Always confront, reflect on, and analyze both your mistakes and your successes to fully digest root causes and strengthen your perspective for the road ahead.
Kevin Yamazaki is the founder and CEO of Sidebench, a leading enterprise innovation lab and venture studio in Los Angeles. Sidebench works with startups and corporate partners to identify, build, and launch strategic technology solutions. Kevin and his team lead digital innovation initiatives with some of the most forward-thinking companies including Red Bull, NBCUniversal, Andreessen Horowitz, Oakley, Facebook, Sony, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and many more.
Previously, Kevin worked in the technology consulting and private equity industries. Most recently, he was a product manager and technology consultant for Disney Studios’ research and development, strategy and innovation, and advanced new technology groups.
Kevin also serves as an adviser for the obsessive-compulsive disorder treatment startup nOCD, the international real estate crowdfunding platform UVEST, and the Matthew Silverman Memorial Foundation, a teen suicide prevention nonprofit organization. Kevin is a graduate of Pomona College and currently resides in Los Angeles.
Where did the idea for Sidebench come from?
Sidebench was born from a need I recognized while working for one of the largest global consulting firms as a technology consultant and product manager. I was fortunate enough to work with the “digital research and development” team of a very innovative Fortune 500 client account, and I ended up working with them for several years as a core member.
While my R&D team’s digital products and prototypes were mainly meant for internal use, as opposed to consumer-facing, they were beautifully designed with the end user in mind. This was incredibly rare. All other internal systems and tools I had seen over the years were quite the opposite: clunky, slow, restrictive, and often painful to use. There was something special about this group of designers and engineers that inspired me to change how enterprises viewed custom software development, from solving a problem to creating new opportunities.
Our aim is to unite product thinking, user-centered design, and strong engineering chops to provide our clients with a comprehensive partner team who operates as an extension of their core stakeholders or team. Whether we are working with a forward-thinking business unit within an enterprise on an internal tool or a brand-new venture building a business-to-consumer product, we strive to operate first as a holistically minded strategy team and as a design and development studio second.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
While the meat of each day is different, there are a few things I try to do every day. I like to get in early (before 7 a.m.) to have some solo focus time before the office gets busy, and I also meditate as often as I can in the mornings. It only takes 10-20 minutes and helps me find balance, focus, and perspective on all things work- and life-related.
During the day, I typically have several meetings with current and potential clients, conduct one-on-ones with team members, and spend a few hours on higher-level strategic initiatives related to growing and improving our business.
Once or twice a week, my business partners and I will stay late and eat dinner together while covering key items and initiatives and syncing up on different parts of the business. We find this “after-hours” time to be valuable for aligning on strategy and goals.
One way I make sure my working time is productive is by picking a single “theme” for each week to represent the area I need to prioritize and make significant progress on. I use this loosely as a tool to keep me focused. These themes can be as broad as “marketing” or as specific as “Q3 board meeting prep.” By defining a single top initiative at the beginning of the week, I almost always have taken significant steps forward by the end of the week.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We have made a concerted effort to collaborate as a team on R&D projects on a quarterly basis — in many cases because we want to pursue a certain type of project that will show, rather than tell, our clients about us.
So far, we have pursued virtual reality projects (our favorite being skydiving), an augmented reality app, a chatbot, and a 360-degree video of our office that allows users to give themselves a virtual tour. In addition to serving as useful marketing and business development content, these projects are a ton of fun for our team and let us exercise our creative muscle to its full extent.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
For several decades, growth and progress in the technology field was largely driven by Moore’s Law and ever-increasing computing power. However, in the last few years, the rate of increase in computing power has slowed significantly, and there has been a strong shift toward accessibility and size instead.
In terms of accessibility, the financial barriers to innovation have continued to shrink as the costs of computing power, high-speed internet, server space, and base platform services have plummeted, and entrepreneurs are now more than ever provided with a level playing field to work from.
Coupled with the ability to put a computer in most anything and the advancement of meaningful big data, artificial intelligence, AR, and VR into the everyday, the opportunities to create revolutionary products and disrupt suboptimal solutions span more industries than ever before. I think we are in the beginning stages of what may be the most diverse and exciting period of creative digital innovation the world has ever seen.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I like to kick-start my week with a super early Monday morning in the office at 4 a.m. It gives me isolated time to plan out the week, set goals and priorities, and get a jump start on my most important tasks. I’ve found that this early morning schedule sets a good rhythm for the rest of my week and encourages a small lifestyle shift that makes me more productive week to week. This early Monday schedule also helps me reset my internal clock if I’ve been traveling or had a busy weekend.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
While cleaning used medical equipment when I was in high school may seem the most unpleasant at face value, the worst job I’ve had was working as a trading assistant on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor during college.
It was the stereotypical old boys club locker room atmosphere, complete with numerous daily doses of racism, sexism, chauvinism, etc. I adapted quickly and “played the game” to earn the respect of my colleagues and get along with everyone, but it showed me the type of toxic, one-dimensional culture that I did not want to foster in my own company. While Sidebench is by no means an overly strict or sensitive workplace setting, we do everything we can to create a diverse team along with a comfortable environment that makes all types feel safe and confident being themselves.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
While on a micro level there are certainly numerous decisions I would make differently knowing what I know now, there are very few macro decisions that I would change. I think the one piece of “’big” advice I would give my past self is to spend even more time focusing on the core elements of what our business does for our clients and less time on secondary areas in the early stages.
We did waste a number of precious hours in the beginning trying to pursue non-growth initiatives that an immature organization really has no business addressing until a later stage.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
As painful or unnatural as it may be, always confront, reflect on, and analyze both your mistakes and your successes to fully digest root causes and strengthen your perspective for the road ahead. This does not mean you should dwell on the emotions you feel when you encounter failure or let yourself get swept away in the personal glory of success.
As long as you are still in the running, the “why” of what has transpired is infinitely more important to absorb than either the “what” or the “how it makes me feel.”
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Perhaps the single most important thing we have done is build meaningful relationships with anyone we are in a position to reasonably help. I am a firm believer in what the business world might call the “currency of favors” and the regular world might call “karma.”
We hire people whose default mentality is to help others, even if there isn’t an immediate return benefit. We have found that eagerly offering what we can to clients, employees, partners, and new contacts alike has resulted in growth for our business in ways we never could have anticipated. Too many people view business as a zero-sum game, but in reality there is an inspiring communal aspect to it.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
It’s hard to pick just one, as arguably the most important thing about being a successful (and long-term) entrepreneur is persevering through numerous setbacks and learning from mistakes.
That said, one that stands out, in particular, is underestimating our cash needs once we started adding significant overhead in the beginning. We unwittingly put ourselves in a tight spot and had to figure out how to make ends meet while righting the ship. Rather than laying off employees and risk losing momentum, we found noninvasive ways to cut our costs in the short term, and my co-founder and I stopped paying ourselves for a few months.
At the same time, we reexamined our model and margins to restructure our project costing structure, set up a better system to monitor our financial health, and slowly pulled ourselves back into a healthy cash situation. I’m happy to say we continue to use those same systems to this day, and we have remained very financially stable ever since.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
One idea we have been kicking around recently is a carpool matching algorithm (it’s very applicable in LA). Waze and Google Maps know everyone’s daily route — as well as where they park, when they leave, etc. — so theoretically it should be straightforward to “pair” potential carpool matches based on the data.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? On what, and why?
We bought a gong (the “SideGong”) for the office that we ring in celebration of a completed or new project. It’s a fun team thing that ensures everyone takes note of successes along the way, and it’s a good point of closure for someone who closes a deal or finishes a project. We even have a matching Slack emoji for it.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Many of the products I use most and get really excited about are related to productivity and automating time-intensive processes. Some of my favorites include IFTTT, Mixmax for email, Slack for chatting, Hopper for flights, and Pocket for saving and reading articles.
The common theme throughout is that they allow me to accomplish more in the same amount of time using an intelligent, organized system that I tailor to my needs.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz is one of the most practical and densely packed books that addresses nearly every tough challenge an entrepreneur or business executive might face while running a company. It is incredibly well-written and neatly blends Horowitz’s general guiding principles with personal stories and anecdotes that highlight the larger lessons.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
It’s tough to pick just a few, but Benedict Evans and Marc Andreessen at Andreessen Horowitz, Mike Monteiro, and Greg Bettinelli are some of the most influential (and often entertaining) people for me personally.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.