An Apple and Tesla exec who quit to build his own startup now has a star-studded list of investors

The opportunity to work for not just one but two tech giants was “very rewarding” for Sukemasa Kabayama. 

After a seven-year stint at Lego Japan, he became Apple‘s director of education and launched the use of the iPad in Japanese schools. 

Then came an opportunity Kabayama said he “couldn’t pass up” — to be Tesla‘s first president in Japan, where he directly reported to Elon Musk

Helming the launch of the electric vehicle maker’s Model S was no small feat, but Kabayama was hungry for more. 

He wanted to be an entrepreneur.I was thinking, it would be much more exciting to really build something from scratch, from the ground up.Sukemasa KabayamaCO-FOUNDER AND CEO, UPLIFT LABS

“[I was] really in charge of sales and marketing, versus having very little effectiveness on the product,” the 53-year-old told CNBC Make It. 

“I was thinking, it would be much more exciting to really build something from scratch, from the ground up.”

In 2016, he moved to Silicon Valley, in the hopes of building “category-defining” products like Steve Jobs and Musk did. 

Six years on, Kabayama may be one step closer to that goal. His health startup Uplift Labs, which was founded in 2017, is a platform powered by artificial intelligence that tracks and analyzes movement in 3D.

According to the company, it has since been adopted by some MLB teams and the NBA to improve movement performance of athletes, while minimizing injuries. 

“A lot of professional sports teams have these indoor multi-camera labs that allow accurate motion capture,” said the co-founder and CEO of Uplift. 

“But, [with Uplift Labs] … all you need at the moment is only two iPhones or two iPads. It’s portable and we can capture the action whether it’s on the field, on the court, or in the batting cage.” 

The startup says it has raised $8.5 million, with a star-studded list of investors including NBA star Seth Curry, NFL player David DeCastro and Deepcore, a SoftBank subsidiary.

With more than 17 years of experience under his belt, Kabayama has three tips for running a company. CNBC Make It finds out what they are.

1. Attention to detail  

Working for Apple and Tesla has given Kabayama an inside look into what it takes to build successful products.

“While the culture at Apple and Tesla was not exactly the same, [there’s a] commonality, which is the need to really understand your business at a detailed level,” he said. 

Kabayama cited one example: the attention to detail in the user experience, which is “exceptional and second to none” for both companies.

“For example, if you buy a new iPhone, the lid of the box is designed for a ‘slow release’ to build the anticipation of the unboxing moment of your new phone,” he said.

“The cellophane wrap is designed to easily use your finger to remove unlike many other products where you struggle with scissors or your nails. That’s just the unboxing.”

2. Relentless focus 

 For early-stage startups, the key to success is all about product market fit, said Kabayama. 

That trusty litmus test is something that he falls back on: “If you were to suddenly take your product or your solution away from them, can they live without it?”

“Relentless focus is so important … really understand which customer segment you’re going after, what are their pain points, and do you really have an effective solution to help address that?” Being vision-driven really rallies the troops. All that hard work that you do is going towards a common greater good.Sukemasa KabayamaCO-FOUNDER AND CEO, UPLIFT LABS

Kabayama added that while companies like Apple and Tesla already have “significant market share impact,” it’s having a “big vision” that will push the envelope.

“They’re all very purpose-driven … or better yet, vision-driven. Just take Tesla for example, the company’s vision is to accelerate the world to more sustainable transport.” 

“Being vision-driven really rallies the troops. All that hard work that you do is going towards a common greater good.” 

3. Accept feedback

Something that Kabayama loves doing for his company? Getting on as many client calls as possible, he said.  

“What makes my heart sing is really hearing what they love about the product, but also hearing what we can do better.” 

He added, quoting LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman: “There’s nothing like tough love … you’d rather have 10, or even 100 passionate users than 100,000 users that are like, ‘The product’s okay.'”

What keeps Kabayama going is providing “a critical missing piece” in understanding how athletes at all levels move naturally.

“What is your natural range of motion, do you have any stability issues, joint impingements, or past injuries? These questions directly impact performance, whether it’s playing golf, baseball, cycling, running, or even walking.”

“No other startup using AI has been able to connect these dots so any elite or everyday athlete can carry around a sports lab in their pocket to improve performance and minimize their risk of injuries,” he added.

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