As products evolve, it’s critical to build an organization that will make intelligent and creative decisions. This will keep the product moving forward in a unified direction while paying closer attention to the business needs and strategy.
Janko Bazhdavela, the Infatuation and Zagat’s Chief Product Officer is the person to go if you want to gain an effective perspective on scaling teams and find the right balance on a blended team. He shares his extensive experience working in multiple aspects of product development.
About Janko Bazhdavela
At various points in his career, Janko has been wearing many titles such as Software Developer, Technical Lead, R&D Manager, Production Manager, Product Manager, VP of Product & Engineering, and Technical Consultant. He had the chance to work for household names like Thomson Reuters and industry big-hitters such as Amplify. In June 2020, Janko joined restaurant discovery platforms, The Infatuation and Zagat, where he currently serves as their Chief Product Officer.
Can you tell us a little more about your career to date?
I’m a product person at heart. I’ve received a formal education in computer science, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship.so I often describe myself as an “intrapreneur.” I began my career in engineering and moved to product management in 2010. My engineering background and experience were invaluable. When I transitioned into product management, I had a good understanding and empathy for the engineering needs and how I could best support the team.
Since then, I’ve been honing my craft and trying to understand the art and science behind building successful products and platforms. Every company is unique, but you can apply some general principles across industries. I’ve worked hard throughout my career to collate all my disparate experiences and identify product development best practices to serve the teams I am part of. I have a genuine passion for building products that have a real impact, and I’ve loved every single minute of it.
Can you tell me a little bit more about The Infatuation & Zagat?
The Infatuation & Zagat have a mission to build the world’s most honest, trustworthy, high-quality restaurant discovery platform.
The Infatuation currently focuses primarily on serving large communities based in major cities in the United States (as well as London, UK).
On the Zagat side, we’re building an all-new digital offering for this legendary user-generated restaurant discovery platform. It will go national in the US later this year (2021), with the ultimate goal of scaling globally in the near future. We have a team of highly skilled and committed people across the organization that supports our company’s vision and mission.
So what makes you different from Google reviews, for example?
The Infatuation is editorially driven, with highly skilled writers offering honest and trustworthy opinions about restaurants through individual reviews or situationally or geographically relevant guides. The platform’s strong growth and audience engagement confirm how useful and indispensable The Infatuation has become in consumers’ lives.
Zagat’s new user-generated content platform, which first launched in April in Miami, FL, is designed to be positive, altruistic, and celebratory. This will lean on Zagat’s local businesses’ support since 1979. Zagat has been user-generated since 1979, the first of its kind, really.
I believe that we have a unique opportunity to combine these two complementary platforms to achieve the best user experience and provide would-be diners with the best intel on where to eat and drink wherever their travels may take them.
What’s your approach when it comes to scaling a product development team?
There are certainly more fundamental considerations for a product development organization to be successful. But, looking specifically at the scaling component, in my experience, I would outline 3 main areas of focus:
1. Integrating the right mix of internal and external talent
I’m a firm believer that for most businesses, product development teams can deliver the best outcomes and return on investment (ROI) with a mix of (core) internal and external team members.
I’m keen on external talent, as an addition to the core internal team, because these days, you can access their expertise around the globe much easier and faster than in the past. Also, the management overhead and the potential productivity impact continuously improve. Many countries invest a lot in producing world-class tech talent.
When considering an external team and being open to hiring talent overseas, I would also encourage you to understand which roles are more flexible to be based abroad. In myexperience, software engineers’ skills, experience, and communication are much more critical for their success (on the project) than their physical location. On the other hand, product managers not “living” in the market could make their job more complex and challenging to build the right products. Of course, this depends on the industry and business.
Whatever your case might be, I would recommend having all your critical roles and core team internally. However, it’s still important that any external teammates are fully integrated, to the point that it’s hard even to know that they are not your company’s full-time employees.
One last recommendation that I would like to make is to consider setting up the project/product teams based on the skillset and experience needed rather than the location. For example, instead of giving the core platform to the USA team and the web application to the overseas team, organize around the talent and try to make the logistics work.
2. Rock-solid processes
I would recommend standardization of the product development process across the organization and products. It’s important to emphasize written communication and documentation (not the most exciting thing to do, I know, but it pays off). And of course, every team needs to have clear and measurable goals as a starting point.
It’s a good practice to ensure every individual on the team understands the work and expectations. Regular documentation of best practices must become a habit. And finally, remember to put effective communication at the heart of everything you do—especially if you’re working with remote and extended teams.
The processes are there to serve the people, so I do not suggest following them to the letter. Even more importantly, the team should iterate on the product development processes the same way they iterate on the products they are building.
3. Regularly taking a step back
Scaling a product development organization, especially with external teammates, whether located in-market or abroad, requires a lot of energy, diligence, and patience. It also requires a lot more effort to understand the team’s different dynamics, personalities, skillsets, and preferences. It could easily take six months (if you’re fortunate) or more for the team to perform to your expectations.
Therefore, in this scaling process, leadership is crucial but also tested. The team leaders (and I’m speaking beyond job titles) will have to find the right balance between keeping some of their former responsibilities (to ensure everything continues to work well) and trust the new teammates to stand up to their challenges. Keeping the team leaders’ focus on their new duties will ultimately ensure long-term success.