Sanchan Saxena is VP of Product at Coinbase. Before Coinbase, Sanchan was Head of Product and GM at Airbnb, founder and Head of Product of Instagram Shopping, Director of Product Management at Yahoo, and Lead PM at Microsoft.
Thank you to our sponsors for making this episode possible:
• Dovetail: https://dovetailapp.com/lenny
• Persona: https://withpersona.com/lenny
• Productboard: https://www.productboard.com/
In this episode, you’ll learn:
[3:50] How Sanchan worked his way up to VP of Product at Coinbase
[6:15] Sanchan’s best advice to early-stage PMs
[9:41] What to look for in a company to join
[12:09] What Sanchan learned from Airbnb
[16:40] Behind the scenes of how Airbnb survived the Covid downturn when travel completely stopped
[21:49] How Airbnb tactically planned in two-week cycles
[25:00] How to keep morale up during a disaster
[29:00] What Sanchan learned from Brian Chesky, Brian Armstrong, and Kevin Systrom
[36:08] How to know when to trust your gut vs. A/B testing
[41:57] How Coinbase makes decisions
[46:30] How teams use the RAPID decision-making process
[47:00] How to operate in an ambiguous industry like web3
[49:00] How to know if you should get into web3
[51:46] How to hire and close amazing candidates
[54:40] What to look for in product leaders
[57:13] Lightning round
Where to find Sanchan:
• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sanchans/
• Twitter: https://twitter.com/sanchans
Get full access to Lenny's Newsletter at www.lennysnewsletter.com/subscribe
I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to work with Sanchan while I was at Airbnb. He joined Airbnb as a director of product and quickly moved up the ranks to head of product for all of Airbnb. Before Airbnb, he spent almost four years at Instagram as head of product for Instagram Ads, and then he created and led the Instagram Shopping product and team.
Before that he was director of product at Yahoo and a PM at Microsoft. And today he's the VP of product at Coinbase. I don't think I've worked with a harder working PM, particularly someone who's incredibly kind and nice and generous.
In my conversation with Sanchan, we cover what he's learned from working with some of today's best CEOs, including Brian Chesky, Brian Armstrong, Zuck and Kevin Systrom, what it was like inside Airbnb when COVID hit and how they made it through travel completely stopping, how to set up your product development process at a startup, tips for hiring amazing product managers, when to hire your first PM, when to A/B test and when not to, and so much more.
I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did. So many product managers are basically treated like project managers. You get higher thinking that you'll be deep in product strategy and vision, and getting to know your customers, only to wind up organizing other people's work and finding backlogs and optimizing tiny, tiny features.
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Try Dovetails products free for as long as you need. You can sign up right now and dive right in at Dovetailapp.com/lenny. This episode is brought to you by Persona. Persona helps founders, product managers and engineers easily solve any identity-related problem, including handling KYC, AML, and basically all manner of identity fraud.
You can integrate Persona in an afternoon and personalize your flows using their SDK to meet your users on any device. Persona's identity building blocks allow you to manage your entire end-to-end onboarding flow, verifying that each new user and their data are legitimate. Persona is trusted by both startups and the world's largest companies, including Square, Block5, Gusto and Udemy.
And for a limited time, Persona is offering listeners of this podcast a free, end-to-end KYC and AML solution, where you can collect the user's government ID and, or their selfie, and automatically verify that those two pieces of data are legitimate. You can also enrich that information to automatically see if the person exists on various watch lists. Just go to Withpersona.com/lenny to get started. Sanchan, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.
Sanchan Saxena (00:03:26):
Thank you, Lenny, for inviting me. Excited to be here and chat with you today.
Absolutely. My pleasure. I was really lucky to work with you at Airbnb for many years, where you were a beloved product leader. And then you went on to do bigger and better things now at Coinbase. And I'd love to just hear how you first got into product, and then just a little bit of your journey of how you got to where you're today, where you're basically head of product at Coinbase.
Sanchan Saxena (00:03:49):
Yeah, happy to answer. Maybe I'll go back in time and start from my first job. I was in my third year of engineering where the entrepreneurial bug caught me, so to say, bit me. And I took a little bit of sabbatical from my engineering, which by the way, was in aerospace engineering.
Sanchan Saxena (00:04:03):
I wanted to be an astronaut, go to space. Unfortunately back then, there wasn't an Elon Musk for SpaceX. If you wanted to go to space, you got to work for a government agency, which I didn't like. Fast forward that to my third year of engineering and I start my company, raised a bunch of money, hired some people.
Sanchan Saxena (00:04:18):
Didn't go as planned, so I [inaudible 00:04:20], came back and finished my engineering and got a job at Microsoft, which made my mom very happy. My mom said, "My son finally has a stable job. What the heck he was doing running some companies?" But jokes aside, I got a job at Microsoft, which was a great starting position.
Sanchan Saxena (00:04:34):
I started in engineering. But within a year or so, I moved into product. And I moved to the Silicon Valley office of Microsoft. Never worked in Seattle, but always worked in Silicon Valley at Mountain View. And I worked for this product called Hotmail. I don't know how many people know this or not, but there's an email service called Hotmail. I was one of the product people.
Absolutely. It's scary that people may not even know what Hotmail is at this point.
Sanchan Saxena (00:04:55):
Right? It's kind of crazy. Back in the day, it was pretty cool. I worked there, and then since then have been in Silicon Valley. So moved into product back in, I think, 2005 or '06, something like that, and since then been in product. I've been very lucky and fortunate to have stumbled upon incredible opportunities all the way from Facebook and Instagram to Airbnb and Coinbase.
Sanchan Saxena (00:05:16):
And fun fact, when I joined Instagram, it was still very small. And it was less than, I think, 50 engineers or something like that. Very tiny. It was pre-revenue. We made $0 in revenue. I still remember the day when Zuck told Kevin Systrom we got to go make revenue, and we made $0 back then.
Sanchan Saxena (00:05:30):
And was there till 2017. By the time it was like a billion monthly active users, multiple billion dollars in revenue, was my first hypergrowth experience as a product leader. And then in 2017, I joined Airbnb, which is where you and I worked together. There I had a dual role.
Sanchan Saxena (00:05:45):
I was a GM of Airbnb Plus, but also the head of product helping Brian Chesky scale the product management organization, establish the culture of it, and see how best we can build a world class part organization. And then after that, I took some time off, about six months, introspective to see what do I want to do next.
Sanchan Saxena (00:06:00):
And that is when I went into the Web 3.0 rabbit home, and that's when I learned more and more about Web 3.0, what's happening over there. I've always been investor in crypto since 2014, but never thought of it as a builder. I was like, "Ah, I don't know if I want to build in there. It seems cool. I can participate from the outside."
Sanchan Saxena (00:06:18):
But then the more I read, the more I realized, "Man, this is one of the biggest revolutions happening." And that's when I joined Coinbase and here I'm the VP product for ecosystems and a bunch of other stuff that I do here, and excited to be able to play a small role in this next revolution called Web 3.0.
Amazing. Just listening into that trajectory and places that you worked, I imagine people are wondering like, "Man, how do I follow a trajectory like that? How do I live a life like Sanchan?" Do you have any advice for someone that's maybe just starting out that may be wondering like, "How do I follow this sort of path? How do I work at all these incredible companies and get to maybe where you are now?"?
Sanchan Saxena (00:06:51):
Yeah, I look back at my career, one thing that is very true is that I never had that plan. I stumbled upon a lot of things. I mean, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, didn't work out, pivoted. I started my own company, didn't work out, pivoted. I came to Silicon Valley, worked at Hotmail, didn't work out, pivoted.
Sanchan Saxena (00:07:07):
Things start to materialize when you actually take steps to do something. My biggest advice to people is, oftentimes the analysis paralysis of dotting every eye, crossing every tee sometimes chokes you out of opportunities. When you find something that gives you energy, just jump in with both feet. And try to go through that process, and pivot and learn, and pivot and learn and pivot.
Sanchan Saxena (00:07:29):
That's how you would create a great career as opposed to sort of a five year career plan and working backwards from that. Those things just don't work. The other thing I would say is I read this book early on in my life called the Little Bets. It actually was a reflection of whatever I did in my life. Before that I thought I was a weirdo, I don't know what I'm doing. And then I read that book and I realized, "Oh my God, there's some method to my madness. It's called little bets."
Sanchan Saxena (00:07:52):
You take little bets, you try them out. If they don't work out, you build rapid recovery and start to do something else. And that is the meta story connecting all the dots in my life, in all the career opportunities that I've had, just one piece of big advice I'll tell everybody. The second thing I'll say is product management is a very interesting discipline.
Sanchan Saxena (00:08:10):
You don't go to school for that. You don't get a degree for that. And most people that I know in product have stumbled upon product management. They were doing something else and like, "Oh my God, this seems cool. I want to do this." The advice I give early stage product people is you got to learn the art and the science of product management early on in your career.
Sanchan Saxena (00:08:29):
There's an art piece to it and then there's a science piece to it, and you got to be able to manage both of those things in your head. If you become too scientific, you miss out on opportunities because you can't see those opportunities using the scientific method of discovery, because they're too tiny or they're so farfetched that people cannot even understand them.
Sanchan Saxena (00:08:45):
And the art piece is really important for you to be able to sniff those out by being in the community, hanging out with people who are actually builders and learning where the next trends would be. My advice to people is go get a job which will make you the fastest learner in the field of product management.
Sanchan Saxena (00:09:00):
That is what will help you a lot. No course, no degree, none of those things will help. The most important thing will be how quickly can you jump in, learn the auto product management. Some people prefer doing that at a startup. Some people prefer doing it at a established fan company, which has processes and systems as well. It's your choice. But the fastest you learn that, the better it'll get for you.
Wow. I love so much about that advice. To go a little bit further on this last point. When people are looking for a company to go join to learn, to accelerate their career the way you're describing, what do you think they should be looking for? I know you said maybe a startup. Do you think they should join a startup? Do you think they should join a bigger company? What kind of things should you look for to find the best place to learn?
Sanchan Saxena (00:09:41):
Yeah, I think there is no right recipe for one, but it matters to the individual. I'll share both stories with you. The way to think about this is let's say you want to get to a destination, whichever destination it is, you probably want to get on the faster ship. You don't want to get on a slower ship. That's one metaphor to use in your mind.
Sanchan Saxena (00:09:58):
And then when you got to the ship, you know the ship will get there, but remember you are not going to get to your destination faster than the ship will. You got to understand what your destination is, then optimize the learnings from there. At a startup, you're going to learn a lot of things. There are three types of learning, a starter learning, meaning you can get started. You're a person who can get started. You see an idea, you see an opportunity, you can get started. Right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:10:21):
That is something that a startup will teach you a lot. You see something, you want to get started to do something about it, great, you'll learn a lot over it. And there's zero to one people who can then take what they have started and scale it to one. And then there are one and beyond people who are scalers, who will scale the system that is found product market fit.
Sanchan Saxena (00:10:38):
And I think depending on your journey, depending on your career, depending upon where you are, you might want to optimize for different types of learnings as well. What I advise people is there's a great way to go to Google, Facebook and Amazon and learn the scale mechanisms that these companies have built. And I look at Amazon and I get inspired by that company, because what they have figured out is how to scale innovation with 1 million employees.
Sanchan Saxena (00:10:59):
It's a pretty different learning. And you can't potentially find that at a startup. Similarly, the ability to just get started, the ability to see an idea, start hacking at it, start building it without the encumbrances of the processes and the system that these big organizations have, you can probably learn that in a big company as well. You got to figure out what are you optimizing for, what goes well with you.
Sanchan Saxena (00:11:23):
I've seen many successful leaders who will get choked up in a big company environment, and I've seen many big company successful executives who want to choke up in a very startup environment. And this is not for everybody. Both sides of the games are not for everybody. First and foremost recognizing what gives you energy, recognizing where you thrive the most is really important.
Sanchan Saxena (00:11:41):
For example, I am not the guy who can optimize a 100,000 employee company. I will never enjoy that kind of learning. I've done to some extent a large company thing, but I thrive in that starter to scale angle. But when it becomes too large, I start to lose interest in that kind of learning. Some people enjoy different things. You got to understand what it is and be able to optimize there.
Where would you say you learned the most of all the companies you worked at that helped accelerate your career most?
Sanchan Saxena (00:12:09):
I think I would rank Airbnb probably the place that I learned the most. And I'll share with you and your audience why I feel that way. I joined Airbnb back in 2017, making decent revenue, had good product market fit. I remember when I got there, the entire product management order was like 30 people or 40 people, something like that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:12:26):
You had three directors of product, very small still for a company that was generating a billion plus dollars in revenue. And then the context was there was this ambitious founder, Brian, who will never take no for an answer. And he would bend reality in many regards to make shit happen.
Sanchan Saxena (00:12:41):
And you are very familiar with those days as well, but you will have a practicability. You will leave the review thinking, "Shit, this is actually possible." The guy just inspired you that this is actually possible and you went in thinking it's not possible.
Sanchan Saxena (00:12:52):
What I found is that at Airbnb, I learned a bunch of different things. One, I learned how to build products where software is just one part of the product. Let me explain that a little bit. The product of Airbnb isn't the app. It is a means to an end. The product of Airbnb is the memories you're going to create when you sit in that Airbnb beautiful house with your family, with your friends, and you're building those memories. That's the product. It's in real world.
Sanchan Saxena (00:13:18):
And how you build a real world product which is of course powered by software, like the app, the website, et cetera, is different than just building a pure product that is purely software. I learned what is operations, how to scale operations, how to work with operations, how to create beautiful physical homes over there. The second thing I learned is just how to build great products.
Sanchan Saxena (00:13:39):
I mean, I got I think a masterclass from Chesky in how to build products by watching him act, behave, and make decisions as well. And we'll talk about it later today. But I learned some of my fundamental product principles from him, and working with him and the team that he had assembled, the design leaders, the engineering leaders, et cetera. I learned a lot over there.
Sanchan Saxena (00:13:59):
And last one but not least, there was still a hypergrowth thing. We were going through crazy growth. And then I learned what happens in leadership when coronavirus happens, the company starts to tank. It was a lesson in crisis management. I tell my friends I could not have gone to HBS Stanford business school to learn crisis management as much as I learned while being in the front row seat managing through that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:14:23):
My learning as a product leader from Brian as a hyperscaler, taking the product management organization from 30, 40 people to 200 people, and last but not the least, managing the crisis. I felt like it all compressed into three years something that you will learn in 30.
I imagine you had no sense of that sort of path or trajectory or learning when you joined Airbnb, it was like, "Hmm, this is going to be a great company, little [inaudible 00:14:46] things."
Sanchan Saxena (00:14:47):
Yeah, absolutely. And oftentimes it's a joke, but I'll say it out anyhow. Oftentimes you meet leaders who are leaving Facebook, Amazon, Google, and it's like, "Hey, here's my Excel spreadsheet. Here's how I imagine the startup that I'm joining will grow. Here's the valuation. Here's my life. Here's my compensation. That's it." None of that shit is going to happen.
Sanchan Saxena (00:15:05):
The companies have a different trajectory and you can't predict those things. So yeah, you're right. When I joined Airbnb, I thought it's going to be a walk in the park, just like Instagram was. I mean, Instagram wasn't a walk in the park. But relatively speaking, Instagram never experienced this kind of rapid pivoting of the reality, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:15:22):
I'll share with you I was there when Instagram had less than a hundred million monthly active users, $0 in revenue, 50 engineers, till it had 1 billion monthly active users, billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of employees. And I don't remember a time where the reality got bended so badly that we had to pivot.
Sanchan Saxena (00:15:41):
In Airbnb's time, man, one fine morning in January, Brian and us were all talking about going IPO and taking the company public. Six weeks later, we are figuring out, "Damn, how do we make this company survive?" The revenues, if I'm not wrong, dropped to less in single digits of last year's revenue.
Sanchan Saxena (00:16:00):
And there is no head of product, there is no CFO, there is no COO, whoever has a business plan to say, "Hmm, what are we going to do when our revenue drops to single digits of last year's revenue?"
Sanchan Saxena (00:16:10):
I definitely didn't think that is what happened, but that's what ended up happening. Luckily, everything worked out, and I'm happy to share what we did and how we navigated through that with the audience, but it was some crazy, crazy times, man.
I was on the outside of that having left Airbnb a couple years prior and I was like, "Shit, what am I going to do now? I've been taking time off. There go all my Airbnb shares. I think I can get a job soon." And that's actually what led to the newsletter and starting to charge for the newsletter. But I'm very thankful for the turnaround that you helped create. I'd actually love to hear a bit more about what it is they did that helped them through that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:16:43):
I'll share with you the behind the scenes story that we went through. This is January, and Brian had this idea of taking the company public in April. And we are working on the road show deck, we are working through numbers, we were crafting the story, et cetera, everything's going well.
Sanchan Saxena (00:16:59):
And then we hear of this coronavirus crisis and all of a sudden countries are shutting down, one after the other. Italy shuts down. Japan shuts down. This country shuts down. And all of a sudden we can see on our travel map, we have this dashboard where you can see where people are traveling, and you can see travel goes down to zero in this country on a map. This goes down to zero in this country, and you're like, "Holy shit, what's happening over here?"
Sanchan Saxena (00:17:19):
I remember in all-hands where Brian stood up and said, "Look, we built this company for a crisis like this. We built this company, we have $2 billion in bank." I think something like that, some ridiculous number. "We have not used a single amount of money from our last raise," because we were profitable or growing really profitable. "And we are going to survive this."
Sanchan Saxena (00:17:35):
Six weeks later, he's in the same all-hands and telling people, "This is a different world we are living in." We had to lay off 1,900 employees, just 190 of those were in my organization. We had to raise $2 billion in debt, and the valuation dropped to 50% of what the valuation was. It was one of the craziest times.
Sanchan Saxena (00:17:53):
And Lenny, when you go through that, the loss of challenges you face, one is fine. You can cut costs by laying off employees for a little bit and create a little bit more runway. But remember, this is coronavirus time. I had to let go of people over Zoom. I couldn't even meet them in-person.
Sanchan Saxena (00:18:09):
I still remember when I actually finished my speech and I told them, "This is the last day," now, I literally shed a tear in front of everybody, because I was like, "Man, this is hard. This is really, really hard." And the company let go of 1900 people. I just had to let go of 190 in my organization, but it was still very painful, because remember, it is no fault of these employees. They just happen to be at the wrong side of the tornado that's hitting the world.
Sanchan Saxena (00:18:34):
The second equally most important thing was the people who stayed back, how do you motivate them? One is you can let go of the people, but people who stayed back, they need a light of hope that something is going to turn around. But how do you plan when data is changing every single day? And every day we will wake up, a new country will go down and say, "No, no more travels into our market".
Sanchan Saxena (00:18:56):
And we start predicting that our revenue will be 7, 10, some ridiculous very small percent of last years. There's panic. And this is where I would say Brian Chesky is an incredible leader. He's the Rocky Balboa of Silicon valley. You can punch him, he'll go down, he'll stand up, he'll fight again. That's the analogy. He's truly the Rocky Balboa where he took so many punches, but he stood up again and say, "One more round."
Sanchan Saxena (00:19:22):
And that's how the company survived. From an operating principle, we went into two week planning mode. Greg Greeley, who was the president of Airbnb used to say, "Look, can't plan for a year, can't plan for a quarter. We're going to plan every two weeks. We're going to react to every two weeks." And I think this is the lesson that I try to share with a lot of product people as well and founders as well is that things are going to go all right. Things are not going to go as you plan.
Sanchan Saxena (00:19:47):
The real genius isn't to dot every eye, to cross every team before you get started. The real genius is, what do you do when shit goes wrong? And I believe rapid recovery is the key to success. What you do, how quickly you can recover from failure becomes really important. Our operating model changed. We went to two weeks shipping. All right, what are we doing for the next two weeks? What is the most urgent thing for the company? For the company. Not my team, not your team, not somebody else's team.
Sanchan Saxena (00:20:13):
And we pivoted the entire machinery down over there. And then slowly and slowly after two or three months, we got to a place where we got semblance of what is happening. I want to tell you one story. Hotels and Airbnb are competitors, right? And when this thing happened, we had a debate, "How are we going to position Airbnb against hotels?" And actually we had to figure out what are the advantages of people staying in an Airbnb.
Sanchan Saxena (00:20:35):
And luckily for us, being in an Airbnb where the air you breathe is only you and your family turned out to be a huge secret sauce to compete. When you're in a hotel, there's a lobby. You get to be with other people. But when you're are in an Airbnb, you're safe. We pivoted our marketing as well and messaging as well. The entire company came together to become one.
Sanchan Saxena (00:20:55):
And through this, I would say Brian's leadership was just phenomenal, everything I learned about crisis management, leading with calmness. There's a very good saying in boxing. I love sports. There's a very good saying, which is, you can have all the plan. The moment you step inside the boxing and you get a punch on your face, all your plans go out the window. And you got to stay calm when you get a punch on your face.
Sanchan Saxena (00:21:15):
And that is what I learned from Brian, how to stay calm, how to stay composed while at the same time, deep down you know you owe a lot to these employees, you know you owe a lot to these employees to have clarity, and for them to stick around with you and believe in you that the company can turn around. It was an amazing journey, but pretty painful.
Wow. I haven't heard that level of detail about what went on inside, and so thank you for sharing all that. Very tactically, I'm curious, the two week planning cycles, how did that actually happen? Was there a large meeting every two weeks with the leaders and they just kind of discuss, "Here's where we're thinking for the next two weeks."?
Sanchan Saxena (00:21:48):
Yeah, I think so. One of the things about Airbnb, and we'll talk about it later as well, but it's a very founder-driven company. While there are leaders over there, the founder is deeply in the trenches. He really understands the customer. He's not this executive who's so far removed from reality that they can't actually create the content.
Sanchan Saxena (00:22:04):
Brian was living, breathing that exercise. Execs were breathing that thing. What we'll do is we'll have a bunch of things top-down. Again, this is what we need to do guys. We need to cut this feature. We need to cut this product line. We need to cut this business unit. I literally had to shut down one full business unit because we had to cut the bleeding, so to say, and let go of those many people.
Sanchan Saxena (00:22:24):
It was a top-down mandate, but also it was a bottom-up. The engineers, the product managers and designers are frontline. They are in connection with the CX team who's hearing what customers are complaining about. And so there was a mixture of top-down guidance to a bottoms-up things that we are seeing on the field. And every two weeks or so, the leadership, Greg in that case, for example, would make a decision on, "Here are the things we are going to go handle." And there were no teams anymore.
Sanchan Saxena (00:22:50):
We basically dissolved this idea that there are sub-teams. There was one team, #Airbnb. Didn't matter whether you worked in CX or Airbnb Plus or Lax, or any of those things, we're going to move engineers wherever we have to, we're going to move PMs wherever we need to, and there's no such thing as sub-team anymore.
Sanchan Saxena (00:23:09):
A lot of engineers on my team would go on to do marketplace dynamic stuff, like pricing and all that stuff, while some of those engineers would then go on to build CX tools or something else that was needed for survival. I felt like a 4,000 people company was operating as a four people company and a 40 people company, which is one team, no sub-teams, everybody rowing in the same direction. And that was really important.
Sanchan Saxena (00:23:31):
Because remember, employees who are at your company are looking for clarity. What should they work on? Is the thing that they're going to work on meaningful, right? Because nobody knows, right? And when people will ask you as a leader, like many people ask me, what does six months look like? What does a year look like? Where are we a year from now?
Sanchan Saxena (00:23:46):
The most honest answer you can tell them is, "I don't know." Because if you cook shit up, they're going to see through that lie. They're going to like, "Ah, this is just all marketing fluff." We would be very honest as leaders, would be very vulnerable as leaders, saying, "This is truly once in a lifetime thing. We don't know how we're going to navigate. But here's what we believe to be true."
Sanchan Saxena (00:24:05):
We had to get people from feature obsession, revenue obsession, to belief obsession. What is belief obsession? When we all believe that when coronavirus is over, people will want to travel. We all believe that coronavirus will be over. You start going into first principles belief-based thinking, and you'll bring stories that will make people believe that the future that we are working toward is actually possible.
Sanchan Saxena (00:24:28):
For example, there was a survey we did, we said, "If money wasn't a consideration, what would you do for the rest of your life?" 99.99% of the people said, "I will travel the world." Travel is in human genes. And so we had to pivot to actually making people believe why travel will be back, why Airbnb will survive, and why Airbnb will eventually thrive if the coronavirus crisis is lower.
These stories are incredible. I was going to ask around the morale piece. You mentioned keeping morale up. And it sounds like a big piece of that was pulling people back to the mission and the vision of Airbnb and re-inspiring them, and helping them feel like this will work out. Is that what you found to be most effective, to keep more morale up, or is there anything else that also helped keep more morale up in this very tenuous time?
Sanchan Saxena (00:25:11):
I think in these tenuous times you will notice that you can't pay these employees better than market. When this happened, FAANG companies were at our door trying to poach our engineers. Overnight, every engineer was pinged by Facebook, Google say, "Hey, we heard Airbnb is going down. You want to come over? We'll pay you X amount of money, and that stock is stable."
Sanchan Saxena (00:25:34):
You had vultures at the door, so to say, as a proverbial exercise where your top talent is getting poached, but you can't pay this top talent the best. Right? You can't. Because your financial situation doesn't allow you to do that, right? But you still give them something, right? Because it's at a lower price and you start to sell the vision that if the company turns around, this will be at a higher price and you'll have right compensation. But those were some of the challenges.
Sanchan Saxena (00:25:56):
The second challenge is you'll notice that people who thrive in these situations will be the one who truly believe both in the mission, but I think more importantly in the founders to make that mission come to life. Because you and I both know, right, there are many companies who have the similar mission, want to do something similar, but some succeed and some don't.
Sanchan Saxena (00:26:17):
And the secret sauce of that in my opinion is the founder. And if the employees do not believe in the founder, if the employees do not believe that the founder can make things happen as they talk about, and the founder is not able to connect with the employees, those companies go down in flames. The second thing I would say is the founder needs to be at the front line. And Brian Chesky was on the front line.
Sanchan Saxena (00:26:37):
He was literally 24/7 available, interacting, making decisions, holding all-hands, writing emails, sending messages, and assuring people that I'm in this with you. By the way, there's a proverbial thing, right? When such situations happen, all execs take a pay cut. Every company does that, right? But then still certain companies survive, certain don't, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:26:58):
It's primarily because of the founder. And then the third thing I would say is somehow getting people to believe in the future that they came here to create. When drastic situations like these happens, when I joined Airbnb I had a vision of what it can become, and the reality snaps and all of a sudden like, "Holy shit. Is that even possible?"
Sanchan Saxena (00:27:21):
That is the real art I learned from Brian is that the power of storytelling without any data. Your data is telling you, "You're going to die." The data is telling you, you got 7%, 10% of your revenue, whatever the number was now. I forget now. Like single digit number, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:27:36):
And every day you're seeing the numbers go down, right? And Brian has this incredible ability to help you see a future in a way so crystal clear that when you leave chatting with him, you're like, "Man, it's possible. We can make it happen. We can do it." That trait was really, really important that Brian invested in it, and all the three founders, by the way.
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Visit Productboard.com to learn more. I could talk about Airbnb all day, but I'm also curious of the other places you worked at, Instagram, Microsoft, even Coinbase. What are things you've seen the leaders at those companies do that have stuck with you that you're going to take to other places that are maybe unique?
Sanchan Saxena (00:29:06):
Yeah, I think a lot of amazing things. I tell people, I learned all things about building great products, building great businesses, building great companies from founders like Kevin Systrom and Brian Chesky, Brian Armstrong and others. Well, let me go back to Instagram days. I want to paint the picture first of what it was when I got there and the journey we were on.
Sanchan Saxena (00:29:23):
At that time, Instagram was a highly successful app that was growing really fast, but there were many questions. Only photos, you can't share anything outside. It's only from the camera. You can't share links. At Facebook they allow you to share links. Why don't you allow that, right? There's an existential question that comes at those stages, which is who do you want to be when you grow up?
Sanchan Saxena (00:29:45):
When you're a startup, that's a big, important question for you to answer. And there were many debates. "Do we want to be the next Facebook? Do we want to be the first Instagram? Who do we want to be when we grow up?" Right? And that debate is really, really important. That clarity is really important for your employees.
Sanchan Saxena (00:30:02):
The thing that I learned from Kevin Systrom was the power of simplicity. That guy can listen to everything, hear everything, hear the noise on Twitter, here, there, all the customers complaining, and then just simplify things that makes sense for the team to operate on. That's his superpower, which is simplicity. Take all the information, but simplify your strategy, your belief, who you want to be when you grow up in a way that people can then act on it.
Sanchan Saxena (00:30:28):
The other thing I learned from him was intentionality. This is the story of Instagram Stories. When Snapchat came about, Snapchat was eating Facebook and Instagram as lunch in many regards, because the Snapchat Stories was crushing it. And there are lots of myths, by the way, in the media, how that happened.It was a mandate from Zuck.
Sanchan Saxena (00:30:47):
No, Zuck did not have a mandate. There was no such thing. It was something that people were experimenting. I want to tell you a story, two stories, which is stories in Facebook app and stories inside of Instagram app, and stories for your audience is the stuff that Snapchat invented, all credit to them. In product management, you always debate measure twice, cut once kind of a thinking. It's like measure the data, get all the data, right? Get all the analysis, ask customers, et cetera.
Sanchan Saxena (00:31:12):
Some of the successful founders don't do that. Some of the successful founders go off of gut and instincts more than they go off of data. And that to me is a superpower of a founder is like they have this instinct, their vision. I'll tell you a story. On Instagram side, Kevin Systrom made a decision. We're going all in on this new format. There was no A/B testing that if you add stories at the top ...
Sanchan Saxena (00:31:34):
I mean, there were a little bit of A/B testing, but not like, "Okay, let's go measure. If you add stories at the top, the feed will go down as a result. Engagement will drop as a result. Revenue will draw. And as a result, we should not do it." There was no such thing. The founder said, "We're going all in people. This is the future. We're not going to measure and then cut. We're going to cut. And then we are going to iterate from that new baseline. We're going to continue to iterate on that on the Facebook side."
Sanchan Saxena (00:31:57):
And by the way, there's a very good article that some PM inside of Facebook wrote why stories didn't survive at Facebook but thrived at Instagram is because on that side there was a mathematical modeling being created, which is what are the trade-offs. And you have a successful business. And this is the innovator's dilemma. You have a successful business called feed that is generating billions of dollars.
Sanchan Saxena (00:32:16):
And you got to bring in this new thing, which has zero advertisers, we don't even know if the engagement will be there or not, and you got to put those things together. There was a very different approach that Facebook took for stories versus Instagram. And by the way, there was no this rumor in the media there was a top-down man. No, these teams were just experimenting. They were just trying things out.
Sanchan Saxena (00:32:35):
We always want to look at our competition, be inspired by what's working, what's not. There's no harm in learning from somebody who's doing something great and experiment and see if that works for you or not. That was the story. And the thing that I learned from Systrom was intentionality. As a founder, one of the things you have to recognize, or even as a product leader, you have to recognize is that every product that you build should be intentional in nature.
Sanchan Saxena (00:32:57):
An intentionality doesn't come just from A/B testing. A/B testing maybe you can do that, right, as a later on, but you got to have intentionality. Where do you want to go? What is the world you want to create for your customers? And then create out A/B testing to get you the fastest route to that end state world. When I talk to product managers, oftentimes I tell them you're being either too lazy or you're trying to be too risk averse by telling me, "Here are the assumptions you have that you're going to test."
Sanchan Saxena (00:33:24):
First tell me the intentionality of the product that you want to create. What do you want to see come true? And then let's talk about the A/B test we can run to measure that we are headed in the right direction. And it's a flipping of the mind. And that was something that Brian also taught me. By the way, it's a joke, but some degree it's reality too. A/B testing at Airbnb is a bad word.
Sanchan Saxena (00:33:44):
You don't go to Brian and say, "Hey Brian, here's my Excel spreadsheet. I want to run some 10 A/B tests and come back and tell you whether we are heading in the right direction." You're going to get thrown out of the window. It's like, "No, we got to figure out what the product is." The other thing I learned with Brian Chesky was you first want to create an ideal end state of the product without any constraint.
Sanchan Saxena (00:34:05):
Here's a good analogy that Brian will teach people. Let's say you want to build Airbnb. What is the 15 out of 10 experience you want to create? That's where Airbnb designers and PM start by the way. In most companies, the designers and PM start by saying, "Okay, 10 is perfect. We can probably do seven. Let's start at seven." It's a very constrained minded thinking. It's like, "I got this much time. I got this many resources. I got this much budget. I can only do so much." Right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:34:31):
And what Brian taught us was think unconstrained first. Think about a 15 out of 10 experience, design the ideal end state first. I'll give you a very concrete example of this. Let's say you're building Airbnb lounges. A customer's check in is at 3:00 PM, but their flight is at 6:00 AM. What are you going to do? Well, you got to build a lounge, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:34:50):
If you're traditionally trained in product management, this is what you'll do, which is, look, I don't know how to build this in 120 countries. I don't know how to scale this stuff. So I'm going to ignore some ideas and I'm going to build a MVP lounge. And then I want to say, "Okay, if I add internet access to it, customer detention went up by way. If I add coffee to it, this went up by Z.If I add cheers to it, it went up by X," and hence I'm going to justify how to build a beautiful mall.
Sanchan Saxena (00:35:15):
That's not what you will do if you're Brian Chesky. Here's what you'll do. You will pick one location because you don't know how to scale a lounge in 120 countries. Pick one location. But you know how to get in one location a barista who can create coffee, you know in one location how to get the best seats, you know in one location how to get the best air conditioning, you know that right. Build the best possible lovable product first.
Sanchan Saxena (00:35:38):
And then from that point on, understand what worked, what did not, and then scale the pieces that actually worked. It's a very different way of thinking about things, doing things that don't scale it first. Those are different things I learned at Instagram and Airbnb.
So much good stuff there that we could do a podcast at each learning. And that point about working backwards from the ideal, that's something I've absolutely taken away also from Airbnb and news often. If folks want to learn a bit more about that, if you Google Snow White Airbnb, there's a whole story about Snow White that kind of touches on where a lot of this idea came from.
I want to follow up on one point you made about intentionality. See your founder or PM and you're just like, "Oh, yeah. Okay. I'm just going to figure out a vision, and this is where we need to go. And I need to be intentional, so I'm just going to tell people here's where we're going." Oftentimes you're wrong.
Do you have any thoughts for someone trying to decide how do I know if I'm going in the right direction, how do I know if I should trust this gut that I have versus running A/B test, because otherwise we don't know? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Sanchan Saxena (00:36:35):
Absolutely. I think there are lots of things to unpack there. The first and foremost thing I'd say is that when you sit in your car, you tell your GPS, "Here's where I want to go." You never go into your car and say, "Hey, GPS, tell me where I should go." Right? At least I haven't done that. And then you use the GPS to run an A/B test, say, "Look, I want to get there in the fastest way possible."
Sanchan Saxena (00:36:58):
GPS then figures out the path to get there in the fastest way, or sometimes tell the GPS, "I'm low on gas. Take me a gas efficient route that I can get there, or [inaudible 00:37:07]." Those are A/B tests. But you never say to the GPS that, "I don't want to go to San Francisco. Tell me where I should go." It's a similar concept around intentionality.
Sanchan Saxena (00:37:19):
You got to start first and foremost with, where do you want to go? What is the true customer problem that you want to solve? And why does that matter? The second thing I'll say is, oftentimes, product leaders discount gut or intuition a lot. And the reason is it's a safe thing to do. You can always point to data and say, "Look, I did this because of this. And if I fail, here's the data. And don't fire me." I'm just joking.
Sanchan Saxena (00:37:44):
But you get the extreme of it, right? It's very hard to build a team and build your reputation and get an intuition. But the thing is, founders do exactly that. There was no document that said, "10 years later Facebook will make billions of dollars in revenue," or no document that said, "Coinbase one day will become a hundred billion dollar company if you invest in that at that point in time." You got to have gut and intuition. And founders have that and operators need to learn how to harness that as well.
Sanchan Saxena (00:38:07):
And to me, gut and intuition is data. It's just not statistically significant yet. That's all it is. You have built that intuition, that gut, because you immerse yourself in a situation, you hung out with customers, you understood what was happening. You just can't prove it that it is statistically significant yet.Don't discount your gut. That's the second point.
Sanchan Saxena (00:38:28):
And the third point that I'll say is, once you have figured out what that experience looks like, yes, you got to validate what's happening, you got to get feedback back from the community while launching it, and then you got to constantly iterate. My advice to people is, don't do that testing up front, start with some assumption, start with a bunch of intuition, et cetera. Create that and then have the appetite to actually persist through that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:38:51):
That's another thing I learned from Brian is that oftentimes these ideas, these crazy ideas, you need persistence. He used to say, "You got to have impatience with getting started, but patience for seeing them through." Because at many other companies, you can actually kill a brilliant idea early on because you just didn't have the patience to see that through.
Sanchan Saxena (00:39:11):
You got to start with intentionality and then you got to iterate and test, and iterate and test, and iterate and test. But don't give up too early either. And last but not the least, I'll tell a secret to all your audios.
Oh boy, here we go.
Sanchan Saxena (00:39:23):
Nobody knows everything. Right? The idea is that you can look at as much data as you want, which is still not going to feel that all the answers. What is really important? The really important thing is rapid recovery. Build a culture in your team where failure of those experiments is actually celebrated.
Sanchan Saxena (00:39:41):
Build a culture in the team where actually people get energized when they fail, because guess what, each failure was a learning that will avoid a mistake for them in the future. Right? And I think that is the mindset and culture you want to build. Look at data, look at all the things. But at the same time, don't just look at that and say, "Look, because the data said so, that is what I'm going to do." I'm going to use a very good analogy over here.
Sanchan Saxena (00:40:03):
And this story has been butchered many times, but I was right there when this happened, so my version is at least 80% accurate. There might be other versions as well. But this is Instagram Stories. Imagine you are Kevin Systrom and data science comes to you and say, "Look, I looked at data, and 99% of all photos on people's phones are actually at least a week old. Please allow Instagram Stories to let people select a photo that is at least a week or two old."
Sanchan Saxena (00:40:30):
Then user research comes back and says, "We talked to a bunch of people. They said, 'Yes, I would love to share a story of my birthday about a month ago.'" Right? And Kevin Systrom says, "No, my intentionality is that story should be real time news. It should be the world's largest TV channel. You open that up and you see what's happening right now. That is the intentionality I'm going towards."
Sanchan Saxena (00:40:51):
In the beginning, Instagram Stories did not let you pick anything that was not real time. You couldn't go back in your camera and pick something a month ago or two ago, because the intentionality of the product was to create the world's largest real time network of what's happening in the world right now. If that's the intentionality, you got to ignore the other customer needs that I want to share with the world what I did a month ago, and that changes the dynamics.
Essentially, intentionality is setting up vision for where you want to go, where the product's going and then working away towards it. That makes a lot of sense. An example of Instagram. It's interesting because he eventually changed his mind, because I know that you can upload old photos to stories [inaudible 00:41:28]
Sanchan Saxena (00:41:27):
No, that's actually after he left. But yes, you're right.
Okay, I see. A different intentionality appeared.
Sanchan Saxena (00:41:34):
And look, it's also nothing wrong with changing your mind afterwards once you push the envelope, and then you learn something new and you can pivot. And that's another beauty of founders is that they're very intentional people, very strong opinionated people, but in the face of something new, they're also the fastest to change. They don't have remorsefulness, they don't have regrets, and like, "Yeah. All right, let's pivot." And that is the culture you want to build as well as an operator.
I'd love to spend a little time on Coinbase and the product culture there. How A/B test driven is it at Coinbase? How do folks think about intentionally vision? And also just, what's the product development process like? I'm always curious how products is developed at different companies.
Sanchan Saxena (00:42:10):
I think all different companies that I've worked at have very different product development cultures. At Airbnb, for example, design and experience was super paramount, and you will not compromise over it. You won't cut design to ship. In other companies you will cut design to ship sometimes because you want to find something quickly.
Sanchan Saxena (00:42:26):
At Coinbase, it's slightly different as well. Every company has their nuances. Coinbase is an industry which is rapidly growing. It's Web 3.0. I mean, I have not come across a Web 3.0 expert yet. There is nobody who's an expert in Web 3.0.
They seem to be on Twitter.
Sanchan Saxena (00:42:41):
Yeah. There are lots of people who think they're experts on Twitter. But the reality is, man, the industry is so nascent, so early. You have good intentions and good intuition about where it could go, but it's very hard to be right all the time. The culture of Coinbase is to take big, bold bets, get started with very tiny teams.
Sanchan Saxena (00:43:00):
The Coinbase NFT marketplace that we just launched, it started with five people, one product manager, one designer and other three engineers. That's how smart it start. And of course it has grown big now as we find product market fit, etcetera, et cetera. But that's the idea is take big, bold swings, but with tiny teams that can move at lightning speed and make shit happen, because that's one aspect of it.
Sanchan Saxena (00:43:22):
The other culture that I love about Coinbase is this idea of how we make decisions. Emily, our COO, posted a blog. It's public. You guys can all read it. It's a very different mindset of making decisions, so let me unpack that. When I was at Facebook, Instagram and other companies, other tech companies, there's a saying around product and design, marketing. All these cross functional people need to come together to build a product.
Sanchan Saxena (00:43:45):
And oftentimes you will notice that the decision making process could get a little bit convoluted, not always, but a little bit convoluted. It's like, okay, what do you like? What do you don't like? You got to align influence, align influence. And next thing you know ... And again, I'm not saying always, but sometimes it can happen that the thing that ends up shipping is the least common denominator that annoyed everybody the least amount, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:44:09):
Everybody said, "Yeah, I could get comfortable with that. I could get comfortable with that." And Brian has an allergic reaction to things like committees. It's like designing by committee. The idea that we have, and you can read it in her blog, is the idea of a directly responsible individual or DRI.
Sanchan Saxena (00:44:26):
For every project, we'll establish a DRI. It could be a person in operations, engineering, design, legal, marketing, whatever that is, depending on the nature of the project. And DRI's job is to then listen to the cross functional partners, get their input. And we have a written culture like Amazon, so every input is provided in writing. Right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:44:45):
You can see what head of legal is saying. You can see what your head of operations is saying, what engineering is saying in writing. And then the DRI's job is to take all that input and make a decision. Not take all that input and do necessarily what's right by everybody, right? Still do what's right by the customer. Still do what's right by the business. Still do what's right for the user in many regards.
Sanchan Saxena (00:45:07):
But take that input, inform yourself with all the right things, but it's your job to then make the final call. Whoever you might be, sometimes it's operations, sometimes it's engineering, sometimes it's design and product, and others then have to disagree and champion that for you. I might go in and I might write in that rapid, "I disagree with this. Here are the reasons why."
Sanchan Saxena (00:45:27):
But the decider the DRI has to make that decision. And once that decision is made, I got to disagree and commit to it and champion it with the rest of the team as if it was my decision. It's not just disagree and commit, it's disagree and champion. Go out there and evangelize that this is the right thing to do. Now, there are lots of advantages of that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:45:43):
It cuts all the passive aggressive behaviors that all of us have seen in different companies. It's like, "Ah, I got to go talk to this head of X, and I got to be nice. I got to make sure we have this relationship." And the decision gets dragged over two, three months, because the speed of decision making is directly proportional to the strength of your relationship in those companies, right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:46:02):
Here, the speed of decision making is directly proportional to the person who's directly responsible from making that decision happen. And it is, of course, incumbent upon that person to listen and get unsolicited advice. But at the end of the day, they're the single [inaudible 00:46:16]. They're the final DRI. It's a very different culture than any place I've worked in. And when you join Coinbase, we have to orient you by saying, "Look, this is how you operate," very different than any other company.
That's so interesting. Is that how big decisions are made or does that filter down to even individual teams where a PM or whoever is a DRI in a team makes decisions this way?
Sanchan Saxena (00:46:37):
Individual people as well. You will see PMs writing, engineers writing, and operations and legal writing a rapid. It's called rapid. It's for rapid decision making. And it's the same format that I would use if I want Brian to make a decision. It's the same format someone will use inside their team.
Sanchan Saxena (00:46:52):
Let's say you are working on a particular project, you will write that rapid. It's the same exact format, same exact mechanism, and every team uses those mechanisms to actually scale. Otherwise, decision making can actually be the [inaudible 00:47:05] of hypergrowth companies.
Is there anything else that's unique about how Coinbase operates that's stuck with you that you might take to a future company that you may work at if you ever leave Coinbase?
Sanchan Saxena (00:47:14):
Yeah. I think decision making is one. I think just the idea of how to operate in such an ambiguous industry. When I got to Airbnb, ambiguity was a lot, because it was the first time we were doing home sharing as an example, right? And it was not done before. But you had had the overall understanding of the travel industry, the customer, the regulation, et cetera, et cetera.
Sanchan Saxena (00:47:33):
But I think [inaudible 00:47:35] is a very ridiculously new thing. People sometimes ask me what's the future of NFD, I say, "Ta-da! I don't know," I'll experiment, figure it out. I have an opinion. I'll take that opinion and start to execute against it, but nobody knows. How do you build conviction in a highly noisy world?
Sanchan Saxena (00:47:50):
I mean, Web 3.0, as you're probably on Twitter, everybody has an opinion on Twitter. X should do Y, and Y should do Z, and this is how it should be. Right?And the thing that I would take with me everywhere is, how do you build in that noise? How do you stay focused and still build what you believe is the right thing and still let the noise happen around you?
Sanchan Saxena (00:48:09):
And I think as Web 3.0 advances and every company becomes a Web 3.0 company, that's at least my prediction in this decade, just like every company became a mobile company, didn't have a mobile app, but became a mobile company, I think every company will become a Web 3.0 company. Everybody will have to build that muscle of operating in that level of ambiguity where there's literally no data and lot of noise.
Is there some way of operating at Coinbase that allows them to operate in this ambiguity and focus? Is there something that you've seen there?
Sanchan Saxena (00:48:36):
Yeah. I mean, we have our own flaws. I mean, no, company is perfect. We have our own flaws. But what we have figured out is how to operate, just the way I described before, which is a DRI mindset culture. Instead of having 15 people have 15 different perspectives, et cetera, it should all be amalgamated into one rapid.
Sanchan Saxena (00:48:51):
And we trust our leaders. We trust the DRI, whoever that DRI is, to make the decision. And then we start going towards the same direction. We ignore all the noise over there. Again, no company is perfect yet. We are still learning, but this is something I found to be very effective.
On the thread of Web 3.0, if someone's thinking about like, "Should I get into a Web 3.0 sort of company? Should I not?" what sort of people do you find are most successful maybe on the product side specifically, but even broadly, folks that may enjoy the world of Web 3.0 and others that maybe not?
Sanchan Saxena (00:49:18):
Yeah, I think Web 3.0 is definitely at a stage right now where I'm seeing a lot of influx of people from Web 2.0 world. Literally, if I look at my LinkedIn post, there's somebody saying, "Ta-da! I left X and I'm joining a Web 3.0 company." So there's already.
Or starters pivoting to Web 3.0 in your entire team.
Sanchan Saxena (00:49:35):
Exactly, starters pivoting to Web 3.0 as well. I feel like when I joined ... I mean, I joined very recently. I mean, not long time ago. When I joined, it was a very different conversation. I was still telling execs and others at Google and Facebook, "This is why you should join. This is what's happening," et cetera, but now I feel like the world is slightly different.
Sanchan Saxena (00:49:52):
I think the people who will thrive or who thrive in Web 3.0 are people who truly are able to understand the potential and disregard the constraints of today. And here's what I mean by that. You all have seen articles written by really influential celebrities saying, "Web 3.0 sucks." And let me tell you why, because today sucks, right? We agree with the future principles of Web 3.0 of decentralization, this and that. But look at today, everything is centralized. Everything is blah, blah, blah.
Sanchan Saxena (00:50:21):
I always remind those people as like the path to Web 3.0 goes, and from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 goes through web 2.5. It doesn't go straight from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0. It goes through web 2.5. You got to go through that journey. And a lot of stuff that's happening in Web 3.0 today is web 2.5, 2.7 kind of. There's no truly decentralized stuff that is there, but the idealism is there. The closest thing is Ethereum probably, or Bitcoin.
Sanchan Saxena (00:50:42):
The idealism is there and we want to get to the towards that, right? The people who will thrive most are people who understand those ideals, understand the future and are builders. They want to take what it is today and then morph it into the ideals of tomorrow. I remember I'm a history buff and I love watching the history of technology.
Sanchan Saxena (00:51:02):
And there's a video on YouTube which describes someone playing with the internet back in 1986, '87, '89, right? And what you had to do was if I wanted to visit Lenny's website, here's what I'll do. I'll type 192. whatever the IP address was, and then I'm going to hit enter on a blue screen. And then there'll be things coming down and I'll pay $200 to just access his website.
Sanchan Saxena (00:51:23):
[inaudible 00:51:23] too, right? But if you can get past that and see that someday Lenny and I will actually have a podcast, video podcast or YouTube podcast over the internet, and we'll be able to see each other and record that shit, that is powerful. We are looking for people at this stage who believe in that journey.
I love that. And just the idea of hiring and joining company, I wanted to touch on hiring advice. You're really good at hiring. You've hired many people, you've interviewed tons and tons of PMs, and so I just wanted to touch on this before we wrap up.
I find that hiring and just finding people as maybe the single biggest pain point for companies these days and startups especially. Do you have any advice for our founders or product leaders or just leaders in general for hiring, including finding people and closing them, that kind of thing?
Sanchan Saxena (00:52:10):
Yeah. I think maybe I can focus a little bit about what are some of the things that I believe are incredibly important for startups to get right when they're hiring. The couple of things to remember is that what really matters, what's highly code related to a startup success isn't that they used a process like scrum, like this, like that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:52:30):
Well, what's highly correlated is that somebody bloody knew what to do when. That is the most important thing. And I call that content. Content means what you do when. Process means how you do the thing that I just said. And I think there's a very easy love affection towards process.
Sanchan Saxena (00:52:50):
And I think Reed Hastings has talked about this in their culture deck. Steve jobs has also talked about in the past is that, oftentimes we gravitate towards people who know how to avoid mistakes, who know how to create a process. Here's what a typical cycle is. You get bigger and bigger, you start making mistakes, you're like, "Oh, we got to create a process so we don't make the same mistake again."
Sanchan Saxena (00:53:07):
And next thing you know, over a period of time, the process becomes the product. Every morning you wake up, you look at your calendar, 80% of the time as an exec you are moving the process, you are managing the process, and that process becomes the product, and you lose sight of what the real product is, who your real customers are.
Sanchan Saxena (00:53:24):
My advice to people, especially in early stage startups is bring in people who know content and teach them process, as opposed to bringing in people who know process and trying to teach them content, because that's a bloody hard thing to do.
Sanchan Saxena (00:53:36):
And this obsession about a lot of funders ask me when I consult with them is like, "Should we do scrum? Should we do X, Y, Z process?" I'm like, "You can do whatever you want. It doesn't matter. You can try any of those things. It will not be correlated to your success." And maybe to some degree, but not a lot of degree.
Sanchan Saxena (00:53:52):
What you really need to figure out is, who do you hire, who can actually understand what the content of your product is, what the content of your customers is? How do you win in that industry that you're operating in? And make sure that you stay obsessed over there, right, as opposed to the process. This is something that Brian Chesky has grilled in me.
Sanchan Saxena (00:54:09):
Hire executives who know how to execute. And his idea was, let's say Sanchan's entire team disappears, and then I go to Brian and say, "Hey, Brian, I got to hire this organization, I got to hire these people, and then I'll tell you what to build, or I'll then build." Right? Now I should be able to then crawl up my sleeve, if I'm a content kind of a leader, and I should do exactly what my team did.
Sanchan Saxena (00:54:29):
Maybe not with the same capacity, because if I have so many people team, I can't do so many people worth of work. But at least be able to tell you, "This is what we should build. This is when we should build. This is how we should build." Right? I shouldn't be a leader who just delegates to the extent that I forgot what content is, right? And that is a very important piece.
When you're looking for a leader like that, because that sounds amazing, what do you look for? How do you know if there's that sort of leader when you're interviewing or just kind of evaluating?
Sanchan Saxena (00:54:55):
One of the things we did at Airbnb, because this was the thesis that we had over there, we actually changed our interview process around this. We will give people a work challenge. You're very familiar with that. Most people say, "Come and do a presentation." No, we actually gave you a work challenge.
Sanchan Saxena (00:55:08):
We said, "This is the problem you're facing. How are you going to solve it?" Right. We're facing Airbnb Plus problem, we need to build millions of homes that are Airbnb Plus, but we don't know how to do that. What would you do? And we want to see the depth of thinking. They don't know the right answer because they don't have the right data. That's okay. Right?
Sanchan Saxena (00:55:24):
But they at least need to show us how they approach the problem. What are they going to do? And they need to show us the content of how they're going to do. Some people will come in and say, and have seen slides in those presentation, they'll come in and say, "Here's my process. Ideation, execution, iteration." That's okay. I want to know what you're going to do inside of ideation.
Sanchan Saxena (00:55:42):
Some execs will come in presenter say, "Well, the first thing I'm going to do is go out there and figure out are their third party companies who can actually scale my operations without building it in now." That is content, right? And I want to evaluate that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:55:53):
The second thing we will do is in our interview process as well, if it's an exec, Brian will spend time and I will spend time, anybody else will spend time, we will focus on whatever you did in the past, tell me the role that you played in that versus telling me everything that your team did. Right? To be precise, the role you played.
Sanchan Saxena (00:56:11):
And this is something I tell a lot of my folks at Coinbase as well is like, you got to be able to bring things to me, escalate to me when you need my help and let me help you be successful. My role is such that I have a large team and I can't do everything. But what I can do is set them up for success. How? Of course, the tactical supply of resources.
Sanchan Saxena (00:56:32):
But more importantly, when we are thinking about the content, when we think about what to do, when to do, how to do it, let's sit together and think about that. Escalate to me, bring things to me. I will go into the mud with you and I'll create that clay for you, with you. And that is how I stay relevant. But more importantly, that is the value that I get to help my team succeed as well.
I love that. I was just thinking that the fact that you call kind of the roadmap and the plan like a content, that makes you a content creator, and how does that feel?
Sanchan Saxena (00:57:00):
Yes, that does feel good. I mean, you should have the ability to create a roadmap and that is your creating content around that. But the thing that I want to make sure people understand is that the format of that roadmap doesn't matter. Whether you use Excel, or this, or that, it doesn't matter. That process doesn't matter.
Sanchan Saxena (00:57:15):
What matters is that you were able to come up with the right roadmap, which is what you're going to build, at what time you're going to build. And that is a core value set of an individual or a leader that you should absolutely look for.
Sanchan Saxena (00:57:26):
And so otherwise, my prediction is four or five years later or whatever the time is, that company will start to attract process people, and next thing you know, everybody in the company is a process person and nobody is a content person.
Sanchan Saxena (00:57:38):
And then what hands up happening is the founder ends up taking that burden of becoming the content person, and next thing you know, they can't scale. They just cannot scale. The company cannot scale.
Yeah, because process eventually just kind of starts to break down.
Sanchan Saxena (00:57:50):
Exactly. There's a very good deck. I'll encourage your audience to watch the Netflix Culture Deck. And Reed Hastings talks about this at length, better than I did. And it's a beautiful concept, it's a beautiful argument, and I think I will encourage every follower to start looking for that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:58:04):
And again, I'm not saying process shouldn't exist. You absolutely need some process. That's why you can scale. You can't scale without some process as well. But process is not the answer. Content is the answer.
I feel like I've taken enough of your time. And so we've gotten to the final part of our chat, which is the lightning round, where I'm going to ask you a few questions and then just tell me what first thing that comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, that's totally cool too. Does that sound good?
Sanchan Saxena (00:58:27):
Yeah, that sounds great, man.
Okay. What's a book that you recommend most to other product leaders?
Sanchan Saxena (00:58:33):
Two books come to mind. One is The Little Bets, which is how you live your life and how you build businesses with little bets. And the other thing I would say The Innovator's Dilemma. Those are two of my favorite books and highly recommend everybody reading those.
Awesome. What's a company that you recommend most to PMs that are looking for a new job other than Coinbase?
Sanchan Saxena (00:58:53):
Yeah. I mean, I think there are tons of Web 3.0 companies or tons of other companies. I would say amongst the companies [inaudible 00:58:58], the insights say where it is. I think Airbnb is a great company. People should definitely look at that company. It is once in a lifetime kind of a company as well, and people will enjoy working over there.
Agreed. What's your favorite app right now?
Sanchan Saxena (00:59:09):
My favorite app right now, Coinbase NFT.
Shit, I should have said other than Coinbase. All right, you get that.
Sanchan Saxena (00:59:16):
I would say I love TikTok. I am on TikTok all the time. I love how entertaining it is. I love how simple it is. I'm on TikTok all the time.
Same. We're in trouble. Who is your favorite manager that you had?
Sanchan Saxena (00:59:31):
Oh, my favorite manager. It was my first manager. His name is Sashi. He was at Microsoft. And he fundamentally helped change the trajectory of my life. He believed in me. And I was just out of college at that time. And he invested in me. The most important thing was he invested in me. If any successful person you meet in your life, one thing they will all tell you is at some point in their life, somebody believed in them and somebody invested in them, and that was that manager.
Amazing. And then finally, what's a favorite interview question that you like to use?
Sanchan Saxena (00:59:59):
Tell me the story of your career and focus more on why you did what you did. And I ask this question because the resume is full of polished shit. It's like, "Oh, I did this. I did this." Right? I want to hear the story. And tell me why you did what you did. And that tells me a lot about the person when they're answering the question, not the what. Because I can see that on the LinkedIn or the resume, but why, why they chose to do what they chose to do.
I love that. Where can folks find you online, and then how can listeners be helpful to you?
Sanchan Saxena (01:00:27):
Yeah. I mean, I'm pretty active on Twitter. Now that you know, I'm also active on TikTok. But Twitter is probably the best place to follow me. And yeah, if you have any suggestion, anything you want to chat about, send me a message on Twitter, DM me, or LinkedIn. One of those places and I'll be happy to chat with you.
And I imagine folks should check out Coinbase NFT and Coinbase Wallet?
Sanchan Saxena (01:00:47):
How do people find that?
Sanchan Saxena (01:00:50):
Nft.coinbase.com. Give it a shot and let us know what you think.
Amazing. Thank you so much, Sanchan, for being here. This was amazing.
Sanchan Saxena (01:00:55):
Thank you, Lenny, for having me.
That was awesome. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the chat, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast. You could also learn more at Lennyspodcast.com. I'll see you in the next episode.