Could you give us an introduction to yourself?
Sure my name is Oliver I’m the Head of Product at HURR, which is a peer to peer rental marketplace for women’s fashion, the shortest and snappiest way that we describe ourselves is ‘the Airbnb of fashion’, a term that Forbes coined with us, which was a bit of a highlight to be compared in such a way by such publication, but it genuinely does encapsulate what we do.
We launched towards the end of summer last year, having spent about a year and a half prior to that working on the platform. I joined circa two years ago, and I was helping out as a friend and then I found myself helping out more and more until finally one day I was like, Oh, I’m doing this full time.
Prior to that, I was a consultant in Product Management. My niche was to help companies using other people’s software to build their own software for the purpose of building IP, but also to have control over how the software behaves, and curate it to their bespoke usage.
Was a career in Product always the plan?
I think, like many other like Product Managers and Heads of Product, I came through another route. I started off doing my own startup, a live events marketplace. It was a place where you could literally just go and find out what’s going on. On the other end, the event organisers would use it as a marketing channel and I’m not ashamed to say that flopped for a number of reasons but it introduced me to the world of startups as I was originally going to go and study to become a lawyer. And I realised this looks a lot more fun and also I don’t have to go to university and end up in student loan debt. So I thought I am going to use the skills I already had at that point, which were web development and web design and I started building websites for people. From there it grew and grew until it became effectively a freelance consultancy business.
I then started noticing a gap in software and companies being willing to spend £50,000 on a CRM integration, only to then find that CRM integration doesn’t do what they want. And I was thinking you could make your own very easily you just lack the expertise to do it. And so I started shifting towards that, away from web development and towards software project management effectively. And it’s there that I started learning about this role of product, which is kind of sitting at the intersection of all the various departments and disciplines, so engineering design, business, sales, ops executive and that really appealed to me because my goal has always been to solve problems with technology and to me, it felt like the perfect opportunity in the perfect role.
So I moved towards being a product consultant rather than just software project management or development consultant and the more I read into it, the more I realised this is genuinely what I want to be doing.
And then it just so happens that I was offered a job as a product manager for a company. But to be honest, it came a little bit too soon, I still quite liked the flexibility of being a freelancer. I liked working on various different projects. And then in the end, when I started working on HURR, I realised that for me, if I truly wanted to be the best product person I could possibly be I’d have to focus on a single one and just put my heart and soul into a single product. And that just so happened to be HURR.
I think most Product Managers weren’t aware of the role in the first place and will have always come from one of those other disciplines. Usually its tech or design, but I’m seeing an increase in business originating product people as well.
When do you think it is the right time for a startup to hire a Product Manager?
I think in B2B the necessity for a Product person early on isn’t as big because companies, once they sign up to a piece of software because there is a contract in place, they’ve just got to use it. Whereas consumers are, depending on the industry, are quite relentless. If they have a bad experience, they’re very unlikely to come back. So I think in that sense, it was interesting to talk to my CEO and basically say ‘I think a product person would actually be great because if you get someone with a tech background, they can occupy the CTO role, to a certain extent, and cover those bases for a really early stage startup.’
Take HURR as an example, our product is our platform. It’s a marketplace that is now expanded into many other smaller products, we also have a retail space, we’re going to be looking into doing operations among other things. So all of a sudden, that CEO has now got to be CEO of a number of things and at that point, it isn’t possible to dedicate as much time to the core product. I think when it gets to that inflection point it is usually the time that I would recommend a startup get a product person. I think that’s the turning point most startups have when they look to hire a product person, but I would definitely recommend they hire someone at the very earliest stage, especially if they’re a consumer facing business.
What would you look for when hiring your first product employee?
I guess the two core pillars I’d look at would be, someone who intensely listens to customers, to the point where, they should be willing to sit on customer support and do the customer support themselves to identify the common problems.
And then on the other end, I would say constantly taking in inspiration from other sources, looking to other companies, whether they’re competitors or other startups that you admire.
The other source of inspiration should come from non-business related things. I often think ‘Why have they implemented this kind of solution to this problem?” or taking inspiration from a particular environment to say “I feel quite relaxed in this environment, why do I feel relaxed environment? Is there anything I can replicate in our product to reflect that?”
At HURR we want to create the vibe of being in your own private wardrobe or showroom. Everything’s nice and plush, velvety and comfortable and you’ve got this amazing selection of clothes around you and you feel very safe. And that’s what we’re trying to replicate with the product. I think, in startups, where you are not just a cog in the machine, you have a lot more influence. And therefore it is far more important that your decisions are backed by data, but also inspiration, because it is so important in the early days to get your customers on board.
Are there any mediums that you would recommend to others that they might gain lots of inspiration from?
The one I love spending time on if I’m commuting or having my morning coffee is Product Hunt. The sheer number of startups and products that go through that marketplace is astonishing and I think it is a great source of inspiration. Beyond that I usually look at TechCrunch just to keep my ear to the ground on tech news.
Dribbble is great for all-round design. Not just web design, but illustrations, look and feel. You can’t get better than Pinterest either. I’ve even got a Pinterest board for flat 2d wallpaper and landscape art, where it’s just really simple colours and sometimes when I need to think of a particular layout for a page, I like to go there because I like how certain designs have been laid out.
What is the best thing you have learned recently?
The thing I’ve learned quite recently is, in a startup environment, understanding the constraints and limitations that your team has, not in terms of skill, but relating to time and capacity.
As a member of the founding team of HURR, it is very easy for me to be able to spend 14 hours a day working on the product to make sure it’s a success because I’ve been there since the beginning. However it’s not right for us as a team, nor me as a manager to expect that same level of time commitment from a member of the team. I think anyone who joins a startup should be prepared to work hard and sometimes not get home until 10pm, because that’s why we’re doing it, we’re not sat there doing nine ’til five. But I think from a manager’s perspective, don’t ask something so unrealistic.
The second thing, which I think applies far more to product, is that people on blogs and courses always seem to emphasise this ‘gold standard’ of product management, where you’ve got an impeccable backlog, you’ve got a great roadmap with an amazing way of prioritising. That’s all well and good if you are in an environment that is not constantly changing. But the reality is that the startup will throw a new challenge every single day and so this ‘ perfect way’ just doesn’t work. Even sprints for example, it took us four to five months before we started doing them properly because we had so much to do and it just didn’t make sense for us to work in that framework yet.
So I think the core message here is to say don’t obsess over following the gold standard that people always say you should do. Just because everyone does do that in the corporate world doesn’t mean that we have to follow it to the dot in the startup world. Relax a bit, don’t stress about it, focus on what’s going to make as big an impact in a shorter time.
People will say that you should have this perfect product vision but the reality is, sometimes you will have a four week period where the idea of sitting down and thinking ‘what is our product vision’, is unfeasible. All that matters is action. Unless you’re actioning something, nothing will happen. It is very helpful to still listen to these leaders, and these people that have exited, and these fantastic product managers at top companies, but they’re in a far more privileged situation and a far different situation to you.
What’s one thing that you want to develop or want to learn?
I really want to work with AI. I want to learn how AI works at a granular level. I understand how machine learning works and I understand Artificial Intelligence as a concept, but I want to actually sit down with a Data Scientist and ask ‘how do you model? Or how should we model this?’
What’s the biggest challenge about being in a product position within a startup?
Not enough resources. I think, as a product person, you have all these amazing ideas and things you want to do. Whether it’s tiny changes that would delight customers all the way up to ‘we’re going to change our pricing algorithm.’ I think whatever the scale, you want those things to happen now because you’re so excited, and you want consumers to be using it, and you want it to benefit them. But the reality is we’ve got a backlog of hundreds of features. I think even in a large company those things still take time, but I think in a startup, you’re even more pressured.
But in a way, it educates you, because it’s teaching you to be more frugal with what you can push and it’s teaching you to second guess yourself and think twice so it is a blessing in disguise really.
What are some of the highlights of your time at HURR?
We were really proud of the fact that we managed to build a waiting list of over 10,000 people without spending a penny, we built that completely organically last year. And I think that’s something that we hold quite close to our heart because it just shows us that people are interested in our idea, so that was a real turning point for us. And when we actually launched, it was then great to see those people responding positively.
At the end of last year, we ran our first pop up shop, the platform had its redesign and we more than doubled the amount of stock that we had so it was a really great starting point. At the start of this year, we had an incredible opportunity put to us to run another popup shop in Selfridges, which has probably been the biggest highlight so far. We were really pleased that they put that much trust in us to be the first rental company there.
What lies ahead product wise for you and the team?
We are trying to expand our brand partnerships, trying to bring more people on board and also, the goal for me this year, is to try and make the experience as seamless, safe and secure as possible. There are always improvements to be made. But I feel like we’re almost at the stage now where I could call us an e-commerce website.
In light of these macroeconomic impacts, we have taken a knock as a start-up and so now, our priority is to make sure that we can last through this period of turbulence but also whilst not compromising on improving the product, improving the operations and still ensuring that we’re engaging with our customer base and our users. I am proud to say that so far, we have 100% managed that. We are still pushing updates to the platform, we’re still trying to make changes to improve the quality of life on the platform, we’re still engaging with our customers. So our goal is really just to stand the stead of this Hurricane and come out at the end of it even stronger and an even better position.
The benefit of this situation, trying to find a silver lining, is that we now have quite a quiet period operationally, which means all of a sudden all the things I was saying earlier about ‘in a startup you don’t have time to do’, all of a sudden, we can do!
What is the best thing about working at HURR?
Free fashion advice!