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Learnings from Khadijah Abu, Head of Products at Paystack

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Payment solutions are important no matter what part of the world you are in. As Xendit strives to solve the payments infrastructure problem in Indonesia, other startups are striving to do the same in other parts of the world.

Paystack is a start-up that enables business in Africa to accept payments seamlessly from their customers. The Xendit product team sat down with Khadijah Abu, head of products at Paystack, to learn more about Paystack’s product management practices. Paystack and Xendit are part of same Y Combinator growth program.

Khadijah has 10 years of experience in fintech and the payments space, with experience in operations, business process, product reengineering, and strategic product management. She has built products generating billions of dollars of revenue and is now managing product managers (PMs).

Below is a transcript and summary of our online XenTalks session with Kadijah.

How are product teams structured at Paystack? How do you decide to split teams along product lines?

We define our product teams by looking at common threads (across products and initiatives) and defining what the company hopes to achieve. We have six different products managed by their individual PMs:

  1. Core payments: making sure payments work since that is Paystack’s main line of business
  2. International expansion: discovering and expanding to new markets
  3. Merchant tools: making sure our merchants have the best experience possible, these PMs have a design heavy skillset
  4. Transfers: help businesses accept payments
  5. Identity verification services: accommodate microfinancing and pseudo financing, and building the solution suite for proxy KYC solutions
  6. Consumer business (still in development)

Your merchant tools team have a design heavy skillset, what is the advantage of having design skills over other skills (i.e. technical)?

Having design heavy PMs allows for a focus on design before moving to the more technical aspects of the product, this way they aren’t bogged down with dependencies and constraints that technical PMs are usually tied down by. When they get too constrained, the design ends up looking less than beautiful and may end up giving a poor user experience. However, there always needs to be a balance between experience and functionality or experience and security, so even technically adept PMs cannot release anything that is too difficult to use. PMs can only disapprove strongly on releases and cannot block them, with the final say given by Khadijah.

To support the other non-design heavy PMs, Paystack has a 5-person design team where design reports to product, and the design lead reports to me (Khadijah). They work on anything in design that needs to be done across the organization, which includes:

  • UI/UX
  • Customer journey mapping
  • User research
  • Experimentation (AB testing)
  • ‘Grooming’: testing products out before experimentation

Although some of the members of our design team have front end development experience, they are not are responsible for front end – our front end engineering team owns this as a part of the dev team. 

What are the most important mindsets and skill sets to look out for when hiring PMs?

What you need will depend on the role you are hiring for, but generally, I tend to look for PMs who have:

1. Product sense

  • An intuition about what should work (and what may not)
  • Creativity about ideas they should experiment with
  • Understanding of use case studies
  • Experience in scenario planning

2. Ability to execute

  • Dependent on pedigree and things done in the past

3. Critical thinking and problem solving

  • Given a potential scenario, how does the candidate work through what’s a potential solution
  • Knowing when to use what solution

4. Market knowledge

  • Sense of what  similar companies are doing, and whether we should implement in our product
  • Knowing what is happening in the industry (trends, patterns, etc.)
  • Being able to understand the bigger picture

5. Ability to execute

  • Shipping the right features and being able to show impact

Furthermore, remember that within the organization, there are expectations for each PM function, so interview specifically for that. For example, the growth team may look for a candidate who is good at advocating for the user. Since customer success sits in the growth team for Paystack, the candidate should be comfortable and skillful at having daily interactions with merchants. Most PMs are advocates for users, they are the one tagging along for meetings with merchants, they make meetings with merchants and are the one who cares most about the users.

How does your product team work with sales team?

We thrive on communication, our sales team are constantly updated with the work and updates being worked on with the product team. For features that haven’t been built, our sales team has a process to submit requests to get things built but this process never gets used, what happens instead is our teams just discuss ideas casually. They would talk about client conversations and spin out a timeline for building the specific feature.

How do you think about strategy and prioritization of products?

Despite having framework, there will be distractions about new features that you want to build because it seems like it’s impactful and hot. So at the end of the day, we return to what was agreed collectively as an organization. Things always change but we tend to follow through with what we have agreed on collectively.

How do you decide when to build something in-house versus using something that is already out there?

I normally start by assessing what advantages will one method give us over the other. Do you need the speed or do you even have the capacity to build it in house (time, skill, etc.)? Sometimes, speed is extremely important as you might miss out on an opportunity if you can’t get the product out quickly enough, then it might be better to outsource. While speed of execution is important, most of the time it is a skill capacity issue, as hiring is difficult and time consuming.

How do you decide when to go into an entirely new business line versus focusing on growth/expanding to other markets?

That is the beauty of having independent teams — at every point in time, each team can focus on an overall theme (i.e. the merchant team will focus on the merchant interface, which is not new or dramatic while in the meantime, the consumer team and user identification team can be thinking about an entirely new business opportunity or product). Cadence varies depending on each team. The key is to ensure that there is open communication and transparency. Everyone providing input and context, if there is a general consensus that a new feature is not good or serious, may need to reallocate resources.

Generally, on a team level, each team has an alignment and consensus what ‘mode’ they are currently in (new experience mode, new feature mode, new business opportunity mode, etc.). When it comes to new markets, we have a separate team in charge of international expansion. Basically, each team has goals and they need to figure out the best way to achieve their objectives and other teams will play supporting roles (i.e interface needs to be in the new market’s language so developers will support the international expansion team).

Do your product teams have any profit and loss (P&L) or growth accountability?

No, our product teams don’t have P&L accountability, just core KPIs that focus on growth. Furthermore, our KPIs between our sales and growth team are very distinct:

  • Sales team: 
    • Merchant acquisitions can they acquire
  • How many new customers
  • How many new preferred customers
  • Product/growth team:
    • Churn rate
    • Success rates of payment services
    • Adoption rates of new services
    • How much time does it take to complete a transfer
    • Success of the initiatives, adoption rates, how well do people use it

What kind of support does the product team have for data analytics?

Currently, everyone runs their own queries from the database (which may not be the best way to do data analytics), which means that our PMs need to learn how to run these data queries and do basic data analysis. We’re trying to optimize and find the best way to present data, with one data scientist helping our product team to create ‘fancier’ tools to query data for future use. 

How do you decide which market to go to and how do you approach the expansion?

We have people go back and forth to the physical market location (new city, country, etc.). They would typically be myself, or the CEO, head of compliance and sales who will fly out to meet potential partners and governments. We would go to the new market, find out who to talk to, get as much insight as possible and come back to discuss. Once we establish operations in the new market, we typically operate it out of our main office.

Do you have a separate account management team?

How it works at Paystack is that each preferred merchant has their own assigned account managers who would talk to them constantly. However, this doesn’t mean that just because there isn’t a dedicated account manager, we don’t look into the activity of the particular account. This means that if an account did something last month and did not repeat the activity this month, our PMs will look into the account and contact the merchant to ask if there is anything they can do to help or if there are any problems.

PMs have KPIs related to churn rates, but they manage churn rates for a more specific use case. PMs are responsible for understanding the reason a merchant has decided to stop using their specific feature or service. For core payments, we want the highest success rate for payments, so PMs need to make sure our merchants are not switching to a different payment processor. For preferred merchants, our PMs’ role is to optimize merchant experience and dashboard, and to find out why our merchants are not using certain features. If they need more information from key accounts, they need to reach out to the respective key account managers.

For key accounts, does the customer success team also communicate with them or go through account manager?

It depends on the problem, they can contact key accounts directly or go through the key account manager, but the key account manager is always kept in the loop.

What or who drives the product roadmap?

Since it is so closely tied to strategy, the leadership team will prioritize and decide what will be built. Our objective is to keep our customers happy, we do our best to build the solutions that they want and need. And the vetting process is largely collaborative, and normally nothing has come up that hasn’t been discussed beforehand.

Where does leadership get their strategy? Is it from customers, PMs, sales, advisors and/or investors?

It’s a mix of everything but our insights mainly come from our superpower — our customers. Everyone talks to customers so if everyone talks to the same group of people, everyone is aligned with what the customer wants. So take what the customer wants and add in some investors’ and advisors’ context. We typically realign the overall strategy with the organization at 2 levels: during the end/beginning of each year and at the beginning of every quarter.

How does leadership ensure a constant funnel of information and intel of what customers want?

We thrive on open communication. Every month, each team will aggregate trends, ideas and conversations into a document or presentation and share it with the whole company. The document can be shared through slack or during monthly report meetings.

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