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Fail Faster

Episode 429


30 minutes

In this episode, we sit down with Soumam Debgupta, SVP of Product, JLL Technologies.

He is a seasoned product leader who shares his remarkable journey from humble beginnings in India to becoming a product management guru. Discover how he navigated the ever-changing real estate industry, learned from both successes and failures and leveraged his craft-based approach to continuously refine his skills. Get inspired to embrace the unconventional and chart your own path in the world of product management. Let’s tune in for insights, anecdotes, and valuable career advice from Soumam’s extraordinary career.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hey, Shomam, welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?

Soumam: I’m doing good. And thank you for having me here. 

Vandana: Absolutely. We are excited to dive deep into your world, Shomam, so let’s begin with your introduction. Please let us know our audiences know, you know, where you started your journey into this career, you can throw in stories from your childhood to where you were born, and some influences from your family, other teachers, inspirations along the way as well. So I’ll let you share that, please. 

Soumam: Yeah, sure. I come from a very humble background. My mom and dad had very humble beginnings. I grew up in India, city of Mumbai. And my father, he was a bachelor took the courage at that time. This is 80 years back, leave his family behind and go into a new city and start his career on his own. And quite often, we fail to recognize how much where you’re born and the environment you’re born into shapes a bunch of success. 

I do live in the city of Mumbai, which is the metropolis that everyone knows in India. I would say half of my success in my early career and my education was a result of me just being in that city, we exposed to things I would not have had he stayed back home in the root lots of us Bengal and try to make a living there. Your roots and your surroundings play a pretty important role, even though you don’t have control over them. And that’s, that’s the luck. It was a career. And we should all be grateful for that piece of luck. 

And then I grew up in in India, living and working in almost every major city of India. And that I used to love traveling. And that very, that kind of a job or profile of life for me was really a delight to see different cultures, like India is pretty diverse. And that sense, as you know, even from one city to the other, you completely experience different culture, different language, and food habits and everything. So just getting to experience that in the formative years is very, very valuable. 

I think that’s what I love. And the way that has helped me over the course of my career as a product leader is also by realizing that yes, while businesses and many leaders use your many leaders and executives and billionaires say, you know, customers are the same, they want the same set of things. And that’s true. The difference when you have worked and lived and interacted with people in different parts, you will realize is how they want it, what they get out of it is very different from where you are. 

So even though your product might be servicing, or your business might be servicing multiple types of customers, their association with you may be completely different than what you thought. So it’s something to be mindful of. And I’ve learned that through my own personal experiences. I did my engineering and my MBA in India, I joined, after my MBA school, I joined this big conglomerate in India called the Villa Group. It was a fantastic learning journey. 

They go through this kind of a course where, you know, for the first two years as an executive in that company, you just do all types of roles before you actually get a chance to decide what is your calling in life. What that does is, irrespective of where you land, right, like whether you become a sales guy, or a marketing guy, or a technology guy, or a manager, or whatever be it, right, empathy towards the other functions in the organization is super important to build your own success and to win the success of the role that you are entrusted in. And I think that kind of initial two year stint in that company was really valuable. 

So that’s something I’m very grateful for. Again, a lot of things you’ll hear me say, yes, there were conscious decisions we handed, but a lot of it, I would say luck plays a pretty big role. And we don’t really recognize how much luck plays in your success. But I consider these to be opportunistically lucky moments in my life. 

Vandana: Yeah, very well said. And only we can realize it when we reflect upon these things, you know, we reflect upon our journeys to learn, oh my god, you know, if that step didn’t happen, that decision didn’t happen that day, I would not be here. And I agree luck has a lot to do and also recognizing those things and moving forward, looking back and moving forward and understanding where you can shine, what are your strengths, you touched upon some really amazing things there. And I hope that your dad is listening to the podcast, because not everybody recognizes the formative years, you know, and the role of the parents and the steps they took to shape, you know, their children’s future is so much of importance. 

Soumam: Yeah, to recognize it, whether we acknowledge it or not, that role is always there, right? It doesn’t diminish with our non-recognition, neither does it elevate it with our recognition. I think the value that parents play cannot be touched in that sense. 

Vandana: Yes, yes, that also gets more and more, what can I say, appreciated as we become parents, I believe I never understood what my parents went through until I became a parent. So I have to I’m sure you are you are a parent too, are you? 

Soumam: Yes, I have an 18 months old. 

Vandana: Oh, nice. Yes, I remember you told me. Okay, so let’s talk about some of the successes along the way, and maybe touch upon some of the hiccups too, that kind of told you that you’re on the right path and or you’re not on the right path. 

Soumam: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll touch on two things that I believe in my mind, the two successes that have been defining for me, both of them in a way connect with Amazon, where I spent close to over nine years. A very large part of my career was spent working with Amazon in different geographies. So success number one was around my role or team that I led while being in Amazon in Europe, based out of Luxembourg and needing their export business product line. And the reason why that remains so entrenched in my mind is because that was a new area, even for Amazon, that they were trying to get into where they’re trying to go in new market like China, work with manufacturers in a new region, and import products, all on their own without relying on third parties, right, and do that in a manner that is financially accretive to the company. 

There are two or three things and this was a massively successful product. Like, I spent three years in times of Europe. And within those three years, like from almost from zero, we went into almost a billion dollars of sales involving within those three years. So that’s, it was a massive success. And it continues to be that like, I led the team, but that business growth is amazing. And it added like 3-4% margin to the business in Amazon Europe. So that’s a pretty good retail and that’s pretty sizable number to add to. 

There were a couple of things that I believe were critical to that success. One was, this was one area where I got a chance to build literally a team, right? So the right kind of people, the right kind of talent, I could pick and choose and select and form that team. The reason why that flexibility was important, especially in this program is because the success of this needed very different types of skills. And yes, while it was, hey, you needed to be good in business development, you need to be good in product, the personalities and attitudes, there were different personalities and attitudes that you needed, right? 

Like, if I was hiring a business developer, I didn’t need all of my business development guys to be like, you know, I could pick up the phone and I could sell the shit or everything, right? There are going to be brands that you’re working with were not going to answer your phone and you need somebody, you know, who can persevere and get be motivated. Most sales people, you know, they’ll make a few tries and if it doesn’t work, they move on to the next lead. You need those personalities, you know, who will persevere and lead for years. 

And similarly on the product side, you need somebody who is good on conceptualizing both side of the process, like coming up with new ideas and all of it. We also need somebody who, once something has been built, knows how to turn the school five degrees to the right or five degrees to the left. Want it to become even more perfect and the experience to get meaningful, incrementally better every day. 

The ability to create that kind of a team was super crucial. And that’s one of the big learnings that I’ve carried on because it came so early in the career. It also showed me the ability or showed me the value of how diverse thinking and diverse skills add rather than subtract from your team. Common mistakes I see a lot of hiring managers make is they try to hire more of themselves, especially the successful ones. And that’s a real big challenge, right? The more successful you become, the more you try to hire like yourself. 

And that’s a very big early indicator of your impending failure. From there, let me touch upon a failure as well. So this was 2015-2016 within Amazon. Again, there was this huge rush because Amazon by that time had become so successful. And it was starting to become the big tech company that we all know now and getting into new territories and new businesses and all. But there was this kind of an internal sense amongst leadership, middle management, everybody that we can win any business. 

And there was this phase in Amazon where everyone was, let’s try to convert every category into an online commerce business, right? So let’s think of what’s the other thing that you buy offline that today is not present on Amazon that you go to a store for, let’s bring it online. In that kind of phase, Amazon decided to get into, and I was part of that decision, the team of getting into fine arts. So if we wanted to buy a fine art, and sometimes in hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of fine art, right? Why could you not buy it on Amazon? Why do you have to go to a gallery? We spend, I think cumulatively on Amazon, we spend millions of dollars and over two or three years trying to succeed in that category, realizing we are not going to and we’re going to fail and we exited it and we closed it down. 

So the good thing is we made that recognition and we decided rather than continuing to persevere and say, you know, now that we have invested, let’s treat the sunk cost as an investment and let’s continue to put more money behind that. But the reason I think the reason behind the failure was important. In my mind, there were three key learnings that came out of that experience for me. One, no matter how big you become as a team, as a company, as an individual who’s successful, it is not necessarily an indicator of your future success. And the rigor and the hard work and the attention to execution and detail is as much important, even when you’re widely successful as you were when you were just starting out. 

And there’s a phase in Amazon where, you know, they caught into a lot of these ideas and businesses and launches, which I would say may not have been fully baked. And many of those non-fully baked ideas came back to bite. This was one of those, right? Like we didn’t think through the end-to-end experience. The second is not every human experience can be converted into lines of code. And what I mean by that is there is this belief right now that, you know, technology can make everything better, right? And whatever you’re doing in the physical world, you can do it a lot more better in the digital world. 

That may hold true for most things, but certain experiences necessarily do not translate well into the digital world. This is important, especially if you are the product owner and the product leader. But this is super important to be thoughtful about. Does what you’re proposing fall into that? It does. There are one of the two paths you can take. One, you can choose and say, this is not a business that you want to be in because it’s not on the scale, it’s not on the limits of your returns. Or you could say, I’m going to treat the digitalization of this as an augmentation of the experience rather than the replacement of the experience. 

The fact that Amazon went into the fine arts as a replacement of an experience that you had in the museum or in an auction house was the wrong play to take. And the third learning, which is, I think, even more important, is you spend a lot of marketing dollars behind it. There is no amount of marketing that can hide a bad product or a bad experience or experience that doesn’t solve a customer problem. If there isn’t a problem to solve and you create a product and you somehow feel like marketing and sales and hammering your users with a certain message is going to suddenly make your business successful or your product successful, that’s likely not going to happen. Three learnings I got from that failure. 

Vandana: Wow, how insightful. Thank you so much. I think this story itself has given a lot of insights. And what a great way to summarize all of this, which is very true. Like what you said, if there is no problem to solve, don’t create a problem then and then a solution. So true. No, I love that. Thank you so much. That brings us to your current role or your just the recent role that you had about the real estate and the JLL tech piece that you were handling. Could you bring about some of the learnings and contributions to in that role that you were able to do? 

Soumam: Yeah, so I joined JLL early 2021. Years have gone by and really wanting to do something really different. Something challenging and that had a real risk of failure. And I thought where could technology create most of that? Very funny story. When I was doing my job search at that point in time, and I was thinking, what do you know, which industry could I get into? Because I didn’t have companies in mind. I had like, okay, what industry would I want to go into next? And I was like, okay, which industry can really be changed by technology? 

And I looked at industries that had the least disruption, or the least implementation or the use of technology in their day to day functioning, real estate was touched on the bottom. Only better than hunting and agriculture. So that was my research. And I was like, hey, this is a good opportunity to go in. So I was brought in to help digitally transform their service side of the business. So JLL is a transaction side of the business, around the brokerage and leasing, and the other side of the business where they’re managing real estate assets. 

So I was brought in to help transform that side of the business, not just for JLL, but the idea was to transform the industry as well. And real estate is a very interesting piece. When I joined, this was 2021. As you would remember, this was COVID times, right? And my manager, my last manager from Amazon was like, so you’re joining a commercial real estate company at a time when nobody really needs office spaces, what the hell are you going to do there? And yes, while it’s true on one side, the other side of it is equally true is like, because you do not need office spaces, the traditional sense, create an existential crisis for the entire industry of what are we about? And everyone was searching for an answer for what are the themes or what do we stand for as a commercial estate? 

Whether you’re an investor, whether you’re a broker or a service provider, whatever it be, however you’re attached to it, what do you stand for? And what are you solving for this world? And the first year in my job was spent behind trying to come up with that answer. And we basically came down to like three key realizations, right? One is our and all of our partners’ role in the real estate space is about helping redefine what the future of work looks like. If the role of office is changing, or if the objective of why people are in office is changing, the way you think and design and operate an office space will also change. So what is that future of work all about? And how do we think about that? 

The second is with all of the energy transitions happening in the world with such a big focus on climate resiliency, you could have led buildings or real estate, if you combine the entire construction phase and the operating phase and the real estate world, you have 40% contributor to greenhouse gases in the world. That’s a pretty big contributor. But while there’s a lot of attention on weight of pollution and electrification and all of it, not as much gets talked about the sustainability of the green climate and global buildings. So that was the second thing, what role would buildings play in helping drive or tackle the problem of climate change? 

And the third big piece was as companies have these buildings and they want to operate it and all of it, what role does data play in helping you understand not just the health of the building, but health of the occupants in the building, right? And their experience in it, and then make decisions on the basis of data rather than on the basis of your judgment and experience. What are three areas that we discovered and said, that’s where I think the value creation is going to be. And let’s focus our attention on products and services around those three areas. 

Vandana: Super cool. So then what were some of the outcomes? I mean, it is, and first of all, I wanted to also commend you for, you know, make that conscious decision rather than jumping on the next shiny job opportunity. You took a little bit of time to understand where you want to contribute in which industry and then made a bold, risky decision to be able to contribute in a big way in an area which was almost failing at the time, which is not a very easy decision. So I just wanted to take a moment to kind of acknowledge that and appreciate that, because not a lot of folks take those kind of risks, right? So I’m excited to know what were some of the outcomes as you from the research that you did? 

Soumam: Yeah, so we actually ended up launching and bringing to market quite a few interesting innovative products, right? So some of them being like, we launched one of the best in class, commercial real estate focused data product into the market, because our a lot of customers are right now using it. But it basically brought at your fingertips, operational metrics about your building, about the service providers, about people, about air quality, about energy consumption, and all that at your fingertips. So that was one product we brought to market. 

We brought to market a product called Canopy, which was, which basically helped real estate managers look at the energy consumption data of the buildings and make decisions around how they’re going to get to a path of x percent of carbon reduction. And it would help you like really create projects and tasks that you would literally have to do to say, let’s say you were emitting x, x kilograms of carbon dioxide per day down to y and so forth. Your energy consumption was x megawatts, how do you get it down to y. And so that’s what that product held for. Then one of the big bold bets we made was around building automation, right? 

So that generally needs to have like close to 40,000 people are still trying to pass for close to 40,000 people on the ground actually operating and running these buildings, or they have plans. It doesn’t have to be that people intensive, right? A lot of these things can be monitored, measured and operated remotely. Very big investments in building automation. And we actually made two acquisitions in that space. 

One a German company called Viola, one a US company called Hank, all focused on building automation. So these products now enable building owners to like run their building without always necessarily having somebody in the building running it. It’s like neurons, it auto detects issues and it auto, in some cases, it can also auto correct it, without actually needing to send a human being there. So a lot of the things that I’m like, I hate to use buzzwords, but like these days, everything is all about AI. 

These are all AI based tools, right? AI is not the magic, the magic or the miracle is the outcome it achieves, right? So we get hooked up on the technology a lot more. And I’ve probably been for myself sometimes, but it’s not the technology that’s the miracle, it’s it’s work it solves. I think these, these were the big ones. And then we launched another one called the way traditional cleaning happens in office building is like somebody goes into an office building and has a vendor and the vendor will clean the office four times a day, right? Schedule at eight o’clock or 10 o’clock, right? 

And you don’t see that in bathrooms in many cases, like it’s time sheet. And then like you’ll see that cross and all. But here’s the funny part, right? If a desk, let’s say, let’s say one day I didn’t go to office today, the value of cleaning that desk four times a day would have never got used. You were adding cost for yourself, for your client. And not just that, you would actually be spending and these are small things, but people don’t pay attention. It’s cleaning materials, right? Those are toxic materials. 

You use greenhouse gases to produce them and so on and so forth, right? So it’s also environmentally not sustainable. So we said, okay, why not launch a product that only cleans when needed. So think of this as a product for dynamic cleaning that could monitor and see which spaces are getting used how frequently and how much and then create a cleaning schedule. So less frequently used spaces would get cleaned less, more frequently used spaces would get cleaned. 

So in static schedules, you now have dynamic schedules to clean it. These are some of the products we brought to the market. In fact, all of them actually had really good reception from the customers. Because again, going back to my learning from the previous one, if you really solve a problem, hello market for your product. 

Vandana: Love that. Very, very well said and brought back, you know, to make that point. Anything else? You know that I have not asked you Somam that has been present for you. And I do believe that you are in that time again, where you are taking a little break to refine your craft, which I admire personally to that you’re able to take that call for yourself. And, you know, and and we all need those pauses and not everybody takes these kind of steps. So I just continue to see that your trajectory has been to pause, take a risk, and then understand first and then get into something else. So I kind of want you to elaborate on that, too. 

Soumam: Yeah, I think about two things that I would like to share here. So one is, I think, and this is my advice to you, like a lot of people, I’ve mentored a lot of people who are getting started in product management, and they want to craft a career in product management. And this is one thing I always tell them is don’t fall in love with the company and the paycheck, right? It’s not like because then you will only think narrowly in terms of the big tech companies that pay the top dollars and that’s it, right? Fall in love with the craft of creating solutions that can meaningfully improve human lives, right? 

That’s what at the end of the day, we all as product managers in different industries in different ways are trying to do and if that’s the objective that you have, then there are multiple ways in which you can craft your career. And I’ve seen a lot of people feel like they are a failure if they have not got into an Amazon or Google or Facebook or Microsoft at some point in the career. And I would say that’s absolutely not true. In fact, the value technology can add outside of these big corporate companies that people generally think about is a lot higher. And that value is more real value, because the value generation happens in the physical world rather than just in the online world, right? So not just on a website, but actually physical world has been improved by that. 

People like to go and explore other places where technology and your product thinking is going to add value. This product thinking is a very new car, right? It has not existed for like millennia, right? It’s only matured in the last at the most 20 years, I would say, right? So a lot of companies outside of these big tech companies don’t even understand or know what it takes to become a product led company, right? Interesting interview that Steve Jobs had given, it’s a very old one, it was very early in his life, and it struck me very strongly as a guiding principle. 

He had said, like, if you were in PepsiCo, and he had brought in John Scully at that time, and he’s like, if you were in PepsiCo, and you were a product person, the product in PepsiCo changes once in every 10 years out of 12 years, right? So if you’re a product person, you’re not going to have much decision making powers there was going to have a decision making powers is going to say is that they are the ones who are going to become the CEOs and the leadership. But if you were joining company, like an apple, where we try to launch a product every other year, your value as a product person was a lot higher, you have decision rights, you’re at a table with other stakeholders, I mean, you are the one driving the decisions. So he was using this to demonstrate what the differences are a product led company versus a non product led company, and companies are realizing the value of a product you’re thinking. So as those companies think they become ready for taking that step, the need for these professionals, or need for really good product owners and product leaders is going to only grow up. 

So think more unconventional industries think more unconventional places, I have done that, and I can vouch for it that it works. I’m saying that out of my own experience, not because I’ve read in some book, one piece, I would say, the second is, I would say, learning or finding there are two kinds of professions, right? Of, I would say, three professions that are pure science, right? Like you learn a theory, you apply it, you’re a research scientist, you’re a programmer, you’re, these are, you need to learn a theory, you apply it, there are fields that are purely about brilliance, you need to have it in you to succeed, right? And you will know it very early that you don’t outstand the chance. 

Good marketer, because you have that good intuition and the creativity in your mind, or you’re not, you’re a good athlete, because you can pass the ball well, or you’re not, right? So you, there are those professions where that’s there. One kind of profession, which is a much bigger set that people don’t pay attention to is craft based professions. Product management is a craft based profession. What I mean by that is, you may not start off being good in it on day one, but if you’re willing to apply time, effort, and rigor behind learning and perfecting that craft, the practice, education, and execution, you will become better at it, as somebody whom you aspire to be on day one, right? 

So if you’re in a craft based profession, your only way to become better is either to find the time to constantly upgrade your craft by learning new things, by applying them. And you can do that in your job, you don’t always have to take a break. Or sometimes, as I’ve realized, you know, you’re so caught up in your day to day work and running up your day to day responsibilities that you want to take that break. Say, you know, if you have the five things I would love to get better at, and dedicated time trying to get better at that. You don’t always have to demonstrate it through a degree or a certificate of this and that. Trust me, you will be able to demonstrate it when you go and do the job next, right? 

And it will show up that if you spend time perfecting your craft or improving it, I would say to all of those professionals that fall in the craft based field of work, spend time owning your craft as frequently as you can. 

Vandana: Love that. And what a great advice and a great way to wrap up the episode unless there is anything else that you have on top of your mind. Somam, this was so amazing. Thank you. 

Soumam: No worries. No, I think that’s all. That’s all the wisdom I have for today. 

Vandana: Awesome. And we might bring you back once, you know, we have some learnings from how the house of you know, and the actual execution of you as you’re perfecting your craft right now to the implementation. Maybe some stories from there. 

Soumam: Sure. Thank you so much again for joining us today. This was a pleasure. 

Vandana: Thank you for having me again. 

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