10 Minutes with Natalie Yan Chatonsky, General Manager, Brainmates

What lead you to first get into Product Management?

My first exposure to launching new products was when I was in business development at Yahoo.

When I first started working at Yahoo in the late 90’s (prior to the dot com boom), it was my job to recruit offline big brand retailers to build their first online store through Yahoo!7’s (formerly Yahoo! Australia & New Zealand) shopping mall. My role was to go out there and talk to retailers about how e-tailing was going to be the next big thing. We managed to get lots of big mainstream brands- the likes of Dick Smith, Tandy, Angus and Robertson, as well as boutique brands such as Dinosaur Designs and Georg Jensen to name but a few. We enabled at least 40 Australian bricks and mortar businesses to sell online for the first time.

I had a lot of fun in the process of recruiting the retailers to join our shopping mall but I guess I looked at the role of what digital producers did with a little bit of envy because they actually got to build these online stores for the retailers and the shopping environment for shoppers. They were creating a great customer experience, a great shopping experience, the very reason why I took on the job in the first instance!

At the time my passion was shopping – I used to love shopping for clothes and shoes and had spent a couple of years in Japan, the shopping capital of the world, so that, together with my interest in design made me look at the buying experience and analyse why one shop may have more of a wow factor than another. So I jumped over the fence from bus dev to production and got to launch a whole lot of digital products and grow the usage of existing ones.

The first products I built from the ground up with a team of developers were for mobiles, before smart phones even existed. We created convergent applications for the web and phone, enabling web-based users exchange messages with mobile users through Yahoo! Messenger and Yahoo! Mail. We also enabled some of the Yahoo! properties such as Search and communication tools like Yahoo! Mail and Messenger to be accessible through mobile platforms such as WAP, and later through Java and J2ME.

Why did you decide to get involved with Brainmates?

I had been working independently as a freelancer in the digital world for a number of years whilst juggling my studies in design, and later on, a baby. When it came to considering what sort of full time permanent job I would like to take on, I wanted the opportunity to apply the combination of my product management background and application of freshly honed design-thinking by broadening my industry experience and context, rather than focusing just on the digital arena. Brainmates was really appealing as I was able to use my experience and apply what I knew to many different industries and work with really inspiring people in a team environment.

What is your favourite task?

My favourite task would have to be problem solving, especially when there’s an opportunity to explore unlimited possibilities and churn out lots of different ideas that eventually lead to solving customer problems. My favourite stage of some of our client projects is the ideation stage, where we are in a free-thinking mode, being creative, removing judgement of each other’s ideas so we can collect all of the creative notions we will then be looking at more critically down the track. Coming up with ideas from everywhere and working together as a team to build on those ideas gets you on a path you wouldn’t otherwise go down if you were just trying to brainstorm on your own.

If you could take the Product Manager you were 7 years ago aside and give them some advice, what would it be?

The advice I would give to a younger self would be to really step outside the confines of your own company and talk to lots of industry peers to find out how they do things. People can get pretty stale if they keep doing things as they see fit and in some cases, it may not necessarily be the smartest way. It can be there aren’t many changes until someone new joins the team and because you are not seeing things done differently you might become a bit short-sighted in the way you carry out the whole Product Management planning process, or Product Management process as a whole. I believe it pays to get outside your comfort zone.

I would suggest going out there and talking to lots of other different product people- network, go to lots of different events, build up relationships with people in similar roles and have coffee with them from time to time just to hear how they are dealing with challenges and how they may be approaching their Product Management to share and learn. I think that sort of knowledge sharing is invaluable. Product Managers are luckier now in that respect.

Networking opportunities for Product Managers, like Product Camp, Product Talks didn’t exist a few years ago. There are so many different places where people can meet new people who are doing similar jobs and share their challenges and tips on how to go about doing things now. I would advise anyone to take full advantage of that.

What do you see as the single biggest influence on Product Managers in the last 7 years?

The single biggest influence on Product Managers would have to be online collaborative tools. For example, Wikis are a great way for Product Managers to share their product plans, their data analytics, product information, all in one place. If it’s always kept up to date with information about their product portfolio, their stakeholders or internal customers can help themselves to info very easily. Online collaborative tools have really helped Product Managers of industries collaborate and keep in touch with their stakeholders.

Where would you like to see Brainmates to be in another 7 years?

I would like to see Brainmates continue to extend the current culture we have in functional knowledge sharing, thought leadership and teamwork – all on a much bigger scale with many more people, the smartest and the most inspiring people you could ever come across and multiply that by multiple offices around the world. Now that would be amazing! If we offer the same flexibility for our Brainmates to work on different projects as we currently offer, but on a global basis, translating that same variety and ability to work across different projects and industries with that added size and geographic dimension to it, Brainmates on a global scale would be a even more of a dream place to work.