This article is part of The Product Summit 2020, India’s largest virtual product conference, to be held on October 10th & 11th, 2020. Click here to know more!
What lies behind the success of a product? A great idea, an enterprising founder, a marketing team that can hack the consumer-product matrix can help a long way but ultimately it’s the product team that determines the shape and size of what will delight the end user.
A successful product team, however, not only needs great product managers and designers, but also a vision that can propel it towards the right goals at every stage — from building a minimum viable product through achieving product-market fit after multiple iterations and then expanding the scope and scale of the product to cater to adjacent segments.
While India is on its way to become a product hub with tech startups teeming the horizon, there’s hardly any playbook available for young companies and product leaders on how to marshall a product team.
Seeking to plug this gap, Inc42 and The Product Folks have chalked out The Product Summit, a two-day showcase of India’s most seasoned product leaders, founders and VCs. As we spoke to entrepreneurs and product leaders during the course of our planning, we realised just how nuanced product development has become and how critical a motivated product team is in the success journey for startups. Here are some excerpts from our conversations:
Tejas Vyas started his career as a software engineer at Tata Consultancy Services before launching Epic Browser as the technical head of Hidden Reflex in 2010. In 2012, he joined BigBasket as a product architect and quickly rose through the ranks to become the head of products.
Having seen Bigbasket through its scaling-up phase, Vyas said that it’s crucial that product managers are made to feel like they own the problem, the metrics, the impact and the solution.
“The primary motivator for a product manager is their ability to solve the problem and create the necessary impact so that they feel that they have done something big,” he added.
Most challenges emanate when leaders do not understand the motivation of a product manager being a valuable individual contributor. This leads to a top-down approach where clear ownership areas aren’t defined and PMs aren’t empowered to solve problems on their own. Vyas said that if product leaders don’t spend time playing the role of a ‘connector’ they are setting themselves up for failure.
Harsha Kumar started her career as a software engineer and product manager. She oversaw Ola’s growth from 3K rides per day to a million rides between 2014 and 2016 and the company’s unicorn valuation.
As a VC with Lightspeed Venture Partners India for the past 4 years, she has invested in companies such as fintech startups Setu and OkCredit, audiobook app PocketFM and hiring platform Upraised to name a few.
Kumar believes that anyone who is serious about building a product needs to review the structure of the product team. Product teams where designers and managers are working together would lead to less friction as having the same person on top creates more harmony.
Businesses, where product designers are used as resources to just help the product manager, would see different outcomes compared to other startups where they are an integral part of the product team.
“A designer is solving his design skills whereas a manager is using his analytical skills to solve the same problem… Two product managers doing their thinking and then going to a designer and then saying ‘Colour it’ leads to a very smart resource being ridiculously under utilised,” she added.
Karan Bajaj, founder and CEO of edtech startup WhiteHat Jr, knows a thing or two about scaling up after WhiteHat was acquired by BYJU’s for a hefty $300 Mn after just 18 months in the market. WhiteHat Jr enables kids aged 6-14 to learn programming and coding through one-on-one video classes.
According to Bajaj, product teams are motivated by two things — the nature of the challenge and the scale of the impact. “If the work is complex and can impact thousands of people, then it’s exciting,” he said.
Amit Bansal started his career as a sales manager at Asian Paints but then changed tracks to pursue a career in product management that took him to various software companies in the US. After rising up the ranks to become the product head at Talisma, Bansal decided to strike out on his own.
The founder and CEO of WizKlub Learning, an edtech startup that runs online coding classes for kids aged 6-14, said “Treat your product managers as mini CEOs. Let them take ownership of the product, think how the product would sell and build the profit and loss model for the product.”
According to Bansal, product managers shouldn’t be asked to build a certain feature but instead given a business problem to solve. It’s also important to create a culture of data-driven decision making and give product managers the space to make mistakes and learn from experiences.
Akshay Mehrotra, the CEO and cofounder of digital lender EarlySalary, was a marketing professional before taking the entrepreneurial plunge. As head of product strategy at EarlySalary, Mehrotra believes that transparency and fairness are the two pillars that determine the success of a product team.
According to Mehrotra, an important part of keeping a product team motivated is asking it to look beyond immediate problems and focus on giving a fresh perspective to things.
Achin Bhattacharyya is a chartered accountant and rose to be a director at Deloitte after working with big names such as PwC, KPMG and General Electric. He took the entrepreneurial plunge in 2018 with Notebook, after a sabbatical spent traversing the length and breadth of the country to understand the challenges of shaping young minds.
The CEO and founder of the edtech platform said that building a great product team always starts with the right hire. “We have a detailed recruitment process — because it’s not only about hiring the right talent, but equally important is that we are right for the candidate,” he added.
Since a sizable part of the workforce of a tech startup is very young, once a company has the right hires, it is essential that they stay motivated. Valuing people and giving them a sense of job security and acceptability really help in optimising their contribution and it’s also important to respect them for the same, according to Bhattacharya.
“Just like a cricket team which practices in the nets, a product team has to be given ample opportunity to express their creativity, have their contributions valued and ensure that they are not assigned tasks but made co-owners at every step of the way,” said Bhattacharya.
Sameer Ramesh is the cofounder of edtech platform MyCaptain and also heads product development at the startup. MyCaptain helps students pursue their passions in the arts, technology and business by connecting them with mentors in their particular fields. According to Ramesh, the most essential ingredient for making a successful product team is a vision that members can work towards to effect change in the world.
A product leader should also ensure that they are on course towards achieving the vision at every step of the way and celebrate each milestone on the product journey.
“At the start, get generalists who connect to your vision. Develop them to be independent and capable of leading teams. Then make sure you give them the freedom to do their role and to make mistakes,” Ramesh said.
After graduating from IIT Madras and working at Deutsche Bank as an analyst, Soham Chokshi struck out on his own with logistics solutions provider Shipsy in mid-2015. The startup aims to create data-driven products to improve operational efficiency in the supply chain industry.
According to Chokshi, it’s important that a product leader creates a methodology to link the team’s work to clear business outcomes. This will not only challenge the product team to achieve not just roadmap-level feature release targets, but numeric targets around adoption and retention as well.
Tejas Vyas, Harsha Kumar and Karan Bajaj will be speaking at The Product Summit — India’s First And Largest Virtual Product Conference, supported by Amplitude, AWS, Dell Technologies, and DigitalOcean, scheduled for 10th & 11th October 2020. Register Now!