Season 8 - Episode 1

Cryptocurrency’s Potential for Change with Coinbase CPO

Surojit Chatterjee, CPO at Coinbase, talks about how his life in India sparked his interest in how currencies operate. In this episode, he dives into the buzzing world of crypto-currency in product management and the power technology has in changing the world. 

Let’s talk product. What is it like to run product at Coinbase? 

Sure. I’m very happy to talk about that.  In my job as chief product officer, I’m responsible for product strategy,  product vision, and end-to-end delivery of product. We are a product-led company, which means basically our product team is responsible for user growth and revenue growth as well. It’s basically figuring out what products we build and how we make our customers happy. 

How did you break into product and how did you get to where you are today? 

I’m going to go all the way back a little bit to where I grew up because it has some connection to where I am today. So I actually grew up in a small town in India, almost a village in a lower-middle-class family, and at a time when India had very high inflation and the financial crisis.  The country almost went bankrupt and had to sell a lot of gold. This was during the eighties in India. For me, the only way to change my situation was through education. So I went to one of the top universities in India called IIT. And I was attracted to computer science. I was very good at math. Actually, fun fact, I had never seen a computer before I went to college. Ever. But when I went to college, I thought this is something that I want to do because I felt like technology has the power to change the world. It’s probably the best lever and the biggest lever to improve the world around me. And I’ve always enjoyed being associated with technology that is on the brink of changing how we live. So fast forward many years, I joined Google. I spent 13 years at Google doing a whole bunch of different things, but the biggest thing I would say I did was leading Google’s mobile search ads. I was one of the co-founders of the mobile ads team at Google, and it became this growth engine for Google. And more than that, it actually helped democratize advertising and democratize commerce for the world. I’m very proud of that. Later, I also led Google shopping for a few years. And in between, I led product at a company called Flipkart in India. So I went back to India to build a unicorn startup, and it was hugely satisfying for me to kind of change how people shop in India for a billion people. This was the biggest e-commerce company, still the biggest e-commerce company in India right now. So that’s my journey. And then that led me to Coinbase in early 2020.

At what point did you start thinking about crypto? What piqued your interest and why did you decide to switch to it?

That’s a great question. My first encounter with crypto was actually during 2016 when I was in India working for Flipkart and the Indian government had just announced demonetization which meant all the cash you hold is useless. You have to go to a bank, deposit your money and get a new currency.  Basically, the government was printing new currencies and India is such a vast country that it would take many months before everybody got this new currency. And it’s also a cashless economy. So, that created major issues for lots of people, including my own dad. It was almost like a bank run because people are going to the bank, depositing the cash they hold. After all, the cash would become useless after a certain date. And my dad had to stand at the bank and wait for five hours to get 2000 rupees, which is $30 because the government could not give any amount of money to individuals yet because of a logistics problem to print so much cash. So this is his own money, right? It’s one bank account. Getting some money out of the bank, 2000 rupees, doesn’t go very far in India. And then after three, four, or five days, you have to do the same thing all over again. Go and stand in the bank and try to get some money. So that really made me think about how currencies are operated. Are there other alternatives? And I was aware of Bitcoin, but that’s when I kind of got into cryptocurrencies and bought my first cryptocurrency, some Bitcoin and Ethereum actually. 

So that was the first kind of spark of interest in cryptocurrencies.  I’ve been doing some trading since. Then in 2019, I started talking to Coinbase and I got really inspired by the vision the company has, which is to create more economic freedom for the world. And that really resonated with me at a kind of visceral level. I understood what it meant. Being an immigrant, living far away from my family. It’s been very hard.  Anybody can probably identify with this. Moving money between countries is one of the hardest problems. You spend a lot of fees. You get screwed over in the exchange rate and all that. And here’s the new technology that can really turn the entire financial system on its head.  I felt we are at the very beginning of something a lot bigger. And that’s what led me here. I always worked on things that affected billions of people around the world to help improve the world. And I think this is the next thing for me. It almost sounded like this was meant for me. 

What was the size of the company and the stages of the crypto market compared to today? 

I actually joined in early 2020. I accepted my offer in 2019. That’s when I had a lot of discussions. The size of the company was a fraction of today’s size. We have grown a lot in like 18 months or so. At that time, I think one of the biggest trends  I can talk about was DeFi.  There was a lot of buzz, but from that point to today, we see almost $80 billion locked into DeFi.  Just to give a quick idea of what DeFi is, it basically allows anyone, any developer, to write a smart contract, which is kind of a financial protocol deployed on a blockchain, like Etheruem. There are a bunch of other blockchains that allow the same thing. So small teams can create a lending-borrowing protocol, not a smart contract, and deploy. It really is the next step for financial innovation. So that has grown a lot.  The second thing I’ll say is institutional interest in crypto at that time was just warming up. Just thinking about crypto in the last 18 months, we have seen institutions like hedge funds, pension funds, endowment funds, and corporations have really warmed up to crypto and they are investing a part of their assets into crypto. 

I wanted to ask about the PM world. Is there such a thing as a crypto PM? 

There is such a thing as a crypto PM like there is such a thing as any other PM. I think at a higher level, the PM work is similar whether you are working in a crypto industry or e-commerce or payments or anything out there. You are basically figuring out what problems customers have and how you solve those problems. You’re building new products, you’re innovating stuff. So the job at a higher level is very similar. Of course, there’s a lot of domain knowledge. You have to understand the industry, understand the technology really well, but that is true for any other industry as well. 

How much domain expertise is required to break into a new industry as a PM? What would you say it is for the crypto world? 

There are actually not too many crypto PMs out there. We are the biggest regulated exchange and brokerage and custody in the world. So I have to believe most of the PMs are in Coinbase and then a few other competitors.  It’s still a small industry. So when we try to hire, we probably cannot find too many people from within the industry yet. We have to look outside. So we are not necessarily looking for deep crypto knowledge. What we are looking for is a good understanding of the product management craft. Good skill sets. And we can talk about that in a bit. Then what we are also looking for is a passion for new technology. A passion for crypto. A passion for learning. To me, that’s the most important thing. You can pretty much do anything in life if you have the spirit to learn something new at any point in your life. 

There was this misconception around having certain degrees or hard skills before trying to become a PM.   Having a technical background helps, but I don’t think people need a computer science degree the same way they don’t need an MBA.  They need to have the hunger, curiosity, and integrity to learn and do whatever it takes.

Absolutely. Even for the product management skillset,  you don’t go to school and learn product management. There’s no subject called product management. There are subjects called economics, technology, design, psychology, but product management actually brings all of those things together. You need to really understand how users think. You need to have strong empathy. You need to have a strong sense of design and usability.  You need to understand technology. You don’t need to be a coder, but you need to be able to talk to engineers in a way that they understand what you’re talking about and they can translate your vision into code. If you can do all that and also obsess over customer experience, you’ll be a good product manager.  Then you can potentially go into any area where you have passion and be a good product manager. I have done advertising, commerce, and payments before doing Coinbase. And a lot of my skills were very transferable. 

One thing is to manage a team of a certain size but another is managing a team of a public company. How does life change for you? What were some of the skills and how did you adapt to this hyper-growth? 

Actually, my team at Flipkart was even bigger than my current team.  My team at Google was also pretty big. I was running Google shopping, which had more than a thousand engineers and tens of billions of dollars of revenue. So, I have seen a lot of scale.  Even with mobile ads at Google, we started with almost two or three people and it became half of Google’s revenue.  When I left Google in 2015, it was almost  $40 billion or something at that time. So for me, I’ve seen scale and I have learned how to scale teams and how to scale products to serve billions of users in the world. And that was a hugely important learning at a place like Google. So I’m very thankful for that. 

At Coinbase, that scale has been compressed in the timeline. Like we have this hyper-growth, hyper scaling process right now. But a lot of that learning is still useful. So first, you obsess over hiring people.  I spend a lot of time hiring because it cannot scale without that. And delegating. So, putting the right people in the right role. Second, you figure out the right processes because you want to scale if everything has to come to you for a decision. So figuring out the right decision, making processes, empowering your teams to make decisions, and pushing decisions closer to the customer in some way. Closer to the people who are talking to customers more regularly. And number three, you focus on creating a culture of scale by culture of skill. I feel like some companies have mastered that like Google, Facebook, Uber, or other tech companies. We are still working on a lot of that, but it’s an obsession over customer excellence, obsessional or efficient execution, oppositional, or getting the best talent in the right roles. If you do all of those, you can scale and we are scaling really well. 

Talking about scale, is there anything that you still do today that doesn’t scale, but it’s so core to your values that it is important to spend time on it? 

Interesting you ask. So, I always think this way. As you scale,  there is always this danger for a senior leader to get more and more detached from your craft. You may become like a manager or a manager of managers. And basically, I call it like a paper pusher or something. In the end, that’s the risk. And I definitely did not want to be that because I wake up every morning thinking about what new products I’ll build. Of course, I’m not building all of those products myself every day now because I have a team and we have to scale. I should not be building everything myself, but I always find time and create some spaces where I can engage at a more personal level, more intimate level with the product. And it will be product reviews with my team. Brainstorming. And then for some projects, I’ll roll up my sleeves and tell my team “Hey, think of me as your peer, not your manager. I’ll just work with you to build a product together.” So I think that it’s what keeps me going.  I think it’s very important for any senior leader to remember their craft and be able to jump in and actually do something themselves. And that has actually come very handy at Coinbase because as I told you, I ran very scaled teams before joining Coinbase. But coming to Coinbase, it was a much smaller team. We were around 200 or so engineers back in the early 2020s. And I was actually rolling up my sleeves and sometimes writing DRDS myself. I do less of that today because we have a skilled team. But I think as a senior leader, you should be able to do that. If we can’t do that, then it’s a problem. 

How do you balance your own opinions and influence while also allowing other product leaders to shape your vision? 

Yeah, that’s an awesome question. Any product leader will have a strong opinion. In fact, I think if you don’t have a strong opinion, you are probably not going to be a good product manager. But you have to know when it is the opinion of one person versus if it’s a well-researched data point. So I’ll often clarify with my team ‘Hey, this is just my instinct. I have not researched it. I have played with the product so this is the opinion of a person. Go research it with users’. So we have a user research team as part of my design team. I lead product and design and user research at Coinbase.  So our user researchers will go and try out the concept before we even make it into product. And they sometimes come back and validate our intuition, and sometimes they’ll invalidate it. And you have to take that with humility. I always think ‘Okay. I am trying to be right’ seventy percent of the time. I’m not trying to be right a hundred percent of the time. If I do that, then I’ll be too conservative about expressing my opinion. And that’s the process. You have to start with a hypothesis, but then have to validate the hypothesis with research through experimentation, A/B tests. Sometimes we cannot validate by just asking people doing user research. We will actually launch the product and do A/B tests, split tests, sometimes multiple split tests. And actually, this is something that Google did very well.  I learned a lot there in terms of building a robust experimentation framework and using data to make decisions. We use a combination of data and judgment and intuition. The other pitfall I’ll say is, you cannot just use data because the problem space is so large. Nobody will come up with a solution. So we have to come up with some hypotheses first before attacking the problem. Otherwise, you will be lost trying to do too many things. 

My main takeaway from what you just said is that data is not always enough. And I think it’s also important to balance that with the quality of information.  I love what you said about invalidating hypotheses. It’s not just about confirming an idea. It’s also making sure that you can prove why it’s not going to work. 

Exactly. And the biggest thing I feel like leaders need to have is the humility that ‘I can be wrong.’ I often tell my team, ‘Hey, I have a lot of ideas.’ Many of them are stupid ideas actually. And I really appreciate it when somebody will call me out and tell me that it’s not a good idea. And for this reason, I only hired those kinds of people in my team. 

I want to talk about your own learning style. What are you curious about these days and how do you make time for it? 

There is so much happening in the crypto universe. In the crypto ecosystem.  I am very curious about learning more and more. It’s difficult to keep up because this ecosystem is rich with innovation at this point. So I spend a couple of hours every day listening to podcasts, reading articles, and just educating myself on finance because we are also the bridge between finance and the crypto economy. We are trying to get the next hundred, million, or billion users into the crypto economy. That’s fine. This is a goal in this industry. So I feel like I need to know both sides very, very well. I’m not a traditional finance guy. I have done a lot of work in product advertising, commerce, and some work in payments. So I am learning a lot in finance and crypto. 

You briefly mentioned the future of crypto and the future of Coinbase. Can you give me specific use cases that you can see the world applying for using crypto beyond just exchanging? 

Yeah, absolutely. I think in the first 10 years of crypto, it has been establishing crypto as a store of value, almost like digital gold. And you can exchange that value. You can trade like Forex trading. What we are seeing now is that crypto is entering its utility phase. I already talked about decentralized finance at DeFi and all the new financial innovations that are happening. I can give you some more examples of where crypto is becoming more real-life and use cases. Recently, for example, we announced a partnership with Sotheby’s, the auction house. They will accept crypto payments, Bitcoin, and material payments for art auction through Coinbase commerce. I mean, that’s a real-world application. I can give you another example. My personal example. The COVID situation in India is very extreme right now. And the government is trying to get as much help from anybody to help the citizens. So I was sending some money to charitable causes in India to help in the COVID situation. And the easiest way for me to send that money was actually just to send over crypto. Within five minutes, it was a pretty sizable sum and it arrived at the right spot. And I was just thinking if I wanted to do this over the traditional banking system, it would be late at night and every bank would be closed. So it will take time before banks are open for me to make this transfer. I’ll pay fees, the exchange rates and so on. And by the time it reaches, it will be like three, four days. So that’s a real use case. And we are going to see more of these cross-border payment use cases, commerce use cases, and finance use cases. A lot of people are putting money into these DeFi protocols. So let’s see more and more of those use cases coming up in the next few years. 

It’s been a pleasure to learn from you. Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Thank you so much. This was so much fun. And I would just like to add that there is so much to build. We are a company of builders and I feel like as a product manager, your number one goal should be to build great products. A lot of times people get distracted by many different things and remove themselves from the craft. I think you’ll be a great product manager if you are closer to the product and close to the customer. Play with your product and play with other products as well, as much as you can. Obsess over the customer experience. And naturally, you will be a good product person.

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