Build category-defining products by putting people first.
7 min read
7 min read
Three lessons that helped shape what Brex Empower is today.
At Brex, we’ve set out to build an exceptional experience for spend management that puts the customer first. While the journey hasn’t always been easy, three lessons from my 20-year career building SaaS businesses at Microsoft, Meta, and Brex have helped shape Empower into what it is today.
Have a vision and the conviction to see it through.
The best products are the result of a bold vision — you have to truly believe that there is a different and better way of doing things than what the world has seen before. Starting with a vision and a set of guiding principles to stay true to that vision is the cornerstone of any great product or experience you are building. A great vision orients all parts of an organization around the same goals and anchors teams on shared focus and direction.
Vision, strategy, and execution should not be conflated — you can be flexible on tactics for execution, but strategy should change infrequently, and organizations should never compromise on vision.
With Brex Empower, we didn’t just want to build another spend management tool. Our vision is to redefine the relationship that employees and finance teams all over the world have with spending money to move their business forward. In doing so, we aim to enable economic opportunity for the workforce in every part of the world as companies become more globally distributed. We built our product to create an incredible customer experience that continuously enables financial compliance without sacrificing speed — two actions rarely coupled together.
For example, here are the key product principles we applied when designing Empower — Brex’s global spend management solution:
Context is king: make it easy to do the right thing
Nobody wants more onerous expense policies, yet that’s how most businesses reign in spending today. To redefine the relationship with spending, we rethought trust and accountability for teams and their leaders.
Companies tend to focus on process, but context is the key to great experiences. Context allows people to understand what to do, how to do it, and most importantly why they should do it.
For Brex, this was a shift in understanding how Empower could deliver a better experience for everyone, not just the finance teams. We focused on budgets — for your team or project, like a team offsite — to make it easy for employees to understand what they can spend on. We then tied expense policies to each budget to make the how and why clear. As a result, an employee traveling to an offsite can easily reference their budget and feel confident that every expense they incur is within policy.
Start with trust
Enterprise software is often designed to prevent a small minority of people from doing the wrong thing. I learned this lesson when building Azure at Microsoft and then again when building Workplace at Meta (Facebook). Similarly, at Brex we firmly believe that employees want their companies to be successful, so we designed Empower for high-trust environments.
Rather than designing it to prevent the 5% from making mistakes by taxing the remaining 95% of employees in a company, we built it with the belief that most employees spend wisely. That means significantly fewer expense justifications, a compliance system built to catch honest mistakes, and an easy way for managers to review exceptions when they happen.
Design for everyone
In 2019, for the first time in history, the workforce spanned five generations — from Baby Boomers to Gen Z. When building Empower, we set out to design for everyone and leveraged learnings from great consumer products to do so. Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp are used by billions of people of all ages — and simplicity is at the cornerstone of their design.
As a result, we designed Empower so it is simple to learn, quick to use and deploy, and mobile-first — so it is with you everywhere.
Don’t just listen to customers — empathize.
At Brex, we’re obsessed with delivering the best quality experiences to our customers. At the heart of all our decisions is a deep understanding of our customers’ problems and empathizing with them. Every company I’ve worked at has been customer-obsessed in its own way:
- At Meta, customers were global in scale and numbered in the billions, so customer obsession had to be analytical and data-driven. Numbers and experiments were a big part of the magic that helped us understand what customers really wanted.
- Microsoft focused on the enterprise, so we were obsessed with living a day in the life of our customers. We’d shadow them, understand their pain points, and figure out what they wanted to achieve.
- Brex has grown alongside its customers, and we’ve worked closely with them every step of the way. The feedback and unique needs of companies, from startups to larger enterprises, have influenced each of our offerings — from credit cards to cash management to financial planning and spend management — and we’ve designed products to keep up with their growth. Our product and engineering teams listen to Gong calls and join for customer deployment and support calls. And instead of running Brex-internal quarterly reviews, we’ve established Customer Advisory Boards that keep us accountable in delivering real value to customers. We know that for Brex to win, our customers need to win.
However, empathy is not only about taking customer feedback to build your roadmap. It’s about understanding the problems they want to solve and more importantly, problems they didn’t even know can be solved.
We learned that lesson early with expense management. We asked customers for their pain points, and one example they shared was that capturing receipts after a meal or a trip was painful and hence wanted us to make taking pictures of receipts easy. We built the features they wanted and added AI to make it amazing … only to be surprised when they told us that they are not ready to replace their old solutions with Brex. We learned the hard way that the world didn’t need another spend management system that worked just like others.
So we went back to the drawing board and reimagined what a modern global spend management solution should do for both finance leaders and employees. In the example above, instead of making receipt collection easier, we signed up for the challenge to automate receipts and remove them from the process altogether!
Similarly, we spent hundreds of hours learning about what legacy systems get wrong and realized the challenge wasn't technical, it was cultural. By empathizing with customers, we conceived an entirely different way of managing spend — one designed to shift the culture of spend rather than simply dialing up features. We lost a few months initially by focusing on what our customers wanted without understanding what they needed. Innovations and breakthroughs don’t happen that way.
Avoid the enterprise innovation trap.
The reality of building software for the enterprise is customers always want more: more features, more pulls, more knobs. This can lead to innovation cycles that optimize for niche use cases. Each one is valuable to a subset of customers, but they make products more cumbersome for people to use. From the WhatsApp team at Meta, I learned that less is more — the bar for adding even an extra word, button, or icon has to be extremely high if you want to build a product with a global appeal and simplicity.
That’s why it’s critical to beware the innovation trap and be selective about which features you support … or not. I learned long ago that 80% of people will only ever use 20% of the features you build, so discipline is imperative to designing customer experiences.
With Empower, Brex is looking at the entire spend management stack from scratch — with no baggage. We still had to make tough decisions and say no to many features we’d considered. That’s where guiding principles help to focus on delivering experiences customers love.
We're not just building a category-defining platform for companies in one country — we're doing it on a global scale. Empower aims to redefine the relationship that employees and companies all over the world have with spending, no matter where they live and work. Today, companies with global employees or subsidiaries don’t have a single spend management platform. They cobble together a jumble of systems and make do with what they have. This is both time consuming and frustrating.
Brex is changing that. We’ve built a great customer experience for the enterprise that puts people first. One that lets companies use a single card program and central expense management system across their business. And it's an experience designed for global, distributed — and trusted — teams. Today's winning companies are operating nimbly and swiftly worldwide. And now they have a spend solution that does too.