Lessons in digital transformation from Swarovski, Gymshark & Compassion International
Last month, we hosted our inaugural Product Excellence Summit – a series of live events featuring product visionaries from across the globe. The first panel discussion of the day – moderated by Vish Srivastava, Lead Product Manager at BCG Digital Ventures – was all about digital transformation.
Joining Vish were three product leaders from very different organizations: Megan Scott, Director of eCommerce & Planning at Swarovski; Seb Mills, Tech Product Director at Gymshark; and Karl Hall, Director of Exploration & Execution at Compassion International.
In case you missed the live event, here’s a lightly edited version of the discussion.
Digital transformation can sometimes feel like rebuilding a plane while it’s flying. So my first question for you is: Why digital transformation, why now, and where does that momentum originate within your organization?
Megan Scott: At Swarovski, what is driving the digital change of our traditional brand is the change in retail behavior from the consumer, which is driven by technology. And as that change has happened, we’ve also seen their expectations rise around the level of service.
When you’re transforming as a traditional brand, there is a stage where you are trying to catch up.
In retail, we’ve already seen changes in customer behavior and expectations, but these are now expanding at a faster rate. And this isn’t something we’re doing now because of COVID – this is something we’ve been working on for a very long time. The impact of COVID has accelerated online shopping behavior, which has highlighted its importance to the organization.
As product leaders, we pride ourselves on being very close to the customer and seeing firsthand those changes in expectation. You work in a large organization. How does that materialize at Swarovski? How do you pipe in that feedback you’re seeing around those changing expectations to affect change internally?
Megan Scott: Through lots of education and bringing people along on the journey. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and you have to empower the entire organization so that they have the knowledge on hand. You also have to give them visibility and explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s not just about having the best website or the best roadmap. It’s about everybody understanding that and working towards helping facilitate it in whatever way possible.
“It’s not just about having the best website or the best roadmap. It’s about everybody understanding that and working towards helping facilitate it in whatever way possible.”
That’s why I ended up choosing Productboard – because of the visibility. I could make these roadmaps to give every different stakeholder a different view of what’s happening and when – and also get feedback from them. Before, we just got random emails. Now, we have a single place where we can collect all that feedback, prioritize it, and demonstrate one feature’s value over another.
I think that hits on one of the biggest challenges of digital transformation: The armies of stakeholders that we have to keep aligned. This next question is for you, Seb. In addition to alignment, what are some of the challenges you face in implementing digital transformation at Gymshark?
Seb Mills: We’re a very new business. We’ve only been around for seven or eight years. In the earlier years, there were about 10 of us working wherever we could stand in a warehouse. Back then, some of the challenges we faced were very different from those I suspect others are facing. It was more around budgetary restraints, a lack of staff, and everyone doing 10 jobs simultaneously.
As we didn’t have the resources to hire an in-house team of engineers, we went third-party with our development work, but we kept design in-house. As we grew and found some success, we started transitioning towards having some people in-house and some externally. Then finally, over the last couple of years, we’ve managed to keep everything in-house. So it’s been a journey for sure, with many challenges.
Karl, with all the different stakeholders you have as a nonprofit, and also with the moving landscape of tech where emerging markets skip dial-up Internet and desktop and go straight to mobile, how do you prioritize what to focus on in such a dynamic landscape?
Karl Hall: It’s a fantastic challenge. I don’t think any of our challenges are hyper-unique to the nonprofit space. I worked in the for-profit world before, and a lot of the challenges are the same.
There’s a huge tension when you’re thinking about how to serve people who have skipped dial-up Internet and don’t have wires going to their house except for power. So for us, the big tension is digitizing paper stuff. Sixty-eight years ago, if you wanted to communicate with anybody, you used the global postal service. And so for us, the tension is how we balance digitizing our paper stuff versus how we keep that vision and big picture that we’re aiming at around digital transformation. Digitizing what you already have is a subset of digital transformation, but it’s not the superset.
To dig in a little deeper, you probably have one of the most complex jobs here because you’re across continents and your end-users have very different levels of digital fluency. So I’m curious, what are some of the challenges you have faced, and how do you prioritize what you digitize and what you leave as it is?
Karl Hall: Things like low data are important as we develop products. Some of these folks are getting on mopeds and driving maybe 10 or 20 miles so that they can have some amount of connectivity to upload.
So when trying to work through our challenges, we have to spend a lot of time understanding the topography of the people we’re trying to serve. We have to recognize that while many organizations only spend time serving their middle 80%, many of our big innovations or ideas come around how we serve the 10% on either side. That is the folks who don’t have good connectivity or have skipped a desktop experience and are straight onto a mobile experience.
So the most crucial part for us is recognizing that while we must serve the middle 80%, we have to focus on those edge cases as well. Because if you get your edge cases right, it’s probably going to benefit your middle 80% too.
I’ll take that question to you as well, Seb. How do you approach the balance of improving existing systems vs. searching for truly trying innovative ideas?
Seb Mills: In the early years, we got into the habit of building something, shipping it, and leaving it to gather dust. Over the last few years, we’ve taken a more iterative approach.
Now, when we launch a product or feature, we have a miniature roadmap specifically for that feature, which we continuously iterate and improve upon. And again, that’s how we grow our team as well. Once that remit grows big enough, it gets taken over by a product manager and their team, and they continue to grow and evolve it.
I’m a big fan of the whole ‘squad’ solution, like at Shopify and Spotify, where they grow in an area and then divide it off into squads with dedicated resources. At Gymshark, the whole tech team fell under me and one other guy for four years. Once we realized we wanted to do less, better, which is our motto at Gymshark, we figured out that we needed to give away work and get people to come in and carry on on that journey.
That’s super interesting. For me, a tricky question is always: How do you take an experiment and conclude that it was a success and then turn it into a mature capability? Do you have any examples where you tried something out, consistent with that principle of ‘less, better,’ it worked, and then you decided to move it forward?
Seb Mills: Yeah. At Gymshark, we sell apparel on our website. We’ve recently been evolving our collection page to integrate Algolia, which powers our search and collection pages.
We’ve been tweaking the algorithms and experimenting. For example, we gave every product a rating out of 10 in terms of our internal perception of its popularity. Then, that gets integrated into the algorithm and starts tweaking it. We’ve also done things like adding gross profit to the algorithm as well. After about three months of these incremental changes, we’ve seen an extra four or five million added to the bottom line.
When you’re talking four or five million added to the bottom line, it’s a straightforward case to take to the chiefs and ask if we can spin up a team real quick that’s dedicated purely to machine learning and algorithms around the collection page. It will cost us maybe a couple of hundred thousand, but we’re adding four or five million to the bottom line.
Back in the day, we didn’t measure the value of what we did. We just shipped it. Overall, the business numbers were doing well, so we carried on, but we could never go to the chiefs and say that we want this resource to build this team.
It’s been a learning curve for us. But now we’ve got to that realization, it’s become easy. We just put a business value on everything. We experiment with everything. If it doesn’t work, we fail fast and move on.
“We put a business value on everything. We experiment with everything. If it doesn’t work, we fail fast and move on.”
That’s the dream, right – to be able to talk to whoever holds the purse strings and say that this investment will result in this bottom-line impact. It’s a very compelling argument to make, which leads me to my next question, which is for you, Meg.
As product leaders, we interact with so many different functions. You have to build relationships with people and teams to get work done. Can you tell us about the different stakeholders you work with across the organization and how you sustain those trusted relationships?
Megan Scott: How do I sustain them? With a bit of Irish charm. I joined Swarovski in January, and we went into lockdown at the end of March. So for me, building these relationships has been quite a challenge.
“Managing stakeholders is about making sure you’re approachable to the rest of the business and that you are interested in what they’re doing and understand their challenges. You’re not there for your own ego or with your own motives, you’re there to try to make things better.”
VS: Seb or Karl, anything to add to that?
Karl Hall: We all have unique ways of interacting relationally, and especially if you’re trying to go cross-cultural, it’s really important to be sensitive. So when we have young product managers coming up, we need to teach them how to interact respectfully so that you can build trust rapidly.
Disruption is a word that everybody likes to use when talking about digital transformation and innovation. And disruption is great as long as it’s not like trampling across all of your stakeholders and shareholders.
When you have to maintain those relationships cross-culturally into parts of the world that haven’t interacted with a lot of Americans or Westerners, that amplifies the challenge. So you have to focus on being a good human.
Seb Mills: Yeah, that’s it. It’s about being a good human at the end of the day.
Another thing from the cultural aspect is that everyone has issues that are most important to them. Whether it’s people interested in the commercial side, brand, or whatever, you have to talk to them in their language.
I totally agree. And that’s going to be my big takeaway from this panel – just be a good human. So much of this is about empathy and kindness, and that’s especially important when we’re all remote.
So, we’ll finish with a couple of rapid-fire questions. We’ve talked quite a bit about the soft skills of being a product leader. Now, let’s get into the actual processes and tools you put in place to get work done. What has worked for you and what hasn’t?
Karl Hall: Well, for our processes, it’s in my job title – exploration and execution. We divide up rapid-fire exploration from things that we build that can scale to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of beneficiaries or sponsors. One really important tactic is finding out what are the smallest possible experiments and tests you can do. What can you do the fastest to get it in front of a customer? That’s what we call our exploration.
So how do you learn fast and answer those questions that your hypothesis or solution has sitting behind it? How do you validate assumptions? How do you tactically show that there’s value there?
I love what you said earlier, Seb, about how having actual data makes it easier to go to the executives and say, “Can I please have this team?” And it’s way easier to do if it’s backed up by real things and real behavior you’ve seen. That’s absolutely crucial for us, especially when we’re looking at children in twenty-five of the poorest nations around the world. They’re an at-risk population, and you have to be extremely careful that they’re not exposed to child trafficking or all sorts of different problems. So really small-scale tests designed to control your blast radius very early on in the process are key for us.
Seb Mills: At Gymshark, the biggest game-changer for us has been gaining insight into everything we do. Previously, we were a gut-feel company, and it served us to a certain size. But as we got bigger, we needed to put a value on things.
So now, for example, we have multiple designs, and we get our UX researchers to get them in front of real people and see which ones work best. Once we’ve launched a feature, we map the impact.
We never used to do that previously. We just saw the numbers going up and patted ourselves on the back. Now, we’re going back and figuring out how well or poorly that feature has performed. Then we take those learnings into the next projects, and so on.
OK, last question. What is your advice for product managers working in – or aspiring to transform – products, services, and operations at scale?
Seb Mills: I would start with the end vision in mind and work backward from that. And again, less is better. Focus on one thing at a time and do it really well rather than spinning a thousand different plates to a poor level. Just focus on one thing, crush it, and move on to the next thing.
I would start with the end vision in mind and work backward from that.
Megan Scott: For me, use it as an opportunity to learn yourself. Because as a product manager, you are working with all these different stakeholders. And by learning and understanding what drives their business or what their focus is, you become a better product manager because you understand their priorities.
“So go and do a lot of ‘a day in the life of…’. Go pick in your warehouse, jump on calls with your customer service team, and understand what it’s like to be a shopper.”
Karl Hall: For our product managers, when they get off a plane in rural Argentina or rural Burkina Faso and show up at a place where a child is living on under $1.90 a day, they immediately realize they’re not their customer.
“Don’t ever think you are your customer. Instead, focus on listening to those customers, to those in your ecosystem, to those in your network. Be obsessed with listening.”
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t take your own experiences, advice, competencies, and character into it, because maybe what your customers are asking for isn’t exactly what they need. But listen to them constantly. Apply your own filter afterward – and only then try to build solutions. But make sure you’re listening from the very start.