Former Apple and Tesla executive shares tips for building successful businesses

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

After seven years at Lego Japan, he became Apple’s director of education and introduced the use of the iPad in Japanese schools.

Then came an opportunity Kabayama said he “couldn’t do without” — becoming Tesla’s first president in Japan, where he reported directly to Elon Musk.

Piloting 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 thought it would be a lot more exciting to actually build something from scratch.

Sukemasa Kabayama

Co-founder and CEO, Uplift Labs

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

“I thought it would be a lot more exciting to really build something from scratch.”

In 2016, he moved to Silicon Valley hoping to create “category-defining” products like Steve Jobs and Musk.

Six years later, Kabayama may be one step closer to that goal. His healthcare startup, founded in 2017, Uplift Labs is an artificial intelligence-based platform 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 athletes’ movement performance while minimizing injuries.

Uplift Labs also offers automatically generated reports so coaches and physical therapists can track an athlete’s or patient’s progress over time, Sukemasa Kabayama said.

Uplift Labs

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

“But, [with Uplift Labs] … all you need right now is just 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, Kabayama has three tips for running a business. CNBC Make It finds out what they are.

1. Attention to detail

Working for Apple and Tesla has given Kabayama insight into what it takes to create successful products.

“While the culture at Apple and Tesla wasn’t exactly the same, [there’s a] Commonalities, ie the need to really understand your business in detail,” he said.

Kabayama gave an example: the attention to detail in the user experience, which is “extraordinary and second to none” for both companies.

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“For example, when you buy a new iPhone, the lid of the box is designed to slowly detach to build anticipation for the moment of unboxing your new phone,” he said.

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

2. Relentless focus

For early-stage startups, the key to success lies in the suitability of the product for the market, Kabayama said.

He uses this tried and true litmus test: “If you suddenly take your product or solution away from them, can they live without it?”

“Relenting focus is so important…do you really understand what segment of customers you’re targeting, what their pain points are, and do you really have an effective solution to address that?”

Being vision driven really brings the troops together. All that hard work you put in is for a common, greater good.

Sukemasa Kabayama

Co-founder and CEO, Uplift Labs

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

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

“Being driven by vision really brings the troops together. All the hard work you put in is for a common, greater good.”

3. Accept feedback

Something Kabayama likes to do for his company? Take as many customer 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 saying, ‘The product is fine.'”

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

Uplift Labs was founded by Sukemasa Kabayama, Jonathan Wills (left) and Rahul Rajan (right).

Uplift Labs


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