Davis Baer

Host of Hacker Noon Founder Interviews

Startup Interviews: Josh Aziz of TransferWise

What's your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Josh Aziz, Head of Product at TransferWise for North America. My background is in engineering, having earned my Bachelor’s degree in applied science and system designs engineering from The University of Waterloo in Canada. A driving factor for me joining the company was to build things that make people’s lives better. 
I began my engineering career designing, developing and testing customized ATM software and hardware for international banking clients, but never felt quite fulfilled. After a slew of engineering internships early in my career, I decided engineering wasn’t the path for me and honestly I probably wasn’t the best at it. I was building things that improved the lives of others but didn’t feel that my contribution was significant enough. This led me to product management -- a role that supports building meaningful products, while also ensuring employees are happy and fulfilled doing so.
What motivated you to get started with your company?
I started in Healthcare, working on a pregnancy app for Everyday Health. I led the product strategy and roadmaps for the app store’s top pregnancy app (What to Expect). It was rewarding to be a part of something that enhanced people’s daily lives, but I still yearned for something more. During my time at Seamless and GrubHub, I became even more interested in  improving the customer experience but still felt like I was lacking a solid understanding of what I truly wanted to achieve. I wanted to work on a product that directly impacted the business, the customers, and the industry that surrounded them at a large scale. 
Finding a company that was impact-driven while also catering to the immediate needs of customers and employees became the goal. In 2015, a friend of mine suggested TransferWise, an international money transfer service on a mission to improve the way money moves around the world, founded on principles of speed, price, convenience and transparency. 
I had one conversation with an engineer at the company and was sold. I didn’t have a background in finance or payments, but the way engineers at TransferWise engaged and properly listened to customers as enough for me.
What was your first impression of the team and what does that look like now?
I joined TransferWise as the New York office’s seventh employee, brought on to help build the U.S. product as well as launch in Canada. Founded by two Estonians in London, TransferWise was the first international money transfer service to expand to global markets with local offices.
This spoke volumes to me, as it was risking sustainable development in order to bring its business operations closer to the customer and build the best product possible.
It was also clear early on that everyone at the company was customer-centric. I was really surprised to hear engineers asking questions I had never them ask before like, ‘what are our customers saying?’ and ‘we launched this; what was the result?’ This was completely new to me and I still find it impressive.
What went into expanding the initial product?
I spent my first year at TransferWise gaining a true understanding of the current product suite— how it worked, how it got there, and most importantly, the challenges we faced. I traveled to other offices around the globe to learn about the different pain points facing customers and apply these to users in the US. What I learned is that there is no uniform approach—each day, challenge, and solution is unique.
The next step was getting in front of customers. I had side by side calls with the customer support team to get a first hand understanding of what my customers were saying. This is something the entire 1800 team across 12 offices (including co-founders Kristo and Taavet), still do today. It’s an important part of my role to maintain a tight grasp on the experience my product offers, and put myself in the shoes of customers. 
Can you describe a day in the life at TransferWise?
Every day is different, but it normally starts out with answering the same question: ‘What’s the most impactful thing I can do for customers or my team today?’
Working at TransferWise is like walking into a huge walk-in closet with a ton of hats. To paint a picture, imagine a room of clothes and hats that each represent a solution, and your challenge is picking the best one
What this really means is that our focus on customers creates an extremely fast-paced environment, where the only constant is a strong team of innovative thinkers dedicated to finding solutions to improve the service. To me, a good product manager builds products that have a direct impact on customers while also encouraging happy employees that believe in the impact they’re delivering. At TransferWise, this means providing people and businesses with the fastest, cheapest, most transparent means of managing money internationally.
How have you attracted users and grown your product in the U.S.?
Expanding our product to the U.S. meant focusing on the core aspects of our product suite that will help us to achieve TransferWise’s mission of bringing low cost, fast, convenient transfers to anyone who needs it.In the U.S., this began with price.
When we first launched in the U.S., we quickly realized that most Americans weren't aware of costly hidden charges in the exchange rate, because they’re pretty confusing to work out. It was up to us to educate the market. That’s why we’ve been on a “mission to zero” on transfer fees to encourage more transparency and inclusivity in the industry. 
It’s hard to build something that scales, but our customers helped inform what customizations were necessary for the U.S. market in order to be relevant and impactful. We focused on certain groups of people—speaking to different user types and building improved features for them. 
How do you manage your team at TransferWise?
My leadership style is very much in line with the TransferWise values—I hire smart people and trust them. We work in autonomous teams. So there’s no top down hierarchical structure.  I prefer coaching people rather than telling them what to do. Having come from a background in engineering, I know there’s a lot of pressure to bottle-neck yourself into an industry or niche focus. Letting those closest to the problem be the ones to solve it leads to a more resilient team that’s close to customers and has real growth and impact. 
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
One of our biggest challenges has been addressing the needs of specific users across global barriers. When we first launched, we assumed business users had the same mindset as consumers, wanting the money transfer to work first, and the profile experience to come after—this actually turned out to be the opposite. Businesses wanted an established profile before sending any money at all. 
This sent us back to the drawing board, and we realized that while customers weren’t comfortable with their finances, businesses were, but weren’t comfortable with losing autonomy of their finances. We tested this, allowing businesses to build a profile prior to setting up transfers, before rolling out TransferWise for Business globally. The framework for this product suite is ever-changing, so establishing a foundation for facilitating global business money transfers was a particularly challenging outfit to pick out of my walk-in closet.
What are some books that have helped you?
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz
  • Inspired, Marty Cagan
  • Lean Analytics, Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz
  • The Black Box of Product Management
Where can we go to learn more?
TransferWise website: https://transferwise.com/us/
TransferWise Twitter: @TransferWise

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