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Product: myth versus reality, with Bankin’, Spendesk and Meraki

Everyone is talking about “Product”, an ultra-trendy and sought-after sector, but what is it exactly? Product Managers are often confused with Project Managers, even by head-hunters, newspapers and large companies. To clarify things and help you become a Product expert, the Partech Shaker brought together a panel of three experts: Nicolas Martin, Bankin’ CPO, Jordane Giuly, Spendesk Co-founder and CPO, and Barbara Vogel, Meraki CEO and CPO.

Meet our panel

Barbara Vogel, Meraki CEO: Meraki is a start-up which offers intense, experience-based, digital product management training programs from A to Z. Previously, Barbara was Product Manager (PM) at Voyages SNCF for 4 years, then CPO (Chief Product Officer) at Roger Voice, and PM at Shopify (Canada).

Nicolas Martin, Bankin’ CPO: Bankin’ is a start-up which was created 5 years ago to help individual customers manage their finances on mobiles.

Jordane Giuly, Spendesk Co-founder and CPO: Spendesk is a global solution to help small companies manage their professional expenses.

Sarah Huet, Partech Shaker Managing Director: panel moderator.

 Q // How did you set up your team and how are you organized?

Jordan Giuly - As the only PM in the company, I focused on developing product features and trying to translate the CEO’s vision into features. When we recruited another PM a year later, I become Lead PM and was responsible for defining what will happen at the next quarter, while the new PM was in charge of the present time. We then grew to 4 PMs and I was promoted to Head of Product. My role was to define a product strategy and organizational structure for the quarter to establish each PM’s tasks. Today, there are 3 co-founders at Spendesk: I am the CPO, and there is a CEO, and a CTO.

Nicolas Martin - For the first two years, I was the only PM in a team of 5. While other teams expanded as the company developed, we remained a 2-people PM team. This created production issues, so we had to recruit massively and train PMs but we really should have been anticipating and gradually recruiting in line with growth. Now there are 80 employees at Bankin’, including 8 PMs and we apply a Squad (autonomous teams working on a project covering strategy, marketing, design, and testing) organizational model.

Q // PM is a recent role and not many people actually understand what it actually entails: can you explain what PMs actually do?

Barbara Vogel - Product Managers are often confused with Project Managers, even by renowned newspapers. A project is an activity with a beginning and an end, while a product, like the Uber App, needs continuous improvements over a long period of time because there is no end date. It’s an incremental and iterative process. PMs maximize product value and this involves many teams. There are two phases: discovery (what is the customer issue?) and delivery (features). PMs are like band masters; they are involved at every stage of the product, from prototype design to delivery. PMs manage products, not people, and ensure that the product is delivered at the right time, to the right person.

Q // Who do you struggle with the most in the organizational structure?

Jordan Giuly - Sales definitely, because our interests and motivations differ. Sales teams have to reach a target, while PMs need to deliver a coherent product which meets the company’s long-term vision. Prioritization also differs between both roles and this can create problems: two salespeople might ask for different features to satisfy their clients’ requests, and the PM might say yes to one and no to the other. The PM’s role is to reformulate a prospect’s expectations about the product. We need to educate salespeople to ensure that their clients’ requests are coherent with the company’s vision before developing a product’s features.

Q // Relationships between Sales and PM are key: how do you handle this?

Jordan Giuly - If you focus on one segment only, your growth will be limited. It is essential to explore new segments. While PMs focus on the present and continue to develop products in line with historical segments, Lead PMs need to prepare the next move. And because prospects normally ask for a feature (a solution), the PM’s job is to reformulate this into a solvable problem. PMs need to find a solution for each issue. I love the anecdote about the US astronauts who spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could be used in space (because regular pens don’t work with gravity), while the Russians simply used pencils! This proves that reformulating an issue leads to different solutions.

Q // Do you regularly review your OKR framework when you re-align your vision and priorities?

Nicolas Martin – We implemented a one-year roadmap in cooperation with a sales, legal, marketing and product manager. We then rolled it out into quarterly objectives with OKR (Objective Key Results): we give each squad three main quarterly objectives and key results that they need to follow and quantify every week. Our roadmap and OKR are participative so we get the opportunity to exchange with the teams about our priorities. At Bankin’, we are now in the strategic phase of selling our products, after having spent a lot of time developing them. We prioritize according to the impact we are going to have on results and on our users.

Barbara Vogel – At Facebook, they identify three phases: Understand / Identify / Execute. All product team members know exactly where they stand and what they have to do and this is upheld company-wide. It is important to diffuse company culture so that each employee knows how and when to take action. Everyone knows the OKR and the company’s vision.

Q // Does it help to be CPO and co-founder when it comes to strategic decisions?

Jordan Giuly – It does indeed. It helps when repositioning debates about what our objectives are when building features 1 or 2 and how to measure them: in terms of number of clicks? Or, number of users? At YouTube for example, the OKR used to measure success was the number of videos viewed. When Susan Wojcicki, the new CEO, arrived, she changed it to the number of minutes spent viewing a video. This type of development could generate profound product and business changes.

Q // Is it difficult to recruit a PM when you are yourself a co-founder and a CPO?

Jordan Giuly – Recruiting the first PM is difficult because you might feel that you are handing your “baby” over to someone else. The main challenge is to provide PMs with key data and to define their tasks and responsibilities for the first year. PMs are in charge of a quarter or a month, while CPOs are in charge of a year. You have to provide your PMs with good working conditions if they are to succeed.

Q // How do you establish your PM’s scope and how does it evolve over time?

Jordan Giuly – That’s a difficult question. A good product organizational structure will ensure that scopes cover everything with no overlap. You will end up with bugs when there are gaps and overlaps if two people work on the same issue. The best solution is to work with personae (Uber has a dedicated team for drivers and another for users). You can also work on the different phases: acquisition, conversion, and basket. At Spendesk, we are organized by theme and personae: accountancy, employee and, upcoming, management control. When we want to accelerate a theme, we add a new squad.

Q// Why is it so difficult to recruit PMs? Is it simply a soft skill issue?

Nicolas Martin – Recruitment is usually complicated and even more so when it comes to PM profiles because they cover so many aspects. Candidates might not be skilled on the aspect you need: are you looking for someone to work on agile methods, organize sprints, runs, or ticketing? Or are you looking for an inspirational and far-sighted person? The first thing is to ask yourself what you really need. When we are confronted with a problem, we often decide to recruit someone but we don’t have a job description and don’t really know what we are looking for. We end up interviewing lots of candidates and hiring nobody. The key is to really identify what you need and clearly define tasks. In Europe, PMs are still a recent and poorly understood profile. Even head-hunters don’t really know what it involves so it is difficult to get help.

Barbara Vogel – When I arrived at Shopify in Canada, I was the only and first PM, with 4 developers. I joined an organization with 3,000 employees and 8 PMs. In Europe, there is 1 PM for 34 developers, versus 1 PM for 8 developers in the US. This illustrates the lack of PM culture in European start-ups where people still wonder what a PM does. A PM maximizes a product’s value. It is hard to understand what a PM’s role is because their activities are very varied. And it’s not just start-ups which struggle to recruit PMs; unicorns find it complicated too.

We say that there is a PM shortage in Europe, but I believe that there is, in fact, a bottleneck situation. Amazing digital products have been developed in the US, such as Instagram, Google, so ex-PMs can transmit their knowledge. We don’t have the same success in Europe. Google has over 1,000 PMs. PM are like rock stars in Canada and the US, while Europeans still don’t know what a PM’s job implies. In the US, when a start-up meets investors to raise money, the first question they are asked is: who is your PM? In the US there is an established culture of knowledge sharing, but this is not the case in France. At Meraki, we created a link between PMs and other teams by organizing dinners and events. To get hired in France, you need to prove that you have at least two years of previous experience, while in the US, they don’t hesitate to test someone with no experience. They’re ready to take a bet on you. It is better to hire someone smart, who is capable of understanding the issue and sourcing the right solution, rather than someone who strictly applies an agile or scroll method. In France, employers need more confidence in the recruitment process and focus on the right method and don’t overlook a lack of experience. On the contrary, it is the combination of the human factor and soft skills which are going to make a difference.

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