My Path from Stanford PhD to Data Scientist to Airbnb Product Manager & Angel investor – Dr. Theresa JohnsonFeatured

Hi I’m Dr. Theresa Johnson. I’m a Product Manager working on financial intelligence at Airbnb and I'm an angel investor. Before transitioning into product management, I was a Data Scientist at Airbnb, too. I’m an Investment Scout for Sequoia Capital and completed First Round Capital’s Angel Track Investor program earlier this year. I have a BS, MS and PhD in Engineering from Stanford. Ask me anything about product management, data science, investing, getting a PhD or something else!
Theresa – Thanks so much for joining us!As a reminder:This conversation is part of our ongoing series with women in our community doing impressive work. Theresa may not have time to answer all questions, so we'll be sorting questions by popularity (most emojis!). If you like a question, emoji to help bump it to the top for her to answer!
I'm curious about Product Management as a function; the role has exploded in recent years and I've read varying, strongly held and contradictory opinions about who PMs should be, whether or not they should have a technical background, and how to hire them. What do you see as the distinction between a Product Manager, Program Manager, and Project Manager? Do you believe product managers must come from a technical background? Does this opinion hold when applied to companies whose product is tech-enabled vs. deep tech? I'm also curious about your thoughts on whether Product Management is good training for becoming a Founder or CEO.
Product Managers should act as the "mini-GM" for their product area. Program and project managers are critical for very complex programs that touch multiple businesses or products. They help me operate at the boundary and keep things in sync. They might also handle inputing information into roadmap tracking tools, or creating project documentation.
I've seen PMs with many backgrounds be successful at shipping great products. I've found the distinction of an engineering vs. design vs. business background of the PM more relevant at the product-area level, and less so at the company level. At most companies there are product areas that require more or less domain expertise.
The "training" I'd recommend for being a Founder/CEO has less to do with role and more to do with company size and responsibility. 1. Work at a small start-up to get comfortable with uncertainty, pace and scale. 2. Seek out mentors that can help you navigate the process. 3. Get some basic tech/design skills so you can build an MVP with a really small team. 4. Finally, and most importantly, know your market! Where do you have more knowledge and advantage than others? Where are you uniquely positioned to make a difference.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful response, it's incredibly helpful! I've never thought about PMs as being such diverse roles at the product-area level (only been thinking from the company level), but of course this makes a ton of sense.
Had you done any angel investing with your own money prior to becoming a Sequoia scout or completing the FRC Angel Track program? The Angel Track program looks very interesting. For those that can't access such a program, how do you recommend educating yourself on angel investing? Any particular books/resources?
Yes, I had done about 6 angel investments prior to becoming a Sequoia Scout, and two had exits. Angel Track was great for "mid-career" angel investors. Everyone had done a few or more investments, but none had been doing it for decades. For tactical learning - I read "Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist". It had valuable information from the entrepreneurs perspective. The most important part of angel investing, though, is relationships. At the angel stage, you probably have very little data on how a company will perform. So you're assessing market potential, but primarily the founding team. Knowing them well helps build a trusting relationship.The SPEED of Trust by Covey is a great resource for relationship building - especially if you're super technical like me!
I'm very curious about the financial intelligence work you're doing at AirBnb. Could you unpack it for us? What does it mean? How do you work? What are some of the goals? Also, could also talk about the transition from data science team to PM? How did it change your workflow? Was it easy to move horizontally? What teams do you work with today? What's important in your current job?
Financial Intelligence focuses on how to use Payments Data to better serve our community. One example is that we build the in-house forecast and forecasting tools for all of Airbnb. The engineering side of the house has deep expertise in big data - from architecture and strategy. I LOVE talking about AI/ML Product Management strategy as I think its a relatively under explored area. That's part of why in my move to product I was so passionate about this area. Now that I'm a PM, I'm more of a synthesizer and collaborator instead of being the subject matter expert. I still need head-down focus time, but less of it. And I need to communicate a LOT more with the team and stakeholders across the company. Since Payments is a platform that powers all of Airbnb, I work with everyone from Policy teams, to Guest Growth to experiences, Trust, Customer Support... there's a huge list!
1. What has been the most surprising core assumption held at Airbnb that has been 'debunked' by the data team?2. I know the cycles may vary wildly depending on the scope of the feature, but on average, what is the timeframe and process required to go from using the data to identify a new insight --> releasing a new feature to address the insight at Airbnb?
Data Science @ Airbnb works really collaboratively with product, engineering and design to build and refine our product solutions. As I tell the entrepreneurs I advise and mentor, at the beginning of product development - you start with a data deficit! So you have to be really scrappy about getting data about your market and customers and also really explicit about when you have to go with your gut. Then you instrument so that you can refine based on user behavior data.
In terms of cycle timing - for a startup entrepreneur you have to move fast! As a heuristic, if something takes longer than a 2 week sprint - double check your logic and see if you are truly shipping an MVP.
I'm curious as a product manager for Airbnb and an investor, how you are looking at the AR market? What do you think the first moves for the company will be in that direction and what are you seeing as trending in the angel market?
I think AR is incredibly interesting from an investment perspective. If you know talented founders in this space, let me know!
I know a few amazing founders in this space having just worked at Oculus for the last two years - please reach out if you'd like a list of names :)
In the startup i work for, we are looking in transitioning from being the middle man in every transactions/communications to be the enabler of a real platform. What would you say are the most important things to be careful about/to pay attention to as a product manager in a paas like airbnb?
In early stage platform companies, PMs have to help drive the company vision around which side of a two-sided platform is most critical for the stage of and type of business. One side is typically a growth-drag (if not done well) and the other is the growth driver. So pay close attention to which one is which for your business.Also, "middle man" companies have a real risk of being disrupted out of existence. Think about what new technology or ability might replace the need for you as a middle layer.
Thank you very much Theresa, very helpful insights.
How do you prioritize your time / focus between your "day job" as a PM, your own angel investing, and scouting on behalf of Sequoia? I'm a former PM, now working on my MBA, and considering doing something similar after school.
There are lots of parts of angel investing, but the biggest are relationship building and analysis. For the relationship building part, that's happening all the time. We never know who might have a big idea! In my day-to-day work, I'm surrounded by talented thought-leaders across many different types of innovation. For the part that involves analysis and deep-dives, I spend some free time after hours and on weekends digging into company decks and metrics, or new areas I want to learn about. This was how I made my first scout investment in a cyber security startup, knowing little about the field when I began.
That makes a lot of sense - thank you for sharing!
I’m a founder wondering what it takes to get the attention of a Sequoia investment scout. Would you be able to give some memorable examples of how you came across start-ups as an investment scout (ie what medium) and what specific elements of those start-ups stood out to you?
One thing to note about Sequoia Scouts, and angel investors in general, is that we mostly have full time jobs either in start ups or as founders. So we have to fold angel investing into our normal work-life. So the more integrated the approach, the better! If I was to try to get the attention of an investor, I would reach out to people in her network that I might know - even a couple hops away - and try to get a personal introduction. That might include her fellow alumni, people at her firm, that she's worked with before, or even at a social or professional event. A cold email might even work if you're really compelling!What I've found doesn't work as well is social network messaging. There's so much noise there that I think its really easy to have your message get lost!
A VC we talked to asked me if i would be interested in being a scout for them. what should I consider before saying yes?
Consider whether your goals and values are aligned with the investment firm's and the way the scout program is structured. If values align, and you think the partnership is strong then I say go for it!
Could you share the story of what led you to become an investment scout, how did you come across the opportunity, what led you to seek/take it, what are some qualities to excel, what are you proud of accomplishing and what are the limitations for this role?
I credit women angel investors I met who are part of #Angels for raising my awareness that the Scout programs existed. Before hearing a talk from them in First Round's Angel Track, I didn't know about the scout programs that exist across multiple firms.For becoming a Sequoia Scout, specifically, I built a relationship with Alfred Lin after his talk at First Round. During his talk, I heard a combination of data-geek and focus on values driven growth that really resonated with me :) So I reached out to chat about some investments I was considering. After a few chats, he asked if I'd like to join in the next class.So I credit a combination of preparedness on my part plus mentorship (#Angels) and sponsorship from Sequoia.I feel most proud of being able to influence talented founders who might have homogenous teams to diversify early as a strategy for growth. I don't see any limitations!
I am curious to know if there are opportunities for automation test engineers at airbnb?
At the risk of sounding trite, check out! We have over 6000 employees across 30 offices globally.
I wonder if you have any thoughts or insider insight on SV big data investor's aversion to backing companies that serve the federal government. Thanks in advance.
Coming from an aerospace background, where 85% of the investment comes from government, I get it! From the perspective of an investor, we like to invest in areas where we also have an "unfair advantage" such that we can uniquely help a company succeed. It may be a matter of time and finding unique investors who know the federal govt. market well and can accelerate your success.
Would you like to share some more information about how you went about it. from being an engineer, PhD to product manager to an angel investor. any experiences/volunteering you would like to share with us that helped you in angel investing realm.
I am a founder about two years in. iSPY is a search ONE and done search aggregation tool and personalized creative workspace (SaaS) for Creative Pros. We have a two sided market bringing suppliers and image buyers together. Today, we have 400 registered users connected to about 15 suppliers. We raised initial funds with convertible notes but have been bootstrapping for most of this year. I am starting to seek additional funding to start building out our team and to scale up our marketing, as well as expand our tech. I have two questions - 1) I am getting conflicting advice from different investors. Some say to seek total funding that we expect to need, and others says to seek what we need for the next year or to get us to the next level. I would appreciate your thoughts. 2) I have not successfully found a way into angel funds. I signed up for Golden Seeds online and after paying to apply, received a message that they only invest in revenue generating businesses which we are not. I am curious if you have any suggestions on connecting with angel groups that are interested in female founded tech start ups. - Thanks in advance.
What drew you to angel investing? Why is it important to you?
I think I may need some help in product management.
I founded and launched an app 3 years ago but am thinking about leaving it to go back to a full time gig. Before this my experience was in fashion buying but I have no interest in returning to that. I think a lot about product management and how I’ve learned it firsthand while launching my business and how it’s been the most exciting part in some ways. Do you think I need to take any classes to be considered for a PM role?
I'm a product manager and one of my teams isn't working well together, pulling in a lot of directions. What are some questions I should ask myself about this problem when I step back to find a way to help this team come together?
How would you think of solving problems for people who do not have a strong digital footprint, but have few physical documents?
A question I often hear is "How do I break into Product Management?"Is a PM certification helpful for an outsider?
Thank you so much for joining us, Theresa! And thank you to everyone who asked a question! Unfortunately Theresa wasn't able to answer every question, but hopefully if yours wasn't answered you still found some great insights in her other responses.