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Executive Q&A: Daniel Thomason on Navigating the Fintech Frontier

Daniel Thomason is a dynamic figure in the fintech sector, bridging his deep understanding of economics with the fast-paced world of technology. Starting his career as an economist at a central bank, Daniel's curiosity and desire for more immediate impact led him down an unconventional path to becoming a product manager at Google, focusing on contactless payments.


His journey through various industries and roles reflects a consistent pursuit of tackling complex, scalable problems that affect millions globally. With a background that includes founding an escape room business and navigating the diverse challenges of startups and multinational corporations alike, Daniel brings a unique perspective to product management.


In this insightful Q&A session, Daniel shares his experiences transitioning from traditional economics to the tech-driven world of Google, elaborates on the evolution of his role as a PM across different company sizes, and discusses the broader implications of contactless payments and fintech. His path illustrates the adaptability and innovative thinking necessary to thrive in today’s tech landscape.


Q: Can you share with us the trajectory that took you from a central bank economist to becoming a product manager at Google, particularly focusing on contactless payments?

 

I am interested in solving big problems, thinking outside the box, and growing my understanding of the real world – that's what I look for in a job. It’s what attracted me to studying economics: it’s a discipline that offers powerful tools to analyze and solve real-world problems. I was excited to be an economist out in the real world, working at a central bank and serving the Australian public, but I quickly realized that being an economist can be slow and a little too dry for my taste.

 

After I’d figured that out, I founded an escape room company in Sydney. It was just me, my girlfriend (who is now my wife!) and our business partner. That meant I did just about everything: created the website, did some marketing, designed the room, found free furniture and dragged it across the city to the room, and more. It was so much fun but also exhausting, and escape rooms only grow 1:1 with the founders’ blood, sweat and tears. One of my friends heard me talking about how much I had enjoyed it and suggested getting into tech as a product manager to scratch that same itch for bringing new things to life but at scale.

 

I started my product management career in Berlin. Apparently, I decided that it wasn’t hard enough to entirely change career without throwing in a new continent and language to keep things interesting! I tried a few industries to triangulate what I liked best. I landed on fintech because I loved the gnarly problems that it offered, plus it was a great combination of my product skills and my economics background. I got the chance to work on a few different aspects of payments, from growth to compliance to partnerships, which was invaluable because it’s really hard to make real progress in this space without understanding all the moving pieces.


Then when Google came knocking a few years back with the opportunity to help bring Google Wallet to life and take the contactless payments product to the next level, I couldn’t pass it up! It’s been amazing being able to apply all of the fintech and payments experience I gained in the startup world to the scale and reach that you only get at a company the size of Google.


Q: Throughout your career, you've experienced being a PM at startups to large companies. How has the role of a PM evolved for you across different company sizes and stages?


It’s been a huge advantage to have worked as a PM at different company sizes and stages. It’s given me both a sense of how we could be doing things differently and an understanding of how partner companies might view the world according to how large they are. As a PM at a just-founded startup, my focus was on helping the team quickly iterate on the product to find product/market fit. I spent my days hopping between calls with prospective customers, visiting existing customers to talk to users, whiteboarding with our designer and engineers about a potential new feature, and chatting to the CEO about what we were planning to build in the coming weeks. Frantic but fun, and lovely to be part of a super close-knit team!


Then at the growth-stage companies I worked at, the focus shifted to much more of an experimental, optimization mindset. I saw the product through the lens of A/B tests we could run to check hypotheses and improve key metrics, and I worked a lot with our data analytics team to understand where we needed better instrumentation for customer behavior and unmet needs.


And now at the massive scale I’m currently working on, the PM role is different again – now it’s much more a coordination role, pulling in the amazing experts we have from many functions to get their insights and support on building features and new products at a global scale. It’s still just as important to be super close to users and partners and know what they need, but rather than catching a bus to go visit them like I did at the just-founded startup, instead I work with Customer Support to listen to support calls, and our Business Development team to join quarterly reviews with partners. And instead of solely concentrating on how quickly we can ship a good-enough MVP, I work with our partner engineering team from the very start of a new project to understand what we’ll need to do to take the idea and make sure we can eventually scale it up 100x.


It’s fascinating how much the PM role has changed for me over time, but I still love that the core of my job is solving important problems by working with a team of talented people – as long as that doesn’t change, I’m confident I’ll still be doing this for many years to come!


Q: Given your unique path through different industries and roles, what drew you to the field of contactless payments?

 

Looking backwards, my career trajectory so far can pretty well be described as working on increasingly universal problems. From relatively niche travel and healthcare companies to a neobank was a big jump – suddenly I was building a product that plausibly everyone in Europe might use at some point. And then from there to international money movements at Wise expanded the audience to the whole globe, albeit limited to people who dealt with multiple currencies. And now working on contactless payments is a step up in breadth of problem space yet again – we have users all over the world, many of whom use the product multiple times every day. It’s such a privilege and delight to work on something so fundamental to people’s lives, and to have a chance to make incremental improvements that make a small but real difference to millions of people’s daily lives. Working in the payments industry is great for that: you get to tackle these tough, intellectually engaging problems and know that your efforts will have an effect at a mind-boggling scale, and save real people time and money. That’s a pretty good motivation to come to work every day!


Q: You've mentioned that being a PM can vary significantly from one company to another. Could you elaborate on some of the major differences you've observed?

 

This is an important theme for me, actually – I’ve observed that often when someone is having trouble with the PM role, it’s not that they aren’t cut out for it, but rather that they might be at the wrong company stage for their style or skills.


I’ve had the good fortune to work at a wide range of company sizes and stages, from pre-seed to series B to IPO all the way through to well-established. And while on the surface the PM job is similar at all these stages – you’re writing documents, meeting with engineers and designers, and shipping features – the goals and constraints of the position are fundamentally different.


This is the reason you often see a lot of product people leave when a company transitions to a new phase – the activities they enjoyed and the things they were good at are suddenly less celebrated. Of course it’s possible for people to grow and change with the company, but it’s not inevitable or a bad thing if they don’t; some people prefer certain company stages, and that’s great! What’s sad and avoidable is someone feeling like they are working super hard but getting nowhere – this doesn’t serve anyone.


In my experience, the key to understanding how to succeed as a PM at different company stages is to ask yourself, “at a high level, what is the company’s main goal right now?” And then make sure that what you’re doing and how you go about it aligns with that goal. For example, at an early stage company the only goal is to find product-market fit. Nothing else matters, because the company is currently only alive thanks to the largesse of whoever is funding it, and without product-market fit that won’t last long.


So a PM who is super into building robust processes and doing things the right way is going to have a bad time, vs one who is scrappy and willing to try anything if it might yield some interesting and useful results. But then fast-forward a few years to when the company has a viable product and is eyeing off an IPO, the game is very different. Now it’s not about rapid iteration in the hope of finding something valuable, it’s about proving to the market that the company has its affairs in order and can continue producing value sustainably. So a scrappy, throw-spaghetti-and-see-what-sticks PM is going to be frustrated by things slowing down and by the lack of recognition for their cool innovative ideas, whereas the methodical, process-forward PM is suddenly going to be right at home and a much-needed member of the team.


You can go more granular than this – I like to split companies up into four stages, but you could cut it even finer if you wanted – but the main point is that there is no one “correct PM” skillset or approach. It’s like evolution: the best traits and behaviors for a given species is completely dependent on the environment in which it finds itself.


Q: How do the challenges and objectives of a PM at a startup differ from those at an established company like Google?

 

The main axis is how much existing value is at stake and what the biggest risk to the company is. At a startup, there is not much existing value. It’s all built on the promise of creating something great; that’s how the founders raised the money to get it off the ground. And therefore the biggest risk is failing to figure out how to create that value, and quickly, before the money runs out! Combining these factors – not much existing value, and existential risk if you don’t create a viable product – means as a PM you should be optimizing for speed, and being incredibly experimental. You should be trying a lot of new ideas, because the downside risk is low (not much value built up yet) but the upside potential is very high, plus the company is sunk if you don’t find enough upside. This lends itself to a scrappy, ‘just get it done’ style of PM work, where your goal is to make the graph go up and to the right however you can.


Fast forward to a company that has had a successful exit and grown to a huge scale, though, and suddenly the incentives are reversed. The company has a whole lot of value built up that is potentially at risk, and the company’s future is pretty secure and not dependent on any moonshot bets coming to fruition. This means that a PM’s goal becomes making calculated bets, mitigating risks that could negatively affect the company’s existing value, and thinking about how to make an impact at the scale the company is now operating at. That last point is an insidious one, and can frustrate PMs who don’t look it in the eyes. Think about a feature that brings in an extra $1M of annual revenue.


At a startup, that would potentially be game-changing, and at the very least would be noticed and appreciated by leadership. Whereas at a big, established company, that may not even rate a mention in your team’s newsletter – it’s not an amount of money that the company even thinks about any more. So the scale of your ambitions has to increase but the risk appetite of the company is much lower, which is a challenge. The big compensating factor, of course, is that you have all the company’s existing assets – reach, reputation, distribution – to draw on in building your product. So it’s a very different game working as a PM at a startup vs at a big, established company, but both are fun, exciting challenges in their own way!


Q: Reflecting on your experience as an AML product manager at Wise, how has working on machine learning models to combat financial crime influenced your approach to product management?


Working in the anti-financial crime space was an amazing experience and gave me so many valuable insights – I highly recommend every PM spend some time on a team that works on combating abuse of some kind, especially if you work in fintech or payments! In particular it drove home the lesson of the tradeoffs you need to make in building a product. PMs are already adept at thinking about tradeoffs – speed vs quality is the classic one – but it goes deeper than that. Working on anti-money laundering and machine learning risk models showed me first-hand the risks and costs of launching cool new products and features, which need to be carefully weighed against the benefits to make sure the company is actually going to be better off overall.


For example, another team wants to expand to a new country, great! New users and more revenue for the company. But hold on: that country has a totally different regulatory regime to our other markets, so we’ll need to add reporting and compliance burden. Plus there are concerns about new fraud and money laundering typologies that this will open up, so we’ll need to add operations staff or risk falling behind on detection and reporting. So you start to clearly see the very real costs of new features.


It’s the same with building machine learning models for detecting financial crime. The Head of Compliance says we need to crack down on money laundering: great, we’ll change the model parameters to be more trigger-happy in flagging suspicious activity. But hold on, now we’ve just doubled the caseload for operations, plus the growth teams are shouting at us for annoying customers. So should we loosen again, or is this just a cost we’ll have to bear? Obviously there is no single correct answer here, and a lot of the PM role in that space was surfacing the tradeoffs, along with trying to improve the tradeoff ratio. Working in this space has given me a permanent mindset shift; I’m now always thinking about the hidden costs the company will incur from a new feature or product, which is a very valuable lens.


Q: In your talk, you discuss the pitfalls to avoid as companies evolve. Could you give an example of a common pitfall and how you managed to navigate it in your career?


A common pitfall I’ve seen is PMs resisting new processes as the company grows and matures, rather than making their peace with it and advocating for ways to make the process serve the intended outcome. I’ve frequently seen a dynamic where the veteran product managers gripe about newcomers slowing things down and introducing “useless meetings and checklists”.


In reality, though, this is not the newcomers’ fault, it’s just a reflection that the company is entering a new phase of its life. Earlier you could just ship things to production without any approvals and barely any QA, and while that is certainly fun and exciting, the company has now grown and has enough value built up that accidents are costly. The best response in my opinion is to either lean into the new processes and make the most of them, or gracefully exit for a younger company if you conclude that your style is better suited to early-stage product management.


In my career, I’ve navigated this using two tactics. First, talk to people around you, particularly those higher up the ladder, about how the company is building products and how this is changing, and what they are trying to achieve. This gives you a sense of the goals behind process and org changes. For example, I talked to my Head of Product at a previous company about the new launch process we were trying, and he explained to me that this was in response to concerns from the C-suite that we weren’t providing enough visibility for key functions into how the product was changing. That helped me understand why we were doing this, and also was a good nudge to engage more proactively with some of my cross-functional stakeholders. Second tactic: take time periodically to look at the meta-level of your company. Which features and products are being talked up and celebrated, who is in the limelight, and who is getting promoted? This gives you an idea of the types of features that the company wants at its current life stage, and the working styles that are resonating well.


Q: Having founded an escape room business, how has that experience influenced your approach to product development and management?


I learned some core product management skills from founding the escape room, in particular rapid iteration and proactively soliciting and responding to user feedback. We would watch people go through the puzzles, getting so invested in their success, especially for early users – I was so nervous watching people solving the puzzles, I had to stop myself from cheering when they succeeded (I was in the back room so they would have heard me).


A key lesson I learned was that ideas which seem great to you as the builder often aren’t actually a good fit for real users. One of my favorite puzzles was a sound-based puzzle – we wanted to avoid only using visual puzzles. We rigged an old gramophone to play a short tune, which the players had to reproduce using tuning forks hidden around the room. Easy, right? Wrong, so wrong! I figured out that I was assuming that players would have perfect pitch, which when you say it that way is obviously unrealistic, but it took the experience of seeing people struggle and fail to help me realize the problem.


We quickly removed the puzzle and went back to the initial goal of having a sound-based puzzle, but without the perfect-pitch problem. The new version we came up with different sounds and asked players to take actions based on what they heard, without any musical aspect, and it ended up working great – players could do it and really liked the puzzle. It was a bit sad to give up on my favorite puzzle, but I was proud that we could adapt so quickly and be so responsive to users, and I definitely learned a lesson about the value of real user feedback that has served me well in my product management career.


Q: What advice would you give to aspiring PMs who are looking to follow a non-traditional path into the field?

 

The first step into product management is the hardest; after that it’s relatively smooth sailing because companies are always looking for experienced PMs. With that in mind, try to give yourself the best possible shot at making the transition. There are two ways to do this. One is to get some product management experience while still working in your current role, either by volunteering for a project or by doing a job rotation. For example, I’m managing a PM rotator at the moment who is splitting her time 50/50 between her current product marketing position and some product management projects. It’s a great win-win: she gets to learn some core PM skills and put a PM position on her resume, and the team gets the benefit of her marketing talents for the projects she’s working on. Which leads to the second way: apply for jobs where you already have other skills and knowledge the position requires.


When hiring a new person, the manager is taking a risk that they won’t work out, and you want to reduce this risk as much as possible. If you’ve never been a PM before, that’s a risk you can’t reduce much, but you can reduce risks in other areas such as industry knowledge and additional skills. Back to my PM rotator: she’s been in payments marketing for many years now, so she already has great industry knowledge, and the projects she’s working on have a very strong go-to-market aspect, so she can add a lot of value there. That means that as the manager, I’m only taking a risk on her not having any existing product management skills, which is something I’m happy to do given the other assets she brings to the table. So for people coming from a non-traditional path, look for PM roles where your background is going to be an asset to the team, and emphasize that aspect as well as how eager you are to quickly learn the product management skills you’ll need.


Q: Looking towards the future, how do you see the role of product management evolving, particularly in the realm of contactless payments and financial technology?

 

The trend I see across the tech industry, but especially in payments, is of product management going back to its general management roots, after a period in which it was much more attached at the hip to engineering. When product management emerged as a discipline decades ago, it actually came out of big consumer companies like Procter & Gamble, that realized they needed a single individual thinking about the end-to-end experience and business viability of a whole product line. That person – the product manager – worked with every function and was responsible for the overall success of the product, not just specific aspects of it like the marketing plan or the packaging quality. When tech picked up the product management function in the 90s, it morphed into much more of a software engineering-adjacent role, which was natural because a software engineering team was in many ways all that you needed to ship a complete end-to-end product.


But now, with interest rates well above zero again and companies starting to take a hard look at their bottom line and the viability of their products, we’re seeing tech product management lean back towards that truly cross-functional, holistic management role. Rather than just setting a product development roadmap, PMs will be working hand-in-hand with marketing to create a content calendar to match launches, sitting alongside Business Development in partnership discussions, and reporting to leadership about the overall growth and success of the product rather than just on what they’ve launched.


And I think this is a great development! Having that wide-angle lens and set of responsibilities is exactly what drew me to the role in the first place, and I truly believe that the value of a PM is that there is no-one else whose responsibility is the overall success of the product. The more the industry leans into that definition of the role, the more value we’ll be able to create.

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