By Sooraj Rajmohan
Today, Harsha Kumar is a partner at venture capital firm Lightspeed India. Before making the pivot to venture however, she spent time in the trenches as the first Product Manager at then-fledgling ride-hailing startup Ola Cabs. In her time there, she witnessed first hand the rise of Ola, building and scaling teams that saw the startup go from 3,000 rides a day to over a million.
Besides this experience, Harsha also drew from her knowledge handling product at AdNear and Zynga to answer the multitude of product-related questions we threw at her in episode 2 of #FirstPrinciples.
As a VC, she focuses her energies on startups operating in the consumer, SME, and fintech spaces, and uses her experience as an early stage PM at a unicorn startup to guide companies navigating similar hurdles today.
The view from the trenches
Understandably, a lot of our attendees wanted to know what life at Ola was like in the early days. Harsha recalls how she signed up for exactly that early stage life, the zero to one experience in a startup with huge potential. It didn’t take long for that reality to hit her.
“I joined Ola before their Series B round, and was hired to help build the consumer app. It was after I joined that I realised we would be building for three platforms (Android, iOS, and Windows).”
The kicker? She had only two front end developers, and no designer.
The brief was to launch in one month.
“It took us two-and-half, but we managed to launch on all three platforms. To do this, we scaled the team to about 16 engineers, and hired a designer. That’s just how we had to execute to beat someone like Uber.”
This zero to one experience she had craved was an eye opener on the demands of what Product Management at an early stage startup looked like.
“Zero to one is a very different beast, the approach needs to be different. You cannot read blogs and watch videos by PMs in large organisations and apply that to your work. Contrary to what people tell you, early stage is a sprint, not a marathon. You have few customers, fewer people, little capital, an unproven market, and — if you’re in the right sector — competition. In this stage, it is about if you can hit Product-Market Fit (PMF) before your competition. From seed to Series A,B,C, others drop off. The funnel keeps narrowing and the only way to get to the next phase of the funnel, is to get there first.”
In this sort of environment, with precious little data to rely on and not a large enough customer base to extract it from, mistakes are commonplace. Harsha pointed out the most obvious ones — overanalysis and waiting for feature completion.
“At this point, it’s like launching five Minimum Viable Products (MVPs), seeing what clicks, and doubling down. A lot of people spend too much time doing things sequentially. It’s a great ethic, but it doesn’t work at this stage. Yes, do research, talk to customers, but pace matters so much more.”
Bridging the chasm between business and customer
It’s often said that PMs are the voice of the customer. Harsha is of the opinion that the best PMs are also the voice of the business and all its many functions.
“The customer feedback trap is one many PMs fall into. Listen to customers, but understand that difference between their feedback and your product roadmap. Don’t take feedback till you have some hypothesis on what is going on in your business.”
Feedback tells you what is happening on the ground… not what you want to do with it.
She goes back to her Ola days to bring up one particularly tricky problem:
At a point in time, Ola noticed spikes in their driver partners denying rides. This was happening in the mornings and evenings, shortly after the Ola Money wallet was launched.
“Our requests for feedback didn’t pinpoint exact problems, so we began analysing what our partners were doing at those times. It turned out in the mornings, they needed cash to fill fuel, and in the evenings, they preferred rides on their route home. Unfortunately, we couldn’t give them exactly what they wanted.”
Instead, solutions were arrived at that worked for all parties involved. The time taken to credit partner accounts was shortened, a card product was launched for partners to use directly, and algorithms were tweaked taking feedback into account.
Is there such a thing as an ideal PM?
“Product Managers also need to understand business. You have to prioritise what customers want, but also the needs of the business. At higher levels, bring in people with the ability to do this. At junior levels, hire people with the desire to. Value people who spike high on empathy, not just analytical ability. It also helps if the person has previous experience with the stage you’re at now.”
Another point she stressed on was maintaining harmony between Product and Engineering.
Harsha attributes discord between the two functions to two fundamental things:
Mismatch in resourcing ability: If you have more PMs than engineers, the ideas outnumber execution ability. As PMs are often pushed to show metrics, they may pass the buck to engineers. This is a hiring problem.
Mismatch in philosophy: This usually arises between Heads of Engineering and Product. Unless these two can see eye-to-eye, it’s hard to deliver. Harsha’s recommendation: if you’re hiring a Lead for either function, have the other party on the interview panel to see if they can work well together.
The view from the world of venture capital
“Investors feel the same highs and pains as the founders, but do a lot less work. Execution is the tough part, and your life is easier because you’re shielded from that.”
Harsha believes a lot of the filters applied by Product Managers in their domain work in the VC world as well. The ability to extrapolate from numbers, knowing where to dig, which strings to pull. “The only difference is as a PM I was always on the move. Sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always chasing something. With VC, it’s a lot more wait and watch, and it can take years before you know what is going on and how your investments are doing. It’s a big mental switch. I’ve always loved working with startups and building companies, and now I get to work with several at the same time — and learn.”
Harsha’s advice for people looking to transition into VC roles:
- Join early as an analyst or associate and move up the ladder.
- Do what she did. Help build companies, get used to seeing what happens in the tough times. Build that muscle to help other companies in similar situations.
- Build a personal brand and network. These are the people who will tell you about great opportunities.
On building in the void of COVID
We got some interesting questions for Harsha from our live participants in the session, one of which focused on the realities of Product Management in a time of social separation and solitude. By way of parting response, Harsha suggested PMs spend a few cycles re-evaluatiing roadmaps and looking for out of the box opportunities.
“Now is a good time to be a maverick. To sit and think and take some chances that could change the faces of companies. If you can reprioritise and innovate, now is the time.”
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