WealthPark builds an alternative assets platform and aims to realize a new asset management experience. Today, the VPs who lead the product development at WealthPark sit down and openly discuss the issues they are currently facing regarding products, technologies, organization, and how they are looking to the future. This report shares their real words and thoughts.
Part I will focus on products and technologies, and Part II will focus on topics related to the organization and team building.
Profile Seth Luan, VP of Product Seth was born in Taiwan and raised in Canada. He came to Japan 13 years ago as a backpacker and worked as a bartender. He built up his IT career in Sony Mobile Communications as a developer and a project manager. Afterwards he moved to Rakuten and managed a credit card payment service for two years prior to investing in a real estate business and establishing his own IT company. He joined WealthPark with his mission to use the power of IT to change the real estate industry.
Profile Yuki Yoshimoto, VP of Design Yuki started his design career when he was still a university student, and he has over 10 years experience as a freelance designer. He joined WealthPark as a founding member as he felt the passion for creating a product that will add a new value in the alternative investments not only in Asia including Japan but also in the world.. After the early phase when he was committed not only to design but also to a broader area ranging from product to sales, he now focuses on UI and leads the design team. He is one of the oldest members.
Profile Takahiro Fujii, VP of Engineering Takahiro started his career in Rakuten as a software developer in 2010. He was in charge of a travel service, mainly working on a hotel reservation system, as an engineering manager. In the beginning of 2020, he joined WealthPark as a chapter lead of the frontend team, being inspired by the company's goal of creating an alternative assets platform. In April, he became VPoE and manages a multinational engineering team of 17 members with 10 nationalities.
There is no specific or clear-cut role of each team
For a start, what are the roles and functions of each team? How do three teams work together?
Seth: In a large sense, I don’t think there are specific or clear-cut roles of each team. We are overlapped. In terms of expertise, the engineering team has a deep knowledge and skills of building products, the design team has those of UI/UX design, and the product team has a good broad understanding of technology and UI/UX. While each team has expertises as well as understands others' skills, three teams work and think cross-functionally.
Yuki: To add on what has just been said, although the design team has a responsibility for the area of UI/UX, our role is becoming borderless. This is largely because we build our organization based on the Squad framework developed by Spotify, which was actually introduced by Seth to our company. In the Squad framework, we have cross-functional and self-organized teams called squads for each project. Each squad is full-stack, consisting of members from the product, design, and engineer teams. This enables three teams to work like one team. We always think and act how we can provide a better experience for users across the teams defined by our organizational chart.
Takahiro: In our organizational structure, the engineering team has five small parallel teams called chapters: frontend, backend, mobile, QA, and DevOps. In addition to that, we have another vertical layout, squads, as Yuki described. This means that we work within the chapters/squads matrix organisation. While we discuss our specialized area within our chapters, we discuss in squads when we decide on products.
Seth: I think the majority of technology companies in Japan still have the concept of upstream/downstream regarding developing products. They make a decision on architecture and UI in the upstream, and then it is passed down to the downstream for actual programming. However, what we do here is to keep everyone close to the upstream. The root of water is C level, and we try to keep all the members around the root as much as possible. Also, we flow downstream together. This allows all of us to have a product-oriented mindset and view a whole picture to understand the value of what we are building on the same level.
I see. When Seth brought the Squad framework into WealthPark, how was the reaction from older members?
Yuki: I saw potential in Squad from the start. In the framework of Squad, everybody spontaneously holds themselves accountable for the product goal and equally shares the ownership over the product. I think this state is exactly what the company always aims for. We have been using Squad for just 10 months and we need to improve and customize it more and more, but overall we are up for it.
For further details about how Squod works in WealthPark, please check Takahiro’s blog.
Everyone can raise each idea easily
Let’s talk about the technical side. Could you explain a bit about tech stack in WealthPark? What are their strengths or weaknesses?
If you look on the bright side, can you say that WealthPark is basically positive about trying out new languages, frameworks, and tools in which engineers see potential?
Takahiro: Yes, one thing I can say for sure is that we are a very open team. Everyone can raise each idea easily here. When someone is interested in using new technologies, languages, or flameworks, he or she can definitely share an idea, and we will discuss together. Having said that, we all agree that too many languages is a problem (laugh). We discussed and concluded that we will start limiting the number of languages to focus on specific languages and features.
Seth: It’s really good to have freedom. However, if things are too free, they become messy (laugh). You need to add some control on freedom, then you will have a good balance between doing the right thing and having freedom.
Right. Did you start taking a look at which languages should be discontinued? What's the decision making process in the engineering team?
Takahiro: We are discussing together within the engineering team now. In our decision making process, the first ideas come from everyone and I make some suggestions. We also have several discussion processes. For example, we have a chapter lead meeting that consists of chapter leads of five chapters. When we have an important technical topic such as how to rebuild a tech stack, we will use this meeting opportunity.
Yuki: Takahiro also often makes documentations to explain his thoughts and decisions for the engineering team as well as other teams. His such efforts keep the decision making process very transparent to others.
Seth: I also want to mention the idea of “Disposable architecture” that Takahiro suggests to the engineering team as I really like it. In this idea, “Disposable” refers to something that you can easily either move or recycle even once you build. Instead of building something that is difficult to be removed or changed, we should build something disposable and changeable, which accelerates decision making as well as business itself. Technologies change every two or three years and we have to adapt those changes, so I think this concept is really important in this industry.
Technical or operational challenges that WealthPark is facing
What are technical or operational challenges that you think WealthPark is facing from your team's perspective?
All: We have a set of challenges (laughs).
Seth: We all see the same issues regardless of teams though.
Takahiro: Yes, I think we are on the same page. As I said, too many languages is one issue. Another challenge is we need to visualize our future goal, which is extremely high, while we tackle the projects and issues going on in front of us. Although we concentrate on the real estate industry now, our ultimate goal is to create an alternative assets platform for investors. For me, as VPoE, I need to have and share a view on how we can realize that platform in terms of architecture and programming. It is difficult to keep that long-term view as well as a high goal in this fast-paced and unpredictable environment. As we easily tend to be focused on the near future, I always try to speak out on our future goal within the engineering team.
The third challenge is that we need to sort out a good balance in the resource allocation for the existing projects and the future ones. Our current core business relies on our legacy product and system, which holds technical problems that only a few of our engineers can deal with. While we work on those issues from the past and update the architecture, we also want to allocate our resources on new projects to aim for our future goal more aggressively.
Understand. How do you approach those challenges?
Seth: We just have fun with those challenges (laugh). To the question of how to, I rather focus on "why." I have a lot of respect for Simon Sineck, who wrote “The Power of Why.” In this book, he explains the importance of finding out your reason and purpose, and keep following your “why” in your workplace.
Applying this idea to management, I think if you can describe "why" and your team members can agree with it, then they will keep following you regardless of "how." The vast majority of people focus on “how,” how we should do it. However, if you just focus on "why," no matter what obstacles come in the way, people can keep moving. In this why process, the consistency in your communication would be a key. Any forms of your communication should be aligned with your why. Especially when you are in a hard situation, you should stick to the why.
Takahiro: For those difficult challenges, it is really important to build a consensus through communication. One of the benefits of using the Squad framework is that high autonomy that each member gains. This framework enables each squad to learn and develop their ideas independently. At the same time, we also need to have a core consensus and share the same values across squads. Developing an alignment on a company level is a necessity to grant autonomy to each member.
Another approach that I think is important for a manager is to do by yourself. I don't say a playing manager is ideal for any companies or any phases. But at least in current WealthPark, which has quite a few issues on an operational level, a manager level person also should be hands-on to understand the actual situation and work on it with the team.
In terms of building a consensus on a company level, how do you align with the business team?
Seth: For the communication with the business team, I think the process to validate our assumptions and reach an agreement is important. They have their own assumptions, and we have our own. In order to prove or disprove those assumptions, we make and show pretotypes or prototypes. Then, both business and product people see as to whether or not the initial ideas work. Real things can be very different from the images in our heads, so it is good to experiment and simulate together.
I also just keep asking why if we disagree with them. There is no conflict though. We discuss openly and productively even if there are some disagreements. I recently started using this why method at home, too (laugh).
Takahiro: One of the best things about the business team is that they are very easy to communicate with. I just explain and share everything without hiding any information from them, including issues. Then we can always have proper communication with transparency.
Seth: Yes, that is super important. The business side is very open minded and it is very easy for us to say our opinions. They would not take it as an offense, just as a feedback.
Yuki: Although sometimes it may be difficult for them to understand thoughts and languages of us, we feel their respect and efforts to understand us.
How WealthPark can support the alternative assets market
What is important for you in pursuing the improvement of WealthPark's services?
Seth: For me, it's about making users happy and feel magical. I want to make a product that hits the emotion of users. If users do not feel anything, we haven't done enough yet.
Yuki: Users' experience should come first. I often visit clients to understand the actual problems in the real estate industry and listen to their requests. I share those direct information within our division, especially with the engineering team. As most engineers are foreigners, I want to help them understand Japanese behaviours and feelings, which also helps me in the end. Since I am the only person who is in charge of creating UI, I need the ideas from the engineers and product sides. It's important for all three teams to synchronize in delivering a good product to customers.
How do you see the challenge for WealthPark to grow and support the alternative assets market?
Seth: Three of us often have a chat on the future of alternative assets, such as wine and art. We talk about what we can do to make them into a more attractive investment option for investors with our platform.
Yuki: One of the keys in creating an alternative investments platform on mobiles is how we can visualise the flowability of long-term alternative investment actively for users. In terms of their illiquidity and level of patience they require for investors, alternative investments can be long-term. We are thinking about how we can support the visualization of wealth creation from alternative investments with technology.
Seth: Yes, from the standpoint of investors, including myself, they are happy if they can see some yields every month, no matter forms of assets. In that sense, real estate is simple and clear. You get a rent every month anyway. For investors, it is important whether they can make a good business in alternative assets. They will invest in alternative assets when it economically makes sense to them as other traditional assets. We want to create a platform where the investors can easily buy, sell, and visualize and compare performance regarding of the type of alternative assets.
Do you think that technology can push the position of alternative assets or the alternative market needs to be developed first, for example, by the change in people's lifestyle and values?
Seth: I think the change in people will come first. Emphasis on diversification of your portfolio as well as understanding on alternative assets will encourage the growth of this market. In tandem with this change, we provide what we can do best for now and keep updating it with more new technologies. I'm taking a stand for what Alberto Savoia says: "make sure you are building the rightit before you build it right."
Yuki: I agree.
The ideal state of products, design, and technology
Do you make an investment, too? I know Seth does, but how about you?
Yuki: I'm thinking of trying now. All initial members are from the finance field, except for me, and I had difficulty feeling and thinking like an investor when we created the first prototype at the very beginning. In those days, I used to try to imagine if I was rich, while taking a bath and closing my eyes (laugh).
On the other hand, no one was a real estate business expert in our company when we started, which is pretty unique. Even now, we do not look for a real estate business background when recruiting. This is because we respect the diversity in our company. For example, we think that our multinationality diversifies and strengthens our values. This creates the individuality of WealthPark. In this sense, I believe in the possibility that a person who doesn't understand the feeling of investors can also give an interesting angle for our product.
Having said that, I need some basic investment knowledge to provide a better experience for investors, and I started studying investment. Seth often shares his own opinions towards our product as a real user, and I also learn from that.
I see. This is the last question for part I. What is the ideal state of products, design, and technology?
Seth: First and foremost, it should be a magical experience for users. The moment you see the first page of application, you just wonder how this did happen. Secondly, it has to be ten times more convenient than the current status.
Is there any product that you think is magical?
Seth: Facebook and Tesla because the experiences that they provide us are so good. They change my perceptions of things and give me a lot of inspiration. In addition, their dedication to amaze the users is so great that they update their product almost everyday to continuously evolve the experience. If I can do something like that, that is so cool.
Yuki: On the design end, I always think about how we can provide our users with the best UX. I should design to help our users to achieve their goals with fewer clicks and less stress in our app. It should be like magic, which Seth just refers to. I also want to make our design visually beautiful.
Takahiro: One of the aspects of ideal states for engineers is that we have both easy and hard issues with balance. In general, engineers are excited to challenge themselves with difficult technical problems. However, you cannot just tackle a difficult one that is not a priority for the company. Currently we are working on the relatively simple areas that should be solved immediately, but I expect that we can turn to technically challenging ones later on. This would be attractive for the engineers who are seeking out technical challenges as well as their self-growth. There still should be some straightforward issues left for engineers with less experience. I think it is good for the team to be able to work on the well-balanced mix of issues.
インタビュアー 飯田 明 | Mei Iida 渉外法律事務所にてファイナンス・パラリーガルを務めた後、大学院留学を挟んで飲食業の世界へ。外資系チョコレート会社のDirector of Communicationsとして、HR/ブランディングを担当。現在はフリーランスに転向し、複数の会社とのプロジェクトを通じて、カフェのプロデュース事業や人事、国内外のダイニングイベントの企画・運営に携わっている。