OKRs for Nerds

NerdWallet created both culture and processes to help consumers make healthier financial decisions.

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A pre-pandemic Federal Reserve report found that almost 40% of Americans don’t have enough in savings to cover a $400 emergency. A Northwestern Mutual survey revealed that 56% of Americans don’t know how much they’ll need to retire comfortably. And according to a FINRA Foundation survey, only 34% of respondents could correctly answer 4 out of 5 basic financial literacy questions.

COVID-19 only exacerbated these problems, as consumers grappled with such issues as refinancing mortgages, withdrawing retirement funds, reducing insurance coverage, and applying for additional lines of credit. The wrong decisions, often based on a lack of knowledge, can turn a bad situation into something much worse.

Since its founding in 2009, NerdWallet has been helping to close the financial literacy gap. It’s become the go-to source for information on every topic — from credit cards to mortgages to insurance. It’s not the only, or even the first, company to offer this type of financial information. However, the San Francisco-based startup has 160 million users and revenue that exceeds $150 million annually, making it one of the best at what it does.

Making the right money moves

“We believe OKRs are the most powerful and effective way to make sure that the company continues to grow and stays focused on the right priorities,” explains Kelly Gillease, NerdWallet’s CMO. On a company-wide level, she credits OKRs with ensuring team alignment: that every employee understands the company’s goals — and their individual and departmental roles in working to achieve those goals.

It’s normal to experience pushback when rolling out new processes, since employees tend to resist change. However, NerdWallet has been using OKRs as its primary tool for collaborative goal setting since the company was founded in 2009. “They’re embedded into our culture and processes,” Gillease says.

Originally, OKRs were only implemented at organization-wide and department levels, until the company discovered that many teams actually preferred this goal-setting framework over other methods. “Because OKRs were so well received, we expanded to implement them at a more granular level than required.” And now, Gillease says many teams and even individual employees set personal OKRsfor each quarter.

“Each individual team at NerdWallet sets its own OKRs for the year with the biggest goals bubbling up into department OKRs that then feed into corporate OKRs.” Since there are so many teams involved, NerdWallet uses shared Google Spreadsheets to track its progress against goals.

Each team usually has its own share out of company OKRs and team leads provide updates of their progress and results during our quarterly business reviews.”

The company also offers unlimited paid time off, and 100% paid parental leave. In fact, each quarter, NerdWallet leadership identifies one to two OKRs to encourage cultural changes throughout the company. Gillease says it has also set OKRs relating to diversity, equity and inclusion each quarter. “We want to make certain we are continuing progress towards our goal of an entirely unbiased, equal, and diverse company.”

The only challenge the company faced was identifying the best measurement to show progress against its OKRs. “Historically, this has been a challenge, but through our hypothesize, build, measure, learn (HBML) process, we are able to identify the most effective measurements for our specific OKRs.” Gillease believes that there’s a natural evolution in which metrics are measured in OKRs across different stages. “At the launch of something new, or a proof of concept test, we may care more about engagement or retention than immediate monetization, and focus on that for OKRs initially.” Over time, she says it makes sense to evolve and focus on the ultimate goal of that feature or campaign, for example, monetization or acquisition.

Kelly Gillease, NerdWallet’s CMO

Putting OKRs into action

“Once we have identified our OKRs for the quarter, we begin to move into the execution phase,” says Gillease, “[that’s] where all of our employees and teams begin to align their daily activities to our company goals.”

Of course, the only thing predictable about financial markets is that they are unpredictable. To identify patterns early and adjust smoothly requires the company to work in sync. Gillease credits OKRs with keeping the entire team aligned. And the more aligned the Nerds (as they call NerdWallet employees) are, the more likely the company is to achieve success.

One example of such team alignment was the launch of the Money Questions campaign in 2019. “Money Questions” was the company’s first national brand campaign designed to answer emotional money questions like, “Am I supposed to be investing?” and “How do people buy a house?”

“Through setting our OKRs, we knew that we wanted to improve our overall brand awareness and increase traffic to the website,”Gillease says. The campaign led to a spike in business and also reaccelerated NerdWallet’s credit cards vertical. “It was ultimately successful because everyone in the company was aware of our goals and aligned on how each team could help achieve these goals.”

The ability to track progress against goals is another benefit. Nerds receive monthly and quarterly updates at the all-hands meetings. “Whether we’re meeting, exceeding or falling short of our goals, we make a point to be as transparent with our employees as possible so we can collaborate to determine why we achieved or did not achieve a goal, and what we learned from the process.” Some companies like to hold this type of information close to the vest. But Gillease believes that being so transparent ensures that everyone is in the loop and aligned — so everyone can work together to achieve the company’s goals.

The “pandemic-pivot”: easier with OKRs

The global pandemic has necessitated changes in every industry, and NerdWallet is no different.

The company reassessed their OKRs to make sure they were still achievable and also relevant for the new normal. “We re-assessed very early on, right as the first lockdown was starting in the Bay Area, because we wanted to quickly make changes given the rapidly-unfolding situation.” After that, the company continued to adapt and pivot as the situation developed further in meaningful ways. With a few modifications, most of the OKRs were still achievable.

“We were able to adjust our content to provide resources on pandemic-related financial questions regarding unemployment, stimulus checks, debt relief, changing travel policies and managing finances.” The company also created a dedicated content hub to provide consumers with the resources needed to guide their personal finance decision-making in the COVID-19 economy. “Also, the marketing team adjusted its social and CRM strategy to highlight this important new content.”

And the new strategy worked so well that Gillease says the company has reached historically high audience engagement levels.

Another COVID-19 change: working remotely. Many companies make the mistake of trying to create a remote environment that mirrors in person work. However, this strategy fails to consider how the pandemic has upended families. “Since our entire team was now working from home, we set specific OKRs to minimize the amount of time spent in meetings and allow for better work-life balance for employees that were now faced with additional challenges such as the loss of daycare or school for children.”

It’s not always easy to balance the needs of employees with the needs of customers. But creating this type of win-win scenario can lead to even greater success. When employees know the company cares about them as individuals, they’re more likely to be engaged and committed to the organization’s goals.

“Making sure our OKRs tie to outcomes we want to see for consumers helps make sure consumers stay at the forefront of all the work we do,” Gillease says. “OKRs tied to work, like making content more discoverable, making shopping experiences easier, or sending more relevant and timely communications, all lead to a better experience for consumers, and ultimately better clarity for all of life’s financial decisions, which is NerdWallet’s mission.”

If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.

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