Payments people is our new interview series celebrating leaders in the payments industry. We discuss the experiences that have shaped them as they share their tips for navigating a career in payments.
Our first guest is Airbnb’s Colleen Graneto, who has combined a career as a product manager and leader with coaching and mentorship or, as Colleen puts it, “helping others find their groove”. In this interview, we find out how she found her own groove while successfully balancing her professional passions.
Tell us a bit about your role at Airbnb. You’ve been there six years: how did you get to where you are now?
I’m a product manager in the Payments and Commerce Platform team at Airbnb. Right now, I'm working on all the touchpoints where we provide payments data to our hosts, guests, our community and to our internal teams. Our community trusts us to look after their money and to facilitate smooth transactions for their bookings.
It’s really important that we can provide them with the specific data they're looking for, where they're looking for it. And it’s a challenge because you can imagine the amount of data we’re working with day in, day out. So there's a lot of work that goes into making that happen at scale.
I’ve worked in several teams at Airbnb, but my first payments-related role was on the host side of the market, helping them understand how they receive their money and how they analyse their performance on the platform — basically any interaction a host has with payments data. This role then expanded to both host and guest experiences, looking at data more holistically.
It’s clear you're focused on big, strategic initiatives in your role at Airbnb, but what motivates you?
When I think back to all the milestones and great experiences in my career, it has always come down to helping entrepreneurs and creators build a business around their passions. I like being a small part of making that possible.
Whether it’s someone with a talent for baking, sewing, jewellery making — whatever it might be — I love bringing to life the economy that supports those talents. I’ve been an Etsy seller myself, so I know the power these kinds of marketplaces can have.
When I look back, it’s 100% one of the key things that has kept me at Airbnb all these years. Airbnb hosts are basically running their own small businesses. I love that connection to helping businesses thrive, and working in the Payments and Commerce team is a key part of powering that marketplace.
You mentioned “looking back.” How did you realise what it is that drives you?
It’s definitely worth looking in the rear-view mirror from time to time. Really thinking about how I got here helped me figure out my love of small businesses. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. It wasn’t what I set out to do. But when I realised it, it was clear it has been the driving motivation for my career so far.
I actually started in finance and my goal at that time was to work in a global treasury organisation or consulting role, and eventually get a PhD in international finance. It was in my first role at Procter & Gamble, in the treasury department, where I realised I loved product management, even though I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time.
I was building all of the systems and tools for how we did international cash movement, short-term cash investment strategy and risk management. I really loved understanding what the ‘customer’ — internal, in this example — wanted and needed and delivering it for them.
What really excites me about product management is the creativity it requires. It might not seem like a hugely creative role. But when you're diving deep into something, going through things with a fine-tooth comb, upskilling and unblocking yourself, making meaningful changes, that requires creativity.
It sounds like the Payments and Commerce team at Airbnb is very busy. With so much going on, what habits help you thrive in the chaos?
It’s true that working in payments in a product management role brings together two pretty chaotic disciplines that are always evolving.
The first thing that’s helped me thrive in payments is a beginner’s mindset. Your product is changing. Your customer is changing. Your competitors are changing. You always need to stay on top of what's new, so looking at everything as a learning opportunity, withholding judgement, is vital.
The other mindset that stands out is whenever you start a project or have a problem to solve, think about what’s possible before self-limiting with risk mitigation.
Identifying risks, constraints and potential pitfalls are important parts of product management, but if we do that part first we automatically limit what we can achieve before we even get started. Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO and Co-founder, has this mantra of imagining the ideal outcome and working backwards. Doing that explicitly requires thinking big.
The payments industry, with all the regulations and the compliance, the changing complexities and the nuances, can oftentimes feel overwhelming, but that can’t stop us from thinking big. If we get overwhelmed by those things, then we just get stuck with the status quo.
I know you’re an avid reader. What book has helped you most in your career?
Can I pick two books? One is more product focused, while the other is more career focused.
The first is Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Ed Catmull is the Co-Founder of Pixar Studios, and the book is all about the power of thinking big, and how to structure your creative process to make that happen.
It gives some great lessons about getting immersed in the lives of your customers. I loved the story about how, for Finding Nemo, the producers became certified scuba divers and took tours of water treatment plants. And that’s part of the reason why the film seems so natural. I think approaching any creative endeavour or project in that manner sets you up for success.
The second book is Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The two authors are teachers at Stanford School of Design. The book came from their incredibly popular class that helped graduating seniors use design thinking to figure out what they wanted to do with their careers.
When I first started in my career, it felt like the options in finance were to be a consultant, an investment banker, an accountant or go work in finance at a company. That was it. I didn’t really understand what else was out there or what I really wanted to do. This book teaches you the importance of testing and experimentation in building a career, and with that approach, how to craft a career from things that give you energy and excitement, plus gives some useful frameworks for how to apply it all in real life.
It was through reading this book that I zeroed in more on my career, in terms of the types of products I wanted to work on, the industries I wanted to be in and the roles I wanted to have.
As well as Colleen the product manager, there’s also Colleen the mentor and coach. How did this part of your professional life come about?
Looking back, it all started when I was deciding what to study in university. I was considering majoring in education, business, or going to art school. I obviously chose business school, but working in product management itself, and coaching and mentoring have allowed me to achieve all three in one career.
Coaching and mentoring has been a part of my professional life from the beginning, helping people who worked for me or with me progress in their careers, but I decided to start doing it outside of my core job when I got involved with General Assembly. I took a course on front-end web development and remember thinking “this is really fun,” because the teachers were approachable and it was taught in a very practical, hands-on way.
That course, coupled with me reflecting on how I’ve gotten lucky with really strong managers that helped coach me, made me realise I wanted to help others build their careers. I knew there were things I could teach, especially around product management and agile delivery. And since I’d had such a good learning experience at General Assembly, that’s where I chose to begin my journey.
That was seven years ago. I also now coach in a product management course at UC Berkeley Executive Education, have joined the Maryland Institute College of Art as an adjunct faculty in their Product Management Master’s Program, and I also do some one-to-one coaching and advising on the side.
That’s some serious extracurricular stuff. What is it about coaching and mentoring that brings out the best in you?
There are a few reasons, to be honest. It’s a chance to give back and help others with their careers, in a similar way to how I had help. It’s also really rewarding to see those breakthrough moments, where their skills grow and they get the promotion they wanted, or achieve the goals they set out for themselves.
Selfishly, it also forces me to be a better product manager, as I have to be able to break down concepts for others in a really digestible way. It also gave me a lot of exposure to different products and companies that I hadn’t necessarily come across before. It’s really interesting to see different ways of doing things and embedding those lessons in my own product work and coaching.
What advice would you give to someone today starting out in payments or product management?
Make sure you’re aware of all the opportunities available to you. There are so many interesting payment companies building exciting products. If you're working on a product that you're not excited about, you're not going to bring your best ideas and your best self to work. Keep that beginner’s mindset and you’ll be surprised how often these opportunities — some of which come out of left field — will present themselves to you.
As someone who’s now been focused on payments for a number of years, what’s your biggest prediction for the next five years?
Let me shake my Magic 8-Ball. The only thing I’m sure of is that the movement of money is going to continue to become faster and easier. I look back to when I was running my jewellery business in 2011, and the Square card reader seemed revolutionary. Now it seems normal.
I also see ownership and control moving further to the consumer, versus financial institutions, just like we’re seeing with open banking. We, as consumers, will have more choice and flexibility on how we pay. But I also find it interesting that the array of choices can make it seem more complicated, because there are sometimes too many options to choose from. It actually creates more friction, and we will need to find a way to balance that.
Who are the go-to people, in the world of product management or payments, who you turn to to learn from?
There are quite a few, although I wish there were more people sharing specifics from working on payment products. One new thing I’m listening to is Lenny's Podcast. Lenny, who used to be a PM at Airbnb, interviews some rockstar PMs and gets into the details on what people have done in their careers, how they did it and what they learned. Two others I’ve read and followed consistently over my career are Marty Cagan who writes a blog and has a few books that are must reads, and Ben Thompson, who writes a weekly newsletter called Stratechery.
Final question: where in the world would your ideal Airbnb destination be?
Somewhere in the Italian countryside. I’d actually love to open my own Airbnb there. My distant family is from Italy and I’m pursuing my Italian citizenship. So you never know, my dream Airbnb could become a reality one day.