Kevin Lee is dedicated to teaching people the fundamentals of product management through Product Manager HQ and also currently works in Venture Capital at FundersClub. Before becoming a Founder, he previously worked in Product at AltSchool and as a Senior Product Manager at Kabam, where he worked on products through all lifecycles in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Beijing to help grow one of the company’s products to become the third largest revenue generating products in the company portfolio. He is also the author / co-author of 10+ gaming patents and prior to breaking into tech, he worked in Finance as an Investment Banker at Merrill Lynch. But it was Kevin’s passion for education that eventually led him to organize the world’s largest Slack Community for Product Managers to support Product Manager HQ.
|Years in Tech||4|
|Grew Up||Berkeley, CA|
- Align your career with your personality type. Especially, when you find yourself questioning the role you’re currently doing, try to take a step back. Figure out your personality type and align it with your career.
- There are many ways to break into any industry. Talk to the influencers. Get to know more about this industry. Network. Make yourself the product. Figure out your users’ needs and make sure you bring value to the table.
- Once you’ve figured out a pain point within your industry, write about it and start blogging. Then make sure you create a community so people can still talk to each other right after reading your content.
Show Notes (focus on the Stepping Stones):[1:11] Kevin’s background: Took the Haas undergraduate program at Berkeley and got a Certificate in Engineering Management (not related to Computer Science or anything technical) [1:52] His passion for education: He used to teach growing up because his dad encouraged him to teach subjects back to people because it would solidify the lessons in his head if he could teach them back to people. He taught music in high school (guitar) and personal finance. [3:04] Kevin shares the story of “the river of drowning babies” where you either go downstream to save them (smaller scope) or you go upstream to find the source of the problem and solve it entirely (larger scope of influence) Kevin finds tech as an in between where it could have mass effects. [5:05] Why he transitioned from education to investment banking: Following the herd and getting pushed along then leaving 8 months realizing it was not the career for him [6:14] Kevin’s big turning point where he said he wanted to start living life very deliberately and start thinking very carefully about each decision he was making so he decided to look into product management.
[7:07] Where to start looking for resources about Product Management:
Quora (a Q&A website answered by some high profile people) as his primary sourceKabam, a mobile gaming company.
[11:19] Strategies to break into an industry you’re interested in – Find the influencers and speak with them. Learn more about this industry. Network.[12:45] What is Product Management?
Guiding the team to build something that users essentially want
Understanding your users’ needs
Working with your team to essentially build the right solution for those needs.
Check out Let’s Talk About Product Management by Josh Elman at Greylock Partners.[13:28] How product management in gaming differs from that of other industries: Immediate ownership, Quantitative over qualitative, and Querying your own data. Kevin shares his Kabam experience where they worked on a project in Beijing and their team created a tiny game that grew into Kabam’s second or third largest revenue-generating product in the entire company, making $80,000- $100,000 a day. [15:15] Using SQL for data query: Kevin would query their own data and then work with their engineer, write OpSpecs and then work with their engineers to execute them and push these features live in the game. (Find SQL courses on Udemy) [16:09] Gathering data when working on new projects: Historical data from other games within your portfolio, “product tear down” (taking competitor’s products and breaking everything down from user flow to its core features), metrics and data points obtained from beta testing (done through a product launch over a select group of users) for optimization
[17:39] Dealing with frustrations as a PM – The way you really learn as a PM is actually when things are going downhill.[18:52] Why Product Management HQ was created: The need for a centralized resource
[20:21] Building the Community -Write about your struggles and create a community for people to talk to each other right after they read your content. Kevin funneled a lot of his readers into a Slack community. Slack is a messaging tool that works well in a community-like setting. They kept growing it organically to become the world’s most active Slack community with over 2,000 product managers from all over the world.[23:15] Product Manager HQ started as a website/newsletter until Kevin saw a demand from people for a crash course in product management so he created a 6-hour course including interviews with product managers and launched this. [25:18] What students get from taking the One Week PM course: Great fundamentals on project management
[27:37] Do your Due Diligence – How to position yourself for an associate product management role at a startup: Really question whether this is the career for you. Really know the industry before you jump in.
[29:39] How to break into Product Management – You have to make yourself the product. (Read The Reality of Breaking Into Startups: The First Product You Build Is Yourself) Brand yourself. Start writing and start blogging. Figure out the industry and company you want to target. Find a PM within that company that you respect and find out the problems they’re working on then do your own project around that user need. Do your own research. Come up with a project you can present to that PM.
[32:12] Transitioning into a PM role within your organization – Sit down with the product manager everyday and start to understand what it is that they do, how you can help, what kind of mini projects you can take on. You want to just be acting as a PM before you get the job.
[33:26] The Lightning Round
Imagine if you were dropped in a new city, you had to start all over again and you only had $100, what would you do and what would be the first steps you would take to get yourself back to the point you’re at?
- Go to coworking spaces, hang out, use that $100 to buy a seat, and milk that month. Milk as hard as you can. Sit next to all these companies. Learn from them. Offer to do free work for them. Tell them, “Hey, I’m new to the city. I’m willing to do free work for you if it means like transitioning into a paid role.”
When you were dealing with any frustrations on your first projects, did you listen to any music or videos or something that inspired you to overcome whatever situations?
- Kevin takes inspiration from his parents who were immigrants from Taiwan and coming to America with literally nothing and couldn’t speak English but worked so hard to provide for their family; so if they have done it, so could he. Never forget your roots. Never forget your family.
What is one piece of advice you would want someone to know who’s about to start on this journey?
- Figure out your personality type (Take tests like the Myers-Briggs test or the Enneagram test) and be able to align that with your career.
What is one thing that you fundamentally believed in before that you changed your mind on after this process?
- Make yourself a product. These days, having that piece of paper from the university is no longer as relevant as what it used to be. It’s really important that you start to brand yourself. Make yourself a product because that’s what’s going to last forever.
What are you planning on doing next? What are you trying to do for the future?
- It’s in Kevin’s blood to want to be helping entrepreneurs, helping founders, helping people. So he is going to try his hand at venture capital and work with great founders and support them in any way possible.
Articles Mentioned & Resources:
The Reality of Breaking Into Startups: The First Product You Build Is Yourself
Let’s Talk About Product Management (slide deck created by Josh Elman at Greylock Partners)
Intro: Growing up we’re told that in order to be successful, you have to be a banker, a doctor, or a lawyer. That’s what the gatekeepers want us to think. But we’re a part of something bigger. We’re part of a technological revolution. Either you’re at the table or on the table. Getting eaten. 10X.
Ruben:Yo, yo, yo, this is Ruben Harris and I’m here with the homies Artur and Timur Meyster and this is the Breaking Into Startups Podcast. Timur, can you please tell the people what we’re doing today?
Timur: Yeah, we’re sitting out here in Hack Reactor’s alumni lounge with a very special guest. Artur, please introduce the guest.
Artur: Sure. So today on the show, we have an amazing guest, Kevin Lee. Welcome, Kevin. Kevin worked as a Product Manager at a number of startups including AltSchool and Kabam. Before he made the jump into tech, he got a business degree and worked as an investment banking analyst at Merrill Lynch but an interesting fact 0:51 about him is that he actually authored 10+ gaming patents but his real passion about product management led him to teach at UC Berkeley and eventually start his own academy at Product Manager HQ. Kevin, before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re up to before you got into tech?
Kevin: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t come from the technical background. I studied Business Administration. I went to Berkeley in their Haas undergraduate program. One thing I did do as I kind of did this thing called a Certificate in Engineering Management. And essentially what it was was a combination of industrial engineering courses. A lot of people will say it’s similar to… it’s not at all similar to computer science or anything technical. It’s really like a lot of optimization. That’s what I studied in college. I’m sorry. This question was around how did I break in?
Artur: More about your background and where you were up to in school and before you really got in tech, what were your passions and what were you interested in?
Kevin: I think for most of my life, education has just been really, really important for me. I used to teach growing up. One thing my dad used to ask me to do is always teach subjects back to him just to make sure that it reinforced material for myself. I think the reason he did that was because for my dad, he grew up in Taiwan. His dad was never really there for him and so he grew up with a ton of siblings and he just had to fend for himself and so he’s always tried to be a dad that he never had; and so, always pushing me, always investing as much as he could into my education. With that in mind, again going back to… so I taught in high school. I taught Music. In college, I was teaching for about four years. I taught Personal Finance and I taught a class on stocks and investments for two years to college students.
Ruben: What did you play?
Kevin: I played acoustic guitar. I couldn’t afford a guitar lesson so I used to just, and like everyone else, you would watch YouTube videos. You’d pause the videos, look at where their fingers were and you just learn to play that way. I used to drive to people’s homes and teach them on the weekends and it was important to me. So education for me, the reason how this kind of ties into how I ended up in tech is because I think there’s this interesting story I heard once. It’s called “the river of drowning babies” and it is a pretty grotesque title. I’ll tell you why in a second.
It’s this concept where you have this river and there’s a bunch of babies. They’re just floating downstream, floating down the river. There’s a crowd that just starts screaming. They see all these babies and they started screaming. Half of the crowd runs downstream to go save these drowning babies, to pick these drowning babies out of the stream and save them. And the other half, they decided to run upstream to figure out where the source of all these babies are coming from. Like, “Where are all these babies coming from? Why are they drowning?” And you can find this parallel in many, many industries especially one like education where you see half the people. They’re teachers. They’re out in the schools everyday. They’re in the classrooms grinding, putting their hearts out to kind of help essentially save our children, to educate our children. And then you have the other half which are people who are going into policy, work in the government, trying to change the laws, trying to influence. Now there’s a problem with both here. One is that you’re going downstream. You’re working as a teacher in a classroom. You’re only impacting a limited amount of students unfortunately. Yes, you’re changing their lives but you’re only influencing that classroom. And then if you’re going upstream, you’re battling bureaucracy You’re spending 5-10 years. Ruben, both of us were at AltSchool. It’s a long battle. It’s a long hard battle.
And so for me, tech has always been close to home because it felt like this nice, sweet spot, in between kind of doing downstream and upstream where you could have mass effects. You could educate many people at once. You could really change their lives and at the same time, you wouldn’t necessarily have to deal with all this bureaucracy that we see in the current education system. And so that really influenced me in this idea that talent is universal but opportunities are not and you can use tech to change many of these things.
Ruben: Got it. That makes a lot of sense. Thinking about whether you want to go to the source or fight things downstream, is that what led you towards investment banking and then working in TMT (Technology Investment Banking)?5:02
Kevin: It’s funny I think many people who have gone through investment banking may relate to this but I think when you enter, you’re generally… I think at that point you’re not living your life necessarily deliberately. The reason I say this is because you’re often told that you’ll learn a lot about a certain industry when you enter investment banking. So if you go to a technology group, they will sell you on this idea like, “Hey, you’re going to work with a ton of different companies across the industry.” If you really want to know what you want to down the line, this is a good way to get that broad sense and I don’t necessarily think that’s the best way to approach it. It’s funny because whenever you talk to someone in banking, they’re never necessarily happy with the years they spent in banking. They’re always like, “Man, that was just a tough time.” I don’t really know why I went through that. It was like delayed gratification. I was just trying to put off my real decision.
Ruben: Absolutely. Take a step back. You did education and you went to investment banking. What made you want to quit investment banking aside from everybody being frustrated. Why did you break into the route that you went. You could have been an engineer. You took those courses before. Why did you choose the path that you went?
Kevin: It does go back to this idea of, again, following the herd. I went to this undergraduate business program at Haas and it was a great program but I think you get into this mentality where you see all these people around you, going into finance, going into consulting, going to accounting, and you feel like just one of the herd and you start to get pushed along. When I went to banking, again, I spent only eight months there and it took me eight months. One day, I kind of just woke up and I was like, “Man, what am I doing? This is not what I set out to do with my life.” That was this big turning point where I said I want to start living life very deliberately and start thinking very carefully about each decision that I’m making. At that time, I had started to look into this career of product management. And it was a very nebulous field, not something that there was a lot of documentation around, not a lot of centralized resources.
Ruben: How did you hear about it?
Kevin: It’s funny. I actually had been living at that time with an associate product manager at Google and I lived with him for those eight months and I never really had the chance to talk to him about this career and so I had only kind of tangentially, he’d always come home and casually chat about it with me but I didn’t have formal classes about it in college. It just wasn’t a thing, especially if you’re a business major like a Business Administration major.
Ruben: Got it. So what was the process to getting there from banking? Did you quit straight up? Did you try to interview while you were there? Did you find forums online because I know a lot of people trying to get into product management and nobody knows where to start?
Kevin: Yeah, again as you mentioned, it is this place where no one really knows where to start. A lot of that comes because it is a combination of multiple disciplines. There’s UX.
Ruben: What’s UX?
Kevin: User experience. So a lot of times, even user research itself, UX, even that’s a nebulous field that a lot of people don’t really know how to get into. Just yesterday, I was talking about someone who studied psychology and then jumped into UX. But that’s one piece. Then you have the engineering/tech piece. And then you have the business piece. A lot of times, there’s this paralysis through analysis. You’re never really sure where to start. The way I approached it was I actually used this website called Quora. I’m a big fan of it because it’s a very meritocratic community. For those of you who don’t know Quora is this question and answer website, very different from Yahoo! Answers back in the day. It’s just much more curated. You don’t have all these trolls. They have some very high profile people like Elon Musk on there, Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia, answers questions. I would go on there and type in Product Management. This is something I highly recommend for anything whether you’re looking at user research, engineering. Even if you have a random question about this old painting you’ve found in some antique fair…you can probably find an answer on there. Quora had all these great people who are answering questions, writing about product management and so that was a primary source and from there, I just ended up buying some books and doing my own research.
Ruben: What kind of books did you buy?
Kevin: There wasn’t necessarily a central book on like, here’s Product Management. I think nowadays, you’re going to find a few books, a good one is Cracking the PM Interview. But again, that’s specifically around the interview process. So I think back then, it was more so buying books around specific disciplines. So one, I’d say on UX I bought was The Mom Test. It’s this book about how any time people have an idea, the fatal mistake is they bring it to their mom and they’re like, “Hey mom, wouldn’t you buy this?” There’s this bias here because it’s your mom. She loves you. She doesn’t want to see you suffer. She’s going to tell you that your idea is great. And The Mom Test is a book that essentially is teaching you how to ask the right questions and how to validate your ideas and it’s a very fundamental part of Product Management.
Timur: Kevin, it sounds like at this point, you’re already looking online. You’re reading Quora. You’re speaking to your roommate about breaking in. Can you just tell us how you found your first job as a product manager because I feel like for a lot of people breaking in, getting that first job is the biggest obstacle. What led you to that first role that you got?
Kevin: Obviously, as I mentioned before, education was a big part of my life. I had actually tried to recruit for a few ed tech, a few education companies initially for product management, and I quickly realized that coming in from investment banking, it was a little bit tough. A lot of them were looking for more technical backgrounds or prior product management experience. Now, there was this company called Kabam. It was a mobile gaming company and at that time, they were a lot more forgiving of my background because product management at a mobile gaming company tends to be very quantitative. You’re digging through millions of rows and data. You’re trying to drive insights from that and to influence what kind of features you want to build. And so, Kabam was kind of this really hot company at that time. It was on this rocket ship trajectory. It was actually one of our clients back at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and so, I had a friend who was a bioengineering major back in college, was already there as a PM and I was able to talk to him. I was able to talk to a lot of influencers in the industry. This is something I highly recommend is if you pinpoint what industry you want to work in, go find the influencers. For me, I found the hottest gaming PMs at that time, the ones who are blogging, the ones everyone went to. And I just cold-emailed them. I was like, “Hey man, can I just pick your…” I hate to say pick your brain because these days, you want to provide value to them as well so generally, you would say like, “Hey, here’s what I’ve been learning about the industry. Here are some interesting things I’d love to provide to you. I would be happy to just share notes here.” Again guys, don’t approach going up to someone for like a coffee interview and don’t send them an email that says “let me pick your brain.” There’s nothing more of a turn off in that. You can find some way to provide value. Trust me.
Again, talk to the influencers. Get to know more about this industry. Network your ass off. I don’t even need to go into this I think. The three of you are true examples of what it takes to get into the industry through networking. That’s kind of how I broke in essentially.
Artur: Yeah, that’s an awesome story about how you got your first break. For our listeners who may not be as familiar with product management, could you give us some examples of something you’ve built at Kabam to give like a pretty high level or review of what kind of responsibilities a project manager does in daily basis and something that I mentioned before, you have over 10 patents that you’ve got filed with the Kabam team. Maybe you could talk about one of the patents and how the whole team came together to get it?
Ruben: Describe product management to start.
Kevin: Product management, you’re going to hear a lot of different definitions. There’s one really good one off the top of my head, I don’t have the exact wording. If you look up Josh Elman at Greylock Partners, he has this amazing slide deck. It’s called Let’s Talk About Product Management. But essentially, product managers are working to ensure that they can guide their team into building something that your users essentially want. A big part of product management is understanding your users’ needs and then working with your team to essentially build the right solution for those needs.
Back to your question Ruben about an example at Kabam for product management and what we would use to build? Gaming PMs is very different than product management of other industries. The reason I say this is because in gaming, you are given a lot of ownership right away. You essentially are running the entire P&L (Profit and Loss Statement) for a game and you’re almost like a product owner. It takes a long time to get to that point at other industries. One example I remember very clearly is I think this was, late 2014, Kabam was struggling revenue-wise to hit their end-of-year numbers. They sent four or five, I think five of us, five product managers out to Beijing. They actually gave us two weeks and they’re like, “Hey, just go out there and we’re going to Hail Mary this. We’re going to send you out there. Each one of you is going to work on a different game and just push it. Let’s just see if any one of these takes off and helps to recoup what we weren’t able to make.” So I went out there on a whim. I was young. I was excited. I was hungry. I went to Beijing and there I was working with this team of six engineers and another member called a Producer. And the eight of us essentially grew this tiny game that no one really believed in. It was this underdog and no one wanted to be put on this game. It was one of these battle card games and there’s a mobile app. But I went out there. I was eager to learn. I think at that time I was just an Associate Product Manager. We grew this game into Kabam’s second or third largest revenue-generating product in the entire company. This game was making anywhere from $80,000- $100,000 a day. It just kept scaling and it was nuts. This isn’t really tactical. This sounds really nice and all but on a day-to-day basis, essentially what you were doing was… generally, what you would do is you would figure out what your users’ needs are. You would prioritize them as a PM and then you would work with your team to execute on them.
In mobile gaming, it’s a little bit different because you don’t have this kind of qualitative approach most of the time. A lot of the times, it’s very quantitative. You may go on forums. You may talk to users in game to understand what it is they need but I’d tell you, a lot of it comes down to just being able to query your own data. We use SQL a lot. For those of you who don’t know what SQL is. You can definitely check it out. There’s a bunch of free Udemy courses 15:37 it takes will take you an hour-learn.
Ruben: That’s spelled SQL.
Kevin: SQL. That’s correct. That will make you very dangerous whether you’re a data analyst or just a product manager. So we would query our own data and then again work with our engineer. We’d write OpSpecs and then work with our engineers to execute them and push these features live in the game.
Artur: Awesome. How do you come up with your requirements if you’re working on a new project that may not have been released to the public yet. So what kind of data would you be working with from prior projects? Do you do user testing first to get initial feedback and iterate over the product?
Kevin: There’s a lot of different data you can use. One is obviously as you mentioned, historical data from other games within their portfolio. You would look at that. We often did something called Product Tear Down, which is where you would take competitors’ products and break everything down talking from user flow, from the onboarding process, all the way to core features within the actual game. This gives you a nice competitive benchmark of what it is that you should be differentiating on. Every time we launch a game, we always launch in beta first whether it was in Canada or a specific part of Europe. We launch to a select group of users and you would get these beta metrics and also these data points which would use then to optimize the game once it was launched. So a lot of gaming was also about optimizations, split testing.
Timur: At this point, it sounds like you got your first gig. You’re learning a lot. You’re coming up with these ideas for these games and I know after a few times of working as a product manager, you decided to start your own school that taught others how to become a product manager and you grew this community to over a thousand. I think you guys said, you have the biggest group and you helped hundreds of people break into product management. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you came about to start the school and then what kind of skills do you teach your students?
Ruben: But before that, can you talk a little bit about the frustrations that you dealt with, like were you just a rockstar PM from the jump? Or was it easy just from the beginning?
Kevin: No way. This goes back to, because I happened to start in gaming as a PM, I was given a lot of false confidence in the sense of they gave you ownership very quickly. And the funny thing is that with gaming, there’s a nice feedback loop where you anytime you push a feature, you can see immediate results. You see ROI. You see revenues spike within that hour. And it gives you this nice endorphin high. It’s like the dopamine you get when you check notifications on your phone. I definitely was not a rockstar PM. I think at that time Kabam was also on this rocket ship growth. It’s easy to say you’re a good PM when everything is going well. As you know, all ships rise in a rising tide. And I think the way you really learn as a PM is actually when things are going downhill. I tell this to a lot of people whenever they’re at struggling companies. I was talking with someone at Zenefits. I was talking with someone at 18:23 Theranos. Both of them, they seem kind of ashamed that they were working with these companies and I kept telling them, “Look, you’re PM at a company that’s really struggling right now to either rebrand itself or pick itself back up. That’s where going to the trenches is where you really learn how to be a good PM.
Artur: Totally. And so I guess to follow up on Timur’s question, What led you to starting Product Manager HQ? And then what is your mission and overall, where are you at right now with this project?
Kevin: Project Manager HQ started because a long time ago, when I was trying to break into investment banking, we had a few very centralized resources that everyone went into. You had one called Mergers and Inquisitions. And I think they sold a course called Breaking into Wall Street. If you talked to anyone in investment banking, I guarantee you, most of them have bought this course. There was one called Wall Street Oasis, which was this community. And it’s funny because you look at these two distinct products. Wall Street Oasis which was a forum, they had blog posts, but their big selling point was this forum where everyone could go on and talk about their investment banking experiences. And then you had Mergers and Acquisitions which sold a course but they didn’t really have a community. And so, just keep this mind as I go forward the story because I think I always thought about this too in terms of product management. So when I started looking into Product Management, I realized there isn’t a centralized resource like Mergers and Inquisitions and Wall Street Oasis. And after I transitioned to Product Management, a lot of people would cold email me on LinkedIn. A lot of friends would hit me up for coffee to “pick my brain.” And they would say like, “Hey, I want to learn how you transitioned from finance into product management?” And quite honestly, I just started running out of time. I had to do work. I didn’t have time to run out during the day to do this coffee chats. And so I started writing instead. I started writing on this website called ProductManagerHQ.com. And I started sending this to people. I said, “Hey man, I’m really sorry. I don’t have time to do coffee with you. I feel very terrible but here’s what I would have told you anyway. And I encouraged anyone listening to this podcast. If you feel like some sort of pain point like this, just write about it. Ruben does it. He’s done a great job writing about his struggles in Breaking Into Startups, great Medium piece. And so just put it out. Don’t be afraid to write it. Put it down on paper.
So following that, I kept writing. I think six months later, I realized I don’t want to make this fatal mistake that Mergers and Inquisitions did where they chose not to make a community because a lot of people, they go on your website. They read, and then they bounce. You see these two-minute hour session times, over 50% bounce rates and it’s because they have nothing to do after they finished reading your articles. So you want to create a community where people can talk to each other right after they read your content. And at that time, Slack was this tool that was kind of blowing up. For those of you who don’t know, Slack is a really popular messaging tool. They’re trying to reinvent the idea of the future of work. But it’s kind of like AIM back in the days, if you guys…
Ruben: Or IRC.
Kevin: Or IRC, if you guys have used those tools to chat with each other but more in a formalized work setting. And I realized that you could use Slack more in a community-like setting and so I started to funnel a lot of my readers into this Slack community and we kept growing it organically. And eventually, it kind of grew into the world’s largest, the world’s most active Slack community. So we have over 2,000 product managers from all over the world. We have some high profile people. We have Ken Norton from Google Ventures. We’ve got the CEO of TheMuse.com, which is a huge career website, or sorry, I think she’s Product Officer. We’ve got people like Punit Soni. He’s the former Chief Product Officer of Flipkart, which is kind of like the Amazon of India. So we’ve got some high profile people who’ve done like AMA’s in there. Oh yeah, we were chatting about Pinterest. We have a pretty prominent… Lulu Chang, she’s a Product Manager. She’s going to be coming on next week for an AMA. And so, we’re really, really privileged just to see how active of a community this is. I think it just comes to show how eager the product management community was to like have a forum to be able to talk to each other. It is such a lonely job. There’s generally like a ratio of 1:6 or 1:8 engineers at any company and you never really know if you’re doing things right because as I mentioned, everyone kind of just falls into it. No one really knows like, “Hey, is this the proper way to do this?” It’s kind of like Emperor’s New Clothes, right? You’re afraid that one day, everyone’s going to look at you and be like, “Oh man, you’re naked.” That’s what it is. It’s the impostor’s syndrome. It’s nice for people to chat with each other and validate what they’ve been thinking.
Ruben: We can definitely relate to a lot of that. You know, Artur, Timur, and I. Breaking into Wall Street. These guys took different courses to get into Hack Reactor and App Academy and things like that, all relatable. And you mentioned a few things I think that will be interesting for the listeners to get answer about creating an actual community of product managers. I know your Slack community has about 2,000. But you talked about your course and I know you and I were chatting about how initially people would structure courses but what if you don’t complete them and then like just how big is that… how many people are taking your courses and talk about what goes into the course as well.
Kevin: Even before the course, Product Manager HQ started as a website/newsletter. The newsletter now has about 11,600 people and a lot of my subscribers, they would often, I have this auto-response sequence where you kind of get a sequence of emails from me after you subscribed. The first email asks you, what are you trying to learn from Product Manager HQ or even product management in general. What are your biggest barriers to breaking in? And a lot of people, they’re coming from different industries. They are working a job. They’ve got to put food on the table. But they just don’t have time to be studying and looking up, trying to figure out what it is they should be reading. And I noticed myself trying to compile all these resources, it’s tough. It’s disparate. It’s scattered. And so, a lot of them ask, is there anywhere where we could get like a crash course in product management? And that kind of kickstarted this idea of “Okay, I see a demand for sure.” This is kind of a validated need that I’m seeing and I decided to film myself in this room. I just locked myself down for a week, bought a really cheap webcam, like a Blue Yeti microphone and it cost me $200 to get all this equipment and I had this bed sheet faked behind me. It’s just like a really, really amateur course but I just dumped everything in my head that I had learned in product management into this six-hour course. I did a few interviews with a few product managers, put this online, and I blasted this out, a few launched emails to my subscriber base. I won’t go into the total number of students but we had a really pretty good conversation rate of just that 11,000 subscribers and then obviously, it’s online. It’s on the website. So we get a few sales every other day or so.
Timur: So at this point, can you kind of describe your typical student. And then what are some outcomes from taking your course? Do these folks become product managers? Do they take some time to break into a startup and then become a product manager? Can you just talk a little bit about that?
Kevin: It’s highly ironic because my course is called One Week PM. As you guys know, there is no such thing as free lunch and even just like an easy way of breaking in. I tell people it’s not one week PM because it’s going to get you a job. It’s going to give you great fundamentals. It’s going to let you understand things you may not have known about product management if you just don’t have time. And there are students who come in and they realize they’re a little bit too advanced and I’m happy to provide them that refund because I’m very clear that this is just about the fundamentals of product management. We’ve had students from all corners of the earth take this course. I had a student who was working at a solar company in Nigeria. He wanted to take it to learn how to become a better product manager. I have students even from my alma mater like at Berkeley. I have Sophomores who tell me that they’ve been saving their Boba money for like six months so that they can take this course. I feel bad and I generally will give it to them for free. But we’ve seen students take this course, learn a ton, join our community, and then I have a bunch of screenshots where students will say, “After I’ve spent like a year in this community, after I’ve taken this course, I finally landed my first product manager job.” And there’s nothing more exciting than seeing that. This is why I screenshot every single one of those and I have this in the folder because I want to look back one day and kind of just be happy that I was able to provide this kind of value for this community and see people break in and really help change their lives.
Artur: Absolutely. I’m super inspired by your story alone and I guess just setting out on this journey of doing the podcast is also kind of giving back to the community and there are a ton of people helping us along the way and we definitely want to give back and sounds like you’ve been giving back over the last few years. And it’s super inspirational to see someone else who uses your content or material to land that job. I actually have a friend who is a senior in college right now and he’s dying to break into product management and he’s been asking me to kind of coach him a little bit and I’ve been trying to give him as much advice as I can but I’m an engineer so I might be biased, I mean not necessarily see the full picture. What advice would you have to someone who is super passionate about the industry and follows TechCrunch, all the news sources, knows all about the startups but may not have the direct product management experience? What can someone like that do to position themselves for like an Associate Product Management role at a startup?
Kevin: This is probably going to be a two-part answer. I think the first part is I would encourage them to… this is not just this student. Anyone who’s looking at product management right now, is to really question whether this is the career for you and the reason I say that is again, because I am, I don’t want to say a victim, but I went through my first job like say investment banking not really knowing the true in’s and out’s. I kind of just saw this glamorized side of it. And I think the media and even the people in Silicon Valley really glamorize Product Managers right now mainly because there’s a lot of hype around like you have people like Marissa Myer, who led the APM program at Google, was a product person then became CEO of Yahoo! You have like Adam Nash who was a product person now the CEO of Wealthfront.
But really look beyond just these pieces of everyone telling you oh yeah you get to be the CEO of a product. You get to make all these decisions. People often think of product managers as these puppeteers that are just drawing the strings and what you don’t realize is that product management is a tough job. You’re one step removed and people are all saying it’s on the path of being an entrepreneur because you’re growing this product. You’re launching this product. That’s what I want to do. I want to start a company one say so product management fits this perfectly well. And I tell them, as a product manager, yes you’re going to learn some entrepreneurial skills but as I mentioned before, you’re not the one actually building anything. The engineers, the designers, people, maybe you have a UX team. These are the people on the ground doing the actual work. As a product manager, yes, you’re going to be facilitating some of that. Yes, you’re going to be helping to drive some decisions. But you’re not going to be building. So if you have this itch, this entrepreneurial itch to build something, go build something yourself. Go figure out if that entrepreneurial itch really is just you wanting to build something or if it really is you trying to be a product manager. And I think a lot of people make this common mistake because the get into product management and they start to realize, “How come I don’t feel these tangible benefits of like building something? I feel so far removed.” And so really know the industry before you jump in.
Now, assuming that you’ve done your research. You still think this is the career for you, I think there are a few ways you can approach breaking into product management. The one you will often hear a lot is this concept of “You are the product.” The person, you yourself are the product. The world has changed. There’s no, the idea of a resume, a cover letter. Maybe some companies care about it. It’s not that important anymore. I think even for you guys Artur, Timur. You guys went to coding boot camps yourself. There’s many ways you can go about breaking in and making yourself the product.
Ruben: Yeah, and the story that they just wrote is called The Reality of Breaking Into Startups: The First Product You Build Is Yourself.
Kevin: You guys go check out their article. I didn’t even read that one. Sorry guys, I’ll read that after this. But you have to make yourself a product and what this actually means is I tell people, there’s a few ways you can do this. One is you can start to write a lot. This is what Ruben does a lot. You can really brand yourself. Again, you don’t want to be limited because I think this what happens when you move down one career and one company and you’re like hot stuff within that company and then once you’ve changed careers, you realize hey no one else knew who you were. It doesn’t take that much time to start blogging, start writing, starting to put yourself out there.
Two, is what you can do is figure out, so what I tell people especially for product management is figure out what company and what industry you want to target. Go find a PM within that company who you respect and again, provide value for them. Don’t just pick their brain. Provide value and figure out what it is, what kind of problems they’re working on. The group that they’re in, the product line that they’re in, what kind of problems, what kind of user needs are they focused on right now? And once you get a good sense of that, go do your own project around that user need. Go do your own research. Maybe hire a developer if you don’t know how to code yourself. Work with a designer. Come up with a small project that you can then present to that PM and be like, “Hey, I know you are working on this specific problem. I thought that it would be great if I could come up with this mini project or product around this problem.” Don’t be cocky about it. You obviously don’t want to come in saying, “I know what’s right. This is what you should build.” But be very helpful to them and prove to them that you can do the job. And this is just one step of making yourself this product. Come to them. Show some traction. Get some users. It’s very easy to launch something these days. I think that’s one of the primary ways I could see you landing an interview and landing the job.
Ruben: Got it. Do you have any thoughts around some people have said, “Oh well, maybe if I break into a different role and then now that I’m in the company, I could land myself as a product manager.'” And then work on some type of work that’s related to working with engineers and then kind of getting to it backwards? Is that a good route? Have you heard stories in your community where people have done that?
Kevin: Definitely. Even my personal friend base, the community, we’ve seen many people who have transitioned internally. Actually, this probably, I would say, is actually the easiest way to do it. As compared to trying to break from outside of the industry and I know it sucks to hear that for some of you who maybe aren’t even working yet. But we see a lot of customer success managers, people on the front lines who really know their customers really well. We see salespeople, people who are interfacing with the customers all day long. We see data analysts who are able to find someone like a PM that they can shadow within the company. There are many different roles These are just three specific ones that come to mind.
Kevin: QA’s. Any career, really. You can find a way within a company to start positioning yourself. At the very least, at least just sit down with the product manager everyday and start to understand what it is that they do, how you can help, what kind of mini projects you can take on. You want to just be acting as a PM before you get the job. It’s like….
Ruben: That’s for any role?
Kevin: Any role. You want to make it part of your life.
Ruben: At the end of the day, you’re creating something that users want. Products that users want. So any role that’s related to understanding what customers are doing or what they want or what their frustrations are. It sounds like it’s very valuable.
Timur: So at this point of our podcast, we usually do the Lightning Round. So this is the part where Artur, Ruben, and I will ask you a series of questions and please try to provide short responses but include a lot of strategies, resources, or tactics that you use to either learn more about tech or about product management. So with that, Artur take it away.
Artur: Imagine if you were dropped in a new city, you had to start all over again and you only had $100, what would you do and what would be the first steps you would take to get yourself back to the point you’re at?
Kevin: That’s an interesting question. Assuming we do have to deal with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and you need to find a place to stay, you need food and shelter. You’re going to find a lot of friendly people. One thing I might do is I might go to actually a lot of the coworking spaces out here in San Francisco. The reason being is because a lot of companies at this coworking spaces are also hungry. They’re young themselves. They understand what it means to hustle and have to rent like a cheap working space. I have many friends now who are starting companies. They can’t afford nice office spaces so they go to these coworking spaces. I would go there, hang out, use that $100 and maybe just buy yourself a seat. You can generally buy a seat for $50 for one month and just milk that month. Milk as hard as you can. Sit next to all these companies. Learn from them. Offer to do free work for them. Tell them, “Hey, I’m new to the city. I’m willing to do free work for you if it means like transitioning into a paid role.” Obviously, I don’t want to get too tactical but you’re trying to at least provide some basic income for yourself first. This is one way I might approach it.
Artur:Yeah, so basically hustle. Get a coworking space and hustle your way into one of those startups.
Kevin: Yeah, just put yourself at the epicenter of what’s going on and I think coworking spaces are one way to do it for sure.
Timur: Great advice.
Ruben: Another question that we like to ask too is when you were dealing with any frustrations on your first projects or when you felt like, “Maybe this isn’t the job for me because I’m such a terrible PM” in the beginning, did you listen to any music or videos or something that inspired you to overcome whatever situations and be like, “No, actually, I am really good at this.”
Kevin: I think music videos and blogs for sure there are a ton. One thing I always think about is how hard my parents worked to get me to this position. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan. They came here with literally nothing like most immigrant parents. And they worked just so hard. And I often tell people and this is something that you’ll hear a lot from Cory Booker. He’s one of my idols, former mayor of Newark. He often says that, if we’re sitting here today like I’m sitting here today in front of your guys, I’m privileged because I was born on third base. And you can never forget that. You can never forget your roots. And so I often times think, if my parents can come here with no money. They didn’t even know English. They came to this country where they literally had to fend for themselves like this question you asked me earlier of starting over with $100 in a new city. Imagine doing that with $0 and no knowledge of the language. So if my parents can do this provide me with the privilege of being born on third base, I can hustle a little harder and I can work harder a little bit everyday to make sure that I make it there. So I think that’s probably my inspiration.
Artur: Timur and I could definitely relate to that considering we’re also immigrants. Our parents moved here in the United States when we were in middle school so seeing how hard they hustled. They learned English. They got jobs. They provided for their family. And just seeing the kind of risks they took to come to completely a new country, made our struggles a little bit less extreme. Like moving to a new city, you speak the language, you have social skills, you have some friends or you can make new friends. It just makes our struggles so minor compared to some of the struggles that people undertake and succeed at. So that’s definitely a great inspiration point.
Ruben: We’ll never forget about family.
Kevin: Never forget about family.
Artur: Another question we’d like to ask is what is one piece of advice you would want someone to know who’s about to start on this journey and this could go back as far as high school or college.
Kevin: I hate to make it all about tech but especially if we’re startups, you’ll see a lot of advice these days where everyone is like, go join a rocket ship. Go find the growth company and take off with it. And I think that’s great advice. But one thing a lot of people don’t actually think about is take some time and think about your personality type. This is going to sound kind of strange but go take the Myers-Briggs test. Go take a Enneagram test. Go figure out what type of person you are because if you’re able to align your career with your personality type, that’s how you’re really going to see yourself blossom. It’s not just like this piece of going to a growth company. It’s figure out, are you an extrovert? Are you an introvert? How does that fit into the type of roles that you want to work in? So ironically, even though we’ve been talking about product management for most of this podcast and I’m very involved with the product management community, recently, I joined a venture capital. And the reason I made that decision was because after a few years in product management, I realized that product management is a very somewhat extroverted role within a company but it’s within that company. And you’ll see introvert and extrovert PMs but for me, I’m an what’s considered an ENFP of my Myers-Briggs. They’ve tagged it as the Inspire or the Evangelist. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I wasn’t necessarily like 100% happy in a product management role. I think it’s because I wanted to be out there. I want to be talking to people all day long, talking to founders, hustling, really blossoming in an extroverted sense and so that’s why I decided to make this jump to venture capital. And I think, you guys should take that time and really align your personality types with your careers.
Artur: Yeah, so can you share something outside of Product Manager HQ or Quora or something else that lives online that you would say is the most useful online resource that you found outside of that?
Kevin: Most useful resource…
Timur: About startups or breaking into startups.
Ruben: It doesn’t have to be product management.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great question. Let go back to this question at the end of the podcast. It’s going to take me some time to think about this one.
Artur: Sure. So what is one thing that you fundamentally believed in before that you changed your mind on after this process?
Kevin: I think it goes back to this concept of what I was saying before about making yourself a product. I think your whole life, you’ve gone through this traditional education system that was the product of industrial age where you go through. You get this degree. You graduate and you follow this one job. These days, having that piece of paper from the university is no longer as relevant as what it used to be. It’s really important that you start to brand yourself. Make yourself a product because that’s what’s going to last forever, not necessarily this piece of paper that said you graduated from this college or this university or whatnot.
Ruben: So what’s next for you? What are you planning on doing next? What are you trying to do for the future?
Kevin: Yeah, again I think I’m fairly new to the venture capital industry. It’s been an interesting space. It’s funny because it’s easier connecting the dots moving backwards than it is going forwards. But a lot of people ask, why did you jump into venture capital? How did you even come to this conclusion? A long time ago, I heard my mom told me this story about my great grandparents where my great grandpa, he used to be this professor in Taiwan and then he decided to just try his hand at something similar to venture capital where he would go to… my great grandparents lived in a very rural place in Taiwan. They would go to these farmers in nearby areas. They would see the farmers needed money to get the seeds, to grow their crops, and so he started loaning out his money and essentially investing in the farmers nearby to give him a chance to succeed, leaving his professorship to try his hand at business. the next year, he went back and he realized that a lot of these farmers couldn’t afford to pay back the money that he had given them. And so, he actually went back and he took his big book of debts and he just burned the whole thing. He essentially gave out all his money. In hindsight, not the best venture capitalist per se or not the best investor but I think that always resonated with me where it’s kind of in my blood to want to be helping entrepreneurs, helping founders, helping people. So for now, I’m definitely going to try my hand at venture capital and work with great founders and support them any way I can.
Artur: And what’s the best way for our listeners to get in touch with you? Are you on any social media? You mentioned Quora. Are you on Twitter or on the other ones?
Kevin: Yeah, I’ve been pretty terrible at Twitter to be honest. I know you guys kill it on Twitter. Hit me up on my email firstname.lastname@example.org, kevin@fundersclub that’s where I am now. You can hit me up there. Twitter you can try, it will be tough for me. LinkedIn is actually my go-to resource. I’m pretty big on LinkedIn.
Artur: Yeah, we’ll include all of that in our show notes. Kevin, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today and sharing your story. It’s super inspirational. I think the Product Manager HQ is a great product and if you’re considering Breaking Into Startups as a product manager then hey check it out. A few hundred bucks is probably a worthy investment.
Timur: Yeah, thanks for coming on the show man.
Kevin: Yeah, definitely.
Timur: We’d be happy to have you again.
Kevin: Thank you guys for having me.
Timur: Thanks man.