These days there is no product that embodies the ruthless, near-frictionless manufacturing machine of global capitalism more perfectly than the flat-panel TV. Sales are skyrocketing and prices plummeting in a market dominated by consumer-electronics giants like Sharp, Samsung, Panasonic and cut-rate newcomers from China and Taiwan. Now into this chaotic field drives Katsumi Iizuka, a Japanese entrepreneur who recently put 18,600 miles on his rented Opel, flogging flat-panel TVs put out by his new company, Byd:sign, on a weeklong tour of Germany, France and Britain. Iizuka recalls with a laugh how startled Europeans would tell him: "No new Japanese company has come here selling TVs in the past 15, 20 years."
Iizuka represents a new wrinkle in manufacturing, and not only in Japan. In a world where high-tech gadgets are becoming high-volume commodities at an increasingly fast pace, a tech company has two basic strategic choices: come up with new products faster than rivals, or cut prices faster than rivals. Iizuka is one of the most radical cost-cutters since Michael Dell, who revolutionized PC manufacturing by coupling direct Internet sales to contract manufacturing, all but eliminating inventory, and shrinking his company to a thinly staffed corporate HQ. This is no coincidence: Iizuka once ran Dell's Asia-Pacific operations, and is now trying to out-Dell Dell by streamlining even further. With a staff of just 19 people, working out of a nondescript office near a famous Tokyo fish market, Byd:sign sold 70,000 TVs last year, up from 4,000 in 2004, the year Iizuka got started.
His basic strategy is a more extreme application of lessons learned from Dell. But exploiting the power of the Web as a direct-sales tool is a bit tricky in digital-TV sales, where seeing the picture is key, so Byd:sign is also trying to get into showrooms under its own name and others (including a house brand at Best Buy stores). Iizuka aims to keep his prices 35 to 40 percent below his rivals', and to triple his 2005 sales of $50 million this year, mainly in the United States. That comes to about $2.6 million in sales per employee, or roughly three times as much as Dell. Brand-obsessed Japanese are still reluctant to buy from a cut-rate upstart, but that doesn't faze Iizuka, who says his priority is to be a "global brand." Today the world, tomorrow Japan.