Ora Solomon is the former VP of International Product at 1stDibs. She describes her path into product as nonlinear — Ora grew up in Italy, studied in Israel, and moved to the United States, where she became Director of Global Digital Product at Starwood Hotels (acquired by Marriott). She later moved on to become VP of Product at Shutterstock and, most recently, worked in product leadership at 1stdibs.com.
In our conversation, Ora talks about the challenges associated with launching products to international markets, including slow success, varying consumer habits, and specific features unique to each region. She also shares her experience establishing a coherent strategy for Starwood Hotels’ global digital footprint, as well as differentiating in a competitive market at Shutterstock.
The focus on controlling and managing expenses comes very naturally to me because of the time I’ve spent working at smaller companies with limited budgets. It was critical to understand where every dollar is spent and maximize the return on that investment.
When I was at Starwood and, subsequently, Shutterstock and 1stDibs, a lot of the work I did was with external vendors. To effectively manage an external vendor, you need to understand what they are doing and how. These were multimillion-dollar budgets, but every dollar had to be well spent, and, more importantly, the vendor had to be held accountable.
At Starwood, our language provider was not being held accountable — they hadn’t been pushed to be more efficient or implement new technologies. Just by virtue of having someone pay attention, we reduced costs dramatically and improved how we worked and supported them.
In the language world, there’s the concept of human translation or machine translation. Machine translation is essentially AI, where language models are developed to facilitate a machine translating content. That has taken a long time to improve because language is very nuanced.
At Starwood Hotels, we had a ton of content that we needed to translate and we were spending millions of dollars on it. I pushed ourselves and the vendor on our tolerance for risk and said, “We don’t need human translation for all of this. We can implement a machine translation.” It truly reduced our costs overnight by 40 percent.
Shutterstock is a marketplace for digital assets and, when I was there, there were two main businesses: the consumer and the enterprise business. I was on the enterprise side and the space was becoming increasingly competitive. There was a race to the bottom in terms of pricing, and because we had such a great, established product offering, our pricing tended to be higher than a lot of the up-and-comers who were offering free assets to some of the enterprises. The challenge for us was how to differentiate in an increasingly competitive landscape where we didn’t want to compete on price.
Some of our differentiation came to the type of licensing we offered, but that was not easy to understand. So we had to consider how to provide value beyond the asset. How do we go beyond a transactional relationship and become more sticky for our customers? Can we provide them with collaboration tools? Can we provide better accounts management and permissioning to better meet the enterprise needs?
Developing that toolset wasn’t just about downloading an asset but, rather, what can you do with that asset once you’ve downloaded it? It was a mindset shift.
Starwood was a pretty well-known hotel company that was acquired by Marriott during my time there. They had a very significant physical footprint but a limited digital one. We had 16 global sites and there was an investment made into the development and maintenance of those sites.
Starwood brought me on board to establish a coherent strategy for their global digital footprint — they had no measurement of the results and successes of their strategies, and there was no clear roadmap for going forward.
My job was to understand the performance of these sites. Were we meeting the needs of a global or non-US-based guest? We had to identify the markets that were most performant and if there were markets that we should have been in that we were not in. And in those markets, were we providing the best possible customer experience? What should that roadmap look like to better meet those customers?
For example, China was our second-largest market after the US, but we really weren’t building products that met the Chinese consumer. The Chinese consumer consumes the internet very differently from the US consumer. For instance, they use WeChat for everything. We didn’t have a WeChat app so we needed to, as an example, develop a specific market-specific solution for the Chinese consumer. That’s the kind of work that my team did.
I’ve spent the better part of my career working on international expansion, whether it was on the agency side helping companies strategize their best approach, to leading international products within the organization. International was one of the products that I owned at Shutterstock as well as some of the other enterprise products. At 1stDibs, that was my primary focus.
The international aspect is really interesting because there are certain nuances to different countries. When you go global, it’s really important to understand two things. One, it’s a long-term strategy — you’re not going to achieve success overnight, just like you wouldn’t achieve success in the US overnight, but you need to prioritize. Second, you’re not going to be able to conquer the world. You need to focus your strategy and build a roadmap to enter each market with a schedule.
I think first of all, it’s understanding. It’s useful to break it down by region first. Different regions have different complexities, and as you tackle each region, you can break it down by market. For example, Europe tends to consume the internet and ecommerce similarly to the US, whereas Asia has a ton of complexity.
Then, for each market, you really need to assess the total addressable market and whether you have a right to win in that market. Just because you were successful in the US doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a right to win in Germany, France, or Japan. Get deep into each market and understand if there’s a product-market fit. Then, start going into competitive landscapes. Who are the players? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Based on that, you can build your roadmap of market entry.
After that, my recommendation is to think about your go-to-market strategy. As an example, at 1stDibs, we had three buyers in the US: consumer, private, and trade. When we launched in Europe, we decided to just go with the consumer buyer. And then as we developed and matured in that market, we could add user or buyer types.
Once you have that go-to-market strategy, then you can start focusing on the product roadmap. Are there specific features that are unique in these markets? I’ll give you a very simple example — payment forms. The US is very credit-card-driven. Europe is very debit-driven, so they don’t use credit cards that much. So if you want to operate in Europe, you’re going to have to allow them to pay the way that they’re used to paying.
There are certain things that you should consider when you develop a product even if you don’t have your global strategy in place yet. There are always some things that you should do to make sure that you’re not making your life impossible if and when you decide to go global. There are some best practices, like following the internationalization development processes.
One of the most typical things to do when you go global is to translate your product. It’s kind of difficult to say, “We are going to dominate the French market,” with a product in English, right? That doesn’t make sense. Translation becomes one of the first things that you have to do if you’re really serious about that market.
The other part of it is that I think that companies are going global much earlier. That’s because of global ecommerce. Platforms on the ecommerce side, like Squarespace or Shopify, make it straightforward to enable global shipping and support different forms of payment. It becomes much easier for a company to think about that and execute that earlier now.
Ecommerce is becoming a larger and larger share of overall sales. The opportunity is tremendous. The challenge, I think, is standing out. Everybody is consuming ecommerce and wants to shop online. There’s very little patience for a poor experience. I think this is something that Amazon has done incredibly well. There is virtually no friction there. You see a product and you can buy it now, and that’s it.
Personalization is going to be another really important element for companies to grow their ecommerce presence. Take advantage of all the information you have and build a personalized experience. I think every company is talking about personalization, but there’s not a ton of it happening.
And then loyalty. Starwood had an amazing loyalty program, and it makes a difference. They had one of the most avid fan bases. It’s what drives users to not search first on Google, but do their search on your site. That makes a tremendous difference because when you are driving traffic primarily through Google searches, conversion is hard.
Loyalty programs have become, certainly, a lot more popular. There are so many different approaches — a punch card or, what the airlines or hospitality companies are doing well, offering additional services to make your experience better.
For brands to think about loyalty, start simple and get traction with that. But you have to provide value. It can’t just be so blatantly about brands getting more information from you. It has to be about what are you getting back?
One part of inclusion is making sure that the space is diverse. And diversity starts earlier than even the interview. It starts with where are you recruiting from and what are the job requirements. We’ve gotten a lot better about saying you don’t have to have a college degree. But also, are you discounting candidates that don’t come from top universities? Are you making an effort to target community colleges rather than Ivies?
Inclusivity happens after hiring. Assuming you’ve hired a diverse workforce, how do you make sure that every single individual has the same opportunity for growth, even if they have different backgrounds? A diverse team will provide different perspectives; as a manager, you have to be open to the fact that there isn’t a singular path from point A to point B.
I’m not a recruiter myself, so take this with a grain of salt. But I think we’re still really swayed by the name recognition of a college when hiring. I’d advise to truly look at the person’s experience and what they’ve done — forget for a moment where they went to school and whether they worked at Google or Facebook. Look at the work itself that they’ve done.
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