My experience coming into product management was windy. I started my career as an investment banker, covering public power utilities and renewable energy in New York – a sector as far away as one can be from technology.
Coming from a heavily regulated and traditional sector, I was intrigued by technology. Technology, even 10 years ago, was disrupting every single industry imaginable. Software was primed to “eat the world” and I wanted to be a part of something revolutionary. It’s funny to see how today most folks consider this to be a stated and obvious fact. Previously, it was considered to be exaggerated. After a year of fun within the energy sector, I decided to switch industry coverage and work on fundraising and acquisitions for technology companies. This allowed me to work closely with leadership teams within tech, including product leaders. That is how I first discovered product management.
After 7 years in product management, I have built B2B SaaS products within a diverse set of industries: health tech, construction tech, and fintech, and worked at great companies such as Brex and Facebook. I’ve worked on products with billion-dollar revenue lines and launched new products with >$10M in ARR, helped companies exceed revenue expectations by >80%.
Throughout my career, these outcomes have translated into powerful career development. I’ve worked hard for promotions and positive feedback reviews. While these are great external signals of improvement for career development, they haven’t always given me as much happiness or a sense of achievement and growth as expected.
Now as the head of product at Cocoon, I’ve been contemplating what it means to build out the next 10 years of my career and what helped me grow the most. I’ve come to realize that to build a long career in product management it’s important to think about how I can grow outside of work. Counterintuitively, taking on these challenges outside of work radically changed my perspective on career growth. I started to think about improvements in my career trajectory in step function rather than in incremental changes.
Challenge #1: Invest in mentoring and growing other product managers, at work and outside of work.
Mentoring others is a great way to build empathy, but also to shape the next generation of product leaders. This goes beyond having an impact on my own career and goes toward investing as much in others, as much as I’ve had support when growing my own career.
As I reflected on my motivations, I realized that leaving a positive mark on the world is important to me. Questions I would ask myself before I decided to always leave time for mentoring:
- Have I deeply impacted someone that they take what I’ve shared with them and use it in their decision-making process years later?
- At work:
- Did I build a long-lasting product that can bring someone happiness, joy, and time to focus on what matters most to them?
- Did I leave the company or the team in a better place than before I joined?
One way I leaned into making an impact was to start mentoring founders and PMs outside of work.
When product managers start their careers, the first learning curve might be more tactical e.g. how do you write product requirements, how do you conduct user research, how do you give valuable feedback to a designer?
However, as product managers grow, soft skills become more necessary to, for example, navigate interpersonal conflict, manage up, and handle more nuanced situations.
To build these skills, product managers need a mentor – someone to coach them directly on how to best handle a situation. When I seek mentorship, I look to other product leaders that have impressed me and helped grow my perspective.
When I find myself on the other side, I mentor at and outside of work. I think this is important because not everyone in the industry has the same access to mentorship.
I’ve mentored college students on their entry into tech through Built by Girls and early-stage PMs who are figuring out the ropes through First Round’s Fast Track Program. I’ve also mentored founders who are starting their businesses and figuring out how to find product market fit by doing office hours every 3 months with Antler and mentoring founders with whom I’ve invested a small angel check.
Mentoring is such a great skill: it’s about finetuning your ability to listen, instead of focusing on projecting confidence and facilitating alignment meetings amongst teams internally. Coaching and leading a team are both pre-requisite skills for a product manager, however, they lean toward opposite spectrums of the listening/talking range. So, it’s important as a PM to understand which hat you need to put on and when.
I’ve found that actively listening to someone is quite hard, and, especially with mentees outside of work, I need to focus a lot because there’s context to gain and understand before being able to help. Mentoring can also be different than managing someone directly because you’re helping someone grow, without having the full context of their situation, but also without having the burden of managing AND owning their product lines’ bottom lines. You can be more of an impartial, objective coach.
Rather than tell someone what to do and that I have the right answer, I’m focused on two things:
1. Help them build a muscle around taking on challenges they’re facing so that they feel prepared the next time they face it (e.g. “How did that make you feel? What do you think they meant when they said that?”) and,
2. Share the lessons from my own experience that can be applied to their situation, having been in their shoes in the past. I find it important to share how I faced a situation and share tips that have worked for me.
I know I had that positive impact when, years later, we’re still in touch and I continue to be thought of as someone who can help. My goal for those that I’ve mentored is that they grow beyond the point that they need me and that their career accelerates faster than ever. It’s also important to me to approach each conversation with the idea that I’m learning from them, too.
Challenge #2: Start angel investing and advising founders to better understand and think through radically different types of business problems.
One extremely important skill set to develop as a product leader (that isn’t talked about as much) is the ability to grow your mindset around business strategy and revenue impact – being able to make the right decisions in given market conditions and industry dynamics. Similarly to what Shreyas has shared about leadership and being a competent visionary, a great product leader is "just more right about where the world is headed".
It is critical that PMs understand how all the moving parts in a business work together in different industries and market conditions to get a product into a customer's hands. That means understanding what customers want, how markets react, how to sell the product, and what distribution channels you need to set up, for example.
As a product manager, being able to put more practice into evaluating the confluence between the best product out there while also making sure customers will pay for it is critical and yet most times, not part of a PM’s responsibility, until they advance to a general manager (“GM”) role. For some reason, most roles in product don’t hold a product person accountable for building a sellable product, and yet this is critical for a company to succeed.
You can go through the practice of making big decisions on choosing the right product, market and team more often through angel investing.
Angel investing is a great way to evaluate markets, pricing models, and business plans, and what product is needed at what point. I also realized angel investing meant that I had a more holistic picture of the founder’s day-to-day and the struggles behind building a product, running a business, and hiring a team. It’s helped me realize that product is just a small piece of what is needed for the business to work and also helped me think in systems rather than in silos.
Meeting with hundreds of founding teams, reviewing how they evaluate markets and their product launch (if they’re pre-product) and learning about how they iterate on a product (if they’ve built an initial product) has taught me how to evaluate team, market, and product on a tactical level. This insight makes it a lot easier to not only think about a product and product suite in the context of what is given to you to build by your manager but also to think about it from a founder mindset. Unlocking this mindset can translate to taking more ownership of the product’s success. As a product manager, it can help you lean into making bigger bets and decisions even though you might not actually be given that responsibility in your current role.
Taking on a founder mindset can also be practiced within the context of your company. At BuildingConnected, when a PM wanted to launch a new product, we pitched to our leadership team to explain why we were building our contemplated product, similar to pitching to investors. We would be asked many follow-up questions for how we thought about product, competitors, market, and long-term vision (s/o to Zac Hays for setting this great practice).
To build a long-term product management career, it’s important to think about how you can grow outside of work. This shift requires thinking about a career in 5-10 year increments (step function) rather than 1-year increments. It also requires you to dig into understanding your main motivation – in my case, having a positive and lasting impact on others. Mentorship and angel investing were ways I could grow my perspective as a product manager and I would encourage you to try them out.
What should you do now?
Step #2: Consider your first angel investment. I’ve written and interviewed 12 diverse angel investors that help you think from the perspective of an angel investor. Use this to start refining the investment template you would use to interview a founder and start putting it out there that you’re an angel investor. Update your LinkedIn profile and consider joining an investment day to meet founders through a program like Transparent Collective.
What do you think? I’d love to learn about how you’ve found career growth opportunities outside your day job. Share them in the comments below!