Interview

How We Manage a Product That Competes with Uber

Walid Ellec
Lead Product Manager at Heetch
Walid Ellec is one of the Lead Product Managers at Heetch, a ride-sharing service based in France. We asked him what it’s like to build a product competing with Uber and the challenges of branching out to new countries. He told us how his father got him into code and shared his most memorable moment at our JAM conference.


1. What is your current role at Heetch and what’s changed since you joined the team?

I’m currently one of the Lead Product Managers at Heetch, and I’m working on a scope that we call “Ride”. Briefly, my team’s role is to create the smoothest ride experience — yeah, we didn’t think too hard about the team name. It’s a very central team in the company, and this scope covers the only repeating experience for both passengers and drivers. We also manage our service expansion.

I joined the company a little more than two and a half years ago, as the second Product Manager. Heetch was quite small then. We had around 50 people if I recall correctly. It has since more than tripled and we went through quite a rough patch in this very crowded market area.

As the company was small back then, we had kind of a mercenary mindset. We worked on one thing at a time with little vision about what was coming next. It was really exciting! Everyone was wearing as many hats as they could. Since then, we put some structure in place, so I now share my time between planning features, organizational discussions, and recruitment.

Even with this structure, our wish is to never lose that “pirate” mindset that helped us overcome the challenges we faced.

The company has been an ever-changing place to work, so it’s still pretty thrilling to me. Now that we’re hitting a major growth phase, the Product team is expanding rapidly. I’m also doing my best to share my experience of building this product, including the reasons why we build something in a particular, sometimes non-orthodox way.


2. How did you get into Product Management, to begin with?

To answer this question, I have to explain how I got into technology in the first place. My father was a System Engineer, and I grew up among computer parts. It’s pretty cool when your dad is the person that introduces you to code!

I got my own computer and Internet access as early as 12 — that was 17 years ago. I’ve always been interested in consumer services and products. To have someone like my dad to debate over tech companies’ strategies was incredible.

“I grew up among computer parts. It’s pretty cool when your dad is the person that introduces you to code!”

After high school, when I had to choose an academic path, there was no doubt in my mind, I was going to study Computer Science. But, surprisingly, the careers they promised weren’t that exciting to me. I didn’t want to become a Project Manager or a Consultant. Back then, the iPhone wasn’t a thing, and the App Store didn’t exist. YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook, they were barely off the ground, so there wasn’t much to dream of yet. But this is making me sound old, and I’m not even 30…

“Back then, the iPhone wasn’t a thing and the App Store didn’t exist. YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook, they were barely off the ground, so there wasn’t much to dream of yet.”

The whole tech scene, as we know it today, blew up while I was in engineering school. I was amazed by the quality of the experiences provided by all these developers. I started to get more and more interested in Design and was lucky enough that my engineering school provided a design course. I even took it a little bit further by studying more design in Stockholm. At that time, I had no idea what Product Management was, I just felt like I could design and code stuff. I had to figure out what people wanted and provide it to them. Not long after that, I realized this already had a name.

I interned as a developer during my studies, then I tried to find jobs that were as close to my skills as possible. The Parisian startup scene was only kicking off though. All the startups were in a very early stage to start hiring, especially as Product Management wasn’t something people had in mind yet.

“I had no idea what Product Management was, I just felt like I could design and code stuff. I had to figure out what people wanted and provide it to them. Not long after that, I realized this already had a name.”

I applied to a French music streaming company and got hired. They didn’t know about Product Management either, but the company was small and open to new ways of doing things. I actually created the whole Product mindset there. Now, based on my work, they have a Product Management team in place, but I was really just messing around and figuring stuff out as I was doing it.

3. What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your role?

I would say that the most challenging thing about this role, especially in a scaling organization, is preventing the org, and yourself, from slowly turning the attention away from real users problems.

It’s so easy to start believing that “the user” is a faceless entity that’s just waiting for you to ship features. Especially, when you start hitting the million users mark. It all becomes numbers on a dashboard.

As the company grows, you start getting isolated from the actual users. Ultimately, the only gatekeepers of this mindset are the Product team.

On the other hand, when it comes to the most rewarding, I have to say it’s when I look down on people’s phones in the metro — I can be sneaky like that — and I see our app there. The feeling that this person finds value in what my team and I are doing is unparalleled.

I know, it sounds cheesy to me too, but that's the reason why I’m in this job.


4. Heetch wants to become the second ride-sharing service in France. What does it mean for you to build a product competing with Uber?

Competing with a giant has its advantages. You have the chance to check out what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. It informs your own decisions. They also set the bar. You have to find ways to go beyond that and focus on what you believe matters to the users.

It doesn’t prevent you from making your own mistakes though, and you don’t have the safety net that they have.

“Competing with a giant has its advantages. You have the chance to check out what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. It informs your own decisions.”

In our case, competing with Uber means being able to provide our core service. Getting people from A to B at a fair price, with a reliable service and a decent approach time, while finding a way to stand out too.

We don’t, and most probably won’t in the near future, have the same firepower as Uber. So, for us, competing with them means to be as laser-focused as possible in matching the quality of service and features, while building a truly unique experience that people enjoy.

Speaking with the drivers, they tell us that our passengers are the best, better than on Uber and the rest of the competition. Speaking with the passengers, they tell us that our drivers are way friendlier and more accessible. They both spend a better time when using our product. But here’s the thing, both of them probably already matched on Uber and didn’t get the same experience with each other. The only thing that changes is us acting as the matchmaker. It’s our product conditions that make their experiences different from Uber.

So, in a nutshell, we have to be on par where it counts, propose our vision where we believe it’s going to be a game changer. A little too much on one side, or the other, and your product is either a dumb copycat, or a pretty, but empty shell.

“We have to be on par where it counts, propose our vision where we believe it’s going to be a game changer. A little too much on one side, or the other, and your product is either a dumb copycat, or a pretty, but empty shell.”


5. Last year Heetch had to suspend its operations for a while due to a court decision. As a Product Manager, how did that impact you?

In France, it was unclear whether or not ride-sharing drivers could be amateurs and under what conditions. It was a grey area, and that’s where we used to operate. The court ruled, and we were forbidden to run a peer to peer ride-sharing service.

Considering the core of our product foundation, the fact that the driver was an amateur or a professional wasn’t a hard constraint. We already had the technology to match people, regardless of the quality of the driver. Call it foreseeing, proper engineering, or pure luck, they all work.

The passenger base was technically not affected by the court ruling, but our driver base was back to absolute zero. And everything related to the driver’s sign-up and account management, very dependent on user specifics, was more or less to trash and rebuild.

Without the drivers, there was no business anymore. So, we needed to recreate a new base as fast as possible, when there was a year worth of dev work in front of us to relaunch.

At that moment, as a Product Manager, my job wasn’t to build a yearly roadmap or to gather stakeholders wishes. My job was to be in constant sync with the Operations team. They were going to fill in the gaps, while I tried to find what was the most important thing to build first.

Thanks to an incredible performance of operational intelligence, we were able to rebuild a complete driver sign up, including the necessary verifications without a single line of code. We focused on the things that required dev work, relaunched in less than three weeks and eventually caught up with our lost growth.

“At that moment, as a Product Manager, my job wasn’t to build a yearly roadmap or to gather stakeholders wishes. My job was to be in constant sync with the Operations team. They were going to fill in the gaps, while I tried to find what was the most important thing to build first.”

6. Since then, your service has branched out to four more countries. What challenges have you personally faced with scaling the product?

There are quite a few, very different, things that you need to consider when scaling a product like ours in several countries.

The legislation is very different from one country to the other, and we rely on it. In Belgium for instance, you need to book a driver for three hours in a row. In Italy, the market cap for professional drivers is very low. In Morocco, there are almost no professional drivers except taxis, and transportation habits are very different. In France, the legislation keeps changing.

So, the main challenge is to find a way to single out everything that is country-specific, and then build those as variables, which can easily be turned on and off. There should only be a few special cases so we can avoid bloating our product with edge cases that don’t work well with one another.

We need to build a product that conveys a single vision but still consider the fact that people don’t have the same expectations, from one place to another.

Finally, you have to understand that your relationship with the country managers is your only way to get feedback from the actual field when you can’t have direct access to users. As the perception of the product varies, they are the key to your understanding of the overall picture.

“...your relationship with the country managers is your only way to get feedback from the actual field when you can’t have direct access to users. As the perception of the product varies, they are the key to your understanding of the overall picture.”

7. Building a product in a startup is full of ups and downs. What kind of skill set do you think a PM needs to thrive in this sort of environment?

Relentlessness. To make your product advance by leaps and bounds, you need to make big plans for the future. It’s easy to let yourself wait for things to skyrocket and then get the new/important stuff for your product. The plan might change, and you need to be able to trash it and start over. Again, and again. With the same energy. It's the same for the features you built and love. You must be able to kill them, even though you poured everything you had into them.

Systemic thinking is also pretty important. Knowing what's entrenched and what you can change, will get you much further. People often say “do things that don’t scale”, but predicting the possible scale route can help you react quickly in a changing course.

Finally, focus. When push comes to shove, and you get signals coming from everywhere, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important. Keep your mission in mind, your users close and deviate only if necessary.

“Keep your mission in mind, your users close and deviate only if necessary.”


8. You’ve attended the JAM conference in London in the past. What was your most memorable moment?

I was around in 2015 and 2016. I believe the most memorable moment was probably the keynote from Nilan Peiris, VP Product & Growth at Transferwise. I was already at Heetch at the time and his keynote greatly resonated with us. They also faced legislative issues and understood the emotional aspect that can exist inside a Fintech product — generally the least sexy type of product. Plus, they advocated for a complete bottom-up organization, in which we also believe.

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