan, a basic account costs $451, or ¥50,000. The price is scaled depending on the number of users in the business. Customers also must pay an up-front fee for the year. The initial fee covers the cost of scanning a company’s full collection of business cards. Since people are often on the go, Sansan allows users to scan business cars from their smartphones. Once uploaded to the cloud, all of the information can be accessed by users anywhere, anytime. So far, over 6,000 companies have given Sansan a try. This includes heavy hitters like Merk, Lenovo Group and Seven & I Holdings.

Some people wonder how this is any different than LinkedIn, which also allows people to see who is working at a given company. The CEO believes his company is much more transparent. Not every person who has a business card is on LinkedIn. Sansan also offers a different service for individuals, which it calls Eight. The two million users have access to the same information as LinkedIn.

Sansan has raised $93 million already. Skeptics are understandably worried about the future, since business cards will eventually be obsolete. However, business card culture is still strong, particularly in Japan, where people tend to exchange business cards before getting to know each other.

 

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