Today we’d like to introduce you to Kevin Yamazaki.
Kevin, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up as a maker, constantly tinkering, taking old appliances apart, and building things. I naturally grew into a closet robotics nerd in high school and helped start the robotics program at my school with the computer science teacher. I hid that part of myself from social circles as I was better known as an athlete, football was my sport.
I ended up getting nervous about committing to specialized robotics & engineering programs and wanting to explore other subjects, so I ended up going to Pomona College and played football there. I got caught up in a skewed definition of success and what I thought would make me happy — which was money.
So, I majored in finance and knew I was going to work at a hedge fund or a private equity fund, and by the time I graduated I had landed an Associate job at a private equity fund in Los Angeles, the city I was born & raised in. I knew I would be working 90+ hours a week but didn’t expect to become disillusioned with my role as an investor and instead become passionate about the stories of the entrepreneurs and high-growth companies that we were investing in. I knew I needed a change, and my interest and passion for technology kept nagging at me.
In searching for a formal education in the tech space, I chose to join Accenture where their expertise lies in building technology for enterprise companies and their reputation for investing heavily in their employees. I went into that job as a sponge, I learned an incredible amount in a very short period of time.
During my time there, I was put on some very exciting projects on the Disney studios R&D account where I was expected to be very entrepreneurial, which always came pretty naturally to me. I had found my calling in designing and building digital products that aligned with business strategy. My “creative ADD” started to take over a few years in and I knew I wanted to start my own company, a “digital innovation lab”. I had a vision for building next-generation applications and custom software for large enterprise companies in a very different way than the industry’s big players, and I wanted to do this while also incubating, investing in, and launching startups at the same time.
We would integrate human-centered design, technical architecture, and business strategy into every step of a new delivery framework, one designed to infuse our start-up style of rapid prototyping with the risk mitigation planning and testing needs of working with Enterprise-level IT and Marketing. We would go toe-to-toe with the big guys and win with a Millennial-driven team.
Over the course of nights and weekends, Sidebench was slowly born. 6 years later, we have 50 employees in two countries, a portfolio of leading brand clients and innovative products, are trusted by some the most highly regulated enterprises in America, and are known as an award-winning leader in our industry.
Has it been a smooth road?
The company started out of my apartment as intense nights and weekends project, and it’s always been completely self-funded. My first client pre-paid me in cash to cover the incorporation costs, so we’ve been 100% bootstrapped and organically grown from the beginning. In the early days, I brought on my best friend from college to work on Sidebench with me because it was about having fun, learning a lot really quickly, and fast-tracking our personal & professional growth.
Then we started getting bigger projects with bigger companies and more complex technologies which made it more and more exciting. We were building products that were truly first-in-kind and even started investing in some of the startups we were working with. Our different approach was actually working and we were getting really good at it.
But we weren’t always living the dream. It was really, really hard at times, and like all early companies, there were some dire moments. At one point, just a couple years in, I remember checking our company bank account and only seeing $82 while our clients owed us over $500,000 in late payments. We were naive to assume that massive corporations would have no problem paying us on time, we were wrong. Knowing that cash flow management mistakes like this could destroy a bootstrapped company like ours, we immediately started calling our largest clients every day asking them to pay their invoices. We got very serious about this part of the business and have avoided cash situations like that ever since.
It’s these types of early mistakes and valuable lessons that have made us who we are today. This kind of grit is in the DNA of every Sidebenches. These many challenges have also forced us to be clever with how we staffed projects and be more creative when it came to delivering on huge projects with multi-billion dollar clients. These early failures and growing pains were incredibly valuable and have shaped our culture and unique operational model that enables the great work we do every day.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Sidebench story. Tell us more about the business.
We’re unique in how we understand how systems integration and technology business strategy works at the enterprise level while being nimble like a start-up team in quickly delivering creative new digital products to market.
At our core, we pride ourselves on human-centered design. We’re a product development firm, but we’re also a high-leverage tech consultancy that speaks the language of both enterprise IT departments and creative startup founders with a passion for emerging technologies. But the one thing that ties all of this together is radical, bold, courageous creativity – we’re all creatives here – but we’re creatives who write code and speak the language of business too.
Some of our clients include Red Bull, NBC, Sony, Oakley, Facebook, Pabst Blue Ribbon, American Heart Association, along with many others.
As far as what we’re most proud of? I guess when I started Sidebench, I said that we would work with leaders in every industry except for healthcare and government. I saw those industries as slow-moving with high barriers to entry, and they usually didn’t have forward-thinking leadership that wanted to innovate.
In the past year, we’ve done some amazing work in both categories. As I get older, I think more and more about the social impact that we’re able to make and how important it is to do truly meaningful work. The last few months, we’ve partnered with the Los Angeles County Foster Care system (Department for Children and Family Services) to design scheduling software that saves millions of hours for parents, children, and social workers and puts families together more easily.
In the early days, the question we had was: how could we build really cool technology, but also make enough money to make payroll. The questions change as your company matures though – we don’t need to worry about finances the way we used to. Today, the question we ask ourselves is: Who are we, and what are we putting out into this world that others can’t? How do we leave it better than we found it? Our mission now is to create positive disruption in all industries and to positively impact the most number of lives through our work. This is what will continue to drive us as we grow as a company.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
I would say not caving to what I would classify as “pure business decisions.” We’ve always been able to follow our mission and vision while growing the business rapidly and promoting healthy growth of our employees. We put our clients first, we never sacrifice that for profit, and that has paid off for not only our success but our partners’ success too.
Beyond that, it’s incredibly gratifying to have created an organization that employs 50 people in LA and around the world who are all genuinely passionate about what they do. It just started as 2 guys on nights and weekends, and now it’s an entire organization of people doing groundbreaking and innovative work that they genuinely care about.