Hi Pam. Would you mind starting us off with an intro?
Sure! So, my name is Pam Hernandez; I’m Head of Product at ChargedUp, and before that, I was with Boiler Room and Ticketmaster. Those were my London years. Prior to that, I had over five years with a large Canadian telco, TELUS… all in ‘product’, in every way, shape or form.
You’ve been with ChargedUp for just over a year; why those guys, rather than another startup?
I’d never dealt with apps specifically; my remit at Boiler Room had started with apps and web development, and delisted the apps for a variety of reasons within my first two months. I figured for my next chapter, I should force myself to focus on apps, because that’s the way that the world is going. I really wanted to do something involving a tangible product I could use and do the user research for as a user.
There are a lot of good angles to what we do – it’s a shared economy, making use of green energy, and completely London-based in terms of operations, so all the decision-making gets done here.
When you came in as Head of Product, ChargedUp had been going about a year; how much influence have you had over the current roadmap?
I’ve not revolutionised anything, as much as helped rebuild to make it scalable. The original app had a lot of bells and whistles, but because the station network was so small, so was the user base. We were a little naïve to some of the issues we then encountered as we expanded from 200 to 2000 locations to rent and return a power bank to.
An offshore agency built the MVP app, and since they themselves can’t be users, they were driving a little blind from a user’s standpoint. My contribution to the roadmap has primarily been about taking ChargedUp international and having a scalable, high-performing app that supports campaigns, like our O2 Priority partnership with their users getting a free hour of charging daily.
How have you managed so far?
Well, we launched in Germany last week in partnership with Jägermeister, and the iOS app is sitting at 4.9 on the App Store, which is insane because it used to be 2.8! We’ve also launched our large station, a 6-foot tall touchscreen model with 40 slots to rent and return to across London’s Westfield shopping centres.
How is your team structured?
So, my title, ‘Head of Product’ used to be pretty misleading, because when I joined, I didn’t have ‘a team’ – it was our offshore agency. We then hired our incredible CTO. One of the key things with scaling was trying to stay lean because we’re a startup, but also really ensuring we have at least one developer per platform – right now, that’s iOS, Android, back-end, and we have a full-stack developer for our operational tooling.
It’s about finding a balance between staying within budget and making sure our team can handle the speed of opportunities and network growth. When I joined, London had 300 ChargedUp stations – now there are over 700 here, and more than 1,300 more spread across the rest of the UK, along with another handful in Germany and The Netherlands.
You’ve said you’re in ‘scrappy startup’ territory; how do you manage your team’s expectations and emotions, around the pace and uncertainty of startup life?
In essence, every time we’ve hired, we’ve tried to be quite transparent of the type of team we are. We’ve never over-promised and under-delivered, or so I’d like to tell myself.
Like I said before, the title ‘Head of Product’ makes it sound like I have people to delegate to. I do not! There is no intern. There’s no associate PM that can pick up the slack, nor full-time designer. When you have that horizontal structure, we really need everyone on the same page – we’ve had a combination of contractors and perm people, but now we’re trying to swap into fully permanent, both for budget and for long-term objectives. We’ve been lucky with fab contractors who understand the mission and approach it with long-term solutions. I think that’s my favourite by-product of being transparent with a team – it creates opportunities for everyone to help each other out and manage that startup stress together.
As a startup, how far do you plan ahead? In terms of quarters, six months, twelve months etc.
Excellent question! So, we’re trying to do not just quarterly planning, but halfway checkpoints too, because we find things tend to change much quicker than by the quarter. We don’t want to get married to an idea, then have to go ‘actually, this probably doesn’t make sense anymore’, so sense-checking as often as possible becomes important.
We tried to break things down department-wise on a month to month. We recently developed and installed our large stations in Westfield, which are massive six feet tall touchscreen vending machines instead of a simple countertop toaster station, and all the logistics around them required such a huge paradigm shift that we’ve had to plan really far ahead, as well as react to unexpected complexities.
How are you guys feeling in terms of competition, or potential copycats?
We’re quite aware that it’s ‘just’ phone charging, but our power banks do happen to be faster and more reliable than a lot of market competitors. We support most devices currently on the market, and depending on the device, you can get two or even three full charges out of it. Most competitors don’t have that. But most people don’t care because if your phone is at 5%, if a competitor is going to get you to 20%, that’s still good enough in the eyes of someone who’s just distressed and wants to order an Uber.
We know that as much as we’re proud of our app and overall service offering, and we want to be smug about it, it doesn’t actually mean anything. People will do a price comparison unless we offer something better. Some of what’s in our roadmap is how can we ensure we’re not nailing just the hardware, but also an in-app experience that’s more user-friendly and enticing than our competitors’.
Also, I think the fact we’re getting so widespread now gives us an edge. We used to be very London- centric; now it’s like, if you go to Scotland, Brighton, Cardiff, Berlin, you can access us. That competitive ‘threat’ has been really great in a way, because it’s really kept us on our toes.
I love the fact that you can purchase the power pack, and still access the swapping feature.
Right? I think the beauty of it is it’s not just like any other power pack, because you don’t need to remember to charge it at home as a separate entity. Swapping across our network for a year is pretty incredible.
You guys self-describe as ‘the Boris Bikes of phone charging’; obviously that refers to the swapping, but presumably also the environmental benefit of what you’re doing?
Correct! We have a partnership with Octopus Energy, so in using our power banks, you’re helping to contribute to green energy.
There’s also the aim of cutting down the environmental cost of physical production – rather than a million power packs being created, at greater cost to the environment, once these are everywhere, you’ll be using them endlessly, thanks to the lithium battery supply in a shared model.
Where’s next on your world map, after Germany?
I think that’s it for now. We’d rather be in fewer locations, doing this properly, than in loads, doing it half as well. Germany has several large cities, and they’re all quite spread out, so there’s enough of a geographical challenge to keep us busy.
I’m quite curious about which ones are going to be the biggest success; just because the city is large, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have the most adoption. Heidelberg has only 150,000 people, but market research has suggested it might be one of the ones most keen to get onboard, both from the venue side, and the users.
Why move into Germany, specifically?
Backpackers, students… lots of really receptive folks for a user base. Also, we’re in partnership with Jägermeister, who are such a huge presence in the German venue scene that a bunch of their reps already have great relationships with owners, managers etc. at night-time venues, which is when most people suddenly need a boost.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far as a startup?
I think, making sure the quality of what our team are building is recognised, and getting across why we need to make the changes we’re implementing, such as refactoring and addressing tech debt. It’s a whole process of making sure that necessary changes are recognised by the rest of the business, versus just ‘Okay, so you’re rebuilding the app, but why? Do we really need to?’
A good example is, we need to spend some time completely re-doing our analytics; but we already have analytics, why do they need changing? Well, because by doing it this way, we’ll have deeper insights, or be able to better understand our different user segments, etc.
Also, there’s a huge challenge in the amount of future-proofing we do. We need to know what’s coming up so that we can do a good job of supporting it, which includes a lot of discussions about the opportunity cost of what we need to prioritise. The preventative stuff is the unsexy side of Product, but sometimes we do have to focus on the boring bits that no one’s going to care about – until they break.
Sometimes we like to get excited about an idea and it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, let’s start working on that! And then we could do this!’ You have to say ‘hang on, hang on. Wait. First, clean the house.’
That’s the biggest challenge in most startups – the opportunity cost of everything, knowing anything you do today might have been energy better spent moving the needle elsewhere.
What’s on your ‘To-Do’ list for your next year at ChargedUp?
I’d like it if our team will become a little more diverse, so that we can better represent and understand our userbase. Fixing stuff like gender bias and ageism rarely happens organically, not just because start-up life isn’t for everyone. When I started my career, I would never have applied to a startup. I would’ve wanted a solid foundation and the opportunity to learn from hundreds, if not thousands of people, and that stability becomes even more important if you’ve got a young family, for example.
Diversity would be a great thing to push, for diversity of thought, as much as anything. Being a female Canadian of Mexican descent, that automatically gives me a different perspective on things my British colleagues might not have thought of, and that applies across the board, whether you’re talking gender, age, background, orientation, etc.
What’s the best thing about working in product?
I think the ability to move very quickly — the ‘move fast, break things’ adage that sounds cliche to us because we’re all in that startup bubble. But for anyone that isn’t, I mean – I have friends that work in finance and law, and for them, there’s no such thing as ‘move fast, break things’. We can play, and have something be live to users and immediately start to see results.
If you weren’t in product, what would you be doing?
I really liked working at Starbucks at uni. I genuinely like the coffee shop vibe, and playing a key part in making someone’s day better. So maybe something totally not technical at all. Having an immediate impact on people’s lives is pretty invaluable. But that’s what tech does too!
What’s the best thing about working at ChargedUp?
I think the fact that it is so unpredictable, but in a good way. So, it’s not like in a giant company where there’s, you know, a steady stream of activity for the next two years. At the same time, though, there’s quite a lot that’s fairly stable, because we’ve got a station network already out there; there are already loyal users, who constantly evangelise on our behalf. I think that mix of the two states – and also the fact we can see the impact of what we’re doing very quickly, every time we add a new station, or a new venue, or a new user comes to us.
If you could swap jobs with one of your colleagues for a day, which role would you pick?
It’s probably the most challenging role, but definitely something on the operational side, because there’s so much that goes into keeping the stations healthy; making sure that the relationships with the venues are on point, etc. We always need to ensure that the product is, you know, well received, and even just the distribution of the different batteries can be a logistical nightmare. And it would probably be the most challenging thing I ever did to myself. So I don’t want to do that anytime soon, but it would be an interesting 24 hours for sure!
What’s the best thing you learned last year?
That you absolutely need to have a phenomenal CTO, because ours is the only reason that we’ve been able to get to where we are now, and to have things work well regardless of device, location, and other scaling challenges. The fact we have a tech team that are keen and work well together is because of his leadership and perspective, which happens to be Italian and with a wealth of international work experience. Myself, I’m the voice of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’ and he provides this bridge of tech feasibility, which is so important to me, since I’m without a technical background. He’s also hilarious. That’s important!
What’s the one product you’re envious of people getting to work on?
I think there are products I enjoy using but would probably not like being responsible for. So, for example, CityMapper is something that I hundred percent rely on day in and day out. I’m still quite new to London at almost four years. But I can imagine that the challenges of dealing with really intricate data that’s ever-changing, the minute that there’s traffic jam or storm or what have you, you then become accountable for how people are moving around the city. They frequently add features and functionality whilst still supporting the core experience, impressive!
So while I’m sure it would be a really great challenge, it’s also up you know, with great power comes great responsibility.
Did you just end on a pun?
Great ‘power’? Absolutely!