Getting into Product Management

I get asked frequently for advice from folks who are looking to get into product management and often send them slightly customized versions of the same thing. I decided to write something a little more comprehensive and share it broadly. 

There are a few phases of work for folks looking to get into product management:

  1. Start by learning about product management and what product managers do
  2. Figure out where you want to work and make a list of companies that are exciting to you
  3. Prepare for your PM interviews, and learn how you’ll be evaluated

1. Learn about product management

Product management is different from company to company. It’s worth learning about the different perspectives of product people at different companies, and here is a short selection:

2. Figure out where you want to work

An important part of the process is generating a list of companies you may want to work at by evaluating company size, quality of mentors, your connection to the product etc. Product management varies significantly by product, vertical (ecommerce vs. autonomous car PMs do different things) and individual company so it’s useful to spend time upfront here.

I recommend going somewhere where you think you’ll get good mentorship from people who are both experienced and very strong product managers. I also recommend joining a company which is growing, as a lot of opportunities can arise from growth.

Companies like Google and Facebook have very well respected product management practices, but it can be difficult to get an interview or get through their process without prior product management experience (unless you are earlier in your career where they have great rotational Associate Product Manager programs).

Some good resources:

3. Prepare for your interviews

Read and Learn: There are a few foundational books that will help you prepare for your PM interview and generally help you becoming a better product person:

  • Read the lean startup
  • Read design of everyday things to teach you how to think about user experience
  • If you are a ponderer and not a doer I would recommend making things happen
  • If you want to learn how to run a product development process I suggest reading agile product management which can be a bit dogmatic and dry, but it’s useful to know these foundational elements
  • If you don’t have a technical background, I’d spend some time learning how technical systems work and some of the foundational elements of programming. The best way to learn is to read/watch videos (good resource) and take a Codeacademy class (javascript or python)
  • Cracking the PM interview is a really good book by a former Googler, and I’d start by watching her youtube video
  • Practice questions on the PM interview – it autogenerates a bunch of questions and you can go through them

Analyze products: Spend time breaking down products you like/don’t like – most ‘product people’ naturally do this, and enjoy this type of exercise. I like to break down my analysis into 1) Why does this product exist, what user need is it solving? 2) What do I like about the product? 3) What would I change and how would I change it? 

Learn how you’ll be evaluated: Companies hire somewhat differently so make sure that you ask your recruiter or hiring manager about how you’ll be evaluated as part of the interview process. Here are a few dimensions from my experience that I’ve used, and seen used in the past. 

My Interview Criteria: There are a few key skills that, I believe, PMs need to be successful and I use them to assess product management candidates. It’s important to have at least one area where you feel like you are excellent and can get that across during the interview process.

  • Analytical Ability: Run AB Tests, interpret metrics, data informed decisions
  • Product Sense: System design, uX design
  • Leadership: Inspire, influence, build loyalty, have empathy
  • Project management: Prioritize, get things done, make tradeoffs, unblock
  • Technical ability: Ask the right questions, build trust/respect

Google Interview Criteria:

  • Product Design: User experience and design
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, product metrics
  • Technical ability: System design, algorithms – earn respect from engineers
  • Strategy: Business turnaround, go to market
  • Culture: Googliness, kindness, leadership

Facebook Interview Criteria:

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self starter, influence teams
  • Execution: Goals, metrics, prioritization, process
  • Product Sense: Design, understanding users
  • Engineering fit interview: Not a technical one like Google, more of a fit interview

Being a product manager is fun, challenging and a great fit for people who like to make things, and like making things in a better way.

Best of luck in your journey and thanks for reading!

Insight from independent sources

In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of product and general management is drawing insight from the right sources to determine ‘product health’ to identify where to focus, especially when managing multiple product lines.

In my experience I try pull data from three independant, uncorrelated sources to inform where I should focus my effort – the data, the team, and the users:

  • Data: Design dashboards that give you the metrics at the right level of detail on a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly basis. Be able to translate data into concrete hypotheses and insights. 
  • Team: The general manager (GM) or product lead of the business is your main source of information, but make sure to spend time with team members and other functional leads as well, so you can validate/invalidate what you hear from the GM. The broader team is also an incredibly strong resource for ideas for new features. 
  • Users & Customer Service (CS): It’s important to maintain empathy/understanding of your customers, even when you’re a step removed from the product.
    • On a regular cadence (e.g. weekly), spend time reading user reviews, blogs, forum posts etc.
    • Get quantitative and qualitative information from the CS team about what users are saying about your products over customer service channels, either through a short meeting, or a list of top 5-10 issues each week.
    • Spend time actually interacting with customers, and responding to them (directly or on forums for example).

Making great games

I started working in the games industry in 2010 and joined Pocket Gems as the first product manager to help us create free to play gaming as a new category on mobile. Mobile phones are personalized, portable computers that are carried around everywhere by people, and it made sense to me that for many people in the world, this would be their primary gaming device.

It was a really interesting time to be in mobile games; Apple had just launched in-app purchases, app discovery/advertising was nascent, and almost all causal developers were focused on Facebook/Web vs. Mobile.  In 2010, for some additional perspective, (Candy Crush) which now has an annual revenue of >$2BN (95% mobile) had zero mobile revenues and Supercell (Hay Day and Clash of Clans), which is now valued at >$3BN, did not even exist.

In 2010, in order to succeed we had to create products that had mass appeal and were first to market. People played our games because they were casual and fun at a time where few free to play games existed on mobile. Our design was simple, and often inelegant, and we did an excellent job with merchandising and tactics but often lacked insight into player behavior beyond what our (fairly sophisticated) analytics told us. We lacked empathy for our players and designed products which were inauthentic to us, and over the long term I think this became evident to our players as well.

We have since realized that we will never be a creator of really great products and games if we continue to develop them in this manner. I was responsible for the design and development of one of the simulation games in our last cohort, Animal Voyage, which will end up making a small profit but we don’t consider it a success because we didn’t create a lasting franchise. I was never a player of sim games, and struggled to get into the mindset of the player. It resulted in a product that was inelegantly designed, with too many disjointed mechanics and a lack of attention to player experience. Over time, our players realized this and long term retention was poor despite really strong early metrics (which we used to determine the game’s viability). In the end, lack of empathy for our players and lack of focus on making the game really fun (measured by long term retention) led to the downfall of the product. 

I’m now working on a new title, and the emotions I experience while playing the game remind me of games that I loved growing up. I’m excited to tell my friends about it, I’m excited for our daily throwdowns and I’m really excited about how energetic our team is about the product and the vision. I have come to the realisation that to even have a shot at creating something great you have to have great passion for the product, care greatly for your players and make design decisions that are consistent with your mission and objectives. I have also realized how important it is that your team cares about the product, is deeply invested in the outcome, and makes every decision, no matter how small, with the player in mind. I think that even a team with all the right skills and talents needs this mindset to be able to create something amazing, and I’m personally really excited to be developing new games with this philosophy.

I hope it leads to a game that has many loyal fans and becomes a lasting franchise but even if it does not, we’ll feel much better about the path because it at least gives us a shot at achieving this goal.

Metrics – The Online Advantage

I believe that online businesses have a key edge over offline businesses – they are able to easily gather data on customers, the purchase funnel and conduct iterative A/B testing. Harnessing this data and using it to drive decisions for customer acquisition, product development and generally having excellent management information (MI) is critical to executing a successful internet business.

There are three things that I want to touch on in this post:

Using Metrics to raise financing: While I was working in VC last summer, I encountered many entrepreneurs and it was interesting to see how they all thought about and ran their businesses. It was significantly more impressive and informative when the entrepreneurs understood the right metrics for their business. It allowed them to educate us on the important variables and what the implications were for their business and it also made it easier to compare the business against other models that we were familiar with. I think that it shows professionalism and credibility to be on top of this information and it was definitely something we used to screen entrepreneurs.

Segmenting customer base – yield optimal unit economics: Once the product has been launched and the customer base starts to expand I think it’s really important to start to segment the customer base and understand the motivations and unit economics of each segment. I think you should start by understanding what attributes that you can use to segment customers – demographic information, source of click, etc and then measure these attributes against engagement metrics, revenue per user, social metrics etc. This will allow you to identify different user groups, understand what motivates them (potentially through qualitative studies) and plot their evolution over time. This data would be extremely useful to drive product changes as well as acquire specific types of customers.

For example: I was recently talking to Pasha Sadri at Polyvore (a social fashion site where people create sets or outfits which are shared with the community) and a handful of talented “creators” drive 80% of the traffic to the site (approx. 6M monthly users). If they were able to identify patterns about where these creators come from / demographic it would be easier to acquire more creators and they would drive significantly more traffic to the site.

Product changes – A/B testing: This is a pretty heavily blogged about topic but I think you should use data and metrics to drive and measure incremental product changes. It’s especially efficient when you have a suite of products with similar features and you can leverage learnings from one product change and apply it to the family of products. Zynga are especially good at A/B testing and they have learnt best practice in monetisation/virality and roll out their learnings to new and existing social games very effectively.

Approaching Start-Ups and VCs

Continuing on from my last post.. an MBA looking for a start up opportunity..

I think it’s important when you approach early stage start-ups and Venture Capitalists to clearly articulate what value you could bring (particularly for small ventures) but try and retain humility. You want to make it an easy decision for them to say yes to having a conversation with you.

There seems to be some negative feeling (arrogance and entitlement) associated with HBS MBAs in the start up community in particular and it’s our collective responsibility to try and quel that sentiment. My proposed approach is to be totally honest about your expectations and motivations for wanting to join the start-up and be flexible on compensation, equity and your job title. I think it’s really important to emphasize (and actually believe) that you are motivated by the same things as your potential colleagues and being honest and flexible upfront is the way to understand your compatibility as quickly as possible.

In general, I try and think about things from the eyes of the person receiving your message….

An important part of a Venture Capitalist’s job is to help recruit talent for his/her portfolio companies. I think you should make it as easy as possible for them to forward your application over to their CEOs. These guys are often busy and do a lot of work from their mobile devices – if your story is compelling and your credentials look good, I don’t see why they would not send your message to their portfolio companies.

A couple of guidelines that I use (in chronological order):

  • Introduce yourself clearly and highlight your current situation (when you graduate) in the first line
  • State which particular companies in their portfolio you are interested in
  • Articulate what you would like to do/what skills you bring based on some sort of expertise
  • Identify why these skills/expertise would be important for the portfolio company
  • Show that although you have a value proposition you are willing to be flexible 
  • Ask to speak with the VC – they will most often not have time but are awesome people to get advice from
I think the same principles apply to when you are approaching a venture directly, but I try and talk a little bit more about why I like the product/company. Founders/CEOs are pretty emotionally attached to their products and it’s always nice for them to receive positive feedback from their users.
I am of the opinion that no conversation with a smart, successful person in a field that you are interested is a wasted conversation and each one will help you understand a little more about what you want and perhaps open up new opportunities – you never know!! 
I’ve had reasonable but not exceptional success with this approach so would love to get other peoples’ thoughts – would be good to share the collective wisdom.

An MBA Looking for a Start-Up Opportunity…

Like many MBAs out there, I’m looking to work for a start up when I graduate in June – a recent survey showed that appox 15% of our 2010 HBS class feels the same.  I really like new/innovative technology and the internet and so I’ve narrowed my search to that area with a focus on the Bay Area.
I wanted to share my approach to finding start-ups with the rest of you. In my opinion, it’s really similar to being a Venture Capitalist for yourself with a couple of adjustments depending on your goals and personal risk tolerance. 
If you don’t have a background in technology, it probably makes sense to work for a bigger start up (with a solid brand) to give yourself a bit more legitimacy in the market. I think there are loads of solid opportunities out there and I’m also looking at these companies. Some examples of the size of companies I’m taking about are Gilt, Linkedin, Zynga and Facebook. These guys are pretty well-established but still pre-exit and are low risk, in my opinion, but with great people and learning opportunities.
My general approach for finding smaller start-ups is something Ben Holmes (Partner at Index Ventures who sat on the Playfish Board) taught me this summer and he writes about it on his blog. 
  1. Market – Is the market big enough ($1Bn+) and can you see this venture being a leading player (with 10%+ mkt share) in the next 3-5 years?
  2. Technology – has the company got a differentiated product/technology?
  3. Team – has the company got an exceptional and complementary team?
  4. Traction – has the company got positive user and/or revenue traction for their product?
Ben’s philosophy, and something that I’ve tried to apply when thinking about ventures, is to find companies which are exceptional (A++) in one or more category, not companies that are a ‘B+’ in every category. 
I keep a prioritized list of these companies and try and find ways that I could be connected to the management team through my network. If there is no connection, then I will often email the VC on the board or the management team directly. 
There are a couple of things that I think are also important when making your choices:

  • ‘Go where you want to live’ Joe Lassiter told me that in a meeting I had with him last semester – it’s important to start building a network at a local level
  • Understand what the advantages and disadvantages of joining a small vs. bigger company:
    • Small company – IF you build a great product and company from a small scale and have a successful exit I think you build a lot of credibility and it’ll be easier to be a co-founder in your next venture
    • Bigger company – you get the advantage of good branding and learning a specific set of skills from people who know what they are doing
  • Try and be as flexible as possible on your salary, equity, and job title if it’s a company and product that you are really passionate about – I figure all that stuff will come if you do a really good job
I will write again in the next couple of days about how I think about approaching companies and VCs.
Thanks for reading!