Product teams: the secret to fintechs’ success?

 Eliott Forman photo
Eliott Forman Product Director, Consulting
4min read

As the saying goes, “success breeds success”. And one of the things that’s interesting in our industry is the alumni of fintechs going on to do great things.

It’s no coincidence - there’s a bit of a pattern emerging:

The founders of some of the most successful startups of today cut their teeth at the biggest fintechs of yesterday.

Take the PayPal Mafia, for instance. Elon Musk, Max Levchin and Peter Thiel went on to create some of the most impressive businesses in Silicon Valley. Closer to home, many of the GoCardless alumni kickstarted the London fintech hub, with Tom Blomfield founding Monzo and Matt Robinson heading up Nested.

What’s their secret?

In order to launch a successful start-up, you need to have an incredible breadth of knowledge and be able to thrive across lots of different areas. And to challenge the very well established financial services industry, you’ve got to be a particular type of character.

These sorts of characters are the ones commonly hired to join the product teams of up-and-coming fintechs, and then sometimes go on to create their own.

To launch a successful start-up, you need to have an incredible breadth of knowledge and be able to thrive across lots of different areas.

The perfect PM 🦸‍♀️

The main job of the product team is to make sure everyone rallies behind the company’s vision, the team ships frequent product iteration until they reach product market fit whilst staying relevant in the face of competition and helping the consumer satisfy their Jobs to be Done (JTBD). Easy, right?

The Product Manager is in charge of getting the whole team’s ducks in a row, so to speak. If there was a job advert for the perfect fintech PM, it might look something like this:

  • Early on in our journey, we need a dreamer to sell our vision in a compelling way.

  • Once you have buy-in, we need you to rally your team to rapidly build and scale the business.

  • You must also be ridiculously detail oriented and obsessed with your customer’s problems.

Of course, people who fit this exact bill are pretty hard to find. Because of this, as a product goes through its lifecycle, you’ll usually see different PMs come on board to see it through that particular stage. For example, a company might hire one person to acquire a certain number of users, and another to scale the business and keep those users engaged.

How do product teams at fintechs differ from those at big banks and tech giants?

Project Managers vs. Product Managers 📋

In most product teams, it’s common to find a mix of designers, product people (including a manager or lead), front and back-end engineers and a scrum master. But some of the big banks are still going through the process of agile transformation. This means they might still employ project managers, who are responsible for managing a time-bound delivery of a piece of software. This is different to the role of a product manager, where the work is never done and you’re responsible for the entire lifecycle of a product.

Jack of all trades 🤹

People in fintech product teams also need to be experts in areas outside of their daily job, such as regulation and compliance. The need for this is much greater in financial services than in, say, social media or retail, because of the potentially dire consequences if you get it wrong. Look at what happened to Lloyds when it was found to have treated mortgage customers unfairly when they fell into financial difficulty: it was fined £64 million by the FCA.

The challenge of rapid scaling 📈

Another difference in the fintech world is that there’s a higher chance of reaching scale quickly. From a tech perspective, this requires teams to know how to build systems capable of running at high frequency and high volume while being highly stable and resilient. With even a few customers on your books, given how many financial transactions people make every single day, you can’t go around breaking things in the hope of learning from your mistakes and moving on.

Eating your own dog food 🐶

‘Dog fooding’ is a common practice in product teams which encourages teams to use their own product or service as a customer would. If it’s good enough for users; you should be able to eat it. Product teams at challenger banks are more likely to be testing in the real world features that they’ve just built in production before larger banks do, and many are agile enough to be able to swap out existing systems with their own, homemade ones.

Thanks to these practices, whilst many big banks have worked hard to digitise their in-branch experiences, challengers have been the first to go truly digital in banking. They did that by taking calculated risks and finding comfort in uncertainty, when it comes to both designing banking experiences and pushing the boundaries of banking itself.

Looking to build the next generation of truly digital financial products? We can help you. The 11:FS approach helps you get to market faster, whether you’re after research, design, product, strategy or engineering. Find out more about 11:FS Consulting ->

Size matters

Jeff Bezos raved about the “two pizza team”, where every internal team is small enough to feed with just two pizzas. Some even credit Amazon’s success with this rule. While there’s no magic number, we believe product teams should generally be no bigger than 8-10 people. This of course goes against the grain for many traditional banks who separate their front-end engineers from their back-end engineers from their cloud teams into large distributed teams, which inevitably creates inefficiencies.

Jeff Bezos raved about the “two pizza team”, where every internal team is small enough to feed with just two pizzas.

At 11:FS, we advise clients to continuously break down their teams as they scale into smaller sub-groups who can become experts in their respective areas. One team can focus on sign ups and onboarding; another can look at data; another at customer experience etc.

Ultimately, we reckon the secret sauce lies in asking a small group of smart people to solve your customer’s problems 🍯