Profile #15: Arnout Hemel – Product Management leader, new Tokyo resident, adventurer

Paul: With 15+ years experience in Product Management, Arnout Hemel's team at Grab in Singapore grew GrabInsure into one of the largest InsureTechs in South East Asia. Arnout relocated to Tokyo in 2021 to start a new life here with his wife.

Arnout and I spoke about his early IT career and transition into product management at Microsoft, his time at Grab, advice for Product Managers, driving a Land Rover from Cape Town to Amsterdam, and more.

Hi Arnout. Thanks for joining me. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

Arnout: I’m a Dutch native, but have lived and worked in Europe, the United States, Singapore, and now Japan. Have worked in product management forever and am still in love with the trade. In my spare time, I run marathons, cycle in the mountains around Fuji or compete in Ironman 70.3.

Your first adventure in Japan was spending six months as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo in 1996. Why did you choose Japan and what was the experience like for you?

I was studying Econometrics at the University of Groningen at that time and worked part-time as a teaching assistant for Prof. Wedel, a renowned scholar in Marketing Research, but also a former European karate champ. As I was also dabbling a bit in karate, he suggested I do the research for my master thesis in Japan with Prof Katahira and that way I could also join a dojo here in Tokyo. Of course, I sucked at karate, but life in Tokyo was both exciting and challenging as I felt like a  complete alien not knowing how to read or speak Japanese, and just finding the way was such an adventure (not having Google Maps or Translate). We had a lot of fun in the gaijin-house I lived in and I also worked part-time in the kitchen at La Fonda de la Madrugada (which still exists, by the way).

Please tell us a little about how your IT career initially developed in the Netherlands and you got into Product Management.

I started out as a management consultant, but while I was at Microsoft I got a chance to become a product manager for the Windows Live services (Hotmail, MSN Messenger, etc..). The Netherlands was quite an advanced market for MSN, but back then a new version of MSN Messenger was released once a year at most. So, instead of waiting for the new product, we decided to build new services on top of the platform. We built games, co-browse shopping experiences, and a lot of chatbots. Every bank, politician and celebrity in the Netherlands had a chatbot. Mind you, this was 2008, not 2018.

During this time you spent your honeymoon driving a 20-year old Land Rover from Cape Town to Amsterdam. That’s quite the honeymoon experience! Tell us about that.

Oh, where to start? It was never the plan to drive all the way back home, but after a few months, we met with some French overlanders on a campsite in Zambia. They were bragging about how difficult it is to drive across the Northern part of Africa, and how easy it is in the South… Well, my wife and I are both quite competitive, so then and there we decided we are going to drive all the way home. We regretted that a few times, especially when a shock absorber broke in the desert of Northern Kenya and when we got hopelessly stuck in deep sand in the Sahara in Sudan…. But apart from all the breakdowns, it was a great adventure. We learned how to repair literally anything on the car, saw the greatest landscapes and wildlife in the world and met the most wonderful people in every country. Best of all: we’re still married 🙂

You did your MBA at MIT in 2012-2013. What was that experience like?

They say that MIT is like drinking from a firehose, and that’s exactly what it is. The people you meet and the cutting edge science that is all around you makes you want to absorb all of it. An incredible experience.

You spent some time working in the US after your MBA before ending up in Singapore in senior product management leadership roles. Tell us about that.

I went to MIT to learn about startups and do a startup myself. Although I worked on several ideas of my own, I ended up joining the EdTech company of a fellow student. That’s where I first experienced how you can find product-market fit by constantly iterating and pivoting your product. We ended up building the #1 standardized test prep app for GMAT, GRE, SAT and a bunch of other standardized tests and it was great to see the hard work being paid off.

On to your most recent role as Head of Product at Grab Insure. Grab is not particularly well known in Japan but was South East Asia’s first ‘decacorn’ and arguably the biggest tech start-up in the region. It’s come a long way since its founding as the MyTeksi ride-hailing service in Malaysia in 2012.

Could you tell us about Grab Insure and your role as Head of Product?

Grab is the Uber for South-East Asia. In fact, both companies competed head to head, but this ended up in Grab buying Uber’s business in SE Asia. It’s the market leader in ride-hailing and food delivery, but also the largest mobile wallet in SE Asia. 

In 2019 Grab expanded its financial services to Lending (driver loans & Buy Now Pay Later) and Insurance, and this is how I joined the company. 

As Head of Product, I was leading a team of very talented product managers and we developed all sorts of insurance products. At first just for our driver partners (accident insurance, income protection), but later on also for consumers. 

What we quickly found out is that although Grab is a Super App, people do not open the app to buy insurance from Grab. They open the app to order a ride or food. The second learning was that insurance doesn’t sell well stand-alone. Think of it: when do you buy travel insurance? Do you go to the website of the insurance company when you think of your holiday, or do you buy it when you book your flight ticket? We call that bundling.

To figure out what kind of insurance product we had to offer to our customers, we knew we had to bundle it with either the ride experience or the food ordering. So, what we did is look at the pain points our customers experienced while booking a ride or ordering food, and see if we could come up with a creative way to solve these pain points. 

Examples of the products we developed are: Ride Cover (extra personal accident insurance for your ride + instant claim payout if the car arrives late for your pickup or cancels on you), GrabFood Priority Delivery (fastest possible delivery of your food + instant claim payout in case the food arrives late).

We are just at the start of our journey, but in less than 2 years, Grab already sold over 130 million policies, which makes it one of the largest InsurTechs in South East Asia.

Now on to your second adventure in Japan! Why did you relocate to Tokyo and what’s next in store for you here?

The reason for me to move to Japan was my wife! She works at UberEats and we moved here for her new role. We arrived in late August and until the end of December I have been working with Grab remotely, but as Grab doesn’t have any business in Japan and life returns to normal in Singapore I wasn’t able to continue remotely. So I’m looking for a new role where I can bring my experience to help build world-class products and teams.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As I’m in between jobs, my day looks quite leisurely. In the mornings I run or cycle as I’m training for the Nagano Marathon in April. After that I do a few hours of job hunting, meeting people for coffee and studying Japanese as I really like to be able to have a simple conversation in Japanese. I still teach part-time Product Management at General Assembly, so on days I have to teach I spend 1-2 hours preparing the lesson. At the end of the day I cook for the family or if I’m lazy we order UberEats (need to use our own product).

What are some of your goals for the future? Personally and/or professionally?

I really enjoy solving problems, creating loveable products and helping the people around me to advance. Although I’m very competitive, I don’t have grand ambitions to become something like the CEO of a multinational. I rather have an impact on the people around me and on the people who use my products. 

As a personal goal, I do want to spend more time travelling the world and running more marathons and ironmans although I doubt I will get faster.

Quickfire questions

– what kind of changes have struck you the most since you arrived in Japan this time, compared to your time here in ‘96?

Apart from the electric bicycles and heated toilet seat, which is a definite improvement, I find it oddly quite the same: back then it was hyper-modern, now it’s… ehh, well maintained.

– what advice would you have for someone just starting their career in product management? What do you think makes a good product manager and how can someone learn to be a better product manager?

By far the most important thing you need to do as a product manager is to think about the customer problem you are trying to solve. Is it really a customer pain point that you are solving or are you solving a business problem? 

Once you have clarity on what’s the customer problem you want to solve, you can come up with a hypothesis on how to solve it. I say hypothesis, as you will only know whether it really solves the problem after you test your hypothesis. 

A good product manager can really figure out what the problem is, has a decent idea about how to solve it, but is great at testing the hypothesis with the least amount of effort. 

Most people call that the MVP, but most MVPs I see are complete products built for eternity, and not meant to test the hypothesis. Why this is bad is because unfortunately, you will be wrong many times about your solution for the problem. Building full products won’t allow you to correct your mistakes quickly. So rather think hard about whether you can test your hypothesis without building product or only with minimal effort.

– how do you learn new skills? Are you studying anything currently?

I sharpen my own skills through my teaching at General Assembly. The questions, the cases that students throw at me help me to get clarity myself. Apart from that, I love to tinker with every product I see and I read a lot about new technology trends.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

My favourite podcast is Reply All which is amusing but also helps me stay up to date. My favourite TV series is This Is Us (on Amazon Prime) but I also enjoyed watching the last season of Ozark as it makes me happy with my (boring) life.

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

Probably Yamato’s ski ta-q-bin service and a ski lift ticket for Nozawa Onsen: never seen so much powder in my life!

And finally, do you have any ask from our readers?

If you are in product management, in greater Tokyo, I would love to meet up for a coffee. Interactions with other people always give me energy and if I can be of any help to you that would be even better.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Arnout! Good luck settling into your new life in Japan!

You can reach Arnout on LinkedIn here.

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