Corporate Explorers to Watch: An Update from Yoky Matsuoka, Founder and CEO of Yohana
Yoky Matsuoka, Founder and CEO of Yohana, is the quintessential Corporate Explorer. Change Logic co-founder, Andy Binns, had the opportunity to sit down with Yoky almost 2 years after their last discussion for a deeper conversation about why she left the start-up world to create a new venture within Panasonic and how she is scaling the company.
This article is the ninth in a series our series of Corporate Explorers to Watch. Click here to view them all.
Andy Binns: Hello. Welcome to the next episode in our series of Corporate Explorers to Watch. I’m Andy Binns, and today I’m going to be speaking with Yoky Matsuoka from Yohana. Yohana is a venture of Panasonic, the Japanese electronics company.
What’s really significant about the story from Yoky is that Yoky is firstly a brilliant scientist. This is a MacArthur award-winning scientist, MIT PhD, Carnegie Mellon professor, in the founding team for Nest, now Google Nest. In the founding of Google X, one of the most famous corporate innovation teams in the world. And now, she’s chosen to move into a corporation in order to build her next venture.
And so as we talk to, listen to Yoky today, I’m going to be looking for, well, why would she do this? What is it about building a corporate venture that makes such a storied star of the VC community and the startup community, move and start to do this and become a corporate explorer. Let’s listen to what Yoky has to say.
Hi Yoky! Fantastic to have you with us to feature in our Corporate Explorers to Watch series. Thank you very much for joining me.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah, thanks for having me again.
Andy Binns: So tell me a little bit about the innovation first. You are working for Panasonic, but the business that you lead, Yohana, isn’t exactly a Panasonic business. Just kind of fill us in as to how that works and where you sit. And then we’ll learn more about what Yohana does.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah, well, so Yohana is a hundred percent subsidiary of Panasonic. We actually set up a way to innovate Panasonic and to also make sure that we build a user first product that can work in isolation as well. Completely separately, because we read your book.
I realized that if we actually become a peanut butter on top of a business division, then we would get sucked into making sure their product and then everything continued to work. What we wanted to do was to build a service layer that is going to work for Panasonic on many, many different business divisions. But we needed to move fast. We needed to fail fast and then come up with a product in a way that no business division or their process could do.
Andy Binns: Well, so this is quite a big responsibility you take on, you’ve not only got to develop a first of a kind service, but you’re also sort of doing something special new for Panasonic simultaneously, both at the same time.
Yoky Matsuoka: Exactly. Yeah, so I think that’s why it took a little bit of time to really think about what that right service should be. Again, it had to be a service, software oriented, AI oriented service that’s going to help people’s everyday life. You know, that was on an anchoring point because that’s what Panasonic is about, and what Panasonic had to grow into was, again, in a software and services way that they didn’t know how to do
Andy Binns: Right. So you kind of, you set yourself some boundaries. Partly anchored on, and as you know from the book, this notion of ambition. There’s something about helping the tasks of daily life. That is in the history of Panasonic as a company.
Yoky Matsuoka: That’s right. So I mean, it all started with the Founder. You know, the Founder basically said that even in 1950s when he was coming up with a washing machine and so forth, he said that he was building it to free women from everyday chores so that they can do something else, like maybe read a book. And so that DNA lives on, and that’s something that is definitely continuing.
Andy Binns: Yeah, it’s a fascinating contrast in a way. The way that you are approaching this to others that I’ve observed others think about, oh, AI services software. We should set up a lab and have a lot of technicians trying to figure out how this works.
That’s not exactly what you did. You went, yes, you’ve got some of those things, but actually you went after a problem to solve.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah, so I think this is something that, you know, my weird or unique background of coming from the researcher, to really be studying robotics and AI, then crossing that valley of death and then coming over to build consumer product. And learning how to build consumer products. That really works. I think what happened, From my learning, and as well as starting Google X, was that doing a lot of research and trying to transfer that into a company idea is really, really hard. The chance of success there is in a single digit percent.
So what I wanted to make sure, and then I learned something when I, once I got to Silicon Valley, was that. I needed to study with a true user problem. How do we actually study to death about what they’re struggling with and then build that. And of course, we’re going to bring technology as needed and as much as possible.
Andy Binns: I think Yoky that this is the most important thing that I learned to generalize to other companies that I work with or speak with, is that the answer lies not in the technology. Mm-hmm. Important and vital, though it is to delivering a new value proposition.
The answer lies in really understanding what problem are you going to solve for customers. And if you can start there. Then everything else will follow. But if you start with the technology, there’s every chance you’ll get lost. And you will be running into barriers because it isn’t clear enough as to what the market opportunity is.
It is not clear enough as to where you’ll get traction, how you’ll get excitement, and really achieve momentum with the, with the venture essentially.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah. And then I’ve felt that over and over, just living in an ecosystem of startups. And again, at Google X, Google in a way was started with the technology first and then succeeded- and it happens.
Yes. But most of the cases, that’s not the case. We have to start again. Yeah. We really understand it. A user.
Andy Binns: So, tell us a little bit more about Yohana. What is the problem that you narrowed down to solve? What is it that you are focused on?
Yoky Matsuoka: Yes. So Yohana ended up becoming a modern concierge service for busy families.
And to know how did I arrive to the point where we wanted to help them with their to-do list and make their load lighter and then create time for them.
So, let me rewind a little bit in time. What I wanted was to help people build technology to help people.
And then that has been my research goal since I was a professor. As I have reached Silicon Valley and started building my own solutions, I have gotten really interested in more of the healthcare solutions such as home health, what can we do using technology hardware that’s surrounding our home.
And to help people stay healthier every day.
So that has been my goal. And, other companies, whether it was Apple or my startup or Google, definitely lean more towards healthcare than what I’m doing now at Yohana. Yeah. Yohana is a lot more of the daily chores to things that just keep piling on and is something that we keep hearing and probably the clear pivot happened during pandemic.
So during pandemic, as we were just forming ideas for Yohana and my personal life fell apart. My life as a mother of four and they all stayed home. Many of the schools were canceled for months and then became asynchronous and eventually on the video and I was the company CEO then, you have to come up with ideas for the families.
And I was a mother of four, a tech supporter at home. Right. And, and I, we couldn’t get any help. Like we used to get, of course cleaning or some meal prep. None of those people come to our house. So suddenly I had to do everything. Yeah. My husband was overwhelmed. I was even more overwhelmed and thought, ‘Who cares about health right now?’ Like I just need to get through the day. Right? Right.
So that’s when we thought, oh my gosh, we have to build this. Bottom line platform of just letting people have little bit of time. Just letting people breathe, get their mental health back, because that is the core of the health and wellbeing.
So that’s where we ended up starting. And then, still the goal for us as Yohana is that that we’re, we always say we’re a wellbeing company because we are buying that time for people so that they can use that time for something else.
Predominantly, most people say, I want more time with my family. Great. We’ll make great suggestions to see how you can spend that time that you bought back, but also, it’s really important to take care of themselves, the self-care, the time that completely goes away, and a time that also disappeared entirely during pandemic for me as well. Yeah, and. That’s something that we try to buy back with the time that we give back.
So therefore we’re a wellbeing company.
Andy Binns: So the initial insights came from your personal experience of who’s my customer? And you look in the mirror one day and you’re, oh boy, it’s me. I am stressed out and I need help. And well, maybe other people are stressed out and need help.
Which in the context of the pandemic makes tremendous sense that that would be a universal experience. But you then have to pivot to find out whether the kind of solution you envisage is one that people want to use. How did you manage that point, that sort of validation point?
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah. So I think I’ll talk about first sort of connecting to what you said. You know, of course it was like a bit of a selfish thing of like, oh gosh, I have a problem, that we have to build this. That’s something that I’ve learned in Silicon Valley too, that, I have to have, as a Founder, I have to have a good intuition for it.
I have to have that gut because so many decisions that I have to make in a company has to come from there- not all from research. So I think that’s something that was very important. But of course, it’s incredibly important that it can’t just apply to me something that I built for myself and then just nobody else.
Yeah. So, we did research and it didn’t take too long to find out that this is a universal problem for busy family households, modern family households, and global. We did studies in Japan, US and China at that time. And it didn’t matter what country the family was from, if we surveyed we called the CEO of the household, which could be mom or dad. And they typically had young kids. Some of them had older parents to care for, and their problems were all the same. They had this incredible, what’s called cognitive load in their brain that they just could not get rid of every day. They were just tired, stressed out. They could never get that time back, and it just kept coming, like giant waves over and over.
So we did the study very carefully and then we continued to do the user research throughout product development. And, again and again for the service, the updates as well.
Andy Binns: How did you know that your answer was one that would relieve cognitive load? How did you find out?
Cause that’s one to which you then have to commit resources and people and time to go pursue. Right. Which is one of the struggles that Explorers have.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah, that’s true. So again, it’s probably a combination of research and the intuition, both combination. And we also did field trials.
You know, once we had a prototype, we made sure that we ran the field trial with a number of the potential target audience. And then we iterated, I actually didn’t even like the first field trial because it didn’t really relieve anything. And there were things that we had to change. Yeah. And then add as new features.
So yes, that, that process was really, really helpful and we continued to do so. This is software and solutions where we iterate continuously.
So are we able to remove everybody’s cognitive load completely? Nope. Not yet, we’re able to do it for some people and then for some it does, it’s not doing it.
Why isn’t it doing it, where is it? We’re actually repeating this cycle of research again.
Andy Binns: You just never stopped asking why in all of this, in all of this work. Yeah. And eventually you moved to the sort of pilot in, in Seattle. It was Seattle, right? Where you, you first launched and there were quite a few surprises in that first sort of public launch, if I remember rightly.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah. Actually, some of the moment we went public, the big difference between field trial and the public was that people unconditionally trusted us a whole lot more than we ever imagined, which is really, really bizarre because the field, during field trial, everybody was cagey, they weren’t giving us much personal information. It was a bit of like a kind of task they handed off to us were things that they felt comfortable having somebody else do, because delegation is a learning process. Right. And then also like, why would anybody, we thought, why would anybody give us their social security number? Right. Or anything personal.
But no, like from the day one, they wanted us to renew their passports. They wanted us to make purchases and their Instacart, and they just, they were all over. And then it makes sense if they’re going to pay to get things done. Yeah. The value comes only when some of the really true personal information is shared.
So, we had to run and quickly build the tools that needed to protect all their personal information because we didn’t expect it, so we didn’t put that as a first priority.
Andy Binns: Right, right. So in a way, this told you that the need you were meeting was even more critical than you realized. Because people are willing to put themselves at that degree of risk.
In a sense. It’s sort of indicated a sort of a, a level of need. Yeah. Even more acute.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yep. And we also found out that if we don’t do those, we’re not as helpful to them. So it was a combination.
Andy Binns: Yeah. Combination. So now Yohana scaling across nationally in the US right. And in Japan.
Yoky Matsuoka: That’s correct.
Andy Binns: How, how’s that phase of going? Because as you know from the book, we talk about ideation, incubation, and scaling. And, and we don’t always get to talk to a Corporate Explorer in the middle of scaling. How, how is that going? What have you learned?
Yoky Matsuoka: Every step is a learning process and new challenges constantly come, right?
We’re still in the mix of probably incubation and scale. Right at that moment where we are making sure that we have enough product market fit, which is in an incubation phase. But we also need to make sure that we are scaling and we can scale probably because thanks to Panasonic.
Right, they have the footprint and then, the next play that we’re going to have has a lot to do with the combination of their product. So, we’re aiming to a lot of places where they have some coverage.
And talking about scaling, I was a researcher and then I was an innovator. So coming from there to really bite into the part about the growth, the supply, optimizing the EBITDA right. All of that is something I’ve done as a startup as well, but I think it is just a different muscle. Yes. Set of muscles that you have to exercise and undo. Yes. And it’s extremely important one as well. Yeah.
Andy Binns: And I know from our other conversations, you’re learning to gather new people around you to help that.
Right. The team around you is evolving as you go.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah. I definitely have the philosophy of wanting to hire people who can do things I cannot do, who have the capacity beyond me to do many things. So I think that I’m very happy with the team. And yes, it does change over time. People who are very good at initial prototyping and then shipping may not be the team who may make the company to grow over time.
Andy Binns: So this then is the big question that I think that most people watching this podcast with us would ask: you are a really important innovator in your own right from a startup involved in Nest, in the founding team being a Google X, setting up Google X, and now you choose to do ventures from inside.
A more than a hundred year old corporation. And, and the puzzle people have is, well, if this is such a darn good idea, Yoky? Why not do it with VC backing? Go down Sandhill Road where everybody will know who you are and get their support to make this happen. Why deal with this hundred year old, 200 and some thousand people organization?
What’s the point of that?
Yoky Matsuoka: No, it’s good question. And then I thought a lot about that at first too. You know, I’ve been on a startup side. I’ve been in a large company side. I’ve started an incubation company within a large company. Right. And then I. I thought as I’m getting older, I was running out of patience like there I wanted to do them all in a single job. And I thought what could that be like?
What’s the path to success in a way that I can have? I can set it up like my playground a little bit, then I can have enough freedom to run really fast. Yet I have the support and ability to scale in a way that startups, have a difficult time doing.
And also I looked at my own personality, too. If I was Steve Jobs or other startup founders who are just like crazy and make things happen at a speed that’s very risk-taking and dangerous.
It’s a different personality that takes, too. I’m much more, again, an innovator. Seed planter. At a scale where it’s a little calmer. So when I looked at all those combinations, what I realized is that, oh boy, this cannot be a VC startup. I’ve been in that. Nest was a unicorn. And we spent four years building one and a half product. Right. It takes time, it takes diligence to really do that startup. And why didn’t Nest even get bought by Google? Because it was looking for that scale. And when I started to think about it, I thought, okay, I just need to find a company where they have the hunger and an alignment and commitment to build a feature of their company in the right way. And give enough freedom for us to act as startups inside, yet whenever the time comes, I can graduate those things to scale. So that’s what I looked for. That was my criterion. And one of the most important things was an alignment and commitment. And again, that’s in your book too.
Andy Binns: What I love about this is that part of this reason is you personally, like what fits for you? And this is really key. We one of the things that always puzzles me is that when we think about entrepreneurs and startup ventures, we always go to the individual who leads.
But when we think about corporate ventures, we imagine, no, it’s about structure and process. It’s very rarely about structure and process. They have a role. So the individual piece.
Secondly, the thing that that I think is a core reason why corporate innovation has an advantage iis scaling. Because you have the assets.
But you also say something else, which I think is really distinctive, which is that you just think that doing this within Panasonic, it’s going to be better than it would be if it were in a startup. And that’s something that, that is quite markedly different than those who live in, purely in the VC backed startup world. You’re saying something that is qualitatively different from that.
Yoky Matsuoka: Yeah. Let me see if I can articulate that a little bit better. When I was venture backed, I felt, while I was receiving incredibly good advice, I felt the pressure of short-term financial gain that sometimes is not necessarily the path to succeed.
And especially if the scale of things that I wanted to achieve was, sideways large. I felt that there were some initial infusion of money that was a little bit larger than was required. That also that I felt that the return may take longer. You know, of course it’s becoming often common that there are a lot of companies that are not profitable for so long and VCs keep putting money in.
But, that’s not necessarily always the case. And again, from my experience of the feeling, the pressure or the short term financial gain, I thought I did not want to be in that situation because the goal is, more vast, larger scale, but it may take a decade to do.
Andy Binns: In the VC world, there may be high ambition, but there’s pressure to getting something that is for exit of some kind.
Whereas here you have the ability to build something which may have more impact in the world than you might have got from a VC back startup.
Yoky Matsuoka: Correct.
Andy Binns: So last few minutes in Yoky, what advice would you have for our aspiring Corporate Explorers out there? What is it that you would say they should do or to have as they launch their path down this road?
Yoky Matsuoka: I’m going to sound like a student because what you have in your book is so true, but let me actually put it in my own words, too.
I have to be honest, this is the best job I’ve had in terms of the freedom yet the potential of the scale. And the reason that I think I was able to end up in this position is because I had built this commitment and trust from the leadership of the organization.
I think that I cannot emphasize enough of how important it is that this organization is growing straight out of the CEO of that company because everybody needs that level of commitment. And the buy-in. And the top down to say, ‘I know this is unrelated. I know that’s a lot of money, but I’m deciding to do this.’
Right. And only the CEO of the corporation can do it. And in many ways, so then they’re not stuck with any of the individual business goals. And I think that’s an important part. So commitment and trust.
The other part I would say is to make sure that the, the mission and goal is aligned to the company’s core mission as well. I’ve also noticed that large companies’ core mission may be slightly different from what they’re trying to go into as an application area, if it’s different enough, and when things get tough, whether it’s a budget cut or whatever may happen, that you are always on a chopping board, right? And the chance of you getting chopped when you’re a smaller branch that’s not as connected to the tree trunk, it’s much larger than if you are the tree trunk. Yeah. So I think that’s an incredible important thing that I learned and I also optimize for, and I’m very happy about that.
Andy Binns: You need to have value to the corporation you’re a part of. It’s not simply the matter that you are this satellite entity, but actually you are doing something that’s fundamental. And I think that’s another piece that’s common to many Corporate Explorers that that we talk about and talk to. So thank you very much for your time today, Yoky.
I really appreciate it and I know it’ll be tremendously valuable to many who are listening. Thank you.
Yoky Matsuoka: Great. Thank you, Andy.
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