Supriya is a product technology executive who currently is the Chief Product Officer of Rentalcars.com, the largest online car rental company. Supriya has over twenty years of experience in product and engineering executive roles across the west coast of America.
She was with Amazon.com in Seattle for over a decade focusing on the core customer experience on a variety of products including retail, social and Kindle. Her last role at Amazon.com was the technical advisor to the Sr. Vice President of Kindle devices. Prior to that, she worked in a variety of startups including Zynga and pro.com. Supriya has a dual masters degree with a masters in distributed computing from Michigan Technological University and an MBA from Wharton Business School.
Supriya loves product innovation and believes that design thinking is at the core of product disruption. She enjoys talking at conferences that sit at the confluence of product design and technology innovation.
[00:00:02] I'm going to use the next 30 minutes to talk a little bit about myself, and tell you a little bit about what I've learned in terms of product scaling. I know this is not a Q&A session, and I'm just going to have my talk, but if you have something that's egregiously, that you want to talk about and discuss, feel free to raise your hand, and you know, we can get into a Q&A session for it.
[00:00:30] This is me. I just started as a chief product officer for Rentalcars.com nine months ago. This is my dog Scotch. He's the chief product officer of the Uchil household. His sole purpose in life is to find, create happiness for the Uchil household, and if you had to, you know, rate who would be a better chief product officer, he wins. Like big points.
[00:00:56] I grew up in lovely India. I spent the first 20 years of my life there, in a very middle-class community. Options were either engineering or medical and I went ahead and became a computer engineer. And then I spent around 20 years in the United States. I went to Philadelphia, I have an MBA from Wharton Business School, which came to some use, and been very good use. I stayed in Seattle for over ten years, working in various roles at Amazon.com, and we'll talk a little bit about that. And then I spent a couple of years by Lake Superior which is, like, way up North. That lake is like 40 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. So a lot of time there. And then I spent a couple of years in San Francisco working for a bunch of startups. I started three companies there, two which failed really quickly, really fast, which is always a good thing. One which kind of kicked-off and was alive for a couple of years, I sold that one. So I was happy about that. I made zero money out of it.
[00:01:56] So, product at Amazon for 10 years. I started in 2000 when most of us were trying to figure out how to scale products, right? We were at 10 million categories: 10 million books. How do you get to 100 million? Hey, you have books, how do you get to music DVD and video? Hey you have books music TV and radio, how do you get to consumer electronics? How do you really understand the customer segmentation? How do you start forecasting? How are your distribution centers aligned to make sure that you're optimizing everything, so that you don't have to go through various distribution centers to pick items for our customers?
[00:02:33] So a lot and lot of product scaling, and what we would call typical 'crossing the chasm'. I was responsible for things like Mechanical Turk, which is Amazon's first intent test on how Amazon Web Services would work, and we tried that as a dogfooding exercise; it is still alive and up and running right now, used by hundreds and thousands of users.
[00:03:00] And then I left, and went to business school, and launched a bunch of startups, and came back to Amazon. In my second stint at Amazon we're really trying to solve the problem around customer engagement, and loyalty around Kindle devices, and when I say Kindle I just don't mean the reading device, I mean the entire ecosystem of devices that Amazon owned, and really trying to figure out what does loyalty mean for that customer, right.
[00:03:25] Typically in the digital world, we look into what is called content holding. Does anyone know what content holding means? Okay. That's very good. Content holding is, assume you to a bookstore to buy a book. OK. What do you do? You go ahead and buy one book. You come home, and then you're leaving your bookshelf for like years, or you tend to open it up, and read it a little bit, and then you go to the bookstore and go buy the second book. Right, and as, you know, the same thing happened in the physical where you're trying to buy a book on Amazon.com. You go ahead and you buy the book, it comes to your house, and you can choose to keep your bookshelf, or you can choose to open it and read it. But now assume you're in the digital worl,d and every book is available for 99 cents. Typically we go into what is called content holding which is like, "oh, I like that book. I like that book. I like that book. I like that book. And you download all of those books, and then you forget about it.
[00:04:17] Right. Well that's not engaged. That kind of behavior is not an engaged customer. That's a content holder. Someone who's gathering content, but not really doing anything with it. So we looked a lot into devices: things like the Amazon Dash, which is used in kitchens; things like the Amazon Echo and Alexa, and what would that mean for really exploring Amazon getting into the kitchen, or Amazon getting into the household. So did a lot of work around that. In my last role as the technical adviser to the Senior Vice-President of Kindle Devices, really trying to figure out the ecosystem of devices and how they all interplay and work together to create an extremely highly loyal customer.
[00:05:02] So that stuff at Amazon, and what I'm going to do today in the talk is to use a lot of examples from Amazon in terms of what I learned, and hopefully that will help you in terms of understanding what scaling really means.
[00:05:14] I worked for a bunch of startups, you know, in San Francisco and in Seattle. One is called pro.com, which is a service-oriented model, helping you find your plumber, or a carpenter, and finding a best price for that. How many have you heard about Zynga, or FarmVille? Yeah, so I was at Zynga and FarmVille, working on a product called FarmVille, which really like, you know, hit to like 30 million active users while I was there, and was like the largest online game in everyone from like 10 year old kids, to like you know 50 year old people were really engaged in that product, so I learned a lot about gaming mechanics, and social behavior.
[00:05:57] And then, like, you know, several startups like Lockerz.com. I started a bunch of startups in that whole spectrum, a couple in India. A lot of people ask me the question why Rentalcars.com. I think the simple answer is I didn't know which to do pick: Seatle versus Manchester. Both of them are super rainy. I was like, okay, move from one rainy city to the next rainy city, but really it's the third largest online retailer in the world, right behind Amazon and Alibaba, and the numbers change every single year. It's a sister booking.com. So we're a 1.6 billion pound company, Rentalcars is a 1.6 billion pound revenue company, that sits behind like a 100 billion pound behemoth, right? And that's super helpful from a strategy perspective, because you know, it helps us to not risk mitigation, and our risk tolerance.
[00:06:55] We're a very product-centric company. Simon Smith, please raise your hand, who's sitting right here from Rentalcars, and he's joining me today, and he's been really helpful and responsible for kind of like moving us to an agile and a product-centric company, and I have a talk this afternoon around what is product-centricity and what does failing fast mean, that I'm trying to inculcate as a culture at Rentalcars. It's truly global, and this is super important for product scaling. We have 50k different locations, 900 suppliers, and 163 different countries — I was talking to Cally about just a few minutes ago.
[00:07:30] What does product scaling mean when you go international? Do you really have a product, one product that fits all, and does it work ubiquitously, or would you have to do and change, and then if you do decide to change, now are you creating a hotchpotch of like, you know, custom of products to suit every customer? That's a really important aspect that you have to think about.
[00:07:49] For product scaling we have a 1,500 employees across London, Manchester, Sofia, Barcelona, and Fukuoka. That's a good size for me. So one of the things that I've learned, is like you know, if I can like you know meet people and talk to them, and engage with them, and recognize faces, that creates a feeling of community for me. Right. And so this was a good size of a company for me. So now let's get to the talk and really try to figure it out, okay, product scaling.
[00:08:16] So you are a founder of a company, or a product owner, or a designer or a CEO of a company, and you've figured out what your initial flywheel is, and the initial flywheel seems to work. You've run a bunch of intent tests. Is this going to work? Is that going to work? And you said, okay. Well here's one that's like, you know, the Amazon flywheel: you focus on the customer experience, you get traffic to the site, you make sure that there are enough sellers on the platform, and boom, that helps you with your selection and that's your primary part done. Then you lower costs, and you've created the flywheel effect for every single customer. So now a whole — this is what Jeff drew on his, on a napkin, like, you know, two decades ago. I'm sure each of you have one.
[00:08:59] And this is what the reality of life looks like, right. This is your company's growth. This is what you aspire would happen. You're hoping for that hockey stick effect right at the end point. This is really what actually happens. Like things go on and off on, and off on and off. You're still trying to learn what that customer base is, and you're like, "oh my god! My customer acquisition strategy is really working. But they never coming back again." Right. And you really started to deal with the ups and downs of your industry, and this is why you drink, right? It's like, you know, why you drink - because what your dreaming and inspiring doesn't line up with your company, and your customers, loan partners, tell you, and then you try to work super hard hoping for a different outcome right.You're like, "Oh my god. I'm down the cliff peak, and I have to kind of get my wheel going again." But sometimes that just doesn't work.
[00:09:51] So your board of directors is giving you input on how you should scale. Your customers are giving input. Someone calls from Barcelona and says "Hey, can I like start using your product. I don't want to pay those shipping costs that I have to pay." Right. Someone from Dubai saying, "why can't I use net importer or ukes in Dubai? Why do I have to pay these costs?" Your partners are telling you what to do, and really your dog is telling you what to do as well, right?
[00:10:18] So what I'm basically saying is you have a bunch of different people, or entities, telling you how to do your product scaling, and that can be very daunting, because you're getting a whole bunch of different inputs from a whole variety of sources, and so then you have to kind of deal with are you explaining all the opportunities? Right. Like, you know, this is something that we saw at Amazon. Okay, should we go into China? And you know what what should we do if you think about going to China? Or we think about this at Rentalcars. Should we go to Seychelles, and if we go to Seychelles, what does that mean for us? Right, and you do the due diligence on what that means for you, and then you go into the country, and the reality of what is then the country totally does not match your expectations of what you had thought.
[00:11:02] Right. What would it be like before going there? Right, but you have to kind of explore all the opportunities, and you have to figure out when to give up. Right. In some cases you're like, okay. I mean a really good example is yes Uber that gets into China, works for a few years, and then decides to get out. Example of Google, example of Amazon. Plenty of companies that have gone in and made big huge investments as part of their product scaling and strategy in a given country or locale and then have had to kind of regress back and you know, because the learnings of the economies of scale that they get within that local context, does not bear well when think of the overall international arm, right? And so world dominance does not actually work when you think about it from a strategy scaling perspective.
[00:11:49] So you think of category expansion in, you know, different companies have different portfolios of it, right, and in 1997 is when we move from books to music, and at that time at Amazon we had a fairly good customer base, and we thought we knew things about books, but music was a totally different world. Right, and then came the video, and then came DVD, and then we thought, well now we figured out the mechanics of like you know what we would call BMVD at that time: books, music, video, and DVD, and then we went to consumer electronics, and boy did we fail, right, because we did not understand consumer electronic paterns. Right. At some point Amazon bought a book, that Amazon bought a whole bunch of companies that dealt with dog food. Right. Well we didn't really think, oh, okay, well we should buy this company, we don't realize well dog food is really heavy, it's like a 50 pound bag. Shipping on that is going to be enormous, and that's going to kill us. Right. So there are all these thought process that we take, and then we only learn about that when you tippy-toe inside, right, but that normal process for tippy-toeing is going headlong.
[00:12:53] The Priceline strategy has basically been an acquisition strategy, right? Priceline.com, Booking.com, Rentalcars.com. Expedia's strategy has been an integrated solutions, kind of; Skyscanner's strategy has been different. Every company kind of, like, figures out what works for them within their business model. Acquisitions have their own issues, you know? Eight out of 10 acquisitions, like, you know, do not succeed, and part of that is the company just do not know what the synergies is and how to capitalize on them.
[00:13:24] It's the same learning for international expansion, right? I mean, this is something that we've learned at Amazon, and something that we've learned within Rentalcars. You build your mobile site for UK, and then you translate it to Spanish, and you translate into German, and it just doesn't work because, you know, maybe a Japanese customer has a totally different search pattern than your UK customer, or maybe a German customer needs more data upfront, right? So that's when you start thinking about, hey, if you fine-tune the product for the customer more, than are you really having like you know, a hundred different code paths that are going through the customer.
[00:14:02] And this is where personalization really helps, right? Data mining, and personalization for the customer, really gives you indication of how do you tailor the product to the customer versus the lookout that the customer was coming from, right? And so a lot of work has been done around, you can think of a ubiquitous product, and that's fine, but if you really focused on personalization of the paradigm, then that kind of helps you tailor need to the individual customer, and that that is, like you know, product scaling at its most, is like can you figure out how they know the product to an individual customer?
[00:14:42] Wikipedia defines strategy as this: "a plan of action designed to achieve a long term or an overall outlook." Michael Porter talks about strategy in this way, right? Michael Porter says, "hey there are a bunch of unique and valuable positions around activities that are difficult to repeat. Well let's, as we all realise it's super easy to say, okay, but when you are within the system, how do you realise what activities are within your company that are unique to you and which are defensible enough, and then how do you create alignment between those activities that they're reinforcing, and that can that can then be a competitive disadvantage? And operational excellence — optimizing something to make it faster or better or process improvement — is really not, according to Michael Porter, a strategy, right?
[00:15:33] So one thing to think about is: hey, you're willing to go to a new country a new category. Can you figure out how to intent test your strategies, and intent testing is really figuring out, you know, it's really in that iteration, disruption, innovation spectrum: the first aspect of it. So if we decide, as Rentalcars.com, if we decide to go to a new country, we run a bunch of intent tests around that new country, and intent test are small things that we can learn about customer focus and behavior that makes us fine-tune our tactics for a strategy, right?
[00:16:05] So if we decide to go to India, we write up what we think is like, you know, are view of what the world is, and then we go and run a bunch of intent tests in India to see how our view has changed, right? That is extremely, superbly important for us, right? To continuously intent tests and not assume that a strategy is a point of view, and that it's going to be fixed, right. A strategy is just a point of view in time, and as soon as you've written your strategy doc, you immediately have to figure out what the real world is telling you, and how that delineates itself.
[00:16:41] At Amazon.com this process works really in terms of the horizon of thinking of what success looks at. If you're a Series A company, then your VCs might ask you for a return of investment on your strategy in twelve to eighteen months, right? Maybe they'll push it to five years, but they are really looking if your customer acquisition strategy is to grow by X, by this particular channel, they're looking to see in three to four months, are you are you going to be able to... Are you on the right track or not? Because if they're not, then you know, they're going to ask your dog to tell you what to do, or your partner to tell you what to do, or they're gonna tell you what to do.
[00:17:19] Your horizon of thinking of success is totally dependent on your risk tolerance. Right, so if you're a 1.6 billion company, that sits under a portfolio of a 100 billion pound business, the horizon of thinking, and the investment that you're going to make, is solely different than if you were a 1.6 billion pound company by yourself, right. An important thing to think about is, if you think about your product, so your strategy is being alive for thirty, forty years, right, where you may not be in your company at that time. Does it not change your strategy in terms of how you think? Right. If you widen the horizon your perception of how you deal with a portfolio will change.
[00:18:05] And so really expanding from seven, to twenty, to thirty-year horizon, does that change your thinking? And being able to be very articulate and clear when you define your strategy, that like, you know, the outcome of that strategy is not like in eighteen months, two years. People develop a strategy and then say, "hey, this will happen at some point in the future," but to define what that outcome is, intended outcome is at point X.
[00:18:29] I mean the final question that you're trying to really answer is are you bringing up creating a accompany or a legacy. Right. And if you look at like Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos, they're trying to create a legacy, and that legacy exists outside of them, and outside of their lifetime. And when you think that way, product scaling, or your strategy, is just a much smaller time horizon. Your willing to take much bigger risks than you normally would. So that's what I'm going to kind of leave you, in terms of like what does product scaling mean for you in your company. Is it just really tied to the horizon of your thinking and your risk tolerance?