To the Goth Kids
It seems like only recently, startups would hire folks to do just about everything, all at once, and then somehow, we’ve arrived at a ‘Product Manager of Paytm Experience’. How tunnel vision syndrome is eroding the startup spirit.
Recently, a startup valued at around half a billion dollars laid off 10 of its Product Managers, leaving them with another 30. Just last year, the same startup hired Product guys at 20–30% premium from the market at average CTCs well over ₹20L. Even more intriguing, some of these guys were techie turned MBAs with less than four years’ experience. Having always been on the sales side of things, where one had to justify a minimum of 4x one’s salary to the company, I was fascinated by this lot. What did they do that was worth that much money?
One product guy I spoke to said he managed Paytm experience; which meant he had to ensure there were no drop-offs when the user chose to pay through Paytm. He also said he was mandated to prioritise payment through Paytm. And there were similar folks for each of the other alternate payment processes. “But, is Paytm the most competitive payment solution?”, I asked. He didn’t care, really. All that mattered was ‘mukesh23’ got through paying on the platform without, gods forbid, choosing to click on the refresh button. Even better if he came through one of the exclusive Paytm promotions that he had brokered with his counterpart from the other side.
Evidently, the metric for success — # completed transactions, is not entirely off-base. A good product guy could save the company millions, potentially. But, on closer observation it seems as though his chutzpah might also cost the company millions, if not more. In the above case, there are several problems with how the roles are structured. What if Paytm wasn’t the best payment option on the platform? What if (plain conjecture, here) it were costlier, for instance? What if these users exited the native platform at rates higher than average?
Let’s leave those seemingly troubling questions aside for a moment. What does one do to improve a third party payment experience? Mainly, vary size and placement of the button, apparently. Turns out, there isn’t much you can do. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do nothing. So, if you notice a needless “improvement” in your experience, know that some Product Manager’s review is forthcoming. Then, is it a surprise, really, that when things take a turn for the worse, these lot are first in the line of fire? I was surprised, though, to understand that a lot of them were entirely at peace with the transitional nature of their employment. 30% elsewhere, then.
This is not restricted to Product folks alone, although it does seem like in recent years it has become a “get rich scheme” of sorts for some techies with an acute propensity to bullshit their way through things. I see Marketing Managers who can’t / won’t write a line of copy or tweak keywords on their website. I see Designers who can’t / won’t code simple HTML or work on user personas and flow maps. I see Engineers who can’t / won’t test their code or learn how to write coherent software requirement specifications. This is manifestly due to the over-specialisation of roles and warped organisation structures in these startups. Ergo, the bleeding disinterest.
It wasn’t always like this. It used to be that startups hired people to do just about everything, all at once.
Fresh out of college, I was hired as a ‘Management Trainee’, which I came to realise was code for will do whatever the hell it takes to move the needle. In the first year alone I did Sales, Product, Operations, and Marketing. I wasn’t alone; it seemed like everybody did everything. I remember our VP-Technology managing client delivery for a new initiative, and doing a damn good job at that. I remember our Operations Manager writing bizarre VBA Macros for Excel that saved hours of effort. And it seemed everybody everywhere else, too, were running an arm and a leg short of the work that was on their plates. It was synonymous with startups.
It made tremendous business sense, too. First, it was easier to find (and afford) people at the median levels of overlapping skill sets than at the top 1% of their specialisations. Second, people always had a macro view of the company’s goals and everybody, more or less, aligned their personal work accordingly. Third, it had unexpected, yet, massive pay-offs for our chosen specialisations: techies wrote better code because they understood business and sales guys were more effective because they knew the real implications of that code. It wasn’t easy, but those years probably had the greatest impact in my life. It schooled my thoughts and perspectives.
When people ask me what changed over the years, I give them the following analogy: a startup, back in the day, was like a goth band. It attracted the misfits, the weirdos, and those of us who just happened to stumble into the mosh pit. There was a ton of work to do and very little real money to be made. You belonged to somewhat of a cult and expected unreasonable things of yourself and your brethren. What we lacked in resources we made up for with ingenuity and perseverance. Over the years, however, the goth band got a makeover. We couldn’t have been more thrilled at that time. It seemed like the World was finally giving us our due. We didn’t have to explain to mothers, uncles and landlords, what we did for a living. We could finally afford EMIs.
But, gradually, the goth kids turned cool. The makeup, now, seemed superficial and the cult constantly disowned its own — for how much wisdom can be gained from tweaking button sizes over years? The law of diminishing marginal returns applied: increasing number of new members to the cult caused the marginal product of others to be smaller than the marginal product of the previous members at this point. And that’s how we got ‘Product Manager of Paytm Experience’.
But, what of the goth kids? They do lurk around. You won’t find them in conferences or hackathons or by the vending machines mooching off’ the free stuff. They’re likely in an intimate corner, head immersed in the laptop, being productive and maybe checking on Twitter once a while. If you’re ever in the position of hiring for your startup, my suggestion is for you to find and hire the goth kid. He’ll remind you why you started up in the first place. And also, he won’t ask you about your company’s pet policy.
This article was originally published on Medium. We are republishing it here with the permission of the author