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Former UW professor who founded Google X and is mother of four unveils personal assistant app for moms in Seattle

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 11, 2021

Yoky Matsuoka, mom of four, is launching a new personal assistant app targeted at busy moms with her company Yohana.  (Courtesy of Yohana)
Yoky Matsuoka, mom of four, is launching a new personal assistant app targeted at busy moms with her company Yohana. (Courtesy of Yohana)
By Akash Pasricha Seattle Times

SEATTLE – A new personal assistant app launched Thursday in Seattle to help moms manage their overflowing to-do lists.

Yohana, founded by Yoky Matsuoka, who is a mom of four, pairs mothers with a designated digital assistant. The assistant – a real person on the other end of a chat window – helps coordinate and complete moms’ to-do lists. Whether it’s finding tutors for SAT prep, booking after-school activities, or even just scheduling hair appointments, Yohana’s assistants work with a network of vetted, local service providers in the back-end to make arrangements for customers and streamline their lives.

“For me, it really boils down to building something that a lot of people say, ‘I can’t live without this,’ ” said Matsuoka, who serves as the company’s CEO.

For example, if a customer needs help finding day care providers or renovation contractors, Yohana’s assistant will research and report back with the best options from its third-party network. If customers needs help planning their child’s birthday party, Yohana’s assistant will arrange food, entertainment and most other preparations a parent would normally have had to do.

Matsuoka brings with her a stacked résumé, having won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2007 for her work combining neurology and robotics. Since then, she founded Google’s “moonshot” research arm that has sought to build autonomous vehicles, smart contact lenses and many tools in between. She also helped lead smart-home-hardware company Nest, and briefly led a health-wearable team at Apple.

The Yohana service is $149 per month, which it says is “competitive.” A similar platform, Fancy Hands, limits customers to 30 requests per month at the same price point, with cheaper options available for fewer requests. Another service called Magic charges at least $10 hourly.

When asked if the service would have cheaper options to make it more accessible, Yohana said in a statement, “We opted for an unlimited model so parents never have to worry about running out of support or hitting a ‘max’ for the month. It breaks down to about $5 per day for the monthly service.”

Yohana can be used by anyone, parent or not, but it is targeted at working moms who have felt the brunt of pandemic. Seattle is the first city in the platform’s roll-out plan.

Women quitting their jobs has “itself become the pandemic,” Matsuoka said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor found that 2.5 million women left the workforce during the pandemic, which Vice President Kamala Harris called a “national emergency.” That number compares to the 1.8 million men who left the workforce.

The New York Times reported that 66% of mothers say they are primarily responsible for child care, compared to 24% of fathers. In April, Oxfam International said COVID-19 cost women $800 billion globally in lost income in 2020.

“I feel like I’m pulled in multiple directions all the time,” said Jackie Miao, a Seattle web developer whose son is 2 years old. “I have to decide what to sacrifice and what to prioritize.” When asked what she gives up most frequently, Miao said sleep.

Yohana said in a statement “in a perfect world” household responsibilities would fall equally on all members of the family, “but the current reality is moms will ultimately be expected to shoulder the burden of household to-do’s.”

“Family-tech” is a new category of startups and technology that has seen an explosion during the course of the pandemic, said Julie Sandler, mom of two and managing director of Seattle-based Pioneer Square Labs, a venture capital firm. She said that in addition to streamlining family lives, child care, with costs that can exceed people’s take-home salaries, is also ripe for innovation.

In July, the child care market was estimated to be $136 billion and the household management market at $122 billion, according to Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures. That was part of a larger $648 billion market Pivotal calls the “care economy,” which includes care for aging populations and will “ultimately help expand women’s power and influence.”

Still, Miao said she has tried approximately 10 digital platforms to help her manage her family life and none have panned out. They are either “too simple and just not robust enough to capture and manage our lives” or they are “too complicated.” (Miao was not aware of Yohana’s platform at the time of the interview because the company was not yet public-facing.)

To develop the product, Yohana said it surveyed 1,200 households and interviewed 100 additional parents for nearly 150 hours across the U.S., Japan and China.

The company found that moms feel they must be perfectionists.

“I had people crying talking about the burdens that they’re facing … Nobody asks them how they’re doing,” said Sarah Read, a user experience researcher at Yohana.

Yohana also found that moms don’t delegate because they feel guilt over not being able to do everything on their own.

Personal assistants on Yohana will address these insights by anticipating tasks moms may need to do in the future but haven’t yet brought up on the chat, Matsuoka said. Having one dedicated assistant for each person is the company’s answer to building trust.

Among the reasons Yohana said it chose Seattle as its first city to launch: Nearly 180,000 households earn more than $100,000 per year, making the city ripe with target users. A report also found that millennials are more than 30% of the city’s population, making it the second highest in the U.S.

The decision was also personal for Matsuoka, who said her “headache of real toddlers running around mostly happened in Seattle” while she was a professor at the University of Washington. Matsuoka now lives in California.

Yohana has not taken on any outside financing and is fully funded by Panasonic, of which it is a subsidiary.

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