As Amazon’s lead of creator product for audio, Will Farrell-Green’s curious, engineer-oriented mind, keen interest in business – and the skills he gained through his MBA – all provide advantages. But the San Francisco-based alumnus says being a Kiwi can sometimes do the opposite.
“I’m in a unique position and I’m very lucky,” Will explains. “At the same time, doing business up here is very different to New Zealand – you’ve got to find a balance of being unique to the environment and being true to yourself.”
While the Kiwi style of ‘saying it how it is’ can sometimes come across as abrupt in a US business environment, Will has landed in a comfortable place: “You don’t need to follow everything. Amazon really embraces the global approach and my style’s different, and people like that. Some of the ways that I operate are definitely to my advantage.”
Leading creator product and distribution across Amazon’s audio platforms (Alexa, Audible and Kindle) means that on an ordinary day, Will has a few hundred product and engineering resources reporting to him globally. Many are based in Amazon’s HQ of Seattle and others are in Texas, the East Coast of the US, Asia and Europe.
“Amazon is doing a push in audio right across all its platforms, and my team basically builds products to meet that demand.” One of those products is the Audiobook Creator Exchange. It allows independent creators to distribute audio content through all Amazon platforms, “so that everyday authors, narrators and podcasters can come and basically have a career through Amazon”.
Launching that product was career-defining for Will. “It wasn’t just a project; you’re enabling a way of working, enabling people who thought they would need to be signed by a publisher. They can now earn money, make a living, and I’m very proud of that.
“That’s what I love, that’s true tech – where you are enabling things or you’re disrupting technologies, and growing at scale, and we’ve already seen it’s got massive opportunities.”
When he started as an undergraduate with AUT, it’s fair to say it seemed unlikely we’d find Will leading product and engineering for one of the globe’s technology giants. Retiring from an international career as a professional triathlete, Will had sights on becoming a physiotherapist, but realising it wasn’t the career for him he pivoted and completed a science degree.
“I had an interest in business so I finished that degree and then got a job – that’s what led me to the MBA.” The move from science to management consulting for KPMG then PwC came with a need to acquire a set of financial and analytical skills.
He was drawn to AUT’s MBA programme because it offered the flexibility to study part-time and keep progressing his career.
His MBA provided invaluable financial skills that he now applies to his job every day – where he has a massive amount of data at his fingertips.
“Being able to model and forecast financials, and look really deeply at it from an analytical perspective. Without the MBA I would not have been able to tell you what a P&L looked like or how to analyse data sets as accurately and with confidence. Those sorts of things now are absolute baseline for me in terms of how I approach my day.”
While he wonders if he may have benefited from a bigger break after his undergraduate degree (he started the MBA six years after graduating), his MBA colleagues were all at different points in their career – a valuable spectrum of people to connect with.
“There were the fellow emerging leaders, if you like, who were in a similar situation to me,” says Will, “and then there were the people who were much more seasoned and coming back to revisit things.
“I was doing it in my late 20s and in hindsight didn’t have a huge amount of experience workwise. The other people I was studying alongside were quite accomplished.” While much of his career since has focused on media and entertainment, Will says it wasn’t planned like that.
“When I was consulting, I was interested in energy sectors, and I did a bit of financial services. Then when I joined Spark I was interested in telco. Then Spark, as most telcos have done, wanted to invest in adjacent areas of business and that included media and entertainment.”
It was while at Spark that Will founded and launched New Zealand’s first dedicated Internet of Things start-up, Morepork, which drew the attention of US-based music streaming service Pandora.
That led him to resettle in California, and it was a short hop from Pandora to a role at Amazon to lead their video platforms Prime and Twitch.
The move from leading product and creator acquisition strategy for video to audio platforms a year ago means Will is now working with different technology. “How things are built, how content is ingested, and then distributed is very different so that’s been a bit of a learning curve.
“I’m a curious student of engineering in that sense, I love digging into detail and finding out how things work – it does help. Understanding how your products operate is really important.”
But, he says, the fundamentals are the same. “The creator needs, or user needs, are very similar. You as a user using Alexa versus you as a user using Fire TV or Twitch are very similar, the way we monetise that is very similar.” One of the most important lessons from Will’s AUT days that he’s brought with him to California is about product-market fit.
“In my marketing strategy course we talked a lot about that. “Basically, when you find a fit with a consumer - when a consumer adopts a behaviour and loves it and organically turns up to that product without you having to do anything from a marketing or sales perspective, that’s very powerful – that’s a very powerful proposition.
“I’ve seen that up here, there are so many products that don’t have that fit and you’re spending millions and millions of dollars trying to market them properly – whereas something like Twitch has so little marketing behind it, it’s all organic, people hear about it, and they want to do it. I’ve seen that realised in the work that I do.”
Twitch – the video game live streaming service, may be an example of people ‘organically turning up’ to a product, but it also leaves most people over a certain age wondering, ‘why would you want to watch someone else play a video game?’ Knowing what’s going to work in market isn’t easy, says Will.
“That type of thing is, quite honestly, like trying to trap lightening in a bottle, it’s hard and doesn’t happen every day. “Amazon is very good at testing ideas and allowing you the ability to try things with the right resourcing and investment, and so I just think it encourages that innovative mindset to push the boundaries.”
This story was originally published in Insight, the magazine for AUT alumni and friends. Read the most recent issue of Insight for more stories of groundbreaking research and great AUT graduates who are making a difference around the world.