Udi Milo of Lyft: “Start with who and why, and then do a test”
Udi Milo is the Head of Product for Lyft’s Driver and Passenger Growth Team. As part of his role, Udi oversees all driver and rider incentives and bonus programs, and sets long term marketplace strategy to continue to accelerate the growth of the business.
Prior to his current role, Udi was working on social products at Pinterest and leading several engagement product efforts at LinkedIn across both mobile and desktop. He’ll be speaking at this year’s Lean Startup Conference. Meanwhile, we talked with him about making connections both personally and professionally, what he likes to do in his spare time, and the values that span work and home.
You started your career at LinkedIn. Were there specific reasons you chose to begin there?
When I finished business school in 2012, I was looking for where I wanted to make an impact. I tried to find a place where I could do good for the world, do good for myself, my community, and my family, and where I could grow as an individual and a professional. LinkedIn sounded like a great place to work in 2012, slightly after IPO when it was not as big as it is today, but still fairly large. I geared towards them because of this idea that they can actually help make people more productive and successful in their professional lives.
I saw a company that was extremely mission-driven from the top down, so from Jeff, who is a very impressive leader, all the way through and through, I saw a company that consistently chose benefiting its members over benefiting short-term company value or shareholder value.
When I decided it was time for me to move on and challenge myself, I decided to choose companies that are going to do well for themselves and for their employees, but also do good for the world and eventually help people excel.
How did that lead you to Pinterest?
At LinkedIn, we helped professionals become better while they’re at work. With Pinterest what I was looking for is: can I help them be better and be more productive, happy and joyful in anything but work? Can I help you be a better father? And a better husband? And a better chef? Can you learn how to draw? Would you like to get inspired about art? What about if you collect knives, or kites, or anything else that’s visual? I wanted to provide a path for people to answer “How do I make my life richer?”
Once I decided that I was looking for an acceleration post-Pinterest, essentially I was looking for mentorship, and more complex product challenges in a competitive environment.
And you found that at Lyft? That’s an interesting progression because it’s also about people making connections in another way.
A friend told me to go and look at Lyft, and talk to Ran Makavy, who is now the SVP of ride-sharing at Lyft — when I joined in 2016 he was the VP of Growth. The company had 16% share at the time, starting to show accelerated growth, but nobody actually thought that this could be what it is today, and I still think we’re only getting started.
Ran asked if I wanted to focus on drivers or riders. I immediately chose the driver’s side. The driver is an audience that has been struggling for a long period of time, and it’s an audience that does not get a lot of support from many brands or partners because they don’t have a lot of market power as individuals. Think about it in terms of their bank account, or credit card loans, or even access to credit. Whether it’s funding for their car, funding for their house, healthcare, etc. We can do a lot of good for these people so I chose this role to grow the business, but grow it in a way that is very in line with my core values. I want to work in a place that does good for people, and does good for the company, and the shareholders, as well, but also for the core audience, which are the riders and the drivers.
Can you say a little about how you’re doing that?
I can tell you that for two and a half years at Lyft, I’ve shipped multiple experiences, mostly on the financial side, that have continuously simplified offers. We made programs that are easier for the individual drivers to understand and act on. We made it such that drivers do much less mental math, as compared to 2016, in order to figure out how to make more money. In the last three years, when I look at the actual numbers, when I look at what drivers earn — when I look how much money we’re actually generating for this audience, I’m extremely proud of what we did. We’re increasing well-being across multiple aspects of this business, delivering great service for riders while making drivers better off.
On the rider’s side, we’re making this service more accessible to more people. You can actually see changes that are happening in how people consume living in the city. And people who didn’t have access to transportation before, whether it’s that they didn’t have public transportation next to them, or it was too expensive for them, have an offering from Lyft that allows them to move around. Whether it’s to go to work without a car or commute to friends, it keeps creating more and more economic opportunities for them. That’s part of my personal vision, and I hope to continue with that.
From our CEO all the way down to the people that I work with, everybody shares this vision that yes, this is a business and we want to be profitable in the long-term, but not at the expense of our community, both the drivers and the riders.
I love what you said about Pinterest being the companion to LinkedIn, the personal dimension of connecting people to what they’re interested in. Are there ways in which these values that you put front and center at work come into your personal life as well?
I try to mix the principles by which I live my life and lead my team. One of them is total honesty. That’s the way that I show up for work, I show up as a spouse and as a father. The behavior I try to model is the following: I would like to be very honest and constructive with the way that I approach you and our relationship, especially as we critique work as a product leader. I try to both learn from and teach people in the organization. This business is extremely complex, and so is raising kids, and being in a relationship, and one of the things I’ve found to be extremely helpful is to try to have as little subtext and nuance as possible, and to be more open about how I feel. How do I think about problems and try to communicate in a way that is as unambiguous as possible so that people always know where I stand? That’s also my expectation for my team. But honesty doesn’t mean brutal honesty. You can be very respectful to the person, whether it’s respecting them as a human being, respecting them as a professional, respecting their opinions, and still be completely disagreeing with them.
Creating this balance in the way we communicate is something that I try to bring into both work and life. I think that being a product manager is a way of thinking that you carry with you throughout life. It’s a form of curiosity that I’ve tried to teach my kids from a young age. For both kids and adults, we should always stop and ask ourselves why things are the way they are. With kids, it’s, “Why do you think a car has four wheels?” At work, it’s, “Why do you think this product works the way it does? Why do you think this outcome is the way it is?” If you think about Lean Startup mentality, one of the things that people always talk about in that relationship is, “We test everything.” And so what I try to do with my team is essentially start with who and why, and then do a test.
What I try to do in both my personal and private life is encourage this: always have a perspective. It doesn’t have to be well-formed. It doesn’t have to be super-informed, but I think that you owe it to yourself to always actually try and predict what is going to happen next, whether or not you know it’s going to work. I think that’s helpful throughout life.
Is there an area where nobody has yet tried innovation that you’d love to see?
One of the things I tried to do with Pinterest was make the service a conversation. I think there’s a lot of strength in small, tight-knit communities that are offline — face-to-face, and in the actual world, around specific topics or specific areas of interest. For example, I spend a lot of time with my kids doing activities and one of the things I love doing is baking. I would love to figure out if there’s a way for me to collaborate on that with people who live close by and who share similar values and also do that with their kids.
At Pinterest we saw that whatever you like to do, whether it’s assisting an employee getting trained, or you like to fly weird looking kites and you love exotic dogs, there are more people like you than you ever imagined. You are not unique in some aspects, which is a good thing. So the combination of the things you like might be, but for each and every one of them, you have friends, and some are closer than you think.
That’s an area that I would like to see us move towards — building these communities around special interests that bridge the online and offline world in a way that creates true friendships, true feeling of belonging, and true joy in life. I worry about that as you see people being obsessed with who they know online, all that stuff about social media. They lose focus on actually engaging with people and that can actually be valuable. Nextdoor is an interesting take on that — the neighborhood perspective about everything. Moving to high-trust, high-friction, high-empathy relationships in a way that also bridges the online and offline is the place that I’m really curious to see how it’s evolved with the next couple years. And I would say there’s a lot of opportunity there. The notion is that you’re not alone is a powerful message.
Do you have a go-to stress relief method?
I do a lot of cycling. And I’m an avid Peloton user. I think the company is fantastic and if you think about their products, they are doing exactly what we’ve been talking about. They’re creating a community of people that gather around shared values and shared interests, so I think they are doing a phenomenal job. I also do real world cycling, mostly with my kids.
Why are you speaking at the conference this year?
I want to talk about the relationship between humans and machines and how we, at Lyft, took this very human intensive management process and made it a much more automated process now. That’s a transition that a lot of people talk about — automation, and whether it take jobs away from people. Instead of this binary good/bad decision, I want to think about empowerment of people via machines. I think about how to figure out a way to think through what are the best things that humans do and that machines do. Then you can actually inspire people to think about a world in which we empower people with smarter and smarter tools, essentially allowing people to go above and beyond their current capabilities.
That’s something that we have done at Lyft, and still continue to do. I think we’ve done a fairly good job in the last couple of years to give our employees more tools to make better decisions. I think that there’s a lot of people that would benefit from hearing some of our approaches and principles that I’ve put in place over the last couple of years, and things that I’ve learned through multiple “trials by fire.” I hope people can avoid making the stupid mistakes that I’ve made, and make their own stupid mistakes instead. If I can save somebody two months of work, and actually accelerate them a little bit, then I have done my thing.