Zoopla’s Chief Product Officer on his role and the future of the function

Matthew Cohan is Chief Product Officer at ZPG, owner of the Zoopla brand alongside others such as uSwitch and PrimeLocation. He joined the company in 2014 following its debut on London’s stock market, and talks about his role as one of the most prominent CPOs in the country.

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1. What attracted you to the CPO role at ZPG in 2014?

The vision and challenge first and foremost. Before taking the role, I was chatting to a friend of mine at Zoopla who wasn’t a product professional and he was describing some of the challenges the business was facing as it was heading towards IPO, and then – probably more importantly – just after IPO. One of the bigger growing pains was around the product function, and while he rightly couldn’t give me a whole lot of detail, he gave me enough to believe that I could make an impact, so I arranged to have an initial discussion with Alex [Chesterman, Founder and CEO].

Following that great conversation about the vision and ambition for the business, through the recruitment process, I met the senior management team at the time, who were very transparent, as you need to be when asking someone to come in to assess and lead Product through significant changes. Throughout the process, I became more intrigued. On top of the product challenge, and what I was sensing was needed, the vision of where Alex wanted to take the business was both interesting and extremely ambitious.

2. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Two relatively mundane but difficult things. The first is our ability to hire the right people to fulfil our growth plans. Whether it’s engineering, product management, UX, design, any discipline within product teams is really difficult. That’s not only this business but every business has to be thinking about alternative ways of solving their product problems, whether it’s hiring locally or thinking differently about the profile of people that we’re bringing in.

The second is helping people understand what we’re trying to do and aligning them to our goals, at all levels of the organisation. Ensuring that we have a vision that people understand and buy into and therefore feel completely motivated to work hard to achieve. In a large and acquisitive business, there are many different brands, ways of working, and cultures, so alignment and some level of integration are really important.

So a lot of what I try to do, and try to encourage with others, is simply talk to each other and make time to communicate: ask questions, be inquisitive and offer to help. That’s important in a public company where we have to stay focused on quarterly and annual revenues but balance that against the right investments in growth and innovation to ensure we build great products.

3. As the company matures, and you create and manage a larger product portfolio, has your role changed?

When you acquire successful businesses, you have to decide what level of autonomy or independence you’re going to grant them. Unless there’s anything fundamentally broken or needing improvement within that business, there’s no real compelling need to rock the boat as it were, to make change for the sake of making a change. What you do look at is trying to align product sets, driving some of the synergies across those products.

But from a product perspective, I don’t look at it as “I need to be running Product across all these businesses,” and in fact, I don’t. There are different areas of the business, and we work on bringing those together to make sure we’re aligned around common themes.

4. In terms of your team and the product managers that you’ve had to hire, do you think you look for a different skillset in an earlier stage environment than you do a more mature business?

Building products, and the way you go about building products, doesn’t really change in my estimation, regardless of whether you’re public, private, small or large. It’s more about the people doing it and the scale at which you’re operating. In a start-up, it may be one person doing three roles and then in a larger, more mature business with a set of products, you start to focus and specialise within certain disciplines, and people usually own different horizontal areas or product verticals.

To be effective and efficient, we continue to be a relatively flat organisation. You do need to have various levels of experience – across team management and working in certain structures. And you can’t have a team full of senior people, so it’s important to have a mix of ability and experience in each area. As a larger company (we’ve grown four times in the number of people in just over three years – now nearly 1000 people) we now have career frameworks to help people develop and grow both within their teams and more frequently now across teams.

5. You mentioned earlier that, being a public company, you have to think about quarterly targets and meeting revenue and profit numbers, does that affect how autonomous the product teams can be in their decision making?

Yes, you do need to be more focused on making sure that teams understand they need to deliver to meet their revenue targets and balance this with innovation. Although I’d argue that we figure out additional ways to be innovative. We know we cannot do everything we would like to do on our own, so what we’re doing as part of an answer to that is investing in, and working closely with a number of PropTech start-ups. That’s one mechanism that we use to keep our awareness and involvement in some of the new stuff that’s happening in the sector, while the core business focuses on building products that deliver our key metrics.

6. How are you and ZPG looking to build the next generation of talent in the product group?

It’s a good question, and I don’t have an easy answer for it. One thing that we do is to hire from within. We’ve had several people transition from customer service roles and, to a person, they have worked out extremely well. Coming from customer service means they’ve got a deep appreciation of either the customer needs – whether the customer is a B2B partner or a consumer. So they come already inbuilt with that kind of empathy that they need as a product person. We don’t just move them, we find a place for them that will suit them, and ensure they can shadow a relevant product team member for a period. Whether it’s a week or a month, we negotiate with their management and make sure that they can take the time to do it.

I’m also now willing to take a bit more of a gamble on external people. I’ve seen in companies where teams end up with the same group of people hiring and, a year later, you look at the group and they all seem to be the same types of people as their bosses. So you do need to hire for capability and attitude. I don’t think you can use a strong culture filter as an eliminator anymore because you can easily rule out 75% of the market based on that bias when many of those people would have likely worked out very well. To many, this may seem an odd point of view but I feel sticking to some basic cultural principles and hiring a diverse group of people delivers the best result.

7. Do you see the role of CPO being markedly different 3-5 years from now?

Will it exist? Yes. Will it be different? Yes. In start-ups and small companies, the product ‘director’ will likely be similar to what we see today – a founder and/or a shared role. However, in mid-size and large companies which will likely have more people experienced in product development processes and skills, the CPO role will be more around guiding the vision while supporting, challenging and growing a more distributed product capability throughout the organisation.

So the role will evolve but the direction that evolution takes will depend on the company – what the greatest need is for that business, and where that need lies in the organisation.

Catherine Adams