Georgie Smallwood has a lot to say about the different ways that product management is practised around the world. In a product career that has taken her from Australia to Hong Kong and to Europe, she’s currently Chief Product Officer for Berlin-based challenger bank N26. She’s spent her eight years in Product working for a variety of digital companies – from startups to publicly listed multinationals.
In her opinion, there are marked differences in product management practice in AsiaPac and Europe. She says that although AsiaPac can sometimes lag behind other parts of the world in terms of market and technology trends, the region can leapfrog over these trends really quickly, with mobile adoption being one particularly strong example of this. “There’s a strange dynamic where the region does skip over entire trends. You have to look at what the US and the UK are doing and then ask ‘what’s not going to happen here? What are we going to skip over?’.”
Georgie says her experience is that product management is more of a tech role in AsiaPac and is confused with product ownership. This took her by surprise when she moved to the region. She adds: “I thought I was going to learn about technology and tech innovation. And while they have things like jumping and talking robots, when it comes to the commercialisation of technology, the region is a little bit behind the US and Europe.”
Constraints in AsiaPac
The constraints in the region also surprised her. Mobile adoption rates are high, so you would think that a mobile app or an advertising product would be a huge monetisation opportunity. But huge numbers of people in the region still don’t have a bank account. “Users often don’t have a plan associated with their very fancy iPhone. The only time they’re ever connected to the internet is when they’re using the free bus WiFi or they’re in a cafe. Then download speeds are quite low, so you have to think about app size,” Georgie adds.
I come from Australia where building a high-performing team is about giving people decision-making power. But in AsiaPac people don’t want to stand out.
But Georgie found the biggest surprise came from the cultural differences she encountered in AsiaPac business. She explains: “I come from Australia where building a high-performing team is about giving people decision-making power. But in AsiaPac people don’t want to stand out.” She found she had to think hard about the education system and the culture in the region to understand what people wanted. “They don’t want to be the person who gets called out and given a trophy at the end of the month, they want everyone to be at the same level. They operate as a team and they want their manager to be close, checking in on them, in the office and making sure that everyone’s okay.”
Understanding Cultural Influences
Georgie says she’d been working in AsiaPac for six months before she realised this. “I kept asking myself ‘why isn’t this working? I know how to do this.’ I was so frustrated until I realised that while the outcome needed to be the same, how I got the team there had to be fundamentally different.” She quickly learned that the same management techniques were still needed – for example, she still had to identify the people who were the cultural influencers within the team but the cultural influencers were different sorts of people from those she expected. In Australia, it might have been the person who got everyone down to the pub at the end of the day, but in Hong Kong it was the person who knew everyone’s parents’ names and invited the team to their child’s first birthday party. She adds: “I think that was the biggest learning I’ve had in my career. Everyone talks about high-performing teams and hyper-growth and we all know what a high performing team looks like. But how you get a group of people there is very different in different cultures.”
Strong and Established Community
Now that she’s based in Europe, Georgie is enjoying the focus on product management rather than product ownership. And she likes being part of a strong and established product community. She also likes the diverse range of backgrounds that product managers come from. “You need product managers with a tech background, as well as those with a business and an analytical background,” she says, “the fundamental parts of product management are innate and you can see them in any role – thinking from a customer’s point of view, providing clarity on the outcome that they’re trying to achieve and how they’re going to get there. The hard skills of product management, the backlog grooming, the acceptance criteria, which is more product ownership, that can be taught, that’s not the difficult part.”
Georgie’s current job is presenting her with a new set of challenges though. She’s been at N26 for two years, having joined initially as director of product. Her CPO left two months after she joined, “which was unexpected, certainly for me,” she says, so she took over the role, gaining responsibility for design and user research in addition to product management.
When she started at N26 it was a relatively small company with about 380 staff, half of whom worked in customer support. There were eight product owners and about a dozen designers across brand design and product design. Today there are 45 product managers. “Essentially, the whole thing has just exploded. I now look after 110 people, that’s across user research, design, product management and product marketing,” she says.
Working at Pace
As N26’s CPO Georgie no longer directly manages any products, but she practises product management in other ways. “Everyone asks me what changes when you get to the CPO level, and certainly a lot changes. For example, my team is now my product,” she says. But her biggest eye-opener was discovering that her peers had no product experience. She says: “They think about things in different ways. I think about everything in product management terms. I know what my goal stage is, I know what the ideal product is going to look like. I also know what the MVP is. That generally then becomes my delivery plan, though I know it probably will not be what I deliver. I have an iterative approach to everything.”
Everyone asks me what changes when you get to the CPO level, and certainly a lot changes.
She also says that she’s never worked at such a fast pace, though much of her product experience has been in businesses at a similar stage of development – coming out of their startup phase, with an established product. “I’ve never worked as fast as I do now, not in Asia, not in Australia. Maybe it’s Europe, maybe it’s fintech, maybe it’s N26?.”
She likens this scaling to a hyper-growth phase to playing Tetris: “Whether it’s the team, the product, the model, the pricing, it doesn’t really faze me. You just need to understand what the ingredients are, and put them together in the best way that you can. It can feel like you’re playing Tetris – as it speeds up, you can only play the pieces that you’ve got. For instance, if one of my product directors says they’ll get me something tomorrow, and then comes to me with it three days later, sometimes I find I can’t play it any more.”
What Being Product-led Means
Georgie uses a couple of approaches to deal with her peers with no product experience. She tries both to teach them about product and to adjust her own way of working. She says that when she first arrived at N26 she spent a lot of time explaining what a product-led organisation was and what it meant. She says that the term “product-led” leads people to think that the product team leads the organisation. “That’s not what product-led is at all – the product leads the organisation,” she says. “The product team is not the only team with an impact on what the product is. If customer support doesn’t pick up the phone, the consumer thinks that’s the product. If the advertising doesn’t match the product, that’s the product. Product led means putting the product the heart of everything, and ensuring that every executive feels responsible for the product. It sounds simple, it’s incredibly difficult when there’s a team called product, and there’s an executive called the Chief Product Officer.”
The product team is not the only team with an impact on what the product is. If customer support doesn’t pick up the phone, the consumer thinks that’s the product. If the advertising doesn’t match the product, that’s the product.
As N26’s Chief Product Officer, Georgie is responsible for revenues – there is no sales director – and marketing is responsible for growth, “so together we make up the profitability of the organisation”. “At the moment we don’t have a sales arm because the marketing arm is the sales arm – it’s app downloads essentially,” she says. “We have a free product and a very good free product. The marketing arm is responsible for getting as many people to N26 as possible and it’s my responsibility to monetise them, whether that’s by getting them to use N26 on a daily basis, or getting them to upgrade to a premium product.”
It takes a certain type of product manager to work in fintech, Georgie feels. She says she looks for someone who is as passionate and driven as someone who works at Netflix or Spotify, but someone who at the same time finds creativity in the constraints of fintech. “Other businesses that aren’t as heavily regulated as banking,” she says, “so people in other industries can sometimes forget about their constraints, but constraints can create really beautiful things.”
The Challenges in Fintech
The main challenge, though, is that the competition in banking is so fierce. Georgie thinks a shakedown is on its way, but it won’t be a traditional shakedown. Many of the slow-moving traditional banks have spent the last 10 years addressing their tech stacks. Says Georgie: “This was the biggest thing that was holding them back. So I think we’ll see some of the benefits of them doing that come through in the next five years.” But she points out that while this would have been effective if nothing else was changing, consumers are changing faster than anyone can even remotely adapt to. “We’ve gone from Facebook to Instagram to TikTok in the blink of an eye,” she says. “While banks’ tech stacks might be in much better shape and allow them to be more flexible and faster, they won’t know necessarily what to do fast enough to adopt the consumer behaviour. We have the Googles, the Amazons and the Facebooks coming into payments as a function rather than a banking function, and a trend towards banking as a service.”
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgie says that N26 is better placed to weather the economic downturn than other businesses in the same phase of their lifecycle. Any expansion plans are on hold and N26 is focusing on deepening its presence in its current 25 European markets and ensuring that it’s profitable in all of them. “Your bank is not necessarily what you cut off at a time like this,” she says. “And we have a big enough customer base – five and a half million customers.” Customer growth dropped at the start of the pandemic. It’s on the rise again now, but there is a change in transaction behaviour and people are spending less. Georgie adds: “We’re not a bank that is run on our loan book. We’re very much focused on subscription and interchange, and our business model is pretty secure. We want to make sure that we’re doing the responsible thing by our customers and make sure that we are protected against whatever happens in the next year.”
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