Self-disrupting with Wattpad’s head of emerging products

Eleni Deacon
Jun 4, 2018 · 9 min read

For early-stage companies, reaching product-market fit is an enormous milestone. But it’s hardly the finish line. Every product — even a young, shiny, super-popular product — is at risk of disruption.

Tarun Sachdeva leads the Emerging Products team at Wattpad, a Toronto startup that’s built a massive platform for storytellers. Wattpad is a thriving community of creative folks. And while they’re going strong — almost 50 million users strong (!) — they’re taking a proactive approach to potential disruption. Tarun’s team was specifically created to preempt new players in their market.

But while Tarun engages a lab-style, experimental process, his team is not conducting “maybe someday” experiments. They are explicitly driven towards solving real problems for their current and new markets. We chatted with Tarun about what self-disruption actually looks like in the real world (i.e. for real users).

Spoiler: It’s not just about making cool shit.

Tell us about your role. How are you self-disrupting?

My role at Wattpad right now is head of emerging products and partnerships. The team was formed with the objective to find new markets and value networks for Wattpad. If you’re familiar with the Clay Christensen school of thought, you know what that means: trying to find a way to disrupt Wattpad from within Wattpad.

When we look at Wattpad’s growth over the last five years, we’ve seen us get to almost 50 million users across the world, and we’ve done a really great job in building this incredible community of storytellers and audiences and brands that are interacting with each other.

“My role explores what else is out there, based on a hypothesis that things will change.”

And now, in some senses, we’re seen as the incumbent. And we want to make sure we are constantly exploring the next frontiers. We’re constantly reevaluating how we achieve our vision to connect and entertain the entire world through stories, but with the tools and the technology that are available to us today. So if Wattpad were reinvented today, would it look the same as it does right now? Probably the answer to that is “no.”

Wattpad is still a startup. How did you realize it was already time to think about self-disruption?

We’ve started to see — and this is true not just for Wattpad, but for a lot of products — the market around us has started to move. There are new capabilities in terms of what phones can do today. And those are different, obviously, than what was available when Wattpad started. There are new technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence that are making it possible to interact with technology in new and interesting ways.

The ways in which we’re interacting with technology is becoming more frictionless, and the concept of us going to technology to accomplish a task is becoming less and less relevant. It’s more that we speak to our technology; we live in our technology. It’s also very immersive, so we’re noticing a lot of these larger trends that are happening around us: new platforms, new technology, that have forced us to say, “Hey, let’s take a step back and explore what that next frontier of storytelling looks like.”

So is your central question: “If we were to start all over, what would we do?”

It’s more that we always look to our vision as the North Star. Which is to entertain and connect the world through stories. So we think about: how can we do that based on what is available today? We built a really, really incredible product and community, and a really great operation to support that and make sure that continues growing.

My role explores what else is out there, based on a hypothesis that things will change. The world around us will change whether or not we like it. It’s our choice to respond to that actively or to let it happen to us, and react to it. So what we’ve decided to do is choose the former path, and take an active stance in exploring that, understanding it better, trying a lot of different things, and seeing what sticks.

Tell us about some of the “different things” you’re trying.

We’re trying a lot of things along a few different horizons. One of the horizons is looking at new platforms of computing — things like new consumer technologies like Alexa and Echo. There are these new consumer products that people have started to interact with that didn’t exist before. What is the role of storytelling in those products?

“Ultimately, our goal as an organization is to make sure that we’re continuing to innovate.”

There’s looking at existing platforms like mobile, and looking at new ways that you can enable storytelling on those platforms. And it’s also thinking about — because Wattpad is a network and we believe strongly in community — how people share and network around stories today. It’s effectively trying out new mediums of storytelling in existing networks and existing mediums, and trying out new mediums altogether.

Is there any particular structure or constraints you have around your processes of exploration?

There is always a purpose to what we are doing. And we want to make sure that we’re not just building for the sake of building. We are building based on a specific hypothesis. We work under this umbrella of hypothesis-driven development, where we make a hypothesis around what effect we believe a certain trend is going to have, or how this platform is going to grow. We make that hypothesis, and then we test that out. If you build without that, you don’t really know what success looks like. You build something, and then you’re like, “Okay, well, what was the objective?” What were you actually trying to prove or disprove?

And by consistently making sure we have a hypothesis, that helps us make sure that we don’t end up — I don’t want to call it pointless, because I think there’s a place for directionless exploration. But we want to make sure we avoid that being the modus operandi. We’re not the kind of organization that just builds cool shit for the sake of building cool shit.

How can a PM ensure they’re self-disrupting in a way that adds real-world value?

There’s a couple things I would say here. The first is to try to adopt what Elon Musk coined as the First Principles approach of thinking. That’s where you think about: what is always going to be true about the people that you’re trying to serve? How does your product serve them today and how can your product do that in new and better ways? You can apply that not just to your entire product, but to a very small part of your product, as well. Or an experience in your product.

Product development typically goes, you make a bet and you get to a product-market fit, and then you just iterate and iterate and iterate to make things better and better and better. But then you get to a certain point where all those iterations stop paying off as much as they used to. You’re sort of plateauing in the effort you’re putting into it.

“We want to make sure that we’re not just building for the sake of building.”

And so that’s probably a good time to ask yourself: well, what are people actually trying to do? What problems are you actually solving? And try to get to that first principle of what people are trying to solve, and solve that again with the learning, the technology, the ability that you have today. That doesn’t mean redesign. It means rethink how you approach the problem.

How does the validation process differ from more traditional product development?

It doesn’t differ too much. What you’re looking for is product-market fit. You’re looking for some kind of validation from users that you’ve solved a problem and tapped into a need for them. And you’re doing it in a market segment that is growing, so there’s a larger opportunity out there. The way that we go about validating a product is kind of like how you would do it in regular product development. It’s applying the same sort of experimental product development thinking, just in a different place.

What does success look like for your team?

Ultimately, our goal as an organization is to make sure that we’re continuing to innovate, we’re continuing to keep an eye out for those market opportunities and making the right investments in areas where makes sense. Right now it makes sense for us to do a lot of that exploration. Three years from now, will it mean that we will take a product that may have worked in emerging products and turn that into something bigger? I’m not sure.

But definitely I think that the spirit of constant observation of the world around us and constant reevaluation of where we need to make investments — to either explore or put more fuel on the fire — those are business decisions that we will make. Those become less about, “Hey, this is a framework that we should always follow.” It’s about, “We need to get to our vision. What is the best thing we need to do to get to our vision?”

Can you share any ideas or new products you’ve been really excited about?

There’s a couple of things we worked on last quarter. The first one was a new storytelling product for mobile that is very much in development. And we also explored things with the Alexa platform and using voice as a medium for enjoying stories — which is really fun.

We worked on some smaller projects, as well, based on an observation of how rich messaging experiences were getting, and how storytelling and messaging were starting to converge in an interesting way. We launched some iMessage apps for that.

“Speed and experimentation are the fundamental of everything we do.”

We look forward to more of those types of things, and probably also looking to things like AR and VR: looking at how machine learning and artificial intelligence plays a role in the creative storytelling process. We’re looking at how ubiquitous and sort of frictionless interactions with our consumer technology has an effect on storytelling.

What are 3 guiding principles any emerging products department should keep in mind?

I think the first is, if you’re building out a new part of your business, you want to make sure that you build the right business case for it, so the reason for that team’s existence is very, very clear to both the team and the rest of the organization.

The second thing is, I would make it very clear what success actually looks like. Defining what success means for a team that is working on lab, skunkworks type of thing needs to be very, very clear.

And I think the third is defining a clear working model that allows for speed and experimentation. I think speed and experimentation are the fundamental of everything we do. If we don’t operate with speed, and if we don’t operate in an environment where we’re constantly experimenting with things, then it hinders that team’s ability to actually learn. Through speed and experimentation you learn, and that learning helps you understand and develop the right product.

What have you learned about experimentation that you didn’t know before doing this particular role?

We have a very, very strong culture of experimentation here at Wattpad. And we are highly evidence-driven. We want to make sure that the things that we build for 45 million users or 500 users have evidence of something. Whether that evidence comes through qualitative, latitudinal studies or through A/B testing, we put a lot of effort into building out our experimentation and data infrastructure that has given the product organization a massive amount of leverage, and it’s been a huge service to the rest of the organization.

When I think about product management in its nature, what you are doing is you are facilitating problem-solving. And you’re facilitating problem-solving through experimentation. And the scope of that experimentation can sometimes be: you’re making a big bet on the market. Or sometimes the scope of that experimentation can be red button, blue button.

But at the end of the day, it’s all an experiment. So, when I think about product management, it’s just facilitating an experimental problem-solving process. It should always be experimentation.

Whether you’re self-disrupting or getting ahead of a disruptive market, a roadmap can help you navigate through the process. Try any of our roadmap templates to get in front of disruption.

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