- agk42 - Instagram
- agk42 - Twitter
- FUNDING CAMPAIGN: Whisker Woods Sanctuary
- What's Fintech
- Roger Ver
- Outrun & Vaporwave styles
- Guide to Yurakucho's Izakayas
- Favorite Japanese Word: SHOGANAI (しょうがない)
- SHOUTOUT: Code Chrysalis Events
- Code Chrysalis Coding Bootcamp
- Le Wagon
- Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy
Hey Alex, welcome to the show!
Thanks for having me!
My pleasure, I was very much looking forward to recording this episode with you.
To give a little bit of context: you are Australian, you've been living in Tokyo for a couple of years now and you have two main activities.
By day you are Alex Knight and you are a product designer doing UX and UI, currently working at Bitcoin.com, which is in itself a pretty awesome story. That's like saying that you're working at internet.com. I'd be very interested to talk a little bit about this.
And by night you are AGK42, a photographer doing a very specific style of photography. I'm sure that if people haven't heard your name before, they have probably seen your pictures online. You qualify the style as "cyberpunk". I wasn't too sure how to call it.
If people have seen the pictures, basically you are showcasing different neighborhoods of Tokyo in a very neon-heavy, very purple-heavy light style, by night all the time.
You have a strong online community, with on Instagram over 17,000 followers, which is pretty impressive. About the same on Twitter.
You also sell your pictures online. And that's why I wanted to record this episode with you today, before the end of the month, because you've been running in January a pretty nice initiative where you give back all the benefits, all the profits from your pictures sales to Australia, helping the country to recover from the terrible fires Australia faced for the past few months.
That's a nice initiative, that's a lot of different topics, a lot of different things I'd like to talk about. So again, thanks a lot for being here today!
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me!
Before we start, could you please shortly introduce yourself and let us know how long you've been living in Japan so far?
My name is Alex Knight and I've been living in Japan for about five years now, working on various startup projects. Also obviously the photography thing has become a big part of my life here. Basically exploring the city and finding new things to inspire me.
When you came to Japan in 2015, what was the initial plan and what were you doing before coming?
Before I moved to Japan, I was running an apps company with my brother. I would control the design side of the company and he would work on the engineering side. Upon selling that company, I was looking for a new adventure, which brought me to Japan in the end, which is part of why I moved here. I was trying to find something new and something to explore new opportunities.
Was this previous company in Australia?
It was in Australia, yes.
What part of Australia are you from?
I'm from Bendigo, which is about two hours North of Melbourne, but the company itself was sort of in Melbourne and Sydney.
Why Japan? Why did you pick Japan?
Japan is actually the first place I ever went overseas and I always remember the trip being quite special to me and ever since then, I always wanted to return and explore more. But I didn't have the chance for quite a few years.
When I came back, I remembered how nice it was and just how much it really meant to me. So it was sort of a pretty easy choice after that.
What was the plan when you came? Did you come with a suitcase and a specific plan? Did you have a job when you arrived?
Moving to Japan
I didn't have a job when I arrived. I had a girlfriend here, which made it a lot easier. I had a working holiday visa but with no real plans. I had a little bit of money saved up from selling the company. My plan was to basically come here, interview for a job and hopefully move over to a working visa while I was here.
How did that go?
It went pretty well. I probably could have done it a little bit quicker. I started to run out of money quite quick. But finally landed a job at a small startup company, doing sort of P2P cash payments. I was one of the first permanent members of their team and we built a product from scratch.
But that was very lucky that I got that job just in time cause I nearly had to go home before that.
What was the most challenging part during this job search period?
Probably just the stress in general. I remember I got quite sick because I was so stressed about money and having to hit home. So I was sort of trying to interview at all these companies. For the first few, I hadn't interviewed for a long time, so the first few were quite... I would say very bad interviews. Which I failed quite fantastically. But upon landing the job, yeah, everything got a little bit easier, when the stress levels died down. So that was probably the hardest bit for me.
Were you speaking Japanese when you arrived?
I did not speak a word of Japanese.
Was that an issue during the job search?
It definitely closed a lot of doors for me. I could only sort of apply for certain jobs. I was working with a lot of recruiters at the time and that sort of helped because they knew the companies that would allow or had positions for English only, which made it a little easier. But it definitely did close a lot of doors and opportunities.
What about now? Do you speak Japanese?
Still not fantastic. But not too bad. I'm slowly getting the hang of it.
Working in the Fintech space
Cool! So you are doing product design and from the beginning, when you arrived in Japan, you said that you joined a company doing... Was it financial services?
Yeah, it was a FinTech.
After that, you stayed, from what I understand, in the FinTech industry. Why did you choose to specialize in that field and what do you find interesting in the FinTech world in Japan?
Actually I find it a really interesting thing. I never really did a whole lot of FinTech before I moved here. I had worked with some banks and things like that, but moving here and getting a job at this startup where they were trying to take on a very big problem here in Japan. The banking services can be quite lacking in some areas. If you've ever used a Japanese banking website, you'll know what I'm talking about.
So basically working with these companies who are trying to build these sorts of new technologies and easier ways to spend your money was really quite an interesting thing. I actually have worked at three or four different FinTech companies while I've been here, which, because I worked at that first company as well, made it a lot easier to find jobs in other FinTech companies having that experience.
With the first company, you said you worked with banks trying to fix the issues that the current Japanese banks have with their web services. Was it a service similar to Moneytree or something completely different?
No, it was kind of like a Venmo service, I guess you call it, where you could send money to your friends, basically instantly, via email or something like that.
This was the first company and later on you went more towards the crypto space, right?
Yeah, I found myself meeting a few people at these companies who I eventually ended up working with again a few years later. They were moving into the crypto space. I'm working with a few different chain blockchains and I just found that really interesting as a new method of payment. There are a lot of possibilities there and interesting problems to fix as a UX designer.
True, the crypto industry of course moved a lot during the past few years. You've been in this field for what, two years now? What's your feeling about the space and the direction it's taking right now?
Bitcoin and Ethereum in crypto were the big buzzwords two years ago. Now we've seen the market go down quite a bit. How do you feel in this space?
I think it's actually a really interesting time now. When the big boom happened, there was a lot of hype and a lot of people wanting to jump on this train while they probably didn't understand what it is about. That skyrocketed the price up to 20 grand almost for Bitcoin. And now it's come back down and I think it's leveled out a lot now.
We're seeing a lot of projects and people working on things that are more about improving the adoption and making people understand what it's worth instead of just sort of trying to sell the Bitcoin itself for no reason. The project that I'm currently working on is trying to get it into stores so that you can use it as a payment method. We're spending a lot of time trying to speed up the actual transaction times and making it just really easy to spend so that we can hopefully promote the actual use of it in day to day life.
Your actual job at bitcoin.com is to work on the interface for the applications to spend Bitcoin?
That's correct. I'm the lead designer on the wallet app. We've just actually rebuilt their whole wallet app and launched it over this weekend. Basically you can keep your money in there and you can spend it in stores or you can send it to your friends instantly. My main job is to control all of the design factors of that. I'm including the UX and the actual interface itself.
Bitcoin.com is of course is a very famous name. The owner/founder is a Roger Ver, right, who is a big name as well in the crypto space. And even more in Tokyo. I'm very curious, how big is the company? How many people are working there?
I'm not sure exactly to be honest. It's quite spread out across the world. We have a lot of people working remotely. I believe we have maybe 80 people in Tokyo. I'm not too sure of the numbers exactly about that, sorry.
How did you find this opportunity and how was the interview process?
Actually I didn't have to interview for this job. The company I was working for previously, which was a much smaller startup working also on blockchain services and wallet apps, similar to what I'm doing now, was actually acquired. All of the team came across to build their new wallet product. So I just kind of started there.
Crypto currencies in Japan
Well this was the best situation, no more job interviews then!
What I like in product design, and correct me if I'm wrong, is the fact it is a nice mix of technical skills, because you have to understand the technical aspects of the application or the interface you're working with, but also a lot of user psychology of course to understand the needs and the behaviors of your users.
Knowing that you've been doing product design outside of the crypto sphere before, do you find any specificities to doing product design for crypto, for FinTech compared to other fields?
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the main ones is that you are handling people's money and people act a lot differently when they have money involved into something. So gaining people's trust is a big part of it. Making people feel safe while they're using these apps. Because if they don't trust you with their money, they're not going to download your app, basically. I think that's a big part of the process when designing these interfaces and the experience behind it.
Is it even more challenging or even more different in Japan?
I think so. Adoption is really hard for apps in Japan. It seems like people are very reluctant to change and try new things out. I've found it a lot easier in other countries to work on a project that gets picked up a lot quicker because people are just excited for new technology.
Whereas I've seen a lot in Japan where people are more skeptical about products and they don't trust them, even if the technology seems really cool. We've found that a lot in other projects that I've worked on. Trying to drive that adoption you need to do it in such a way that people are comfortable with this new product. And probably anchor it to something they've used before like a bank or something like that.
That's interesting! I was surprised in Japan to see more and more shops actually accepting Bitcoins, especially for the past two or three years, something that I had never seen in France or other countries before.
At the same time, we also have this image of Japan being a country very open to innovation, to new technologies, to adopting new practices.
But what you're saying is the opposite: even if maybe the infrastructure is here, they are still quite reluctant to use this kind of currency.
Yeah, I think that's true. There's quite a bit of money for startups, a lot of people want to invest in these projects so they'll invest the money and you'll see these companies start up and start working on these projects. But getting the users is the hard bit. Which obviously comes after you've built the product and spent the money.
It's quite a tricky game.
The company is actually based in Japan, but most of the market is not in Japan. Would that be correct?
Yeah, I'd probably say that's correct. I couldn't tell you the exact numbers on that, but I'd say that we're pretty evenly distributed across the world. America and Europe is a big part of our users, I believe.
Well, thanks for sharing about Bitcoin and the crypto markets. That's a very wide topic and we could spend hours on this, but you also have this other activity I really want to talk about: photography.
Could you share a bit more about what you do with AGK42?
AGK42 & Photography
When I was in school, I started doing a bit of photography and had a bit of an interest in it, but didn't really do much with it until I moved to Japan.
About four years ago, I bought a new camera here and just found that I was really drawn to the lights at night. Which quickly led to me going out most nights of the week and taking photos of different places around the city, different colored lights and things like that.
From there it sort of grew into a particular style. I followed a couple of other people who inspired me to sort of work on the style more and create my own version of that. I've just spent the last four years exploring the city. It's a great way for me to be able to get out and try new places that I've never thought of going before. Just picking a place, for example, just getting off at a station on the Yamanote line and going for a walk down the streets and seeing what I find.
It's been a really great way to explore the city, in the back streets and the smaller spots that are not necessarily touristic areas.
I like the feeling when looking at your pictures. It feels both very familiar because that's the sceneries we are used to seeing in Tokyo, with Shibuya, Shinjuku or different areas. And at the same time, it really carries you in a different world. I don't know if it's based on the characters, on the light and the neons that you are using, but it's kind of a parallel world to what we know.
I don't know if you want to answer that, but how much is straight out of the camera and how much post editing do you do on these?
It is definitely quite edited. I don't deny that in any way. But I usually actually do all my editing on my phone. Just using lightroom, I'm directly connected to my Sony camera over wifi and download the pictures to my phone. So I just use the Lightroom app. It's mostly just colors that I change. I don't usually add too much other stuff to the pictures, except for some of the clearly very Photoshop projects I've worked on.
Do you have a set of presets that you've developed?
Not really, no. I've found that for presets, they can maybe get you started, but it really doesn't work every time. So I've just found it easier to edit each photo from scratch, pretty much using the same settings across a set of photos if they were taken at the same time with the same settings. I found it very dependent on the weather and the place you're in, the lighting and stuff like that. So, yeah, I don't really do presets.
Why do you like this style, the style you chose to use?
Of course, it's very personal, it's a matter of taste and preferences. Some people will like very realistic street photography. Some people will like more nature sceneries.
What attraction do you find in this very night and neon style you do?
I've always been very drawn to more surreal photography, especially those colors themselves.
I've always loved the Outrun style, which is kinda like that 80's pink and purple colors. Vaporwave style, which is kind of the retro 90's. There are lots of different influences that have sort of made it into what it is.
But basically, yeah, I've always just been drawn to the most surreal style of photography and being able to come up with something that I can imagine in my mind, that other people might not be able to see unless I actually create something out of it.
I guess that's been a big part of my creative outlet.
And by extension, is that why you like photography so much? To kind of represent what you have in your mind visually? Because I know you are creating music as well...
Yeah, that's correct. I think photography is definitely a creative outlet. My work as a product designer is more based on behavioral sciences. There's a certain set of rules that you have to follow and I love the logic behind it. We follow the data, we create what people want, whereas photography is something where I can actually just create whatever I want. That's a really important sort of balance for me.
Talking about balance, this is your hobby. I mean you do what you love and you do that on the side. But you also have a day job. Living in Tokyo, it's sometimes difficult to find balance between all these because of course the day job is taking a lot of time. then you have the transportation. I'm not sure where you live, but it's not rare to take the train for one hour just to go to your office.
How do you manage to balance your two activities?
I very carefully schedule the time that I have to spend on these things.
I always make sure that I have downtime, which is one problem for me. I'm always wanting to go do stuff. If I don't just stop and relax for a minute, I get very worked out, like burnt out and tired. One of the biggest things is actually finding time to not do anything, sit down and just play some PlayStation or something instead of going out every night shooting and then working all day the next day with no time to relax.
Usually, I will try and book when going to go shooting depending on the weather a lot as well. For example, it's meant to snow tonight, hopefully it does. I might go about shooting a bit later if that's the case. Tomorrow there's some people in town that will be going out shooting, so I'll join them. But then probably the night after that, I'll make sure I stay home and play some PlayStation.
That's a good balance as well. What's your favorite spot in Tokyo for night shooting?
That's a really tough call. I mean, I do love Shibuya. I've spent a lot of time around there. I lived here for a while so that's sort of my go to obviously, because it's quite close by.
But I really love Shinbashi and the Yurakucho area. There's some really amazing Izakayas and things along the train lines there and you can get some really fantastic vibes with lots of Izakayas just sort of throwing steam and smoke from the bars and things like that. It just makes for a really cool effect.
And then if it's too cold or too late, you can actually go hide inside one of these Izakayas.
Oh yeah, that's right! That's a good plan.
Growing an online community
At the beginning I was mentioning that you have a strong community following you on Instagram, with 17,000 followers. That's quite impressive!
Did you have any strategies to reach this number? How did it go from zero to 17,000?
To be honest, I didn't really pay too much attention to it. As it started to build up a bit more, I guess I started to try and figure out what worked and what didn't. But most of the time, it was just consistent posting. I'm trying to post at least every day.
Also I found that there are a lot of feature accounts on Instagram and if you were featured on one of those, you'd generally get quite a few followers from that.
But I think the main thing was that I was just consistently posting everyday for about four years, which took a while.
Would that be your main recommendation for photographers starting out in Tokyo or in another city? Regularity?
Yeah, I think so. Consistency and probably trying to find communities to interact with. There's a lot of good feature accounts out there, but there's also other great photographers and getting to know those guys. They know people as well. Then you sort of have this crossover of posting. They will post your stories and you post their stories and so on. If you go out shooting together, you tag each other in your posts and things like that. Just getting out there with other people and building the community from the creative side was pretty important to really grow my community there.
It's always very important, even more when you start, to find like minded people and to share your work and thinking.
You have an online store now, that you can see at agk42.com. You sell prints of your photographies over there. Before talking about the initiative you're doing right now to help Australia... I was wondering if opening an online store and actually starting to sell pictures impacted your way of shooting.
Meaning that when you go out, instead of shooting naturally like you used to do, did you feel that you had to shoot specific types of picture that would be popular on the store?
I don't know if I'm clear...
No I didn't really change anything. I was mostly just starting to upload photos that had already taken. I think the store was never really intended to be a big moneymaker or anything like that. I just had a few people asking me if they could buy prints.
So it never really impacted the way I shoot or changed anything in that regard.
Funding Campaign for Australia
Could you talk a little bit more about your plan for January, about the store and the profits you will make from it?
Sure! For the last month, I've been giving away 100% of the profits from the store to go to the Australian Bush Fires. I have a friend whose farm was affected by the bush fires and the drought that's been going on for the last couple of years in Australia.
I've been gathering all my money together to actually buy water for the animals there. She has about 180 animals that rely on her for feeding and water. So yeah, anything I can do to help her farm out is something I'm really passionate about.
So all the funds go straight to helping your friend's farm?
Where is it located?
It's up in Canberra. It's an open wildlife sanctuary, so a lot of animals come and go as they please, but they sort of show up everyday for feeding and water. They really do rely on her there.
And this operation applies to all the pictures on your catalog? Also on the gear section? Because you have a gear section...
What's on the gear section, for people who haven't seen your website yet?
We just got a couple of hoodies up there, some hats. T-shirts as well.
Things that you designed yourself?
I did, yeah.
I quite like, that's actually your homepage, a picture of the geisha in the snow in... where was that?
That was taken in Shibuya actually. It was on Love Hill in Shibuya.
I was wondering, was it on purpose that you left the guy exiting the building?
I just think it adds a little bit of seediness to the picture. He's kind of coming out of the overriding adults store. He looks a bit suspicious. I don't know, there's something... I just really liked the little detail of that.
Yeah, yeah, that's true. I like the one with the dear in Shibuya in front of Tower Records as well.
Oh yeah. Yeah, that's pretty cool.
You will find a full catalog of pictures that Alex is offering as well as the gear section. With caps and hoodies and tee shirts. Again, all the benefits from those sales will go directly to this sanctuary in Australia.
Cool! We can now move on to the regular questions of the podcast.
Advice to Younger Self
First question: knowing that you've been here since 2015, you've experienced quite a bit. Let's imagine you keep everything you know, all the experiences and knowledge you acquired for the past five years, but you meet yourself back in time when you just arrived to Japan from Australia. What would you say to yourself at that time?
I think I would tell myself that it's not a holiday.
I remember when I moved to Tokyo, I was spending a lot of time basically treating it as a holiday. I found it quite difficult to treat it as if I was actually wanting to move here and make a life here. Getting out of that sort of holiday vibe, being my first time living overseas, was quite tricky to do. It definitely just wasn't a holiday.
How long was this holiday period?
I think it was about three months.
Oh, okay. That could have been longer. Could have been worse.
Second question about Japanese: What's your favorite Japanese word or expression?
Favorite Japanese Word
That's a tricky question. Maybe something like shoganai (しょうがない)
For people who don't know Japanese, what does it mean?
"It can't be helped" I guess is probably a good translation of it. I think it's just something you have to kind of embrace here a little bit. There's a lot of things that were, I felt, really hard to adapt to. Things like the banking here just seems so frustrating. Being able to remember that and just the way it is kind of thing makes it easier to deal with some of that sort of stuff.
That's a big Japanese philosophy. "Shoganai". That's basically, "it's the way it is", it's like this, we won't change it. That's true that when you go back to the banking topic, there are a lot of shoganai aspects. I'm curious, just taking 30 seconds to talk about this but what's the most annoying, shoganai aspect in banking for you?
Oh, that's a tricky question. It's just that there seems to be so many rules about how things have to be processed, especially if you want to apply for some kind of, let's say, recurring payment or something like that. You probably have to write a letter to the bank and send it in the mail, which sucks. And it's just like, "why can't I just email these?" Or just do it on their website. But no, you have to take it down to the post office and write it all in Japanese and everything. It's just such a hassle when it could just be a simple email.
What should be digital is most of the time very physical. Personally a very shoganai aspect that turns me crazy is when you have to connect to your your personal bank account using only Internet Explorer. And of course you have a Mac. That's always a very nice situation to be in.
I've seen that one too.
Or when you have time frames for the website as well, so you can connect online but only between 10AM and 12PM or 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM...
Yeah, absolutely. Which makes no sense at all!
No sense. But hey, this is shoganai! Okay. That's a good one. Thanks!
Next question: I'm sure you have a lot of friends in photography and in different industries of hobby fields in Tokyo. It doesn't have to be in this, but is there anyone, any company or any project that you find interesting and you would like to give a shoutout to?
Yeah, I've actually really been liking the work that Code Chrysalis is doing. They're a bootcamp for learning how to code. I've just sort of been following them and I've been to a few meetup nights where they put on all sorts of different things. But the ones that I've attended were Japanese lessons, which were more related to tech things, which I found quite valuable.
Yeah, Code Chrysalis is very nice!
I know them very well because they were my main competitor when I was running a bootcamp in Tokyo. My company was called Le Wagon, they're still operating in Tokyo.
What Le Wagon and Code Chrysalis are doing is teach beginners or half-beginners web development. That's what is called a bootcamp. It's done over the course of 9 to 12 weeks, if I'm correct for them. They bring you from beginner level to the level of a junior developer or for Code Chrysalis even a bit further than that. For you to find a job as a developer or to be able to build your own projects and launch your startup if that's what you want. That's very efficient.
They both have very strong communities in Tokyo and that's true that I have seen Code Chrysalis was providing Japanese lessons, but I've never heard about the lessons themselves. How is the setup? You said you joined some of them.
For the one I visited recently, there was probably about 20 people, maybe 30 people there. It was based around using Twitter and all of the slang words that people use on Twitter. Which I found really interesting. Just to sort of bolster, it's something you probably don't learn in a standard class. I just found that really interesting and useful, it was quite good.
Sounds very practical! Cool, I will put the link of a Code Chrysalis in the show notes. And big up to Yan and Kani as well, who are the co-founders of the company.
If people are interested in either getting in touch with you or see your work, how can they find you online?
Connect with Alex
Cool. I will put all these links in the show notes as well.
I was just wondering, is there any meaning to AGK42?
AGK are my initials and the 42 is the number from Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy: The meaning of life.
I'm not very familiar with that, is it a comic book? Is it a book?
It's a book. It's also a movie, but basically they try to find the meaning of life and it turns out to be 42, which doesn't make any sense.
Is that a spoiler for me if I haven't read the book?
I don't think so, no...
Okay, cool! I'm curious now. I'm going to check that.
Well thanks a lot for your time today, Alex. Good luck in your initiative helping your friend in Australia and I hope a lot of people will be looking at your pictures and that some of them will buy some.
Good luck in your projects and hopefully see you soon in Tokyo!
Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. It's been fun!