David Herman is Chief Product Officer at Provi, an online marketplace that simplifies the process of ordering, selling, and promoting wholesale alcohol between licensed retailers, distributors, and suppliers. He has worked at some of the biggest tech companies in the world, serving in product management and leadership roles at companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Hulu, and Chewy.
In our conversation, David discusses prioritizing within Provi’s three user groups — suppliers, distributors, and retailers — and how making a trade-off for one group can impact the others. He talks about how a decade ago, experiences were different for business and personal use, but over time, consumer expectations have influenced behaviors and expectations across the two. David also shares his experience globalizing products at Amazon and rethinking what it means to be content-first at Hulu.
Provi is an online marketplace where retailers — whether they’re bars, restaurants, or liquor stores — can come to a single source to discover and place their beverage orders. They can see all items available across the different distributors in their market, find items that they would normally purchase, or discover new items that they may not know exist. It’s a great enabler in a three-tier system that dates back to prohibition.
In a typical environment, you may end up talking to anywhere from 5–10 to maybe even 15 different distributors to get all of the items that you would typically carry. Rather than having to pick up the phone, text, or go to multiple websites to place orders, you come to Provi. We’ve incorporated close to 1,500 different distributor catalogs, so you can see the assortment of all the items in one place. You can also see additional insights that suppliers give about their products and build a shopping cart across the different distributors and suppliers you buy from. With a single click, we send out all those orders for you. It is a great efficiency gain for retailers, allowing them to spend more time running their business, and aiding in the discovery of new beverage items.
Yes. It’s not uncommon for retailers to have visits from distributor sales reps where an overview of products is reviewed and there are samples or tasting of requested products. They’d take orders or, in many cases, send out either a digital or physical copy of a price book. These books have thousands of items with limited pictures and short descriptions. Retailers would have to traverse through it, find what they want, and then place an order. We bring that to the digital world where everything is visible — you can see the images of the beverages, the size of a bottle relative to your shelf space, discount pricing, and so much more.
Provi’s marketplace supports the three-tier system in which suppliers sell alcohol to distributors who then sell to licensed retailers (or bars, restaurants, hotels, retail stores, etc.) The retailer orders through Provi, the distributor provides the pricing and availability, and the suppliers (like Brown-Foreman or Diageo) produce or import the products. Suppliers can drive awareness of those brands and products through advertising opportunities on our site as well. And for retailers, they just get all the products they may want in one place as opposed to looking through price books, visiting multiple sites, or communicating with reps.
We’re in 49 states plus Washington, D.C. Each state is a little unique, so this is a big part of my learning. I would say I’m scratching the surface still, even a year in. There are a lot of nuances.
New York, for instance, is what they call a price-posted state. New York SLA has a website where you can see the price of any given item, and that price is what every retailer is going to pay. There’s no negotiation based on volume or any kind of discount level beyond what’s published. That’s different from other states that can apply discounts and offer customer-specific pricing.
There are also what are called control states. There’s 17 of them. In Vermont, for instance, if a restaurant wants to buy spirits they have to do that through the state of Vermont via “agency” stores.
For us as a digital solution, thinking about the products and technology, we have to build a system that accounts for these different nuances. Some of this dates back to prohibition where you would have a street with a retailer on one side and a retailer on the other, and that street was the dividing line between two distributors who could service that area. We have to build the right technology and data model to know the distributor service areas at the street level.
This has been kind of drilled into me from very early in my career working at Amazon: you have to think about the end user.
In this situation, it’s a bit unique because we have three distinct users of the marketplace. They all have different dimensions of what matters to them. Understanding what KPIs, goals, and success look like for each of those three tiers allows us to make informed decisions around prioritization. And if there’s a trade-off discussion around prioritizing something for a retailer, will that have a positive or negative outcome for distributors and suppliers?
We tie that back to our operating principles and our goals and KPIs. Right now, we’re heavily focused on driving retailer satisfaction because the retailers are the ones ultimately placing orders. If they’re successful in placing orders, it drives higher order volume for the distributor. Distributors see value in that, and suppliers like to drive awareness of their products, especially when new items are coming to market.
It isn’t necessarily a guarantee that we’re always going to primarily focus on the needs of the retailers. There’s a fine line between balancing all the initiatives that we have as a company and as a product leader. Right now, a lot of the solve is on the retailer side where we see a lot of opportunity. By influencing that in a positive outcome, it drives the delight of both of the other two sectors as well.
For us, success looks like reducing the number of barriers that allow users to actually drive the right outcome. We have a phenomenal success ratio right now of people who add to their cart and then checkout.
The key thing for us, coming back to all three parts of it, is how do we make sure that submitted orders get delivered? In the alcohol industry, there are a lot of dimensions of minimums and cutoff times and other things like that that one has to account for. So it’s really about driving the right experience that drives the usage of the marketplace. That means increasing the number of people who come to place their orders as a retailer establishment.
If you rewind over 10 years ago and think about the B2B and B2C spaces, it’s almost similar to how people used to carry two phones — one phone for work and the other for personal life. And there’s the concept of finding the right balance of blending the two experiences with the same end users.
In the same way, people would build experiences on the business side that were focused primarily on the task at hand, which often led to a sense of “getting in and getting out.” The experiences were fundamentally different for business and personal use cases. Today, people in the business verticals have become more accustomed to wanting to see more information about the products they are reviewing and ordering. The alcohol industry’s ordering system is no different. It has been around for several years, but there’s been an evolution in terms of taking aspects from consumer ecommerce experiences to drive better discovery and efficiency gains.
If you look at Provi and the experience that we offer, the intent is to make it as simple as possible for retailers to order their alcohol. If you can go to an ecommerce site out there today and place an order, you should be able to come to Provi and do the same thing without having to be guided or educated on how to do it. There are some fundamental differences in terms of sizes and behaviors across B2B and B2C, but consumer expectations of what technology can do is now blended into the business side of things.
Language is very tough because there are different dialects and challenges with automated speech recognition and natural learning.
We spent a long time debating and discussing how we were going to work through the Alexa Skills Kit launch in India. There are many different languages spoken in India, so we leveraged local resources to understand what we don’t know as people living in America. A lot of product managers will design for their local market, but when you’re working in an international space, you have to understand who your local audience is. Leveraging our presence in India and local resources on the ground was a key part of problem-solving.
Ultimately, we launched in India with Hindi. One of the big things that we learned very early on is that Hindi, as a language, is very broadly spoken across India, but oftentimes, English and Hindi are used together in sentences. And so understanding that as a dynamic is a challenging one. Trying to blend two language models into one posed a set of challenges that we hadn’t really anticipated at the outset. If we had taken a very black-and-white view of that of just saying, “We’re just going to support Hindi,” we would never have been successful. That’s not how people in that market will speak Hindi.
One of the things that I’ve heavily focused on is what data you can gather that will drive certain insights. There’s a lot of different data that exists out there. You can look at session replay, you can look at the overall success metrics. For me, I think a big part of it is understanding where you have opportunities.
When I first joined Provi, I saw through data an opportunity to drive better awareness of who the site was intended for. We were seeing consumers attempt to sign up to create a Provi account without realizing that it was really intended to be a business retailer-centric experience. For us, we saw this as a great opportunity to drive better awareness in the sign up experience to make it abundantly clear what Provi is offering to eliminate that sort of challenge.
At Hulu, I was running product for what they call living room — anything with a 10-foot UI-type experience. Think PlayStations, Xboxes, and TVs.
When I joined, Hulu had experiences on Nintendo and PlayStation, but the experience itself was somewhat difficult to navigate and discover items. In the video space, it’s really important to drive discovery. I spent an awful lot of time looking at people who were sitting on a sofa. What sort of controller do they use to drive channel changing and navigation? Things like that.
We were the first to pioneer a new way of thinking about how we represent the video content — movies, TV shows, and originals. We designed and built an experience that was the first of kits kind. Customers had a large, revolving hero image that showcased new content for people to discover. We also designed carousels to drive awareness of content that you could navigate easily with your remote. We fundamentally changed the way people browsed and discovered content — by bringing it to the forefront in a manner that aligned with how users typically navigated Hulu.
At the time, no one was really doing that. Now, Hulu’s gone down a different direction since I left, but Netflix and others very quickly followed suit. It was a game changer for the industry.
Meet with your customers. Understand what’s unique about them, how they view the thing that you’re working on, and what feedback they have. It’s OK to ask what they do not like about it. Because often, if you don’t prompt the question, you’ll only hear the positives.
I strongly encourage product managers to put themselves in their customers’ shoes and understand what it is they’re trying to drive toward. There’s really no harm in understanding early on whether something is destined to be successful or might need to be refined somewhat. Ask lots of questions, don’t assume anything, and have fun in the process!
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