What Five Years at Empik Taught Me about building products and teams.

What is Empik

First Empik was opened in 1948, only 3 years after the Second World War. There people could find reproductions of world paintings and outstanding novels from Poland and foreign countries. A former exhibition of contemporary Polish photography was presented at the opening. It was a meeting place, a kind of a cultural melting pot.

Today Empik is the top omnichannel retailer in Poland with more than 250 shops, an online marketplace with millions of products (grocery, sport, beauty, home & garden etc…). On the top of it we have built a subscription model where clients get free delivery, special prices, and cashback. Empik has gone through the transition from a pure B2C e-tailer selling mostly books, music & film to a business platform (marketplace, ads, subscriptions) where I have been lucky to be a part of it.

My role

I joined Empik in March, 2016 as the Head of mobile being responsible for:

  • Leading transition from offline company into the mobile world environment, supporting retail with new top and tech quality tools & processes;
  • Build, mantain and scale a brand new mobile departament in the middle of omnichanell agenda including both IT and retail perspective.

From 2019 as Director of Platform Empik.com business development I was basically responsible for defining to find and prioritize business & IT directions for e-commerce business development from both the overall retail group perspective.

At the end of this amazing journey, I’ve been jotting down my biggest lessons from these experiences. I realized I should share these lessons with anyone working with building a product, managing projects, or driving business & IT development area. It could be interesting for managers working with so rapidly changing e-commerce world but also other industries.

1. Quality First

In the app first world where we live, quality is the key — quality to details in every area from super fast backend to great ux/ui onboarding and checkout experience, and amazing cx during all mobile moments of the journey. In the web world a customer can come back to You even if they faced a bad experience, in the app is not gonna happen - downloading the app is a commitment and effort to do it. Its commitment to the brand and we should respond to that giving a world-class experience. I can highlight two major benefits from focusing on Quality First.

Quality improves retention — In the app first world, e-commerce app is not only competing with other industry apps, but we are also competing with all the apps which are on a user’s phone and every app focuses to have a higher frequency of interactions with the brand. To become more monthly than quarterly, more weekly than monthly, more daily than weekly in terms of retention your product must be built with attention to details.

Quality should be part of the culture — Jacek Walkiewicz in his great speech once said: Pasja rodzi profesjonalizm, profesjonalizm daje jakość, a jakość to luksus. Passion bears professionalism and professionalism gives quality, and quality is luxury. I couldn’t agree more — quality is made out of passion, knowing that we should be looking for people with passion. Quality should be a part of our culture. Quality means you expect from people more than average. Quality requires deeper work to prepare yourself properly for a project kickoff (which is a very important part of the puzzle), status meetings (where often people’s time is being wasted), or just 1–1 with a colleague. This quality should be visible in every part of what we are doing.

2. The Power of duo

My experience from Empik showed me that to be able to build the quality first product we should build amazing duos to do that. Most successful pairs move from a dynamic first meeting to joint creative pursuits. If their trust and confidence grow, a mutual faith develops — pairs complement each other.

It could director — director or product owner — tech leader or product owner — ux leader, but this duo should be looking for excellence in their areas where Product Owner need to know WHAT to do and Tech Leader need to know HOW to do.

This duo is responsible for defining a shared vision and the strategy for their team. They are also responsible for buildng the culture in their own team, small rituals, cadence of work — in the end all team members should have the same vision and motivation to achieve common goals, but to do this a duo needs to be perfect in their areas and perfect together as leaders.

Working alone may be easier, but you could find that your best work will emerge after you open up, take a chance and combine your efforts with the right partner.

3. Making someone else better

The top priority of any manager is well-being and success of their people. After all, the higher you climb the more your success depends on making other people successful. People are the foundation of any company’s success. The primary job of any manager is to help them to be more effective in their job and help them grow and develop. I could highlight three major things to focus on:

Support — giving people the tools, information, training, space and coaching them to succeed, its continuous effort to develope people’s skills.

Apprecation and Respect — means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive by their unique choices. It means to help them achieve their goals. Do what coach Bill Campbell was doing transferring ideas and values from the sport world to the business world. Don’t just sit your butt on the seat, get up support your teams, show the love for the work they are doing.

Trust — put right people in right places and empower them to make decisions on their own.

4. High performing teams

In the book An Elegant Puzzle Will Larson describing 4 stages of them dev team. Teams want to climb from falling behind to innovation, one of my the main goals was to have as many dev teams in the innovators in stage as possible. Help them grow & reach this stage and keep them at the track to be high performing teams.

4 stages of dev teams:

  • A team is falling behind if each week their backlog is longer than the week before. Typically folks are working extremely hard but not making much progress, morale is low, and your users are vocally dissatisfied;
  • A team is treading water if they’re able to get their critical work done, but are not able to start paying down technical debt or start major new projects. Morale is a bit higher, but folks are still working hard and your users may seem happier because they’ve learned that asking for help won’t go anywhere;
  • A team is repaying debt when they’re able to start paying down technical debt, and are beginning to benefit from the debt repayment snowball: each piece of debt you repay?? pay back może po prostu leads to more time to repay more debt;
  • A team is innovating when their technical debt is sustainably low, morale is high, and the majority of work is satisfying new user’s needs.

5. Make Decision faster

Failure to make a decision can be damaging as a wrong decision. Do something even if it’s wrong, make the best decision you can and move forward. Delayed decision-making costs money. Slow decision-making leaves you vulnerable to competitors. There’s a saying in sales: “Time kills all deals”. In business, you have to move swiftly, before someone else steals your idea or customers. I could highlight two major things that helped me after I struggled sometimes to pull the trigger faster.

  • Keep values and priorities top of mind — Consider a quick check-in with yourself to ask the question about whether or not the decision you are about to make is consistent with you & company values. Focus on what really matters.
  • Be involved — Notice patterns and increase your ability to anticipate a challenge that will require a solution. Recognizing patterns enables you to make a faster decision when faced with a similar challenge.

Takeaways

  • Quality First
  • The Power of Duo
  • Making someone else better
  • High performing teams
  • Make decision faster

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Bartek Sobczak

Bartek Sobczak

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