Episode 7: Taha Sabih – How Marketing Works With Product Teams & The Future of Finance

June 20, 2019

Taha Sabih is the CTO of Planto, a financial management app which helps millenials keep track of their finances and gives them financial advice on what to do with their money to achieve their goals.

Taha came to Hong Kong in 2011 after high school from Karachi, Pakistan. After studying engineering at Hong Kong University, he self-taught himself programming so he could enter the tech industry in Hong Kong at a time when startups in emerging. Taha worked in an AR/VR company before ending up in a local fintech firm where he met two of his current co-founders. While trying to figure out how to manage their finances, they all decided to leave their jobs to start Planto to create a financial platform that could solve this problem for themselves as well millions of other people like them.

What’s covered in this episode:

  • How to prioritize features and roadmapping your product in an effective manner.
  • A way marketing and product/engineering teams can work better and more closely together on company objectives together while avoiding team silos.
  • How the acceptance of virtual banks and banking APIs will change the banking for a new generation of millennials.

Podcast Transcription:

(This transcription has been redacted for readability.)

Alexander: Hey everyone, welcome to the Fullstack Marketing Ninja Podcast. I’m here in Hong Kong chatting with Taha Sabih, who is CTO of Planto.

Could you give us a little bit of background on Planto and let us know how this all came together to create the kind of the change you guys are doing for finance here in Hong Kong and in Asia?

Taha: Yeah. I came to Hong Kong about eight years ago now to study in the University of Hong Kong after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. I worked in a couple of companies before I joined a fintech firm in Hong Kong called MoneyHero. We were working on their product team and that’s where I met the other co-founders Ankit and Yusef. We were kind of in a similar position of our lives; we were four years into our jobs, getting started with our finances and we realized that we’ve been working for a while and we didn’t really have much savings and we didn’t really know what we should be doing with our money or whatever we’re making. So that’s kind of where the idea for Planto got seeded, that we as millennials need some help or guidance which will help us make the right financial choices in our lives, especially since what we were tending to do was to keep asking our friends who were equally unaware of what the right decision was.

So that’s where we kind of started Planto, where you could at least manage your finances in one place. BIn Hong Kong it’s very common for people to have multiple bank accounts and multiple financial readerships with different companies. For example, your MPF (Note: the MPF is a compulsory saving scheme through an employer for the retirement of residents in Hong Kong) might be in a couple of places if you’ve switched jobs a couple of times and your investments might be spread over two or three companies et cetera, et cetera. So making sense of it is pretty hard, especially when every single institution that you have a relationship with has its own way of setting expectations or dealing with their customers. So that’s where we kind of started Planto, where we said, “OK there has to be a better way to resolve this.” So we made this app and started out in May of 2017, where we left our jobs at MoneyHero and started working on this where we said, “OK, we’re going to do something that brings all of our finances into one place so you at least you know where the money is going and what you could be doing better in order to make the right choices with what to do with the money that you’re getting as well your spending.

A: I think I was quite nebulous – I said something along the lines of “changing the finance industry,” because I feel Planto as an app is quite special. It’s not a robo-adviser, it’s not purely just a bank accounts manager. So what is it in its current state how do you guys describe it and what do you kind of see it evolving into. Do you guys have some kind of a name for what this app is, how is it supposed to help in regards to people’s finances?

T: The way that we’ve looked at Planto for a while and we hope to evolve it further in that direction is, to see it as your go-to financial advisor, where whenever you have questions regarding your finances or you have decisions to make, your first go-to app or product would be Planto. That’s where we’re kind of coming from. That’s why Planto even at its current state is not just where you see where you’re spending your money or you know where you try to set a budget. It’s a bit more than that where you try to set goals in your life and then try to see if you can meet those goals or what you need to make changes in your financial life in order to achieve those financial goals that you might have. We kind of come from that perspective, because keeping it as a pure financial management product where you’re just looking at numbers and trying to see where those numbers are ending up, it’s very impersonal and it’s not solving the core problem that we as a generation right now face that, we don’t really know what to do with the money or we don’t really know what in order to achieve our financial goals we should be ideally doing in order to get there.

So, that’s where the current product is and that’s where we want to further evolve this product as well. We want to give recommendations on the basis of your financial goals. So for example, if you want to get a house or if you want to save it for your education we want to tell you, “this is exactly how you need to save up,” or exactly what you should be doing in order to get to a point where you can get that product for it, for example, for a mortgage or in order to save up enough money for your masters degree, or whatever you want to do.

A: Gotcha. As the CTO, obviously you’re kind of steering the ship for you know everything that happens within this product. How do you know what to prioritize in terms of features or just kind of the product direction in general, whenever you’re thinking about ways to improve Planto. And I think of a lot of teams – I think about marketing itself now that we need so much data, analytics and since you guys are such a user-heavy kind of app or platform, how do you decide where to focus your energies or what kind of priorities need to be captained, what ones need to be backlogged or discussed at a later time especially so much going on?

T: We do feel that it’s extremely important to prioritize the right features at the right time and in order to decide which ones we shouldn’t be doing and which ones we should be holding back on, we usually decide that on the basis of what our users want immediately and what they might want in the future. One of the things that we do a lot is we talk a lot with our customers. We have an in-app chat; one of the first things we did in Planto was to make sure that the customers could talk to us and we could talk to our customers through the app as well. It’s actually one of the main mediums that we use to reach out to people and people use it to reach out to us because the one thing we’ve realized is that if you give customers a product which solves part of their problem, they will definitely reach back out to you in order to solve a lot more of their related problems in order to tell you, “okay, I like this app and I would really love if you guys could do this as well.”

We then don’t of course, just dive right into the feature they’re requesting. We try to understand what problems they’re facing that leads them to request a feature. So we talk a lot with our customers in order to understand what are the problems they’re facing and how we might better be able to solve it. Coming from a product point-of-view, it’s like, you always ask your customers for their problems. You don’t ask them for the solutions – that’s your job. So that’s what we try to do – we try to gauge what the consensus is. It’s still not a committee feature-based thing right? You still have to decide which direction you want to take the product yourself. But it’s more like, trying to see what the pain points of the people who are using your app are and how you might better solve them so they keep using your app and of course, so they keep getting more and more out of it.

A: Is it quite organic or do you have a system to say, “okay. Well, you know we have 10 customers or 100 customers that have requested this feature or have this pain point. Now we should make it critical.”

How does that decision process look like?

T: It’s a bit of both. It’s a bit of organic because sometimes ideas come to us which we might not even think about, like we don’t even realize these are problems. It’s very important to keep your ear to the ground where you know that, okay, it’s a new feature request or new pain points that are coming in. And you try to understand, okay if this is a problem for this set of people is it a really big problem for other people as well? Apart from that of course, there is also a business to run. So we also try to keep our direction based on that as well. If you want to make a product head in a certain direction, we try to see if what we want to do ourselves with the product, does it meet the expectations of what people want? It has to be a bit of both; you want to try to find the intersection of both, where the business needs are exactly what the customers want as well and try to focus on those things initially – you prioritize them first.

A: Is there a specific feature or something that’s happened that you can talk about where there’s been a good kind of combination of a business and customer need?

T: Something that we did very recently was integrate investment accounts into our app and that helps us from a product point of view as well. But it’s one of the things that users were requesting a lot, because they were seeing their financial data in there, their savings account data, their credit card account data but they were not seeing their investments which is a big part of their lives, especially once we integrated MPF. They were like, “MPF is nice because that’s my retirement but then I also do investments on the side with ‘x companies’ and we would love it if you could integrate that so we can have a holistic view.” That kind of fit with our business needs as well, because we do want to understand our users better in a more holistic way. Only when we understand our users as a whole, can we give them the recommendations that are relevant to them. That kind of fit with our roadmap as well, so we were like, “okay, they need investment accounts as part of Planto as well.” And we kind of want to head in that direction really get the best view of our customers. So we prioritized that.

A: I’m really glad I have a chance to chat with you because when you start talking with just all marketers, then there’s a lot of groupthink, but one of the things that I think it would be good to get your time for it is the chat about how teams can work better together. So I know that you know marketing nowadays is very data driven. Of course, we [marketers] would love to be able to be all coders ourselves but sometimes we need a lot of help from product sometimes. And you know, whether it’s product or engineering teams, we’re looking for better ways to work together and a lot of times you see when you start working at companies these “silos” start to develop because obviously everybody has their own priorities and KPIs to take care of. I want to know, how can marketing from your perspective, or just growth or you know, anything that’s customer acquisition related, work better with product and engineering teams to really get things done, but also not step on the toes of other teams. Do you have any insight on this?

T: I think it’s extremely important for smaller teams or even smaller companies to have a bigger vision of where the company needs to be heading. And everyone needs to be really really aligned in that. For example, in a company which is looking at acquiring customers. The focus comes from two sides: so marketing takes care of acquisition and then product needs to take care of whatever the basis is of acquiring these customers the product is actually fulfilling that need. That communication needs to be extremely free-flowing, because if marketing is working on something and your product is doing something else, then as soon as a customer onboards, they’re seeing a completely different product. (Alex: It’s the product-market fit.) Yeah. If the experience is so bad a person might just bounce right off after. So, in order to give that seamless experience to the customer – because at the end of the day, something that teams need to realize is that the customer is king. Whatever the company does, the marketing does, the product does, engineering does, everything has to boil down to one thing: the customer’s needs need to be fulfilled.

So, if marketing is working on something, a campaign they’re doing this month or this week, in order to acquire customers, then product needs to make sure it’s aligned with what the product shows when the customer onboards (Alex: It delivers on a promise.) Yeah, exactly. And engineering is of course the great enabler, so it has to make sure that whatever the customer, whatever the marketing team needs, whatever the product team needs and where the company is headed, that is enabled from a tech point-of-view. I think it all boils down to communication and having a clear alignment on where the company is heading, and of course keeping that idea in mind that the customer’s needs need to be fulfilled at all times. Whatever marketing might be working or product might be working on. Because once you have that, then these amazing discussions take place, where you’re saying, “Okay, I want to acquire customers based on this campaign,” and product is like, “okay, that’s a great idea, how can I help?” And then they make this beautiful onboarding and then the customer onboards, is delighted because, “okay, I came here for this purpose and you’re fulfilling that need. I want to stay with you forever.” So that kind of alignment is beautiful when it works out. That’s what we try to do here at Planto as well.

A: Tactically, how do you guys enable that conversation or that flow of information from customers to marketing or product and then back out again? How does that actually look like from a very tactical standpoint?

T: So the way that we do things here at Planto is we have regular meetings between stakeholders. So, for example if some designers or some product people are talking a lot with our customers, then we have to make sure that whatever they learn from these customers and the insights they make are shared with whoever is in marketing who wants to do a campaign based on whatever we find out. Having a meeting once or twice every week just to make sure that whatever everyone’s learning in one team is shared with everyone else is very important because once these things are learned by different teams then you kind of get start getting these ideas, “these guys just told me that customers have this kind of a problem maybe I can package it into something like an ad or maybe a blog post which I can organically get people from. It’s more having those conversations once or twice a week, making sure that whenever there is something insightful that any of the teams find, it could be marketing as well. If marketing ran a campaign and it didn’t do well or it did really well. So we try to dive down onto whatever the messaging was and try to figure out why that thing worked really well or why that thing didn’t work. So, it’s just kind of having those discussions, getting into a room and just trying to figure out what these things are.

You talked about siloing of the teams. It’s important that different teams don’t look at each other as something that doesn’t affect them, because everyone’s work kind of affects everyone else because the company needs to head in the same direction. So it’s kind of important that product knows that whatever marketing does gets them customers and those customers end up using the features that product is making. The same goes for marketing as well. It’s important that teams realize that everyone’s doing something that affects everyone else, then those conversations just flow automatically.

A: Got it. I want to ask just about, maybe stepping back into a more high level discussion. What. Where do you see this industry evolving in terms of financial solutions that are more app-based or more on-the-go or on demand? What does the environment look like right now? I think there are a couple of competitors in Singapore, but I think you guys are the only ones doing this in Hong Kong right now. Why is that and what do you see this competitive landscape moving towards?

T: As far as the industry is concerned, Hong Kong was a bit far behind when it came to digital solutions, specifically for financial problems. For example, e-banking apps. They are not the best customer experience in Hong Kong, especially with a lot of banks where you can’t do a lot on mobile banking app. I think people have started to realize, especially in these bigger corporations, that customers have this expectation now of a better user experience and a better relationship with their institution, whatever institutions they work with. So I think that expectation is kind of leading a charge here now in Hong Kong where customers are realizing that there are better solutions out there or they need better solutions based on what other countries might be doing. So for example, in Hong Kong the virtual banking licenses have been granted out – about five or six so far.

That is a very interesting industry development where you have banks that are completely digital now, no brick and mortar presence anywhere in Hong Kong. That will be very interesting to see how that works out because traditionally, banks in Hong Kong have had many physical branches. They’ve had to be physically present in a lot of locations here in Hong Kong. But going into an all digital solution, it will be interesting to see how the market reacts, especially for the younger generation. I personally feel that our generation has a high expectation of user experience as well. If these virtual banks deliver a good solution with a good user experience, then I could really see them taking a bigger chunk of the market, especially for the younger people here. As people graduate from university and they enter their careers, they’re looking for better banking relationships as well. That’s where virtual banks might be stepping in as their first market segment, but I’m not sure. This is a very interesting development in the industry.

Another interesting development in the industry which I foresee happening is the mandate of open banking APIs in Hong Kong. So that’s also happening, maybe the next couple of years here in Hong Kong where banks will be required to have open APIs for third party applications to use. That will of course open up data that’s siloed here in Hong Kong with these banks. In Europe, there are these amazing solutions coming up, similar to Planto or different from Planto. As soon as you have this access to banking data of customers in a very regulated way then these amazing solutions pop up, so that that could be a very interesting thing to see as well in the near future.

A: I think we’ve had a pretty good chat today. I want to know if there’s anything you want to tell us what’s what’s coming up for Planto or what can we look forward to hearing about in the future from you or the company?

T: So Planto is headed in a direction where we try to give out more and more proactive advice for you. We’re moving more towards a point where we are much more proactive and telling you what you should be doing – (Alex: So more predictive, basically?) it’s more predictive, it’s giving you information right when you need it, kind of an approach. So where we say, “okay, you have these kinds of goals in your life, we think you should be doing this.” So Planto will make more proactive suggestions on what you should be doing with your money or what products you should be getting in order to achieve your financial goals.

A: Great. Thanks for joining us for the interview today. (Taha: You’re welcome.) and I look forward to using Planto in the future.

T: Perfect, good to hear that.

Podcast music by Ikson Music.

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