Product Management golden rules, with Maristela Calazans, from OLX
First: nothing is written in stone, and it is important to iterate
Companies worldwide often define themselves as product-led organizations. It makes sense, considering the product is what a business has to offer — and if it doesn’t work or serve a purpose, the business may face two roads ahead: iteration or closure.
However, how to manage product inside an organization is no trivial question. Different kinds of businesses have been developing various strategies to ensure a culture that effectively puts the product’s interests at the center of the operation. It is a delicate balance between finding the right speed, execution, and possibility to test and iterate — at the same time, that manages an operation structured enough.
To deepen this discussion, we held a Canary Talks, in January 2022, with Maristela Calazans, Chief Product Officer at OLX. The leading Brazilian marketplace for buying and selling used products, OLX currently has over 500,000 ads published every day. Also, half of the Brazilian internet users have already visited the platform.
When Maristela joined the company five and a half years ago, the product area had ten people. Today, it counts over a hundred. “Product management in startups is crucial, especially when it comes to digital products. Because it is where strategy and execution meet”, explains Maristela. “When we have a very product-centered culture and organization, we assure that our priorities are really connected to customer needs.”
Product is also key to keeping a good pace of testing and iterating — and testing and iterating non-stop — which can be vital for companies in a very competitive environment, with new solutions appearing each day. Take Instagram, for example: it had to adapt and create Instagram Stories once Snapchat came along, and is now testing to bring back the chronological feed. Since the early stage, testing and iterating was a massive part of the app’s day-to-day routine — actually, Instagram came from a previous app called Burbn — as Mike Krieger, Instagram’s co-founder, told us in the first episode of Canary Cast, back in 2017.
If we had to highlight one of Krieger’s lessons for early-stage tests, it would be: “don’t ask what is not working on the product, ask what is working. If there’s something worthwhile for the users, focus on that.”
Maristela also mentioned the importance of this movement, especially in the digital world. “You do have space to make mistakes, but it is important to move very fast. Having a good product strategy and knowing what problems you are solving and what value you are delivering to the customer is essential, and that is where product enters”.
In this article, we unravel a few golden rules that Maristela had the kindness of sharing with us about the OLX’s model in the talk, which was moderated by Lucas Montez, Nana Delivery’s co-founder.
A long-term commitment
High-level executives are often under a lot of pressure. It is important to show results and validate the business model and thesis for different stakeholders, such as potential clients and investors. A frequent error, especially in the beginning, is to focus on releasing these tensions and end up losing track of what to do in the long term.
A healthy product area is oriented towards the long term.
“When we define objectives and budgets, I am always looking at the next couple of years”, states Maristela. “When you are a product-led company, you should always be discussing if what you are doing truly brings value to your customer in the long term”.
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Sometimes, finding this balance can be tricky. The best way to approach this is by being very pragmatic about what should or should not be done. A data-driven decision-making process is crucial here. Through data, it is easier to think ahead and put the customers’ needs first, where they should be to guarantee the organization’s well-being.
Lucas Montez also brought a little of his vision on guiding the area’s efforts. Formerly Zé Delivery’s Chief Product and Growth Officer, he also had to deal with challenges of the offline sphere. The main Brazilian beverage delivery app could not succeed if it delivered warm beer, no matter how amazing the in-app experience was.
“Since the beginning, our product strategy was to focus on what is essential. The online experience is a very straightforward one. The vision was to give the user what he really needed: Zé should be the extension of the fridge — and all the areas focused on delivering that”, he says. “But we struggled a lot to get there”.
Evolving the product structure
It is possible to buy all kinds of products in OLX, from cars to houses, books, or electronics. In the beginning, the marketplace followed almost the classified newspaper logic, with the same experience for everyone interested in buying or selling through the platform.
As the business grew, this eventually started to change. More and more, the company felt it needed to specialize for different personas and categories. Today, someone buying a car has a whole different experience from a person who is just looking for second-hand baby items, for instance. The reasoning is simple (and clearly customer-oriented): different consumer needs should require other interactions with the platform.
This movement brought a lot of new challenges for OLX. “We started to verticalize the business and faced many difficulties regarding the organizational structure. The biggest question was how to build a structure that was fast enough but enabled autonomy for the teams and, at the same time, maintained the governance so that the product wasn’t a mess”, tells Maristela.
The first answer was to evolve into an organizational structure similar to the one adopted by Spotify, with tribes comprising different squads accountable for various aspects of the product (a Harvard Business Review article sheds more light on it).
For the past two years, OLX implemented a structure they called alliance: each area of a vertical has the same goal. For instance, the car’s league will include not only product and engineering but also commercial, marketing, etc. No matter from what area a person is, every person of the same vertical has the same objectives, and also the same OKRs and compensation incentives. Today, OLX also counts on a platform structure, allowing the teams to share knowledge and information and have synergies.
That is currently the best structure OLX found, but it may not be the same tomorrow.
“Our structure is a living organism. It changes a lot. Once every two or three years, we need to reconsider and rediscuss if it is working and still efficient”, says Maristela. “There are some decisions that you can make, even from the beginning of the company’s journey, to avoid the suffering of growing afterward. Having a very flexible architecture is one of them: it helps to grow”.
Accountability — to ensure that all parts of this organism are working properly, it is vital to look at accountability. Each team plays a role and should be responsible for it.
Three quick questions that may be helpful to revisit from time to time to avoid problems along the road:
- Is there overlap between the teams? If one depends much on the other, they are probably not working fast enough.
- Are the teams autonomous and able to make decisions?
- Do you have clear responsibilities and accountability for the main KPIs and OKRs of the business?
Hiring the right product people
At every stage, counting on the right people is critical for a company. “My advice is to give a lot of attention to those you hire, especially in the beginning, when it costs a lot to have someone who is not a good fit”, says Maristela.
You, reader, may ask: how to find the right person for the job? As searching for talent becomes more complex, that is a one billion dollar question.
However, it may be good to look for a few core skills when it comes to product.
“A product leader should be extremely pragmatic, practical, results-oriented and avoid obsessing with certain ideas, because you often need to change routes”, says Maristela. “Look for people with a powerful business sense in the beginning because it minimizes the conflict between different areas. They should understand the product, but also the shareholders and commercial needs. Having people who feel the pain of different areas helps a lot”.
Executing well and being a good problem solver are also valuable characteristics. A reminder here: product is an area that never works alone, so it is vital to know how to collaborate with other people.
How technical should they be? — Product people may come from different backgrounds. The main recommendation is that they have the core skills highlighted above. But, knowing a bit about technology may be a big plus, especially when talking about the digital world.
Understanding the basics of how tech works may help a product leader better comprehend its pains, possibilities, and limitations. Maristela always recommends three books for those who don’t have a technical background, that may make a difference in their day-to-day relationship with engineering (we will get back to that later): Accelerate, Team Topologies, and An Elegant Puzzle.
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…And keeping them — At OLX, a combination of factors helps retain product employees. First, there is a very clear career ladder that a person may run in the company — and an internal academy with courses that help collaborators evolve.
The second thing is recognition: almost all product managers are in the stock option plan — except for those who joined the company for less than six months.
Another critical point here is culture. OLX has a diverse team, with almost 50% of the area’s leadership being held by women.
“A good product management translates into excellent results and very engaged people. There is still an illusion of hype when we talk about product, but it’s tough work, measurements, just like every other job”, states Maristela. In that sense, it is imperative to have a very strong product leader in the beginning to establish the culture. “If you find people with the core skills, they learn what to do pretty easily — and they usually love doing it.”
Product and engineering
“My relationship with engineering is more important than the one I have with my boss.” — it may sound like a joke, but Maristela firmly believes that product needs to work closely with engineering and know well its pains to keep the business going. If both areas don’t look at the same challenges and goals, the company will eventually face bumps in the road.
“At OLX, at first, we had different OKRs, which is insane. Today, we have the same objectives. The senior leadership for product and engineering have a weekly meeting and define everything together: from priorities to compensation incentives, resources allocation, and changes in the team. Of course, there are some particularities of each functional area, but everything related to the squads, we decide together, “ says Maristela. “We understood that it was critical to work together, and we were delivering better results by doing that”.
Balancing product and engineering teams — OLX has some ratios to guide the size of its product and engineering teams. It is not an exact science, but usually, they try to have one product manager for each four to five developers, and one product manager for each UX designer. “The idea is always to have one person for discovery for every two or three for delivery, considering product manager and UX designer look at discovery and developers at delivery”, explains Maristela.
Once a month, both product and engineering, take a second glance at it, especially at the teams working for the business’s top priorities. The purpose is to guarantee that resource allocation is acceptable, and the company is not pushing any squad with fewer people than what is necessary to reach the company’s objectives.
Turning the product strategy into reality
“Strategy deployment is our main challenge”, says Maristela. There are no recipes here, and every company should find its way. Having the right people is more than half of the picture. A good structure, as we mentioned above, also plays a role.
At OLX, it was crucial to have a product operations area, capable of integrating different initiatives and connecting the dots. For instance, when they are looking at mobile experience, which is a subject that matters to many teams, there is a program manager focused only on it.
Product operations also help to define priorities and the quarter’s day-to-day activities, almost like a roadmap for everyone. “When you grow, it is very important to have some area giving transparency for the whole organization”, says Maristela. “Sometimes we think that we can do everything, but that’s really really hard.”