12 Years of YML — A Memo From the FoundersBy Ashish Toshniwal and Sumit Mehra
Nobody starts a company at the bottom of a recession. Well, nobody smart that is.
But in 2009, about the time real GDP and industrial production hit bottom, we had a big idea — a belief that this device called the “iPhone” would change the world.
We sensed Apple's App Store was about to change the customer experience in ways never seen before. More brands were investing in digital work. CMOs were shifting from ads to apps. The App Store carried untapped potential for digital-first campaigns and very few agencies were doubling down on mobile. Mobile presented a new stack of technology and a brand new form factor, which was a challenge for the big agencies to adopt. We were resolved to build an agency with mobile at it’s foundation.
Our office was in the heart of Silicon Valley. Our entrepreneurial grit was what Sand Hill Road investors were scouting for. However, we had more than 21 No’s from investors.
So 12 years ago, we bootstrapped Y Media Labs.
Things started off extremely hard. We were all over the place. If we were fortunate enough to win a client bid, we'd struggle with strategy and execution. We poured everything into this upstart venture, and meanwhile our personal relationships with family and friends were suffering. Having immigrated to the States a few years in, we always carried a certain amount of fear that we’d be deported back to Kolkata. It was a difficult time for foreign entrepreneurs in this country. We'd bought into the promise that immigrants could come to the U.S. and become successful business owners. In reality, we learned quickly that immigrants almost always have to work for somebody to make ends meet.
We were going to shatter that glass ceiling.
We worked with a variety of unknown companies for a while. Then, the call from Safeway came in. Then, a young company called Credit Karma. Then a Japanese company called Mercari. Then, shockingly, PayPal called. Suddenly, we had momentum.
But nothing compared to the 3am email.
It was about the education App we built with Montessorium, teaching kids ABC’s and 123’s via touch on the iPhone and iPad. 48 hours after the app became available for download, which happened to be Apple’s 54th app, we received an email. “Thank you, let me know how I can help. I love what you are doing. Best, Steve.”
Jobs. Steve Jobs. 3am. Email. How? What? Really? No way.
It was real. And it was an insane boost of energy.
It took us four years to hit one million dollars in revenue. During that time, we had to dip into our savings, which was almost non-existent. We could barely afford to pay our employees. We came come close to shutting down twice. The next four years, though, were explosive. Fortune 500 companies became our clients - 30 of them. We grew our staff, opened new offices in Atlanta and Indianapolis, and even leased a house in Hawaii for our team to show our gratitude.
What we’ve learned in the last 10 years is that companies, no matter how big or small, need great clients. We pride YML on our service, team and heart. On being meticulous drivers of innovation for brands. And building digital experiences that have lasting impact is our fuel. We've had outstanding, thoughtful clients who trusted us to bring that mission to their digital products and experiences.
The things that we figured would kill our chances at success were actually our sources of power. The fact that we didn't have funding meant we were autonomous, accountable only to ourselves and our team. The fact that we didn't know what we were doing most of the time meant we lived by trial and error. It felt like failure introduced the world to us and success introduced us to the world. Hard and exhausting and crushing at times, but vital. And the fact that we were immigrants made success taste that much sweeter.
At YML we are privileged to make a difference in the lives of the consumers and that in turn makes a difference in the business of our clients. In 2020, as we all grappled with uncertainty, YML solidified itself as the agency built for transformation, in a year where everything changed.
We continue to build the tools that kept families and communities connected to the world’s essential services. And ultimately, redefining how those industries deliver.
From telehealth to vaccinations, the transformation of healthcare is one of the biggest stories of our time, and Kaiser Permanente has sprung into action as a leader. We’re designing and building KP’s new digital ecosystem, which has the potential to save countless lives.
For Thrive Market, this major grocery retailer delivering sustainable, ethical consumer products nationwide, YML’s remit was to make a first-class user experience even better, with an emphasis on driving conversion. We designed a product strategy that increased sign-ups, first-time purchases on-site, and made ordering groceries remotely for millions.
We designed and developed the new Fannie Mae app to help distressed borrowers learn about their home financing options, and most importantly, help our fellow Americans save their homes in these crazy COVID times.
We work in insurance with State Farm, and we use thoughtful strategy and intuitive design to help people that have had an accident or lost their home - the biggest investment of their lives. An award-winning, meticulously designed mobile experience; a digital product that ensures State Farm is there exactly when and where their customers need them most. Delivering the highest quality service at every turn, whether that’s an agent delivering a quote, or roadside assistance safely delivering a family home.
We work in home improvement, and we design experiences to help every day people imagine, organize, and build the homes they desire (The Home Depot). We work on how consumers can pay on the go - people exchanging more than $200B on mobile (Paypal).
2020 was the year that companies had to live up to the values at the foundation of their brand — otherwise, they were exposed.
We’re humbled that in 2020, despite the chaos and uncertainty, YML hired 150 people globally, earned a 96% retention rate, and grew our business 113% QoQ. We believe that’s deeply rooted in our approach to our work, our clients and our team. Here’s how we did it.
YML Team Makeup
113% Revenue growth QoQ
150 New hires globally, 45% growth YoY
46% Women (15% increase YoY), 54% male
Equal pay among men and women
26 Languages spoken across the team
96% Retention rate
And we're hungry for more. So how exactly do we accomplish our mission of making a lasting impact moving forward?
We evaluate lasting impact through these three lenses:
Looking back, the biggest tipping point our company experienced was the change in mindset: we went from delivering SOWs, to delivering client delight. When I hear that “Ashish, your team is better than my own team,” we are winning. When we are responsible for a client’s promotion, we are winning. When we are recommended by a client, we are winning. In return for the big budgets clients spend with us, they have high expectations, and we must work hard to make them want more. First-class client-service is mission-critical. We have to anticipate our clients’ needs and give them a level of service that makes YML distinct and valuable. We must go the extra mile. We must own it. We must always deliver best-in-class digital products.
We are all here to do our life’s best work. And our clients; they want to create their life’s best work with YML, too. Our work is our product, and it’s why we are here — to do the work. It doesn’t matter how well we service our clients, if we don’t create work that is exquisitely perfect — if it looks ugly, if it breaks, if it doesn’t get results — they won’t come back for more. At YML, great work is the combination of vision AND execution — strategy, design, and technology, working together to create products and experiences that impact our clients’ bottom line and their customers’ lives. Great work gets noticed. It reaches millions of people. It gets rave reviews. It wins awards. It drives PR. And it makes an awesome case study. It’s a virtuous cycle: great work = more work = more great work. And, if we can deliver great work with impeccable service, then we’ll be unstoppable.
Of course, none of this is possible without our team. We are a talent business, and it’s the people, our team, that makes this company. We put people first because we believe that if we look after our people, they will look after our business in return. But I must stress that we are not a family. We are a sports team. We are optimized for success, and we focus on our common goals. We are in it to win. Together, we have to play at the top of our game. We must try to be better than the sum of our parts. We help our team. We mentor our team. We facilitate and grow our team. And, when necessary, we make hard decisions about our team. We want YML to be a fun place to work, but we want it to be a high-performing place to work, too. After all, we are building a YML mafia, and we cannot do it alone.
We are incredibly grateful for the contributions everyone has made 12 years strong to be able to celebrate our milestone anniversary today. No one gets here alone. Thank you to our team of 400 people, who today span six continents, 32 countries and speak 26 different languages. We love the diversity of ideas you bring to work every day. Thank you to our clients for jumping into the deep end of our ideas with us.
To everyone who has made us who we are today, thank you.