What I learned leading a major product release during COVID-19 

M1 Team
M1 Team July 7, 2021
What I learned leading a major product release during Covid-19

Ryan Spradlin is the Vice President, Product at M1 Finance. Prior to M1, Ryan worked on large-scale software implementation and technical management at Acquity Group.

M1 Finance launched in 2015 as an investment platform. Our CEO, Brian Barnes, was frustrated with money management options available and decided to build his own. From the start, his vision was to create an app that let users manage and automate several aspects of their finances – a finance super app. 

In December 2020, we released Smart Transfers, which automates cash movement. We see this as the feature that makes Brian’s initial vision a reality. Instead of watching balances day to day, keeping tabs on where they need money, and scheduling transfers based on that, M1 clients can simply set rules and sit back. 

Smart Transfers makes it possible to automatically direct every next dollar exactly where you want it. So every time an extra dollar comes into your account, a rule you set gets triggered and the money goes to where it will have the most benefit to you, whether that’s into an investment account, from one investment pie to another, into a debit account, or elsewhere. 

We formally started work on the release in Summer 2020, but it was part of our product roadmap from day one. Building it involved everyone on the team: product management, product design, QA, iOS and Android developers – everyone. We needed all hands on deck to build this huge, complex feature. 

Any product launch of this magnitude is challenging. What proved particularly difficult – and enlightening – was that we had to do it all remotely, collaborating from our home offices without access to our usual tools and ways of operating. I knew going in that we’d have to use different approaches than what had proven to be effective in the past. 

Our approach: be flexible and pay attention 

From the start, M1 has had a strong in-office culture. We’ve always had a flexible policy allowing team members to work from home regularly, but we didn’t have any fully remote employees. When it came to major product initiatives like Smart Transfers, in-office collaboration was central to our process. 

In 2019, when we were breaking down the core ideas that would become Smart Transfers, we relied heavily on in-person working sessions – a bunch of people around a table in a room, dedicating the day to untangling the problem and proposing solutions. 

But then March 2020 hit, the pandemic stopped all sense of “normal,” and we realized we’d have to find another way forward. 

We adapted (and re-adapted) quickly

The good news is that we surprised ourselves with how productive and effective we could be as a fully remote team. We were able to find workable alternatives to in-person collaboration for most of our day-to-day activities: 

  • Daily recurring Zoom meetings became a staple. Instead of our daylong meetings in a single room, we gathered in the morning and then broke for independent work. 
  • Slack reminders replaced quick person-to-person requests. We set a daily reminder for everyone to post what was blocking them, and those conversations fueled to-do lists and interactions that used to happen when people passed by each other’s desks. 
  • Miro replaced our use of sticky notes for clustering and organizing ideas. 
  • Shared Microsoft 365 docs replaced full-team meetings. Instead of getting everyone together to align synchronously, we achieved the same thing asynchronously with comment threads on position documents. This method helped us plan priority use cases and phased work, among other things. We plan to continue using this process for tracking complex processes. Now that our team has more than tripled and full-team meetings are no longer feasible, this kind of documentation is essential. 

We dealt with the challenges

What we never found a satisfying replacement for was whiteboarding. In the office, we use whiteboards to hash out ideas – make a quick sketch, pass the marker around, iterate fast. Like a lot of organizations, we used whiteboard drawings to quickly communicate ideas visually and captured our work with a digital image. 

We tried to replicate that process with the screen drawing tools built into Slack and Zoom. After all, a picture really is worth a thousand words in some cases; there’s a real benefit to communicating visually. But ultimately, the tools weren’t able to capture what we had with whiteboards.

I think the magic with whiteboards is that jumping in to draw is instant and requires no special know-how, whereas collaborative drawing tools take time and skill. We found the digital substitutes to be slower, clunkier, and less successful than what we could do in person. 

That’s the positive side; despite our lack of whiteboards, productivity remained high. But productivity isn’t the only thing that matters for a team. 

We kept our team’s well-being front and center

One challenge I discovered was that it was much harder to gauge when the team was overworking. Everyone had all this time on their hands, so it was more possible than ever to work late, but our managers had little visibility into how much that was happening. And yet as a leader – especially on a six-month project – it’s so important to make sure team members are pacing themselves and getting the recharge time they need. 

We had to make a habit of proactively checking in with team members to get a temperature on their workload and make sure they weren’t feeling overwhelmed or pushing themselves too hard. But it felt much more like groping in the dark than it does when we can actually see how people are working day-to-day. 

We celebrated success

Another challenge was the last-mile push. The last 10 percent is probably the hardest part of any project, and when we’re all in the office, we can encourage each other and feed off the team’s energy. It was much harder to build that sense of camaraderie when we were all remote, but we still did it.

I found that everyone just had less in their tanks by the time we were in the final push in November and December. Everyone’s exhausted by the pandemic, and that made it harder to put in the extra effort that the last mile required. Plus, once we launched, it was tougher to celebrate together.

Usually, we’d have an in-office celebration and take a breather for a while. But when you try to do that over Zoom, sometimes it just feels like another Zoom meeting in your same space. Despite these challenges, we made it work! We celebrated our teammates and recognized a job well done in several ways.

So overall, I was pleasantly surprised by our ability to quickly transition to a productive, fully remote team. But knowing we’ve likely got several more months of remote work ahead of us, I’m still on the lookout for ways to make the experience of big product launches better. 

Successful launch, substantial adoption 

I’m happy to say that we launched Smart Transfers in December, as planned. See the video below for a brief demo of the product in action. 

I’m even happier to report that our client engagement numbers show that our CEO wasn’t alone in his dissatisfaction with other financial management apps on the market. For example, we hit $2 billion in client assets in October 2020, and are now nearing $5 billion (as of July 2021). 

We credit part of that quick adoption to the usability testing we launched during the Smart Transfers project. Using Figma prototypes, we discovered that our original design was great for people who understood the Smart Transfers concept. Our testers helped us design a version that actually guided first-time users through various functionalities. 

Today, we’re seeing a record number of account transfers from other brokerages and daily record numbers of new account signups. To accommodate this growth, we’re growing the team as well, which is exciting and gratifying. 

It’s important to note, though, that we don’t see December’s launch as an endpoint. We’re all happy to see the growth numbers I cited, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re going to continue to learn and improve the super app that we’ve envisioned from the start. 

The successful office of the future will be a deliberate hybrid 

It definitely wasn’t in my plan to launch a major product with a fully remote team. And at the start of last year, we couldn’t have done it successfully. We just didn’t have all the practices and infrastructure in place to achieve the deep, continuous collaboration that’s so central to our process. 

That’s changed – and the work we did to change has made us a much stronger organization. We hired our first fully remote employees, and we’re eagerly recruiting more. Thanks to the circumstances forced on us by the pandemic, we’ve developed a remote culture that’s as dynamic as what we had (and will have again!) in the office.  

More importantly, we now have the tools, processes, and norms in place to ensure that both in-office and remote team members function as equal parts of a truly collaborative hybrid. 

Having achieved what we did with the Smart Transfers launch, I firmly believe that this is the clearest path toward building a thriving and resilient organization moving forward: neither a complete return to offices nor a mass exodus, but rather a genuinely hybrid organization structured to reap the benefits of both models and deliver a top-tier employee experience to every team, regardless of where they work. 

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