After 16 months of high-impact Product Management at the world’s largest retailer, I often find myself introspecting on my 3 years of entrepreneurship in India. (Spoiler Alert: I did not succeed in building a rocket-ship startup, but learned a lot along the way).
I’m sure there are things I would have done differently. Decisions I would have made with a different lens and hypotheses I would have questioned with more sincerity. I wonder what I would have said to the bright-eyed, optimistic, 23-year-old version of myself had I met him today, knowing the things I do now about designing, launching, and scaling successful consumer-tech products.
In fact, I wish I could have had that conversation. While I can’t turn back time, I will attempt to articulate what that conversation would look like. I hope these learnings are valuable to every first-time entrepreneur and also, to those considering a career in product management with the aspiration of starting their own enterprise someday.
Context on My Story
In January 2016, I launched ShopHop with the goal of creating a new platform for food entrepreneurs in India. Think of it as an Etsy for food. With a tagline of ‘Natural, Artisanal, Homegrown’, we set out to build a curated e-commerce marketplace that aspired to become the go-to platform for folks trying to start a food brand from their home-kitchens.
We had moderate initial success, raised 2 angel rounds of funding of nearly ~120K USD, grew to over 150 partner food-makers and more than 15,000 customers with an average MOM Repeat rate of 18%. However, after 2 years — we never realized the growth potential we originally set out for and after a couple of pivots, folded the business due to lack of funding. (If you’re really interested, you can listen to an episode from the Indian Startup Show about our mission and growth here https://www.indianstartupshow.com/episodes/32)
I chose to come back to the United States and after graduating with a Masters in Computer Science at Cornell Tech, I joined Walmart Labs (the technology arm of Walmart focused on e-commerce) as a Product Manager in July 2019. I was originally a member of the Cart & Checkout team where I was able to build and hone my core product-management skillset under the guidance of some great mentors. In April of this year, I was thrilled to join the founding product team of Walmart+ (Walmart’s first membership service) and in some sense to rejoin a startup again under the aegis of a Fortune 1 Company.
It is over the course of my time at Walmart — identifying, designing, developing, launching and scaling consumer features that I built the know-how to honestly introspect upon my time as the founder of ShopHop. While there is so much I wish I knew back then that I do now, I would distill my most important learnings into 4 key aspects.
1- Pick Your Candy! ‘Focus & Prioritize’
“Ruthless prioritization”. You’d be surprised how many times I have heard these words during my time in Product Management. With product teams competing for a finite set of engineering resources and the criticality of time to market, successful product management is inevitably dependent on the ability to cut and chop your feature roadmap.
You know that feeling when you were a kid at a candy store who wanted all twenty different types of special Christmas candy? Well, in the product world you’re going to have to pick at most 3. If you’re blessed with a prolific engineering team that likes you, maybe 5.
Till today, this process can be difficult for me. It is hard to conduct the analysis and customer research to build a feature roadmap only to realize you will never be able to build more than half of it. What do you mean we can’t build that personalized checkout experience or AB Test an exciting new sign-up page?
This emphasis on ‘focus’ however is the most important advice I would give to myself as a founder. As founders, we often have a grand vision for what our startup can eventually be. What is significantly more difficult, is breaking that vision down into the first indivisible piece. Bezos started with books on the long and arduous journey to making Amazon the ‘everything store’. That initial focus, however, allows you to build and dominate a niche, build the foundations for scale, and most importantly — allow consumers to easily identify your brand.
At ShopHop — we curated some of the finest artisanal food makers across categories including ethnic foods, healthy protein bars, gourmet teas and coffees, desserts, organic vegetables, and more. In total, we had a product assortment of over 3,000 SKUs spread across 15 categories! Not only did this prevent us from building expertise and operational capabilities for each of these categories — it diluted the focus of our marketing and target audiences. In retrospect, perhaps we should have started with a single important category that we believe held the best growth potential. Maybe gourmet coffee as we were witnessing a boom in Indian Coffee Entrepreneurs, or perhaps healthy-ethnic foods as a rapidly urbanizing Indian generation was trying to get fit. Regardless of that decision, I wished we had ‘ruthlessly prioritized’ as hard as it may have been. I wished we had picked that one specific candy.
2- Perfection is the Antithesis of Growth
During my Masters at Cornell Tech I had the privilege of learning from an illustrious set of practitioners in the tech industry. One of these was Greg Pass who was the first CTO of Twitter. Professor Pass believed the number 1 reason startups fail is ‘premature scaling’. This really stuck with me in part because as product managers we have to be cognizant of this on a daily basis and also because it resonates with my time building ShopHop.
If you invest in scaling prior to a strong product-market fit, or in other words — a high level of confidence that your service/product is what customers really want; you find yourself on a very slippery slope. This is part of the reason that as Product Managers we often launch imperfect products. If you design, build and launch a ‘perfect product’ after a 6 month period — only to receive a lukewarm market response at best; you are 6 painful months behind the competition. Many of you might already be familiar with the ‘Build-Measure-Learn’ methodology in the now famous ‘Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries that emphasizes a similar approach of MVP oriented development. BUT trust me, I read that book and it is very hard to launch imperfect products when you’re the one building it or it is your startup on the line. Only after a few speedy launches and the confidence that you will eventually enhance the features that actually work, does it become second nature to truly support the idea of a ‘minimum viable product’. It took me several projects at Walmart before my heart stopped skipping that beat. You have got to understand that if you build a service or product of real tangible value to customers, the bells and whistles do not matter.
During my time at ShopHop, I invested a significant portion of our first angel round in building a sophisticated seller platform to optimize our marketplace operations. We also invested in improving our website experience. But this did not reflect in growth beyond a few months. We were so certain that a beautiful interface, SMS based order management system, and other mature product enhancements would solve our growth problems — we ignored some fundamentals such as last-mile food delivery and lack of CAC-efficient marketing. We were so proud of a ‘perfect’ digital experience, we were partially yet blissfully oblivious to the more critical challenges facing the business. Perfection is, unfortunately, the antithesis of growth. And if I could find myself working through the design specs of our new website post-funding in 2017, I’d definitely bring that up.
3- Management is Hard
The most critical common skill set between entrepreneurship & product management is managing a team. This is also, the most challenging aspect of both jobs.
Product Managers infamously have to ‘manage without direct authority’ and in doing so — have to perfect a very subtle art. You need to be compelling without being coercive, firm yet polite, and build healthy relationships with coworkers spanning across design, engineering, data science, business, and operations. When you are tasked by your leaders to ship a new product in 3 weeks (yes, this can happen) you need to have each of these stakeholders on your side. This is not easy. This is, however, the most important part of management and critical to your success as a Product Manager.
Working with highly talented designers, engineers, and data-scientists at Walmart has taught me a lot about management. Some of the highlights include aligning on a common goal and purpose (data helps make many arguments for you!), building trust and eliminating the urge to micro-manage, learning to define requirements and milestones together to ensure accountability, and last but not least –embracing objectivity and building a thick skin during the difficult conversations.
As an entrepreneur at 23, I was blissfully oblivious to this critical aspect of the job. I hired friends and employees to build a team with an average age of 26. United by a common purpose and belief in the long-term growth potential of our idea, we were all in need of great management. The buck started and stopped with me, and I was wrong to believe that as a great individual contributor who took pride in perfect deliverables from my consulting days– I could easily transfer that skill set over to being a Founder-CEO for my team. I found myself either micromanaging my team’s work or uncomfortable entirely delegating work that I could help with such as design, operations, and sales. With my engineering team, I often found myself over-delegating without crystal clear requirements or milestones for launches that I have now come to value as a Product Manager.
We were young, hungry, and driven. But we were not well managed. Great management can build discipline, inspire learning, build self-accountability, and drive outcomes at a regular cadence. This was hard for me to provide as a 23 year old manager, and unfortunately — exactly what my startup needed.
Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt as CEO and Mark Zuckerburg had Sean Parker and now Sheryl Sandberg. An experienced captain is a must-have for young founders to navigate the choppy waters of early-stage growth. In retrospect, I believed I could learn the ropes of being a CEO on the job but overcoming that partially egotistical urge could have changed the fortunes of ShopHop.
4- Customer over Technology. The Little Fixes Go A Long Way
Some of the most (statistically) successful features I have launched at Walmart were, well — not technically groundbreaking. Being ‘customer-centric’ is such a common mantra these days that we may think this point is obvious. Trust me, it’s not.
During my time in Cart & Checkout & Walmart+, keeping a close eye on the Voice of Customer and Customer Care feedback has allowed us to identify critical ‘quick-fixes’ or ‘low-hanging-fruit’ that boosted our conversion rates and GMV far-more than imagined. We sometimes forget that customers care most about simplicity and efficiency in accomplishing their tasks.
In my early days as a Product Manager — I yearned to build the next ‘big feature’ that would leverage machine learning, personalization, and inspire awe simply with the complexity it entailed. It felt like the ‘sexy part’ of the job and I wanted to take up more of it.
With experience and (slightly greater) maturity, I learned to appreciate the value of the critical customer-enhancements that may not be as cool but were significantly more impactful to our goals as an organization. This was not a maturity I possessed during my time as a Founder.
At ShopHop, I often prioritized features and enhancements that could similarly be described as the ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ thing to build. A great example of this was ‘Creator Profile Videos’ on our home-page. We embedded videos showcasing the journey and story of food-entrepreneurs on seller-pages as well as on the ShopHop homepage. We were thrilled with how cool the experience looked and convinced that this would drive conversion and sales. We soon learned that this feature deteriorated our site-speed metrics and consequently spiked abandonment rates on devices with low-bandwidth internet (2G and 3G). For users with high-speed internet — it was a beautiful experience of story-telling. The problem was — there simply were not enough customers in the Indian market who fell into this bucket. Another great example was our ‘Foodie Points’ rewards system which used animation nudges across the customer journey to encourage reviews and purchases but increased the SLA on our immature and fragile tech-stack at the time.
All of these features were definitely ‘cool’ but in candid terms– superfluous for the stage of our startup. With limited engineering resources — our energy and capital would have been much better spent addressing core fundamentals such as site-speed, order tracking, transaction funnel optimizations, or even language translation integrations for non-English speakers in the Indian market. If we had dedicated more time speaking to our customers, perhaps we would have chosen to do so.
The maturity of singular focus on core-customer pain points is one I have been lucky to develop as a Product Manager at Walmart. It is however difficult to truly embrace this discipline without a structured environment, managers and colleagues that value and emphasize this. I do not blame myself as a young entrepreneur for being carried away with the glamour of building ‘cool features’ — but I’d definitely do things differently now.
All clichés are true. Regrettably, we only learn to value them through individual experience. The four learnings I wrote about above are described, discussed, and spoken about in length in entrepreneurship books, other medium posts, and in MBA Classes too. At this point — you may even consider them cliched.
I hope, however, that sharing my personal experience helps any entrepreneur reading them think about each of them that tiny bit more. And perhaps, driven with the discipline from this wisdom build a better startup. (P.S: Let me know if any of you ever figure out that time-machine so I can do the same ;) ).