Listen to Manik gupta on solving the right problems, building an exceptional product team, becoming voice of the customer and scaling a business.
Manik currently serves as an advisor and investor to startups based in the US and India. Manik has built the products that have helped millions of people discover the world, most recently serving as the Chief Product Officer at Uber. Prior to Uber, Manik was a product leader at Google Maps. Manik grew up in India and studied in Singapore. He studied computer engineering at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and received an MBA from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, India.
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Amit Somani 0:39
Welcome to the Prime Venture Partners Podcast. Today, we have with us a special guest, a dear friend, the former Chief Product officer at Uber and a product leader at Google. My buddy Manik Gupta. Welcome to the show Manik.
Manik Gupta 0:53
Thank you so much,Amit. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Amit Somani 0:55
Manik, love to have our listeners go through a little bit of your journey. You had started a company before you did your MBA and then the long product journey at Google, Uber and so forth. So can you just walk our listeners through your career journey?
Manik Gupta 1:10
Yeah, definitely. So firstly Amit, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. Yeah. In terms of my journey. Look, I have always been very fascinated by technology and I used to study in Singapore. This is around the time the whole dot com boom happened in the late 90s and while I was graduating from my computer engineering in Singapore, there was a lot going on with regards to the internet, things have just started coming together.
All of us have been exposed to Netscape and the Web Browsers and everything and while we were in college, so whenever you’re in college, it’s a magical time because you kind of learn so many different things and there’s a community that you form. So I got together with two of my classmates and we jumped right into entrepreneurship and we started an E-commerce company, where I was a founding engineer, and focused on demand aggregation. So this is really around how you can pool demand from multiple people on the internet, even if they don’t know each other, and then try to drive volume discounts for those individuals.
So back in the day in late 99, when we first started the most hot in demand product was a Palm Pilot. It was a precursor to a lot of the phones, the smartphones that we see today and that was also our best selling items on our website, where we had a lot of people who would come in and say I want to buy this product for some amount of money and if more and more people came in and expressed a desire to buy it over a period of time, we used to drop the prices because we could negotiate volume discounts.
So that was the first company that I started, I was a founding engineer and also the product person, if you will, on the team. It was dot com days, like I was saying and we had a successful acquisition. Barely, eight or nine months into our journey, we had an acquisition from a company from Norway and that was the first time I realized how important it is to just keep an eye on competition and just have a very broad sense of what’s happening around you because sometimes when you’re working really hard, you tend to focus on your work, but you sort of lose the broader context and the reason why we were able to do that deal was because we were doing an analysis on who else is our competition in so many different markets and seemed like they were doing the same thing and we connected and it was a very good outcome.
So I then continued with the merged company for another few years, where I really realized how to sort of scale the business not only in Singapore, but in all of Southeast Asia and even in India. So I was doing that for a few years and then from there, in 2003, I realized that I should do something new and kind of really try to go for an even bigger scale. So that is when I joined Hewlett Packard, again, this was in Singapore.
Those of who know in 2003, it was a very interesting time in the PC industry, because Dell computers at that time was a number one selling computer, because they had a very strong online direct to consumer business and direct to consumer and direct to business and at that time, Hewlett Packard was distant number two. They had just bought Compaq to kind of compete with Dell. But they had a very expensive distribution structure because they didn't really have an online presence. So I was brought in part of the team where we focused on how do we get the HP computers and all of HP products selling online and my job there was to really build it out.
So I had done a bunch of E-commerce before and it was really about how do we scale that to all the various HP divisions and it was a fantastic learning opportunity for me because I really understood what scale meant. So that was my job at HP. I was involved with the consumer business for many years.
After that around 2007, is when I realized that the first wave of internet experiences was starting to happen in India, decided to come back to India and join the Indian School of Business, get an MBA there and graduated in 2008, got a job at Google, started with Google in Bangalore, in product management. That's where I met Amit Somani as well and we started, we were on the same team and I started looking after Google Maps, basically focused on how we can launch products like Google Maps in India and make that happen.
So I did that for a few years in India then moved out to Mountain View to headquarters, where I started running a global project within maps to build maps globally, it was a project called GroundTruth and it was a very ambitious goal where Google wanted to build their products from scratch and then subsequent to that in 2015, I moved over to Uber and at Uber I did a bunch of different things over the four years that I was there. Started with the Maps team focussed a lot on their marketplace, which is around how do you connect riders and drivers, the pricing and so on. And then for the last couple of years, first year as an interim, and then the second year as Chief Product officer. I was instrumental in helping the company go public and really building out the product game.
So, that's in a nutshell. Being a product guy throughout I've been focused a lot on technology, a lot of digital intersection with operational businesses through e-commerce and marketplaces and even Google Maps and just very passionate about this topic.
Amit Somani 6:31
Wonderful. That's a prolific background Manik. So, there's lots of things we could talk about, like we were discussing earlier, I want to focus this particular episode on product management. The life of a product manager, often Product Managers are thinking about the life of a product, of a product leader, of building and scaling product org s. It's very interesting to hear that you were thinking about it even before you became a formal Product Manager. So what in your journey have been some inflection points for your own growth as a Product Manager. What are some of the defining learnings been, some of the defining experiences been, where you grew a lot and got a handle on this thing called Product Manager? Maybe you could even start with what you think is a great product manager.
Manik Gupta 7:15
Yeah, that's an interesting question. So, over the years, I've had the opportunity and the privilege, actually, to work with very successful Product Managers who have been there and done that. I've had the opportunity to also hire a lot of people and kind of groom them. So there are a few things that I would like to describe as what is really, in my view, a great Product Manager, and then I can give you a couple of inflection points, like what you asked Amit.
The first one is, I feel that it's kind of very straightforward in a way, but people tend to forget this as especially as a scale up in the organization. It's really about being the voice of the customer. Now you can be an Enterprise Product Manager, you could be a Consumer Product Manager. It doesn't really matter what business you're in, but if you're a product person, it's really about you really representing the voice of the customer. So that's like a core tenant in my mind. And whoever is the most researched, most understood, has talked to most customers, has developed a perspective, I almost always see them scale and do really well as a PM.
The second thing I would say, is really managing by influence. It’s one of those jobs where it’s kind of interesting because you typically don’t tend to have large teams of people working for you, even as you become a very senior in an organization. The product team is a highly leveraged team typically. So your ability to manage large projects and large initiatives via influence. Working with engineering, working with design, working with all the cross functional teams, so that collaborative aspects, sharing the vision getting people aligned. I think that’s another part which I feel is really important for a great PM.
And I think the other thing I would say is about just generally being curious about everything. So whether it’s about team members, customer problems, approaches, competition, just being really really curious, that just drives a lot of passion and a lot of energy into every aspect. And the final thing I would say is, of course, it’s kind of core to what a Product Manager does. It’s really the ability to prioritize and focus on why some problem needs to be solved, what are we going to do about it, and really work with engineering in particular, depending on if it’s a technical product with engineering to determine the how and by when it can be done. So those are some of the sort of high level basic aspects that I focus on when it comes to great PM.
In terms of the inflection points on my side, I will give you a couple of examples. The first example I’ll give you is from Google Maps. And when I was a PM, it was interesting because when I joined Google in India, it was 2008. and the iPhone had just come out and the whole shift to mobile, and how it literally took the world by storm with the iPhone coming out and then Android coming out and the whole mobile landscape evolving was just a fascinating thing to watch.
So for me, it was really Important to figure out as a PM working on Google Maps, which obviously is such a mobile oriented product at the end of the day. You’re carrying it on your phone, your location and all that. It required a lot of sort of future thinking in terms of what a country like India by when will India get to a point where we’ll have massive smartphone penetration. So that you can have products like Map work really well. so I had to learn a lot of long range thinking in terms of what to predict what the market is going to look like. So that as and when we start building features, especially the heavier features, if you will, on Google Maps, like turn by turn directions and so on, they will have a ready audience waiting for them if you can get it right.
So that ability to think long range and understand how to bet on these sort of underlying trends that are happening that’s something I hadn’t seen before. And with Google Maps, I got to see that and you just have to ride that wave if you will, and be prepared to deploy your product keeping that in mind. So that was one interesting area that I grew a lot.
The second one very quickly is going to be about, like Uber, I learned a lot about how to go from managing just product management, but also some of the other functions like data science, design, and so on. And again, each of these functions are somewhat different. They’re all part of the product development process, but they’re different. How do you really get all of them aligned? What are some of the things that motivates each of these functions, was very important learning from it.
Amit Somani 11:34
Fantastic Manik. So, just to summarize, voice of the customer, having a lot of empathy for customers, customer discovery, influence, curiosity and prioritization. Those are some of the key traits that you kind of cultivated in yourself and also what you look for in really successful PM’s. The latter one that you also said is quite interesting, which is, how do you read the market and how do you read market trends, technology trends, because a lot of our listeners here are early stage entrepreneurs. Often they might even double down as a product manager or the first product manager for the company. So we’d love to have you elaborate a little bit on both of these points, the voice of the customer/ customer discovery, as well as reading trends, what are some good sort of best practices that you have followed or learned on both of these?
Manik Gupta 12:22
So on the voice of the customers and just understanding the customer better. The good news today is that there’s just so many new tools that are available with regards to how quickly you can get feedback from customers. So to give you a couple of examples, if you look at the product development lifecycle today in any consumer mobile product, let’s just talk about consumers first and I’ll cover enterprise in a second.
Any consumer product, you have the ability to do a very quick focus set of experiments and when you do these experiments, you can very easily get very clear and actionable data back from the way users interact with the product in terms of what’s working and what’s not working. So I’m a big fan of rapid experimentation and ensuring that we can put, whether it’s AB testing whether it is all kinds of other, paradigms that are available at this point, you can easily do that and you can just assemble that data and then determine what you should build and what’s resonating with the users and not.
Now at the same time, you also have the ability these days to do surveys to do customer research, primary research, user research teams have fantastic tools at their disposal. So I think if you’re a Product Manager today, you have no excuse really not to really listen to your customer. Because you can’t hide behind, Oh, well, it’s too hard or it’s too expensive! I mean, it’s not! You have a lot of information available, where you should be able to just get connected with the customers and start hearing both in terms of what they need to build and go from there. So that’s one thing I would say on the consumer side.
Similarly on the enterprise side, the classic thing again, when you’re building enterprise products, you have to make sure that you’re solving a real problem. Oftentimes, I see teams fall into the trap where they are, there’s just a bunch of super smart technical people and product people and so on and they get together and say, Well, this is how we’re going to disrupt the enterprise! I mean, that all is good but please go talk to some customers, talk to like five customers or ten customers, and then understand the problem that you’re really solving is that the problem that really matters to them or not?
And it’s amazing to me, if you were to go to an enterprise customer and say, Hey, you know, what, we have identified this problem, and this is our solution! More often than not, most customers will say, Yeah, that’s great! because nobody wants to like, sort of send you down the wrong path or be rude to you, whatever. I would recommend that you ask the question, which is, am I solving the right problem? Is this the biggest problem that you have right now? If not, please tell me your biggest problem and I’ll go focus on that.
So this whole aspect of voice of the customer, product discovery, I think it’s an important aspect, which I would highly encourage PMs to do and I think there is really no excuse in this day and age not to be able to do that effectively.
So that’s one, on your next question on how do you do some sort of long range planning. I think it’s a lot about just looking at what some of the big players are doing in the market. If you look at how the technology industry is structured today, there’s no doubt that the top four or five companies, you know, the Googles, the Apples, and so on. They pretty much have a very strong set of platforms and whatever they do have massive ecosystem ramifications.
So as a PM, you have to keep a very close eye on what is Google doing? What is Apple doing? Not in terms of their products themselves, but in terms of the ecosystem, the platforms. What is the next version of the operating system that Apple is putting out there? Where is Apple going with their privacy stance? Where is Google going with their machine learning aspects? What is Facebook going to do with all the social graphs that they have?
So you start thinking about these things and then you start trying to catch on the waves that are going to happen. So like I mentioned in my previous example, you have a wave of mobile that was coming in and everybody was just getting on to it. I think at this point, the mobile is sort of done. A lot of people have smartphones and things like that. But then you have to really catch the next wave and then make sure that your product is relevant in that because that’s where the real disruption happens. So those are the aspects that are really important, particularly for product people and I think the most successful people are able to have that 30,000 foot view in terms of what’s really happening, what are the ecosystem changes that are happening and how does their product kind of feel part of that? And then they’re also able to get into the nitty gritty details of what are my customers saying both explicitly and implicitly, and then build a product roadmap based on that?
Yeah, it’s really fascinating and at the end of the podcast, we’ll talk about CV key, this new project that you’ve co founded and how privacy is such an important new kind of wave or trend. So if you’re a PM anywhere, you should be looking up and studying the ramifications of privacy on your product. S witching gears, you obviously hired and mentored a lot of PM’s. So even some of these characteristics that you talked about, let’s imagine you in the role of early stage entrepreneur today, and you’re making your first product hire, or perhaps even your product leader. How would you go about that process and how maybe some anecdotes or some interesting marker questions or whatever, that you would ask that have worked well, for you over your career?
Manik Gupta 17:29
I think that’s a fascinating question because this is a question by the way I get asked by so many founders these days, especially who are post Series B getting into Series C and then the CEO is typically a product or a technical person and they are looking to get their first VP of product in and so on. The way I think about this is, first and foremost, I’m a big believer, this by the way has happened to me as well so I speak from my own experience. I’m a big believer of as far as possible, try to promote from within. I know this is sometimes counterintuitive, because people always want to get the brand name and they always want to get somebody who has been there done that and has been successful. While I appreciate that, I feel that the people who are already at a company, especially at an early stage, even though they may not have the, quote unquote, pedigree, they may not have been a Product Manager before, or they may not have like gone through the product school in big companies or whatever. They definitely have a very strong pulse of the business and going back to what made a great PM as we were walking through that list, they probably check most of the checkmarks. Where they need some help sometimes is just some mentorship and so on and I would argue that’s really a better way to go about it. But having said that, the way I think about this overall, is you need to first decide what do you want this product person to do? So that’s an aspect that I’ve been thinking a lot about.
Amit Somani 18:54
So Manik wanted to interrupt you a little bit. So the question is, often the kind of companies that we deal with and some other listeners here are 5- 10 people, the prototypical two guys in the garage kind of stage and they’ve got some early product market fit, perhaps a little bit of traction. And now they’re like, Oh, we need to formalize things and get our first PM. So they may not have a large, I mean they still have people in the organization often it’s one of the co founders who is the product person or the CTO and the PM. So I want to just see if you can throw some light on that, like your first product hire in an early stage startup.
Manik Gupta 19:30
The way I have thought about PM hiring and especially if you’re a really small company, and you’re getting your first person in. I almost define or rather divide the PM landscape in different archetypes and some of those are, there are PM’s who based on experience have done enterprise work before. So they must have come from SaaS companies and so on, so the prototypical enterprise PM’s. There are PM’s who are much more consumer PM’s who love working with design and iterating on pixels and thinking about the consumer. There are PM’s who are more business oriented, who will love working with sales and operations and so on. And there are PM’s who are technical because they love to work on platforms.
So depending on your company, first and foremost, you have to decide what is really the kind of PM you’re looking for? What archetype do you want to fill from enterprise to consumer to business or technical? And once you have determined, that’s kind of the first question and once you have that, my suggestion over there would be to look for people who are sort of up and coming and are really entrepreneurial. If they have an entrepreneurial background, either they have been an entrepreneur themselves, or they had a history of working in what we call zero to one projects, meaning they took something which was very initial, and they were able to scale it to a certain level.
Those are the kind of people who you really want on your product team and your first product hire because this person firstly will come in and they’re not going to start with the process. Their first question wouldn’t be, how should we do a product review? I mean, that should not be their first question. The first question should really be, are we clear in terms of who our customers are? Are we clear what we are building and why? Have you talked to many customers?
So people who really have the ability to manage a lot of uncertainty, you can see on the resume that they have gone from project to project and they really scale project by starting pretty much from scratch and then taking it up and once you have the archetypes and you have the right sort of people who have done this at other companies before, I think that typically gives you a good Rolodex of people to talk to and then of course all the other factors, like how do they work with engineering? How do they work with other functions?
The founder, the CEO/founder, and the chemistry between the first product hire in my personal opinion has to be extremely tight because most technical companies live or die by their product. So you don’t want to make a mistake by having someone who is very different from the CEO or is not aligned with the CEO. So the CEO himself or herself has to drive that search and not kind of delegate this to somebody else because I don’t think that’s going to work. So this person has to come in really empowered, and really tight with the CEO and then make sure that they’re able to hit the ground running.
Amit Somani 22:10
Great! So switching gears and talking about the PM leaders, both hiring and grooming Product Management leaders, whether they are the Chief Product Officer or the first VP product that you hire. Can you talk a little bit about what are the traits that make a PM leader a successful vis-a-vis just an individual contributor or a Product Manager?
Manik Gupta 22:31
So this is what I was trying to get to earlier, which is, by and large, as far as possible, try to identify and promote people from within. Even then, there’s some of the questions that I’ve asked myself when I brought in senior people and I have, of course, run into people from outside, both at Google and Uber as well. There are a few questions I asked myself. The first one is what is the gap that I’m really trying to fit? So let me give you a few examples. One gap could be, I need someone to bring in a lot of processes and at a certain stage in the company, especially in a later stage process becomes important. I know sometimes people feel, Oh why do I need a process and so on? But the only way you can actually scale is through a repeatable process.
So people who know how to build the process who know how to have product and engineering and design and operations and data science, all these teams work together, those people if that is a gap in your team right now, then that’s one question to ask. The second question could be, maybe you want to fill up your executive ranks or you want to get someone to build a team. So you obviously want to bring in a person who has built a team before. Has been able to attract talent. One of the other criteria that I use in the same bucket is followership. When you hire somebody, how many people who have worked with this person in the past want to follow them? That’s usually a very good sign because it kind of depicts that there are people who are well regarded that other people want to sort of catch them where they are. So if your focus is on, I really want someone to come in and build a team or upgrade the team, then you really go after somebody who’s built a team before.
The other bucket could be strategy, where you just need somebody who has demonstrated that they are able to catch these waves, as we were talking about earlier and they just have a very strong strategic point of view and maybe that’s what’s missing in your organization, not that your company is not doing a good job. It’s just that you can always uplevel the way strategic thinking happens.
Or just to take another example, you’re just bringing in someone for scale. Somebody who comes in and has gone from, like, let’s say you’re at 10 million users, and somebody comes in says, Yeah, I know, from 10 million to 100 million. Here are the four things that we did in two of my previous companies.
So the point I’m making is you have to kind of determine first, what is the gap or maybe it’s a combination of these gaps that you’re trying to fill. And then based on that, run your search by and large, most of the people who are kind of VP product level in companies, they are generalists as well, they would have done this, all of these things that I described at different levels in the organization.
But oftentimes they would have expressed or they’ve done something deeper in one or two of these. If those are the things that are important to you, once you determine that, then you can go after the right people and again, all the things that I mentioned in my previous response around, how do you hire the first PM for the five person startup, still apply, which is the chemistry has to be great, the person has to really come in and be sponsored by a very senior leader in the organization otherwise they just don’t get the agency and then of course, you have to do all your references and so on. So that’s sort of how I think about at a bigger scale how you hire a VP of product.
Amit Somani 25:39
Wonderful! As we get closer towards the wrap up here, what advice would Manik Gupta of today give Manik Gupta of 10 years ago as a Product Manager particularly, not life advice, not other gyan. But what would you rather now knowing what you know now what would you want? The Manikof 10 years ago to know.
Manik Gupta 25:58
Looking back, I would have loved to prioritize data science and my knowledge of data science more 10 years ago, because if I look at how product gets built these days with experimentation, with a lot of analysis, lots of algorithms which are really running tons of very interesting outlooks for different products and so on, I would have loved to have caught that wave a little bit early and that would have just made me a much better Product Manager. I’ve learned that over time, if I was 10 years back, if I had access to it, or if I thought about it, that thought about how to have that function more so represented within the product and understand like the way data scientists talk about analysis and so on. If I prioritize that a little bit better than I think I would have going even more as a Product Manager.
Amit Somani 26:51
Fascinating. I’m actually very tempted to ask you the forward looking question then if a young PM who is just starting out or working in one of these young entrepreneurial companies comes to you, saying here’s a skill you learn so data science clearly would be a big one looking back over the last decade. What is the forward looking thing, 10 years from now you wish people would know already. I know, we’re going to switch into CVKey. So that might be a hint. But maybe something else, something that people that are getting onto their Product Management journey today should keep an eye on over the next 10 years.
Manik Gupta 27:23
I feel that more and more product roles are going to somehow merge. Merge is probably too strong a word like mesh with business roles because I’ve started to see that happen a lot and this is not a new trend. It’s just accelerating.
The role of the Product Management function, at least from my exposure in the valley is rapidly changing into much more of a General Management function. There are companies like Amazon who have been doing this for a while and I’ve started to see that at Facebook, at Google, not so much in Apple just yet and not only that in some with the startups that I’m advising right now, and even the ones that I’m investing in, I’m starting to see a PM really just operate more like a GM where they even sometimes carry, profit and loss responsibilities, or they’re supposed to make sales calls, or even in a consumer world, they’re supposed to do the operations work.
So I would say, looking 10 years out, again, not not giving you a technical answer, because who knows where technology takes us. But in terms of the function itself, I would see that this becomes much more of a general management oriented function. So having a much more well rounded experience and prioritizing spending time with support with operations with PR and marketing early on in your career will just make you that much better PM.
Amit Somani 28:43
Fantastic Manik. I have a ton of questions, but we need to wrap up here. I definitely don’t want to end without talking about what’s next for you. Like I mentioned you’ve co-founded CVKey. Can you tell our audience a little bit about what inspired that and what that is about?
Manik Gupta 28:57
Sure. So I started a nonprofit venture called CVKey, it’s at CVkeyproject.org. And I co founded that with a bunch of people, especially Brian McLaren, who was the founder of Google Maps whom I had the pleasure of working with for many years and we essentially focused on how do we reopen society, which has been in sheltering in place or lockdown for many months now all over the world, from COVID-19 and how do we do that in a way, which is very privacy preserving.
So in a nutshell, it’s really a set of applications that we are building which allows different communities all around the world to be very clear with regards to how they want people in their community to manage their health from their symptoms. At the same time, provide them clear guidance in terms of what they should do as and when they encounter any issues with their own health regards to COVID-19.
And then the ability to determine, what is the best way to go around in a particular location? So if I have to go to a grocery store, if I have to go to a restaurant, and so on, what are some of the guidelines? Is it at 50% occupancy? Is it at 10% occupancy? What are the hours of a grocery store that I can go to? Providing that hyperlocal information, which is very confusing right now and then finally, having a very safe and effective way to only allow people to go to these places if they are symptom free.
So those three combinations we have put together an app ecosystem, and we are iterating really fast and figuring out how we can provide this level of solutions so that the society as a whole not only do you keep yourself safe and healthy, but you also play your part to keep your community safe and healthy. So that’s really the instinct behind it and we are making pretty decent progress and at some point, we would open source the solution and mainly the privacy aspect and that is something I’m most excited about because it’s a very new way to think about privacy from the ground up. Which I think is going to be an important part and important trend moving forward.
Amit Somani 31:04
Absolutely Manik. I think privacy is one of my big takeaways from this podcast. I think it’s something that’s often talked about. But India is sort of going from this notion of being, data poor to data rich. Nandan Nilekani, one of the co-founders of Infosys talks a lot about that and yes, laws around data are something that we are kind of thinking about . Even the government is quite involved in it in India. So, thank you so much Manik. This has been a great, insightful podcast. I have a lot of questions for you about your journey at Uber and others. Perhaps we’ll do another one later. But thank you again for being on the Prime Venture Partners Podcast. It was great to have you.
Manik Gupta 31:43
Amit, thank you for the time as always very good talking to you my friend.
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