My path in payments with Colleen Graneto, Product Manager, Airbnb
Colleen Graneto's path into payments seems like a logical progression on the surface. You can draw a line from her university days studying finance and business to her current role leading payments for Airbnb and conclude there was always a plan. And you could look at the traditional treasury and finance roles she has done in between — most notably at P&G and CME Group — and come to the same conclusion.
But look under the hood, and there's another story to tell. Colleen may have been immersed in the finance world from day one of her career, but it's been her passion for building products and systems that help money move, which is the actual common thread here.
"Nobody called it 'product management' when I first started," she recalls of her first job at P&G. "I was building the systems and tools to perform daily cash positioning and execute investment decisions. I loved the challenge of how to facilitate transactions through really complex structures." But it's the outcome of this work that got Colleen hooked. "I was astounded at what payments and payment ecosystems can do for customers, especially small and medium businesses."
It's a passion she has been keen to share with others. Teaching continues to be an ever-present feature of her career. She has just clocked up six and half years instructing product management with General Assembly, in which time around 10,000 professionals have benefited from her wisdom. And in 2020, she was invited to be a coach for UC Berkeley's executive education program, where employees from Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and other blue-chip companies have come under her tutelage.
Super consumer focus
As a product manager, Colleen has found the perfect home at Airbnb, a company famed for its customer-centric, design-led approach to building products and strategy. "I've never worked in a place so consumer-focused," she says. "We start with the ideal outcome and work backward. Working this way has been a game-changer for me."
She cites Marty Cagan, a Silicon Valley legend in her field, as a big inspiration. His ideas…to have a customer-centric approach to product design and build…have become quite standard now. But when I was first starting out, it wasn't like that. Often, you end up being so focused on a specific feature or the project roadmap that you forget about who you're building this thing for and whether they will get value from it."
Colleen explains that this customer-centric product philosophy has enabled massive tech and fintech disruption in the last ten years. "Being willing to listen to what people want means being really ambitious and considering all the possibilities of how to give it to them."
She contrasts this with the "create something just a little bit better that keeps us relevant" approach that traditional finance and big business tend to follow. And more so in payments, where moving money breeds caution. Colleen says this is looking at things the wrong way around. "Instead of talking about the constraint or limitations of applying innovation to payments, we should look at it from the perspective of competitive advantage. Look at the growth of new payments and fintech firms, and it's obvious that people and businesses want what they're offering. So not innovating becomes untenable."
Colleen points out how new personal lending and BNPL products are examples of how innovation is breaking down previous barriers between businesses and banks to benefit the customer. She also says how product managers can take regulation and turn it into a competitive advantage. "Take KYC and SCA, for example. You're seeing companies take complex and potentially arduous tasks and make them easier. In the past, these would have been barriers to entry. By making them simpler, you're creating more opportunities for anybody to start a business without having to wrap their head around everything first. It's just become so easy to put an idea out there and then let the money move."
Balancing today with tomorrow
And that's what Colleen is doing for Airbnb. "It's my job to build and maintain the products that give our hosts the financial information and tools they need to run and grow their business."
It's a humble description. The task is enormous. Hosts and their guests exchange billions of dollars each year in 60+ currencies, spanning around 200 countries. "When you think about the movement of those transactions daily, it starts to get incredibly complex. There are regional partners and processors and acquirers we have to manage on a day-to-day basis."
Colleen's job is to make all of that work invisibly. "Everything falls down if a guest can't pay or a host doesn't get paid." But there's also the balance of building for the long term. Colleen's remit includes the technical infrastructure and talent needed to ensure availability, financial accuracy and data compliance into the future. "That's sometimes the challenge," she says. "It's hard to find the balance of doing new and innovative things while maintaining the stability you have, but at a higher scale."
She feels fortunate that Airbnb has always seen how core payments are to its business. And, just like other success stories of the digital age — such as Netflix, Uber, and Amazon — have allowed Airbnb to become one of the world's most loved brands.
"Those businesses and their payment teams are exceptional in how they create payment products. They understand that when you have high intent customers or a loyal community, even incremental improvement can drive significant growth. You look at Amazon's one-click purchase, or Uber Cash, and you see businesses that understand how payments aren't just a function but a competitive advantage. And that's how we think about it too at Airbnb."
But what's vital is to keep injecting urgency into product innovation. "Customer expectations are unrelenting. I remember when people viewed pre-ordering their Starbucks coffee from the app as a luxury. Now, if they can't do that for whatever reason and have to join the queue with everyone else, it's suddenly a terrible experience. The fact is, the more innovation you do, the more innovation you need to do to keep people happy."
The push and the pull
This innovation does lead to an interesting problem for payments, though. "As a payments profession, you start to move away from standards. Product development that is democratized and decentralized will lead to forks, as businesses find new ways of doing things. Is this good? I'm not always sure. There's got to be a certain amount of standardization in the ecosystem. It becomes chaotic otherwise."
On the topic of regulation, Colleen takes a pragmatic approach. "There's always a balance to be struck regarding regulation," she says. "But I'm a big proponent of using new regulatory requirements as an opportunity to evaluate and rethink what you're doing and create even better solutions for the end consumer. That's why I work closely with my colleagues in legal and compliance to deeply understand the requirements and shape new ideas."
The importance of intent
Product innovation, competitor analysis, regulatory engagement, all at a global scale; it'd be easy for someone to feel overwhelmed by such an extensive remit. For Colleen, acting with intent is the answer. "You have to prioritize your time and choose what to focus on. And part of that is deciding what can wait. You have to be intentional about how you spend your time, and then make sure you're not getting distracted."
But 'intent' does not always equal action, she says. "Sometimes, it's about taking the headspace you need to free yourself to think big."
Or, to think about something else entirely. "Hobbies force you to get away from work, recharge, and find space just to imagine. I always come back with a fresh perspective, so it's never wasted time."
Colleen's 'space' was often with her Etsy store, which she had been running since 2012, until closing it down recently. "I was selling jewelry made from seeds that are sustainably harvested from the Amazon rainforest." She met the jewelry makers while living in Ecuador, following her advice to recharge after leaving P&G.
She says this experience steered her away from treasury and finance and into payments and commerce. "As a business owner, you see first-hand how important payments are and how empowering payments can be."
Craft your own career
She admits to being slightly jealous of someone just starting their career path into payments and in general. "There are many new career options created every day, well beyond what I ever thought would be possible. And especially when you look at product design roles and how data science has become an important part of what we now do. Education and schools are changing to accommodate this. You really can craft your career in a way that I didn't realize you could when I was starting off. It's very exciting."
That said, the best payment product managers will not be those driven solely by career progression. "Ultimately, what's got to motivate you is seeing the impact of your work on your end-users. That's what makes all the hard work worth it."