Productized Podcast with Paul Debahy

Paul is the ex-Chief Product Officer at Joyn.de, the streaming platform launched in Germany in June 2019. Paul has experience building and growing teams and products (from 0 to 10M+ MAUs) at Rocket Internet, namshi.com, and joyn.de and managing products at scale at the Play Store and on Google.com Search. Paul’s background is mostly in consumer (e-commerce), media streaming, and search, with experience using ML to practically unlock user value.

AM: What are you working right now? How is your life? You just left Joyn ,so how are things going on right now?

P: I left Joyn three weeks ago. I’m currently taking some time to think about some startup ideas. The goal is to start my own business or give myself some time to validate some ideas and see if anything works out. I think there are a lot of interesting trends, interesting pain points to explore. I’m trying to be more active on the startup front!

A: So within those points, what kind of technologies, sectors excites you right now?

P: Most of my experience has been in consumer tech, I want to try to do some B2B at the moment. So what I’m trying to do is to find some niche in B2B that actually catered to, or solve a very clear pain point that hasn’t been solved in the right way. That’s at least in my opinion. So I’m trying to brainstorm within the scope.

A: So you have the feeling that you want to go into B2B, but it’s a very vast space, right? Companies have so many problems, so many departments. Do you have any area you want to go into B2B?

P: Exactly. There’s one trend that we’ve been seeing, accelerating a lot maybe in the last, one or two years, and if you look at a lot of companies that are part of this movement or trend, have raised a lot of funds in the last two weeks, it’s everything related to the no code. I would say non-tech people or non-engineers very easily understand what workflows they need.

This idea is very interesting and I think it will really empower a vest, like a proliferation of micro services or micro products across the company. It will allow different employees or different teams across the company to experiment much faster and be less dependent on the backlog of the tech teams. So I think there’s a lot of very interesting companies that are doing amazing work in the domain, like Zappier.

A: You were working in California, in this fast-paced Silicon Valley environment, at Google headquarters, and then changed to a completely different professional culture in Germany, in Munich. So what are the main differences, cultural, speed differences that you’ve found in these two environments?

P: Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting question and It has many variables to it. Even in California, working at a startup is very different than working at Google.

And then, changing geographies, working in a big tech company in Europe is very different from working in a big tech company in California. I would say that the basis of my answer is the fact that all those companies are real tech companies, they are not, like incumbents trying to go through digital transformation, etc.

I would say that for a startup, you as a PM or as a founder of a startup, you constantly struggle with the concept of product market fit. At Google and in bigger companies, It’s not really a problem, even though, Google experiments a lot, and, many times, they end up shutting down some projects or products.

Also, I think in a startup, you need to be much smarter in terms of how you prioritize, how you focus, how you use the resources. At Google, you need to communicate a lot. You need to convince. You have a much vester area of stakeholders. I would say that in a startup it’s much faster and if it’s not fast it might be a problem.

Data availability is a different point as well. I would say that at Google, we have abundant data versus in a startup, you need to log the data you need to build the pipeline to be it’s, it’s definitely a learning curve and you don’t have the luxury of having really abundant data. So you need to be creative using more qualitative feedback.

At joyn, I worked between Germany and London. A year back, I moved to London to open an engineering office, but I would say I still felt a difference between working in California and in Europe. My answer is based on my experience and not treated based on data, but I would say that the ecosystem, the tech ecosystem in California is much more mature.

It feels that in Europe, people are getting up to speed with concepts and questions that were already solved or that people are more familiar, in the US I would say, with how a PM should work with engineers and UX or those methodologies.

I just felt that in the US they’ve experimented enough. And there’s a more established, PM culture. There are pros and cons, to everything.

In Europe, it’s a bit more specialized in terms of the startups that you have, there’s a lot of B2B, a bit less B2C, compared to the US which is normal, because the US is such a big market. And you have more vertical pockets in Europe. Here in London, FinTech is extremely strong. Versus in the US, I would say it was a bit more diversified and, a bit more consumer heavy than.

A: So how was the lifestyle in California, did you like it more than in Europe or not really?

P: I would say that it’s very different. The European working culture is more laid back than in the US. There, I felt that I was in a truck on the internet, it’s a very hardworking, very fast paced culture. The concept of work life balance is much more appreciated in Europe than in the US. It took me some time to adapt, going from California, where it was extremely fast paced to Munich where people had a different conception.

As a leader in a company, you impact the culture, the morale of people, and I definitely had to adapt to better understand the culture.

A: What was the motivation to make that change between California, a fast-paced culture to Europe that is essentially still a scale-up?

P: To be honest, it was mainly a personal decision. California it’s very far. It is great, but it feels like a country by itself, far away from Europe and from Lebanon where my home is actually.

I reached a point in my career, where I noticed that my tech network is in California and it was harder to stay in touch with the people on the other side of the globe. So my decision to go back to Europe was mainly personal, but at the same time, when I arrived here and I saw the scale up, it got me very motivated to be more involved, to try, to share the learnings, the American perspectives or the Google perspectives.

A: So you said you lived your early years in Beirut in Lebanon, then you went to London, had another graduate and eventually moved to the US to do an MBA. So what drove you to have such a dynamic international journey? During your studies and your professional career.

P: Yeah. I never really thought about it, in retrospect, nothing was really planned. It was really like a step-by-step and thinking about what’s the best next step for me. I think when you come from a small country, it’s going to be easier to understand what I’m going to say now and you might relate to my story here.

Lebanon was a small country when we were studying in high school, apart from the Lebanese Baccalaureate, we would do the French baccalaureate, and the international baccalaureate.

Teachers in Lebanon were teaching us, for example in geography, the American map, the French map, the Japanese map before teaching us the Lebanese a map. We started in French, in English and in Arabic. So we always had this outlook, of getting to know what’s beyond our country.

So I would say that at least myself and a lot of my classmates were very curious to discover more. One very sad fact or anecdote about Lebanon, is that the country has a big trade deficit. We import a lot, but what people say is that Lebanon exports a lot of talent, a lot of people to the world. My first step was to go to London to study engineering. I was inspired, personally by my cousins and other people I looked up to, who actually went to the US and to London to study.

So I ended up applying and I was really interested to get to know people from different countries with different perspectives.

I wasn’t tech before going to the US and one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the US was to try to actually work in a tech company there because I always felt and thought that, if you want to try to get the best tech experience out there, at some point in your career, you need to experience working in the US. That really drove my motivation to go and study in Boston.

A: That’s that was a smart thing to do. In retrospect, I can say you had a very fast progression in your product in three years. When did you realize, or was there a specific moment you realize you wanted to go into product? When was the trigger? Was it during the MBA?

P:It was actually way before the MBA, during my time at rocket internet. When I graduated from engineering, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and for multiple reasons, I ended up working in investment banking in London. And I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me.

I knew that I really liked to work with data, to talk to customers and to have this customer approach at the same time. One thing that was very important for me, which is why I really liked engineering as well, was the ability to build my own product, and that was missing in investment banking. I would advise someone to do something with their own product, but I didn’t have a skin in the game, I did not own that product.

Then I got the opportunity to work at truckers, at the start of their international expansion. So I joined them in Dubai, where we started, a fashion e-commerce company called namche.com.

I was one of the first employees there, so I was doing a bit of everything, which was mainly building the company with the co-founders.

I created the customer service team, hired people, defined the processes and the KPIs, and then did the same for the offline marketing team. I was basically doing PM jobs, thinking about the CRM, customer service tools, features to improve, what problems we were seeing, but I didn’t really have the product hat.

At that time, and you also notice in a lot of startups, you don’t need the product team at the beginning, as it’s mostly the founder working with the engineering team, on his idea. They try to make it work until they reach a point where there’s no roadmap. You need someone to really think about the product vision, to do some product discovery work, help teams to collaborate, etc.

And that was when, we actually noticed at Nam shear that we needed a product team. And I decided to step in and lead the product team. This was my entry point into product management, and, from there, I knew that this was for me. I mean, it was the right intersection between the business team and the engineering team, even though I consider that product is part of the engineering team, because I love working with engineers.

So when I did my MBA, I knew that I wanted to stay in Product. I did not want a career change, but I wanted to be able to recruit for companies such as Google, in the US.

A: How hard was it for you to get into a product role in the US after the MBA?

P: I had product experience, so I could leverage my experience at tracking internet , building the special e-commerce, scaling it, recruiting, and managing product managers. I could talk about the metrics I improved, how I improved the conversion rate of the e-commerce website, etc. But I had to put the efforts of course, into the interviews, but it was not out of nowhere.

A: And the MBA actually helped you in that job pursuits?

P: The MBA definitely helped me to get a strong network. This is the number one selling point of having a good MBA school. You’ll notice before you join a company, you can tap into the network to try to get interviews and when you join there’s a lot of alumni with whom you can talk.

In terms of the skills of a product manager, I would say that I didn’t focus on this in my MBA. But there’s a lot of people who were in finance, who worked in private equity, who actually focused on building product skills during the MBA. They ended up doing a career change going from Blackstone and KKR to Google and Facebook, for example. So it was definitely helpful for them, from a skills perspective.

A: So you arrived through the streaming media landscape at Joyn. It’s a very interesting market, lots of players have joined lately, we have Netflix, Amazon, HBO Disney plus, and it’s growing really fast. So how do you create a differentiated value proposition with so many big players in the market? I guess for Joyn it was its German content.

P: You’re not very far. I mean, content is King in streaming. Going back to your question there is a lag between the streaming world in the US and in Europe. What we tried to do at Joyn was a bit what Hulu tried to do 10 years earlier in the US. I joined Joyn before launching the product, before there were any customers. And when we were thinking about its value proposition, one thing, very important, that we acknowledged was that we were late in the game, so we needed to differentiate ourselves.

We notice that there was still a lot of demand and interest in broadcaster content, such as, the voice Germany’s, Next Top Model, etc, but there was an issue with the distribution of those shows, as the new generations don’t want to get cable anymore.

We tried different business models. We started with a free offering, supported by ads. For Germany, it was very important to offer a free service and they didn’t mind watching ads, I would say to a certain extent. We thought that if we went directly into subscription we would be perceived as going head to head with the big American players, like Netflix, Amazon prime, etc.

We definitely got a lot of attraction from Ava.

A: And you know, to prove that this is such a harsh market, you have cases like Quibi, last year, with a very loud failure. In 2020, they got over $1 billion investments and what happened there? I am sure you guys followed the story. You were born more or less at the same time, and you probably were looking at what these guys were doing there.

P: We’re looking a bit more at Netflix and Amazon prime and the German competitors over there too. I think the Quibi story is interesting. I can tell you my analysis or perception, based on what I read.

First, their product was not really validated.

The whole concept was mobile-first and short-form content. Not as short as tik-tok, like 10-minute types of content. I don’t know what kind of validation they did. But we had to do a lot of validation to prove that German users were interested in joyn that we had enough traction.

A: Isn’t there a contradiction, you’re coming from Silicon Valley, which it’s all about products, all about validation, product-market fit, and suddenly in this ecosystem where you would be expecting to have mature venture capital and obviously, you do, you say: “you want to go something new? So validate! Prove me that there is a product-market fit for this new kind of product. And then I’ll give you money”.

In the case of Quibi they got almost $2 billion investment before actually going into the market. And that is surprising to me!

P: I think the reason why they closed, is that they were way under their subscription projection. They failed to prove any kind of traction. And showing traction, especially for this type of company was extremely important and it looked like, at least from what I noticed, from the app store downloads, the number of installs was actually decelerating, they were in a tough position.

And then the launch timing did not help them at all. People were sitting at home watching TV. When you’re at home and you’re using your mobile, you’re directly in competition with tik tok and YouTube. They have to make tough decisions.

A: Speaking about tough decisions as a product manager. Did you have any tough decisions that you can tell us about? Some learning lessons based on that. Also, when should product managers take those harder decisions?

P: The way I look at product management, is as risk, as a responsibility. So every PM has a responsibility towards, the user of their product and the impact the product has on the lives of those users. The launch decision needs to be based on the impact that you’re having on the outcomes you want to create.

When I was PM for the place store and for Google, I felt a lot of responsibility towards my users. Whenever I would do a ranking change on Google play, I would change the way some apps or games are write. So if a kid searches for a game, the games that I’m going to show him are literally going to impact her or his summer. And we are talking about games here. So there is a lot of responsibility towards showing the most useful search results to our users.

We had this very big issue at Google at some point where in the autocomplete of search, showing, I would say abusive auto completions, in terms of tracking your partner, etc. This is not ethical, it’s not legal and it’s, it’s pretty bad. My team, and I, had to work very hard to classify and to catch all those instances because one, we had to do it in all languages across the globe, and we had to do it in a record in a record time because it was that bad.

We ended up using machine learning for better understanding and classification. But then it becomes very hard, as a PM, when you use machine learning, you look at metrics such as precision and recall, for example. So what’s a good enough precision to be comfortable launching an improvement to this abusive use case? I would be fine with a lower precision, but since it’s an abusive use case, you need to be comfortable enough with the level of precision you have and not taking too much time to improve the precision. Those were very tough product decisions I had to take because they had a direct negative impact on their users.

A: Since we started talking about machine learning. What do you think are the top product management trends and/ or disruptions in 2021 or for the next few years?

P: I really think about product management as being part of tech. PM’s do discovery, the roadmaps, driven by tech trends. The world post covid is completely different from the world pre covid, right? I don’t think that we can continue developing our roadmap and thinking about product post-COVID the way we were doing pre-COVID. There’s a change in the mindset of consumers. The way they interact with technology the way they’re willing to use the technology. There’s an emergence of a lot of new fields, and even for the existing fields, a lot of adaptation.

One of the trends I’m excited about is, not working from home, but I would say working from anywhere. I think that a lot of ideas are gonna come to solve problems linked to this. Then there’s of course machine learning, which honestly interests me a lot. If you look at Joyn, Netflix, all those media experiences, a lot of ML is used for content discovery, personalization, user journey, landing page optimization, ads targeting, etc. So this definitely excites me! Besides that, there’s the whole no-code movement that will have a huge impact.

A: And how do you think it will impact the product, the product manager’s life? Is it because product managers, can prototype faster and kind of have a perception of what works without being so much reliant on the engineering team.Do you think the impact will come from them actually?

P: I was thinking about it more as a bigger trend. Even the no-code, could be used by some of the engineering teams. PMs will definitely be able to iterate much faster, to Mark or to wireframe things much faster with better plugins. The no code trend is very interesting for business teams, such as the marketing team, the customer service team.

A: Very interesting. What do you think is a great tech ecosystem that you should not miss nowadays? Your American experience was important for you. Do you have any specific ecosystems in mind that you’d recommend people to experience if they have the chance to?

P: By ecosystem, do you mean geographies or sectors?

A: Geographies, such as, Silicon Valley, London, Berlin, Munich, whatever.

P: People measure or correlate the success of the tech ecosystem to the number of unicorns in this ecosystem. It might or might not be a good way to see it. But I would say in Europe, in the US, even in Asia there’s a lot of great companies and great talent. For me, the most important is to really work on a problem that you’re excited about. If you’re not excited iIt’s going to be very hard for you to be creative and build the roadmap. At the end of the day, as a product manager, you will need to get the buy-in from the designers, from the engineers, from the business side, you don’t have authority over them.

You have the chance to convince them that your roadmap is the right one. I would say no preference over a certain geography or sector.

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