Tech Leaders in Berlin: Profitable Growth is the Name of the Game Now

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Ola Prejs

Updated Oct 26, 2022 • 16 min read

The last Disruption Forum event Netguru hosted in Berlin was in 2018, but the world looked a lot different then. This year, the main theme was uncertainty.

Twelve speakers from brands such as Delivery Hero, OLX Group, Solaris, N26, Börse Stuttgart, Nubank, Ecco Shoes, or Intercom, and over 150 guests from top tech companies in Germany, got together at Factory Berlin – a fitting place for discussing disruption, with the vibe of a cozy DIY startup.

The panelists exchanged tips and observations on the four key areas for unlocking digital acceleration:

  • Decision making
  • Product development
  • Tech talent management
  • Sourcing innovation

For everyone who wasn’t there with us, here’s a recap of key takeaways from the event.

Panel #1: Making decisions in the face of uncertainty

The first panel was led by Netguru CEO, Marek Talarczyk, and he was joined by:

  • Andreas Wixler, CTO & Co-Founder at FINN
  • Sabine Häussermann, CEO & Founder at VisionHealth
  • Ingmar Krusch, Chief Information Officer at Solaris

panelists talking during the event

What has changed the most in the current business environment?

  • Scale of projects and investments has visibly shrunk, but it’s actually good, as everything is more sensible now.
  • Focus on sustainability makes work more comfortable – as opposed to the previous focus on hypergrowth at all cost.
  • When it comes to companies that rely on external money and don’t generate profits, the market is increasingly more critical of them because sustainability is king.
  • The way through these uncertain times is not about growth at all costs – nor is it about cutting operational costs. Instead, it’s about finding the sweet spot that makes you profitable in the shortest amount of time.
  • Profitable growth is the name of the startup game now.
  • Authenticity is the key to leadership in the face of uncertainty. When you’re transparent about changes and prepare employees for them, you will earn their trust and motivate them.

When resources disappear, is it possible to keep investing, building, and innovating?

  • Tough times force you to do your homework, so this is the time to ramp up the pace and automate anything that is still done manually.
  • To ramp up the pace, you need to be ruthless and cut all non-essential projects. As an executive, it starts with throwing these projects away mentally, removing them from the top of your head.
  • Focus is key. Don’t try to conquer the world at once – start with 2-3 markets. Don’t do everything – do what drives profitability and move on from there. It’s not just more effective, but also good for your sanity.
  • You can’t demand speed from your team – you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t, you can gradually build it up over time in a way that’s comfortable for your team, or look for partners that already have the agility and speed you need.
  • With increased speed comes increased risk, so you need to pick your battles and know when to slow down. Things go wrong, assumptions and requirements change, so stop every now and then to verify that you’re going in the right direction.

In order to stay lean, should you limit investments in areas like sustainability or diversity?

  • It’s not a novelty – it’s a necessity, so you have no option but to invest in these areas.
  • Stakeholders won’t oppose these investments as long as they’re a part of your long-term vision.
  • It’s not a luxury, as there’s clear ROI from this. Diverse teams with a focus on sustainability produce better outcomes than the alternatives.
  • The way to build diversity is NOT to say “just because you have this trait, we will hire you”. It takes more effort, as you need to reduce the biases in your whole hiring process and make sure that you give all candidates an equal chance.
  • Diverse perspectives improve overall team performance – thanks to them, the team members see more and accomplish more compared to monocultural teams.
  • Promote flexibility and provide it to the employees who need it, in particular women with children. Leaders can be role models here, e.g. when taking time off during the day for kids and catching up with work in the evenings.

Panel #2: Building delightful products for demanding users

This panel was hosted by Mateusz Krawczyński, Product Management Practice Lead at Netguru, who was joined by:

  • Kuba Niechciał, Director of Engineering at Intercom
  • Rashmi D'Souza, Product Lead at N26
  • Ulli Spankowski, Chief Digital Officer at Börse Stuttgart
  • Yash Piplani, Director of Product at Nubank

What is the key to building a great product?

  • Product management requires an obsession with the problem. Regardless of the specifics of your product or individual feature, it always solves a problem – and that should be your primary focus.
  • The second key is knowing the outcomes you want to drive and optimizing for them. An outcome can mean the behavioral change you want to cause with your product/feature.
  • Always start with the customers. Nothing can substitute a deep understanding of your customers, and focusing on them allows you to solve problems that matter.

How do you achieve confidence that you’re working on the right things?

  • Basically, through user research and data analysis. From start to finish, you verify your assumptions and decisions with users, and swiftly change your plans when the data tells you they need something completely different than you assumed.
  • Building a product is a betting process. You will rarely have 100% confidence in your bets, but there’s always some quantitative and/or qualitative evidence you can collect to improve your confidence.
  • Understand your context. For example, you can get instant user feedback that will guide you in B2C, but doing the same in B2B will burn you because B2B clients often don’t know what they need until you help them define it.
  • You can’t rely on gut feelings only. You need to quantify your gut feelings if your team, as well as your customers, are going to believe in your vision.

What’s the best way to stay in touch with your users?

  • In B2C, customer support is key. That’s where you get bugs and issues, ideas, suggestions, complaints. In B2B, account management plays a similar role.
  • You can also regularly poll your users about the product, but you need to be very careful and intentional about what questions you ask.

How do you reduce risk and deal with regulations for highly innovative products?

  • You have to be creative here – especially when it’s difficult to collect measurable data because you’re doing something completely new. Find ways to validate your assumptions, make low-cost prototypes, get close to potential users, and collect their opinions – anything to get more evidence.
  • It’s the most difficult in highly regulated areas like fintech. If your product team maintains good relations with the compliance team, you’re able to identify compliance issues on the spot.
  • Don’t view compliance as a constraint. The biggest constraint is your mindset. If you have a scientific mindset, where you form hypotheses backed by data and test them, then compliance is less of an issue.
  • Compliance can be viewed as a reason to innovate instead of an obstacle. Compliance informs the development process by telling you how to protect the customer.
  • Identify the most vulnerable aspects of your product and make sure to triple-check them. Identification of potential issues is key to preventing them. Even in fintech products, large parts of your product can probably be built swiftly, and only some areas will need careful attention.

How can you justify continuous development & discovery when you need to increase profits?

  • The operations and the technical infrastructure are expensive to set up, but once you’re able to do continuous iterations, you gain a significant competitive advantage.
  • In times where profitability is important, continuous development & discovery become even more valuable because you can learn while you’re shipping.
  • You don’t have to wait six months to see if your bets were correct. You can instantly verify and update your assumptions as you build.
  • Stakeholders might be worried that continuous iterations slow down the development, but the key argument here is that even though you’re a bit slower, you have the confidence that you’re doing the right thing for the customer.

Panel #3: Where has all the tech talent gone?

This panel was hosted by Katarzyna Rój, Head of Talent Acquisition at Netguru, with her guests:

  • Manjuri Sinha, Global Director of Talent Acquisition, Employer Branding & Onboarding at OLX Group
  • Sérgio Laranjeira, Director of Engineering at Delivery Hero
  • Staale Nerboe, Chief Technology Officer at Ratepay

How has hiring changed in the last few years?

  • There’s plenty of talent in the global pool of candidates, but finding the top, niche, raise-the-bar talent is ever more difficult because their demands have grown, and they can wait to find the best option for their needs.
  • In particular, all candidates are now asking about the option to work wherever they want.
  • Cash has become expensive, and companies can no longer afford very high salaries, bonuses, and so on. Accordingly, the challenge has moved to creating fulfilling jobs and cool opportunities, such as the ability to work with cutting-edge technologies.
  • One huge yet very overlooked opportunity is internal talent. Lack of career development is one of the key reasons why people leave. Investing in internal talent will be a game changer, as you’ll be able to retain more employees.

How can you make work more fulfilling for your employees?

  • Don’t just plan for business growth, plan for employee growth. If people can’t grow within your company, they will leave.
  • Everybody is obsessed with productivity nowadays, but fun is also important. Work should provide creative challenges and enjoyment, rather than just being a slog from A to B.
  • A sense of community is important, but so are the practical things like internal tooling, developer experience, or a clear vision that everyone understands and believes in.

Should you be open to hiring anyone, anywhere in the world?

  • The global talent pool has burst open, but a lot of difficulties can come from hiring anyone, anywhere. It doesn’t just depend on how well you can handle it, but on complex legal regulations that weren’t created for this modern job market.
  • It’s easier when you have offices in the countries where you want to hire. You can already benefit a lot if your local offices open themselves up to remote candidates within the same country.
  • Hiring anyone, anywhere is very difficult. Sometimes you just don’t know what you can offer to the candidate until late in the recruitment process due to the immense complexity of insurance, taxes, and other issues.

Panel #4: Finding ideas for innovation

This panel was hosted by Grzegorz Kosiński, Senior Innovation Consultant, and his guests were:

  • Sarah Schappert, Director Europe at URBAN-X (BMW Group)
  • Patrizio Carlucci, Head of Innovation Lab at ECCO Shoes

Where do you look for innovative ideas?

  • You can look outwards and inwards. Innovative ideas can result from internal knowledge exchange or surveying the ecosystem (startups, universities, competitors).
  • Remember that not all innovation is equal – some ideas are reachable, but many can only live in the realm of imagination. Learn to differentiate between the two.

How does the current market uncertainty influence innovation?

  • The focus has changed. For instance, people now say that the next billion-dollar company will be in climate tech, so clearly the market has different priorities now.
  • In some markets, several years worth of change was made in a few months. To stay innovative, you either need to have a process for understanding and reacting to market changes, or delegate this function outside.
  • In other words, you need to be more agile, which is extremely difficult for traditional corporations.
  • Some great innovations were blocked for years by management. To push things forward, any innovative initiative needs to be in line with the vision and goals of the organization. Sustainability and profitability are key at the moment, so innovations should help organizations drive these outcomes.
  • The most important thing for driving innovation is knowing your brand and knowing your customers.
  • If there is a will, there is a change – and when there’s no will, you just won’t win. Industrialization and commercialization of innovative ideas is very difficult, so if there is no clear need for your innovation, you just won’t push it through to the market.

woman standing against a branded background

Stay tuned, as it won’t be long until we start promoting the next Disruption Forum event!

In the meantime, consider signing up to our Digital Acceleration Editorial – a bi-weekly newsletter where we share advice on how to build resilience and innovate in times of uncertainty.

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Ola Prejs

Head of Growth
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