The Passion of a Corporate Explorer: Yoky Matsuoka

Ambidexterity
Yohana founder Yoky Matsuoka son studying

Yoky Matsuoka has many identities. She is a startup CEO. She is a technology guru with a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon and was on the founding team of Nest. But it is her identity as a mother of four children that drove the insight that led to the creation of her new business, Yohana, an AI enabled task completion service aimed at working mothers.  “I raised four kids aged between 10 to 16. It is crazy. Every day is another abnormal day. The only thing consistent is that every day is different. I had all these balls up in the air and I had to try to catch them all. Then, once the pandemic hit, on top of everything else, then we had to add being tech support for kids doing zoom school. The pressure of that just became unbearable.”  

This is a compelling customer problem and one with real social consequences. Sixty-six percent of parents are burned out. Modern families of all shapes and sizes are struggling to get it all done, and the trickledown effect of parental burnout is adversely affecting their children. Nine in 10 moms are so busy they wish they could clone themselves. Seventy-four percent of moms know they need to take time to relax and destress, but 67% feel guilty when they do. Parents need help, but 7 in 10 are afraid to ask for it.

How could Matsuoka solve the problem? She could have started on the process of raising funds from venture capital firms and hiring a team to develop a solution. However, Matsuoka’s other identity is as a Corporate Explorer, she was building this new business from inside an existing corporation. Yohana is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant, Panasonic. This is a different context than the startup entrepreneur. Instead of a board of investors, she has a manager to convince. 

“I love being a Corporate Explorer, I have a much longer time frame to work with than I would have as an entrepreneur. There is a commitment to innovation at Panasonic.” Matsuoka’s experience is not shared by everyone. Many firms struggle to succeed at building new ventures. Companies such as GE and Cisco have had repeatedly challenges with overcoming the organizational barriers to innovation. What sets Matsuoka apart is that she started with the problem that she had a passion to solve. Corporate innovation teams often set out on a quest to commercialize an existing technology or validate an idea. They start with the answer and their work is dedicated to find a problem that is solves. 

That’s because as a company becomes more and more successful, its focus shifts from satisfying the needs of customers to optimizing how they deliver results. They go from being outside-in to becoming inside-out, with more and more time spent on coordinating between different teams, and less on working with customers. Corporate Explorers swim against the tide focusing attention on problems customers care about and are willing to pay to solve.

Matsuoka’s technology career focused on using technology to help people. As an academic researcher she helped build devices for people with disabilities. At Apple and Google, she led projects to develop new health technologies. As a deep technologist, Matsuoka could have followed a similar path, focusing more on how to leverage artificial intelligence than on what solving the problems of her target audience. However, her training as an entrepreneur taught her the value of obsessing about the customer problem. Like so many of the Corporate Explorers that I work with, Yoky Matsuoka is driven by a purpose that she is passionate about. 

She started her journey with the problem and out of this commitment was born Yohana. 

Yohana has been operating in stealth mode in Seattle over the past six months and launched in Los Angeles on June 9. In Seattle, Yohana has helped more than 1,000 families offload 20,000 tasks, saving many members an average of 8-10 hours per week, that’s more than a full day every month. This pilot was about perfecting the model so that it was ready to serve the much larger Los Angeles market. This test-and-learn approach to the innovation helps to de-risk Yohana’s business model. 

One of the key lessons from the pilot was that once a subscriber got started, they wanted Yohana to complete far more tasks than they had expected. The problem was getting them started in the first place. Most customers had never had such help before, so were not sure how to integrate it into their day-to-day lives. To solve this problem, they created the role of ‘guide’ that would who help the family to set goals and get the best out of the service in achieving them.  Subscribers are then ready to engage a service team that takes on tasks that get completed by an army of providers, vetted, and managed by Yohana, to help complete household tasks, family to-dos, and even plan outings. 

The passion that Yoky Matsuoka has for helping hard-working families is personal. She is solving a problem she understands. Most successful Corporate Explorers that I work with have a similar passion. They are fueled by a desire to solve a problem in the world. They bring the outside-in to a company starved of such insights. It is a formidable power that naturally attracts allies and supporters from insider a corporation. 

The move into Los Angeles is a big step up for Yohana, though it is still just one more step on the path to testing the business model, and making it fit for an even larger customer base. Matsuoka sees the business as a reinvention of Panasonic’s original purpose. When Konosuke Matsushita founded Panasonic in 1918, his goal was to help people with everyday tasks. Back then, it was washing machines that were the great labor-saving device, now Yohana does it with AI-enabled services. The ambition to make life easier remains the same.