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by Coupang Design Jan 14. 2021

Embracing New Challenges

Former Airbnb designer chooses Coupang


Keenan Cummings who studied graphic design started his career in New York as a designer at a design & branding agency. He later shifted gears and co-founded a startup in 2011 where he launched Days - a visual diary app. The highly-valued app was later acquired by Yahoo two years into business. Afterwards Cummings joined Airbnb as a product design director where he released a series of products over the course of six years. He is continuing his design ventures as a director in the Product UX Team at Coupang.


This article was edited in the first person’s view based on an interview with Cummings.

 

What do we consider when looking for a new job? It’s probably the company value, potential for personal growth, corporate and team culture, compensation, timing, and industry reputation to name a few. As for me, I always ask myself the following two questions when it comes to choosing a company.


1. What’s the company worth? Will it continue to grow?

2. What would be my role in the growing organization?


As I was mulling over several offers, a recruiter from Coupang reached out to me. Coupang’s present and future as described by the recruiter sounded intriguing, so I did my homework to find the answer to my two questions. Here is what I discovered to be Coupang’s values and what I contemplated about in the process of gaining confidence in the answers I found.



What I discovered

while researching about Coupang


Frankly speaking, it was hard to relate to the recruiter’s words when I was told that Coupang was one of the fastest growing companies. Since I wasn’t too familiar with the e-commerce business and knew nothing about Korean companies, I had to collect information and refer to available materials.



According to the articles I read, the Korean market is ideal for e-commerce businesses. It is not only one of the most densely populated economies but also boasts world class Internet and smartphone penetration rate with super fast connectivity. Such a unique environment enables logistics including e-commerce and delivery to move smoothly.


A significant portion of products sold on Coupang is delivered on the same day or next day at dawn. Today, fast delivery is particularly helpful for customers’ daily lives as shopping offline has been restricted. Coupang has been able to quickly respond to rapid changes in the market thanks to building its own fulfillment center nationwide over the years.


Korean consumers are known to embrace new technology and easily adapt to changes in the environment. About fifteen years ago, I lived in Korea for two years or so as part of a volunteering mission and people were already buying stuff on their flip phones even before Apple Pay or Google Pay Send was available. Against this backdrop, Coupang started to build a well-knitted fulfillment network for Korean customers who were ready to adopt new technology. After gaining some understanding about Korea’s e-commerce market and Coupang’s fulfillment prowess, I was able to envision what role I could play here. This was the most ideal place to bring ideas to the table, test with an MVP (minimum viable product) and instantly receive feedback! I was mesmerized by an environment that was hardly imaginable elsewhere.


The delivery war in Korea’s e-commerce market is extremely fierce according to different media I’ve been exposed to. Competitors with a sound business model can quickly catch up in a market where entry barriers are low and well-established infrastructures are readily available. This is where innovation comes into play to seize the market first. To make this happen Coupang chose the option of building fulfillment centers. Other e-commerce businesses that utilize existing fulfillment systems are constrained in terms of managing prices and delivery at their own will. Meanwhile, Coupang was able to accelerate its delivery by reducing legacy processes leveraging its own logistics network. Cost saved from removing logistics fees by directly procuring numerous retail products was then invested back into customer services. Simply put, Coupang eliminated the intermediary process between sellers and customers via direct procurement and delivery which helped it successfully gain a competitive edge in ‘delivery experience’ and ‘price’ that is highly valued by customers.


What I saw as Coupang’s unique value was the fact that it had direct control over everything from logistics to price and services as it strives to offer best-of-class customer service. For me, this kind of environment in itself felt like an opportunity to take on a bigger challenge. Coupang’s fulfillment capacity went beyond simply saving cost and appeared to be correlated with its service quality and competitive advantage. It felt like Coupang was building a tangible platform with actual customer touch points. This is why I believed that if these elements are even further enhanced, Coupang can become more deeply woven into customers’ daily lives.


To become indispensable in everyday lives. This is Coupang’s ultimate goal. I recall seeing a phrase about how we are creating a world in which customers think ‘How did we ever live without Coupang?’ in the welcome card I received on my first day at work. This statement made my heart beat as a challenge seeker. Perhaps the audacity to become a trailblazer amidst intense competition is embedded in the shared ‘customer experience centric’ mindset among all Coupang employees. Now as I join the journey at Coupang that has infinite growth potential, I can resonate with the message in that welcome card even more.



What I’ve realized

through self reflection


When I gauge the value of a company, I also need to ponder about how much I can contribute to the company and in which capacity I can do so as well as what kind of changes that will mean for me. So I asked myself the following five questions.



1. Is this an appealing service?

Comprehensive e-commerce services like Coupang are interwoven into the fabric of everyday lives as such a wide range of products are offered. Indeed this was an intriguing point for a product person like myself. While the purchase interval is long for travel services almost being an annual occasion, commerce services focused on household essentials tend to have shorter intervals. This is why we can deeply penetrate into customers’ lives and solve problems.


2. Will there be compelling challenges?

For me, this is the most important factor in selecting a company. When it comes to work I always need to be in an environment that is stimulating. One of the most interesting conversations I had with UX team leaders and POs was about launching and landing culture. While there are companies that pour a lot of effort into building a product and after its launch create a new team for another launch, Coupang focuses on soft landing the product once it is launched. This is an iterative process in which problems are discovered and root causes are investigated and solved as we attempt to permeate customers’ daily lives. We make hypotheses and run tests for hundreds of customer scenarios. This is far different from how I previously worked with engineering, marketing and PR to launch a large scale project over the course of a year. Getting acclimated to this new kind of environment feels like a big challenge for me.


I often followed my intuition when it came to making decisions. However, at Coupang problems are solved based on exhaustive hypotheses and validations rather than someone’s intuition. This is why all members can make decisions with an autonomous mindset and logical thinking. Since joining the company, I’ve also been working on validating and diving deep into hypotheses to gain new perspectives on viewing problems.


3. What role does the company expect me to play?

Coupang doesn’t want design leads who can simply design well. They were in need of a leader who can determine the business impact of a design and take a flexible approach between design and business.


When I was previously running my own business for about two years, I got hands on experience in not only design but also business tasks. I had to come up with a business plan, build an app, do all the branding and design, manage a team as well as prepare for IR to get funding. In my previous role leading the growth team, I also had to gain deep understanding about the business while serving as the PM to create a business model. In essence, I had to wear multiple hats from managing the entire team and making business plans to analyzing numbers with UX researchers and data scientists. As a result, I’m accustomed to considering various factors that impact business metrics when designing products thanks to such a wide range of experience. This is how I believe I can fulfill my responsibilities starting from devising a comprehensive strategy for each step to delivering business goals through actual operations.


4. Can I be a positive influence to my colleagues?

So I thought carefully about what kind of role I could play in contributing to the growth of the team. There was a common theme that came up in my conversations with the leads. It was the fact that Coupang’s designers always take business impact into account and approach problems with the objective to make our customers’ lives better. My goal is to help further nurture such brilliant minds. While respecting legacy processes that have been upheld with confidence till this day, I aspire to become a senior member who is approachable and can fill the void in areas required for growth. Furthermore, I hope I can imbue an unwavering spirit of repeatedly challenging oneself across the team even if it means taking risks. In fact I have confidence that when one ultimately achieves great results by overcoming their shortcomings, they can take their growth to another level.


Being a senior designer, I want to serve as a mentor who understands and can resonate with each individual’s emotions. If I were to set aside the language and cultural barriers when conversing with team members, I believe I will be able to build trust by discussing our common values with a sincere attitude. While I have no trouble communicating at work thanks to a team of professional interpreters and translators, I think I need to work on my Korean to build a deeper relationship with the team. Hopefully one day I’ll be fluent enough to share our thoughts on growth and empathize at a deeper level.



 

Almost two months

since joining Coupang.


I can sense that changes in our environment as rapid as Rocket Delivery is a manifestation of the company’s growth. Moreover, colleagues I work with are always full of energy. Not only is our scale and culture comparable to that of leading companies in Silicon Valley but we pride ourselves in having even more exciting opportunities.


During my time here I’ve been quite impressed by all the team members. Regardless of seniority and experience, everyone thinks hard about the root cause of a problem, business impact and different variables based on a well streamlined process at Coupang. The entire team puts their heads together to discuss and solve strategic problems regardless of rank.


My expectations for growing alongside wonderful teammates at Coupang is high. But I don’t plan on thinking too far ahead. In hindsight, my assumption about the future was always off-target. Instead I’ll only appreciate the fact that there will be significant changes in my career and keep my options open. Just like I’ve experienced and learned tremendously starting my own company as well as through design systems, growth hacking, branding and many other projects, I’m actually thrilled to see what’s in store at Coupang in terms of opportunities and learning. Despite some failures I may experience during the course, I am ready to embrace it all.



Interviewee Keenan

Illustration by Erica

Edited by Ella

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