Pranav Mittal is VP, Consumer Product at Hertz. He has worked at companies of both size extremes: small startups trying to find product-market fit and large enterprise companies. Early in his career, Pranav served in various product leadership roles at Amazon before transitioning to Lime, a shared electric vehicle company. He then joined Jobox.ai, a business management app for skilled trades professionals, before stepping into his current role at Hertz.
In our conversation, Pranav highlights how innovative thinking is often the difference between a company failing and succeeding. He talks about how the approach to scaling looks vastly different at the various stages of a company and about his experience launching Amazon’s marketplace in India. Pranav also shares indicators he looks for when evaluating whether an idea is worth pursuing: market size, how addressable the market is, and if you’re hitting a top-three pain point for customers.
Generally, in a large company, you know a lot of the issues that exist. It’s a question of being able to prioritize them correctly based on the resources that you have to maximize ROI and make an even bigger impact. You often know that what you’re doing is valuable. It might not be the most valuable thing overall, but you know it’s valuable. If you get that decision wrong, it’s not like the company’s going to shut down, you’re just delaying impact. There’s a lot more forgiveness built into it.
In a small company, you’re trying to figure out product-market fit, so the impact of prioritization decisions is very different. If you’re doing something in a zero-to-one setup, it comes down to the survival of the company. If you spend a few months going down the wrong path and course correct after that, you’ve lost valuable time. And that impacts a lot of different things, such as the team you hire. In startups, you want people who are nimble, independent, and comfortable with risk. Large companies want that too but need people who can coordinate large projects that probably require 10 different teams to move forward.
I think the third part is how you measure results. Big companies have well-established mechanisms. You get data and can reach statistical significance in experiments. In smaller companies, you’ll rarely get statistical data. You’re working off of signals. If you’re in a startup and you wait to get the right amount of data, you’ve waited too long. And there’s a huge cost in that.
The one thing that I always tell the companies I advise is to aggressively build tech debt. The pitfall that a lot of founders fall into is trying to get a perfect product out initially. I think the smarter way is not to focus on scalability at all, but to focus on testing the concept. It’s all about hypothesis. Build whatever you can, test it out with customers as quickly as possible to see if there’s adoption, and start getting that actual customer feedback. Don’t spend three months building something and trying to get that customer feedback. You don’t need to build a product to start seeing customer adoption, what you really need is to tell people what the product is and put a plan in front of them.
Back when I joined Amazon, I worked on launching their marketplace in India. Amazon was already an established company across many countries, but that was the first 100-percent, seller-driven marketplace that it had ever launched. Back then, a majority of Amazon’s US sales came from products sold and shipped by Amazon. In India, it was the first time we had a marketplace where everything was sold by sellers. Amazon provided the experience and the shipping but didn’t control a lot of the things that Amazon controls today.
To the credit of Amazon’s leadership and customer obsession within the company, they didn’t take an approach of, “What’s worked for us until now in 10 countries will work in the 11th country.” They came to India, hired the team, and looked at it from an India-first perspective. They said, “What do customers in India need to be able to drive the adoption of ecommerce?” That led to a lot of different innovations in the Indian marketplace. A lot of unplanned pivots happened.
Ecommerce penetration and trust in ecommerce was very low. We built a new payment instrument to drive adoption called “cash on delivery” where we delivered a product and collected the money when the package was delivered. We looked at the designs and the language on it, and we changed it to match what would fit in there. From the design of the website to the functionality of how people pay, everything was transformed to match the consumers. We took the time to get it right. It took much longer than expected, but we committed to it, and when we thought we were ready, we launched.
It was really important to understand what customers want from an ecommerce website and to change the flows and language to address pain points. Their trust in ecommerce was low, so we needed to build trust. They were buying from sellers but they were on the Amazon marketplace, so they were trusting us to make sure that their products were right. We needed better return policies, better flows, and better payment mechanisms. All of this required us to build a team locally and work with customers. I remember going out with delivery drivers to actually see how the delivery is happening, their interactions with people when they’re delivering packages, and the questions customers are asking.
There’s a huge amount of judgment involved in that, and that’s essentially what the make or break is. I have seen people find innovative ways to test something so quickly that it has left me surprised.
At Lime, we were building a gig economy marketplace for our “juicers” — the people who pick up the scooters and charge them. The team was able to test the concept in less than 48 hours. They didn’t build any tech to it, they literally put ads on Craigslist to recruit those first workers and managed it using SMS messages.
They gave them phones and said, “When you’re next to the scooter, give us a call and we’ll unlock it with you.” They were able to test the hypothesis around that. Can people be trusted in doing this job? What do we need to pay people to do this? And how does it compare to our operations people doing their jobs? They did that without investing in any technology.
On the other side, I’ve also seen people build a marketplace for four months and then try to go out and get customers on it. And to me, that is the kind of innovative thinking that’s the difference between succeeding and failing.
There are several indicators. I think the top one for me is market size. Most startups pivot within the first six months. And you want a market big enough where even if you’re not solving the exact problem, you end up solving an adjacent problem and you can still be in that same market. If your market is big enough, you have more space to pivot. So market size is critical.
Second, I look for how addressable the customer segment is. If you’re building something for small businesses, can you cost-effectively contact those customers? If there’s not, you’re going to be doing sales calls and trying to build a customer base of 10,000 people. The real CAC is not going to make sense at some point in time. The market has to be addressable and targetable.
The third thing that I would look for is regarding the pain point that you’re solving for your customer. Customers have a lot of different pain points, but what you really want to solve is something in their top three. From a person who’s been on both sides of the table, you spend a lot more effort on your top three pain points. How big is the problem for the customers? How much pain do they feel? And that’s tough to sometimes get a correct indication of. This is where you’ve got to be talking to customers. The product people have to be traveling along with the salespeople. They need hints directly from customers, to see the flows, understand them, and build an assessment.
Back at Jobox.ai, we started off more as a productivity software in a very fragmented industry. The fragments we were targeting were very small businesses that operated through WhatsApp, SMS, and phone. One of the ideas that we had was, “What if we gave them a virtual number to use as their business number?” That way, we could move the communication to our app and make it much more streamlined. Theoretically, it’s pristine, but the challenge with something like that is that there’s a huge entry barrier. You’re asking people to change their business numbers, which is very hard for you to sell, especially if you’re not a known company.
The value that people get is harder to measure, but that’s what most productivity solves. We solved that by saying, “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with businesses that, small or big, care about the bottom line.” We kept our productivity software and had a good revenue stream, but we also added a marketplace model to that. We started providing people with jobs in our market. For every job that they get, there’s an immediate dollar return. We went from just being a workflow management product to adding that marketplace layer to it. That became our primary focus.
How to scale a company is a very interesting question. Specifically for the consumer space, going back to what I touched upon earlier, focus just on the consumers. Your key metric is the number of consumers you’re bringing on board, and everything you do has to be focused on that. Everything else is secondary.
The way I look at it, there are three stages of a company: really small, mid-level, and scaled. For the really small companies that are doing zero to one, focus just on consumers. Forget your operational and business stuff, those can be handled manually. For mid-level companies with a bit of a business going, you need to balance the supply and demand side of the equation. Often, you’re moving people across teams to strike that balance. And then scaled companies, like Amazon, get to a level where supply and demand teams are operating freely independently. There’s a common company strategy, but they have their independent charters and are working independently too.
I don’t think there’s any one correct answer but I see too many companies pouring too much money into marketing before they’ve achieved product-market fit. And I think that is the biggest hurdle to avoid. Limit your investment in marketing until you’ve established the fit. You do not often need a large set of customers to hydrate an established product market. When you think you’re getting close to product-market fit, start pouring in the money. And if you have product-market fit, I would go in guns blazing.
I look at it as four key parameters: customer adoption, customer interaction, churn, and profitability. In terms of customer growth, I think it’s important for companies to look at signup rate, month-to-month growth, CAC, as well as organic growth versus paid growth in customers. One of my indications of product-market fit is when you start getting organic customers coming to you.
I think the interesting thing about the consumer space is that first-mover advantage is humongous and sometimes people find it very difficult to surmount. Once you build a large consumer brand, it’s hard to give people a reason to switch away from it. That can be a huge block for startups.
When they’re trying to launch a product, they may have a better idea, they may have access to better technology, but to get across the switching value is hard. There are bigger companies that scale, they have the economies to it, and they have a customer base. The way I see the market developing is, and what I recommend to companies also, is to take that advantage that people have and make it a disadvantage for them. Because they’re serving hundreds of millions of consumers, they’re unable to focus on specific segments.
If you’re trying to focus on small segments or niche segments, those initiatives really bubble up to the top of the priority list at a company level and get business. However, today, we have such a diverse segment of people. Technology has vastly changed and customer needs have vastly changed. There are so many groups of people who have special interests and specific needs. Some people care a lot about the environment and social causes. Smaller startups are in a much better place to serve them.
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