Working Geek: From rap fans to immigrant families, Remitly’s Kevin Nakao taps customers for answers

Kevin Nakao (on the right in blue sunglasses) with a team from Remitly at the Milk Carton Derby at Green Lake. (Remitly Photo)

One of Kevin Nakao’s earliest marketing gigs sent him on tour almost 30 years ago with Puff Daddy, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. He needed to discover how fans were plugging into the rap scene, so at the shows he circulated among the crowd to chat people up. It turned out that they were tuning into college radio stations and independent publications or “zines” for their information. The exercise provided a useful lesson: go directly to the customer if you want the straight scoop.

As the vice president of global marketing for Remitly, the heavily-funded Seattle-based company that helps immigrants transfer money online to family and friends in developing countries, Nakao is still using those skills.

Remitly, which launched in 2011, assists customers in the U.S., Canada, numerous European countries and Australia who need to send money to people in 28 countries in South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

Embracing a customer-driven approach to branding is not always easy for a global company that serves customers in multiple languages. To better understand the company’s reputation, Nakao and his team have read and categorized more than 2,000 reviews from across the web in English and Spanish to measure their reputation and identify areas to improve their marketing and service. 

They may need to brush up on some additional languages. Remitly made headlines in 2017 for raising $115 million — the largest venture investment snagged by a Pacific Northwest startup last year.

“I’m excited about bringing what we do to more countries and more people, and building a global brand around that,” said Nakao, who previously served as president and chief operating officer at WhitePages and worked in marketing at TinyPulse and RealNetworks.

And he’s glad to work for a company that’s serving immigrant communities at a time when the U.S. is enacting drastic anti-immigrant policies. As the father of two young children, Nakao is striving for a work-life balance and particularly keen to pursue a career that he finds meaningful.

“I’ve always looked for companies that I’m passionate about and believe in,” said Nakao, who took the job more than a year ago. Remitly is a company that “embraces and tries to do our best to serve immigrants,” he said.

Kevin Nakao. (Photo via LinkedIn)

We caught up with Nakao for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Shoreline, just north of Seattle.

Computer types: Mac, but I’m not religious about my choice in computing. In fact, the Apple ads that depicted Mac vs. PC users had the opposite impact on me — making fun of one of the greatest tech entrepreneurs and philanthropists of our time did not sit well. An OS does not make a person.

Mobile devices: I was looking at the iPhone X but opted for iPhone 8 Plus with way more memory (256GB), which solved my bigger pain point of no longer needing to manage all of the photos, videos and music that I have on my device.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Google Docs: I love the simplicity, power, collaboration, and the subtle way new features reveal themselves while you are using the product.

Validately: It’s like having customers in the office. Our design and UX teams have revealed a ton of great insights by getting user feedback on our website, marketing experiences and product.

Remitly Company Wiki and Knowledge Base: Recording and documenting your learning is critical for high-growth companies. I spend a lot of time referencing the customer research and insights our customer engagement, conversion and analytics teams have put together.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I stopped needing an office when I read how former Intel CEO Andy Grove sat in the same size cube as the rest of his employees. I also got tired of investing energy into who got which office, and I love the benefits of an open office environment.

Having a great workspace has never been important to me and I have never taken the time to decorate or personalize — until yesterday. My 3-year-old son painted a picture that now sits on my desk and is the first personal item I have ever displayed.

Kevin’s Nakao’s workspace at Remitly recently got a touch of personalization thanks to a picture by his 3-year-old son. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Nakao)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Give thanks and appreciation. Help others find their strengths and enable them to be their best self and do their best work.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I like Twitter for ideas and news, Quora to answers to questions, and LinkedIn to stay in touch with my professional network.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 10,516. My email inbox gives heartburn to anyone who is organized or a zero inbox advocate. Who needs organization when you have a search engine to manage your emails?

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Too many. More importantly, I believe keeping a public calendar at work. It’s great for driving transparency and I put in “GSD” time blocks to Get Shit Done.

How do you run meetings?

  1. I always try to list the objective/goal of the meeting in the invite, and I have my time defaults set to 25 minutes and 55 minutes.

  2. Ask questions, let others speak and listen.

  3. Ensure the quiet attendees have a voice. Remitly CEO Matt Oppenheimer is great about this.

  4. Leave with decisions, next steps and follow-ups.

Everyday work uniform? Whatever colorful attire my wife finds for me on the sale racks of TJ Max. Lately, it has been short-sleeved button ups with fun prints like cacti and flamingos.

How do you make time for family? By design, I only have two priorities in life: my family and work. If you join a startup or high-growth company you need to cut back on some activities if you want to give both your family and work the time they deserve. This is why having a job that I love and continue to learn and derive meaning from is so important. I am very lucky to be working at Remitly, whose mission is to improve the financial lives of immigrants.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Bourbon neat, double depending on the day. And playing with my two kids.

What are you listening to? “This is America” from Childish Gambino (aka Danny Glover) is the modern day version of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, both loaded with meaning and truth. You need to see the video for “This is America” to appreciate the brilliance and message.

I love hip hop and worked in the music industry for Universal Music, Fox and Rhapsody and I had my own record label. For years, I’ve also listened to KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” for new music discovery.

My favorite podcasts are The Moth, Hardcore History and Second Wave. One day, I hope to have an interesting story to tell on The Moth; Hardcore history reminds me that Ancient Rome is like today without Wi-Fi; and the locally-produced Second Wave is truly an American story that starts in Vietnam.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? The First Round Capital blog, Behavioral Scientist newsletter and Think with Google.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Outwitting the Devil” by Napoleon Hill was recommended to me by Geek of the Week, Mai Hoang. This book about facing your fears was written almost 70 years ago, but published just a few years ago.

Night owl or early riser? Early riser. My wife and I co-sleep with our two kids (3 years and 6 months old) so I go to bed early. Although you end up being woken up a lot, I spend more quality time with my kids.

Where do you get your best ideas? My team and customers. Active listening and questions provide the best ideas. I’ve also applied business to business marketing ideas to consumer and the other way around. 

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I had the great fortune of working during college for the late W. Hunter Simpson, founder and CEO of Redmond-based Physio-Control. He was a pioneer in creating great work cultures with strong company values and advancing the importance design in medical devices. He made everyone feel important and valuable.

I also admire Costco founder and former CEO James Sinegal and Starbuck’s Howard Schultz. Ignoring investor skepticism, they built enduring brands by making customers and employees the priority.

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