Nilesh Khandelwal, Chief Product Officer, Rakuten Rewards

Nilesh Khandelwal is Chief Product Officer at Rakuten Rewards, where he leads international product and design teams to deliver rewarding experiences to Rakuten’s members and merchant partners. As a seasoned product strategist, he has a proven track record in bringing products from concept to market for consumer and enterprise audiences, leveraging technology and data-driven insights to drive greater user experiences.

Previously, Nilesh served as Principal at Arthur D. Little (ADL) and was a member of ADL’s global Telecommunications, Information Technology, Media & Electronics (TIME) practice. He also held leadership positions at several focused technology and media consulting firms, including MAG Consulting Group and Interactive Broadband (IBB) Consulting, where he advised executives on a range of technology opportunities spanning from product strategy and management, digital strategy, cloud computing, data strategy and analytics. Nilesh was also a co-founder and former CEO of NumerX, an analytics company acquired by MuleSoft.

As a leader who values innovation through collaboration and has been effective in mobilizing global teams, Nilesh’s success story is indeed an inspiration to many.

Career Trajectory

Nilesh earned an MBA in marketing, entrepreneurship, and strategic management from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Science in electrical engineering and computer sciences from Ohio University, and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mumbai University, India. He began his career as an engineer, building large-scale enterprise and consumer applications. He developed an aptitude for solving the intricacies of interconnected systems, and his curiosity in simplifying those intricacies led him to pursue management consulting, which allowed him to apply his analytical mind to solve wider business and product problems.

However, the key to his success hasn’t been just about doing strategy but rather combining that with his prior engineering background to build game-changing products across media and retailers such as Motorola, Scholastic, and Univision. Along the way, Nilesh also dabbled in entrepreneurship, co-founding NumerX, a data analytics company. “Bootstrapping the company, getting early customers, and then exiting to Mulesoft gave me important lessons in the full lifecycle of product and business,” shares Nilesh.

Embracing New Challenges

In Dec 2021, Nilesh took on the role of Chief Product Officer at Rakuten Rewards, a leading shopping and cash back company that brings together advertisers and shoppers to provide rewarding experiences to consumers. The company is a division of Rakuten Group, Inc., a Japanese global leader in internet services headquartered in Tokyo.

After joining, Nilesh noticed that Rakuten Rewards was among a few companies that could live at the intersection of digital advertising and fintech, where the line between product discovery, price discovery, and payment is blurring. Bringing all these pieces together has been a positive and welcome challenge for Nilesh and his team. He humbly asserts, “My goal, ever since I joined Rakuten, is to make our experience more rewarding. We do this by increasing the scale, with more members and merchants on the platform, more ways to give rewards and more ways to redeem rewards.”

Leading Successful Initiatives through Innovation & Collaboration

At Rakuten Rewards, innovation comes from a truly cross-pollinating product and engineering team consisting of designers, researchers, UX writers, product managers, and engineers working closely with their business counterparts. They depend on project managers to create the proper process that removes roadblocks and increases transparency through communication and collaboration. “The real magic happens when we all put our innovative minds together,” shares Nilesh.

Last year, Nilesh gave his team the freedom to think outside the box to streamline onboarding involving product and engineering. The team challenged a key tenant of Rakuten Rewards’ business quite successfully. Nilesh explains, “We started with a design sprint last year that set about to do away with existing conventions and reimagine an onboarding experience that deals with our members’ pain points and moves the business forward. We then partnered with our business and marketing partners and chipped away at the experience one a/b test at a time. We also took bold risks throughout our busiest times, including our anniversary sale that we call Big Give Week and during Cyber Five.” With this change, the company increased signups, first-time buyers, and retention while keeping marketing spend under check. “The process to get there and the people who took us there are as important to celebrate as the actual results itself,” states Nilesh.

Making the Customer Experience More Rewarding

One of the earliest things Nilesh did after joining Rakuten Rewards was to identify the company’s position in the market and its success drivers. To achieve this, he laid out frameworks for both business and product that he used as a filter for identifying new opportunities. “It was important to emphasize that our general strategy doesn’t change, even if our tactics might,” mentions Nilesh. Moreover, their research showed that members wanted Rakuten Rewards’ experience to matter to them, make it easy for members to discover deals and make the experience more rewarding. Consequently, those made the three pillars of Rakuten Rewards’ experience – Personalization, Discovery, and Re-Engagement.

As a result, Rakuten Rewards’ experience has started to change, with its homepage going through the most significant change this holiday season with greater personalization at its core. In fact, the entire experience is on its way to being highly personalized. Nilesh shares that they have already changed their onboarding through a re-engagement feature they call ‘Rewards Hub’ that keeps bringing members back for more shopping. He adds, “Re-engagement isn’t just a feature; it’s a philosophy of building features. We want to engage members where they are and, when engaged, provide value that keeps them wanting to come back.”

Having a Global Team is an Asset

As a global company, Rakuten Rewards has either operations or ProdDev teams working together across numerous countries. Nilesh admits that such geographical distribution has its own challenges, but it also provides an opportunity for 24×7 ops on the broader product and engineering context. He further states that they have started a series of communications to keep the entire ProdDev team plugged in. From product ideation design critiques to showing demos to celebrating successful product launches, they have rituals that allow the entire ProdDev team to understand and keep up with progress throughout the organization. Likewise, the company also sends out a ‘Big Fat Newsletter’ to communicate long-form updates and applaud people going above and beyond (an homage to the Big Fat Checks that Rakuten issues to members). Nilesh ultimately feels that having a global team has proved to be an asset for Rakuten Rewards, especially as the company continues to scale and expand its business.

Understanding your Customer is Key to Success

At Rakuten Rewards, Nilesh and his team work tirelessly to understand their users’ needs. Some of the ways they do this is by having a team of researchers conduct both quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews to understand their consumers, their needs and their habits. Even though the entire process is complex, Nilesh believes understanding your customer is crucial to success as a product manager. He adds, “It is easy to get drawn into a feature your competitor is building, but we try to keep our eye on our customers all the time.”

A perfect example is how Nilesh and his team tried to understand the change in user behavior from the historical norm. What they realized is that with the pandemic, consumer’s ecommerce habits changed. This not only changed Rakuten Rewards’ member habits, but also changed the company’s member base itself. Hence, understanding how their members evolved allowed Nilesh and his team to create features that resonate with their members.

Words of Wisdom

According to Nilesh, the greatest product managers are storytellers, but their stories must be backed by data and facts. In addition, they must also answer the ‘so what,’ which becomes the story in the form of a new business case, a new solution option, or even a new product offering. Hence, aspiring product managers should know how to communicate their stories in a way that people understand the best.

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