Dear Product Manager, Here are MY lessons from the rise (and rise?) of 737

Ope Adeoye 8 minute read

We learn everyday. Especially by watching products that succeed or fail. Whether ours or someone else's.

GTBank's 737 has been quite the hot Fintech product in recent times in Nigeria. Personally, I look at the product with a mix of jealousy and gratitude.

Jealousy because sometime in 2012, in the thick of the mobile money frenzy, we convinced our bosses and some Telcos that the best play at the time wasn't to try and copy M-PESA but rather to "mobile-enable" bank accounts. We then went on to design, build and execute on what I think was a brilliant product. USSD access to bank accounts for various payment/banking related services. Unfortunately, that product didn't quite bite. We just couldn't muster committed love from enough banks to hit the meainstream. A lot of issues were thrown up around risk containment and bla bla bla. Fastforward to 2015/16, GTBank launches more or less the same thing and it's the new rave. Now, all banks want something like it. That's the jealousy part. Why was one bank (and their service providers) able to succeed where we struggled?

The gratitude part is that, well, now the space is open again. Giving us the chance to relaunch our service and now we have much more traction than before. Thank you GTBank.

Looking back at the timeline, and how this particular bank has been able to execute, I think there are lessons I particularly (and any watcher) can draw around product strategy execution.

Timing is key

The stars have to align. Having the best product/feature idea is not enough. For it to work, the time has to be just right. There's a vision you may be seeing but until your key stakeholders also see it (customers are stakeholders too by the way), your rocket may not take off. In this case, it was necessary to wait for the mobile money (wallet) hype to die down and for reality to set in. Only then, will the banks see the sense in mobile-enabling existing accounts. Not trying to sell new wallets to same bank account holders. I could say more about this, but let's park it here.

Avoid feature overload

We made some mistakes. We launched a product that let's you dial a single short code and you see a whole pack of services to try. From multiple banks. In 737's case, they simply let "self-recharge" run for a while. Used that to get customers comfortable and build comfort with their risk averse colleagues, before releasing the other features in drips. In the case of our *805# service, the risk discussions we got enmeshed in focused too much on the higher ticket transaction sets and it just derailed an otherwise good venture.

Launch in bits. This is by far my biggest lesson.

Establish a beachhead

There are some positions you hold that makes it easy to then expand forward slowly. We could have gotten one or two key banks to go live, help them ramp up aggressively, then set them up as poster children for the others to want to be like. This, rather than trying to "roll out" before establishing a defensible position. GTBank became that poster child with 737. To be fair, we actually tried to do this, but the banks who qualify for such a status were busy pursuing their mobile money dreams.  

White labeling is magic

White labeling for the right stakeholder, that is. If you are in the enterprise game, especially when straddling two sets of customers, picking the right one and letting him/her/them/it take the brand glory will get you great cooperation and open doors. Our idea then was to use a short code per Telco and the banks were to just ride the wave. In hindsight, seems the right thing was to let each bank own their own shortcode as a way to get started. So far, this is now working.

Don't give up.

No, because the product didn't work at the time, doesn't mean you should "throw away" your codebase. Stay close, keep engaging, the variables might just change and the stars align. Then with just a little dusting and repackaging, the opportunities might present themselves again, albeit in a different flavour.

So, that's it. 

Tim and Mosh must have their heads spinning now, while watching things finally take off after the hustle of 2012. Four years later.

I predict that if we are all focused, we may be able to extend the concept that 737 represents to a number of other use cases. Maybe online payments, maybe a faster (truly faster and easier) way to send small amounts of money, maybe a different way to subscribe to Telco VAS services... Maybe... Maybe... Maybe...

With "USSD based account access" we have managed to pique the interest of the consumer in trying digital payments for services. Beyond cash withdrawals. Maybe we could ramp up? As the market grows bigger, we'd all benefit even though market share may be splintered.

I have my own suspicions about where the bank is taking this to, which I probably cannot (yet) put on the pages of the web web web. We'd just have to wait and see.

Let's go live!