The company that thinks it can finally solve the problem of business cards

The old ritual.
The old ritual.
Image: AP/Richard Drew
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People have been predicting the end of the business card for years. Countless startups have popped up promising to make carrying more than one card, or any at all, obsolete.

But in Japan, where the exchange of business cards is still treated with elaborate etiquette and they’re rarely shoved in a pocket and forgotten, a company that has brought technology to business cards thinks it can go global.

Tech In Asia recently profiled the eight-year-old Sansan, which in May raised $14 million to help it break into the US market. The company’s app lets users take photos of cards, upload them to the cloud, and have them transcribed and searchable within about a day. There are two services: a corporate option, also called Sansan, and one aimed at individuals, called Eight. The company has 2,000 corporate customers in Japan, and 650,000 individual users.

For now, it’s just the corporate service that is US-bound, while Eight targets the rest of Asia. And it’s the corporate service that marks Sansan out from its competitors. Many card-scanning companies that relied on consumers have had trouble making money. Hashable shut down in 2012. The once hyped Cardcloud has not tweeted from its official account since 2012 and its website seems to be gone. CardFlick is no longer in the app store. LinkedIn bought CardMunch in 2011 but is shutting it down next month in favor of a partnership with Evernote. Even Bump, a Google-owned system that allowed people to exchange information without business cards just by tapping phones together, shut down earlier this year.

Corporate clients can rent out scanners from Sansan for high-volume jobs. The software allows people to share their business-card contacts with colleagues. Sansan pitches this as a more efficient way to keep everyone’s business contacts in the cloud and easily accessible.

Another differentiator is that, unlike most of its rivals, Sansan doesn’t rely on machines—even partly—to transcribe the cards. Instead, humans do it all; Sansan uses a mix of crowdsourcing and outsourcing to get through 4 million cards a month. To avoid errors, two separate people have to transcribe each card identically before it gets uploaded. (The soon-to-be-shuttered CardMunch used human transcription too.)

Of course, Sansan won’t be without competitors. While many contact-management companies have folded, some have survived, such as the popular CamCard and ABBYY’s business card reader, as well as the collaboration between LinkedIn and Evernote, two behemoths with deep pockets.

And then there’ll always be those like the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, who tried out a bunch of competing services and decided to stick with paper (paywall) because none of them were easy and reliable enough. Will Sansan prove any different?