Unbox 2019: What We Learned
What Organizing an Event for Product Managers Taught Us About Product Management
On September 20, over 200 product managers got together in Boston’s Marriott Copley Hotel to hone their craft at Unbox, a one-day conference for frontline product managers presented by Boston Product. Our thesis was simple: by elevating everyone in that room with a new idea, connection, or skill, we could help 100+ local tech companies become more competitive. We have always approached Unbox like a product, and each year our organizers iterate, assess the changes, and share our learnings with the community.
At a Glance
Over 200 product managers representing over 100 companies—the majority of which are high growth and Boston-based—attended Unbox. That’s nearly double last year. (We’ll discuss the impact of scale later in this post.) We had 14 speakers deliver a combination of keynotes, lightning talks, and workshops. In between those sessions, attendees could meet with our sponsors, play our custom games, or just hang out.
Our community is chock full of wisdom and talent. Members like Jeff Vincent from Appcues, Greg Achenbach from SnapApp, Bhavika Shah from Pluralsight, Shobhit Chugh from Google brought their perspectives to topics like storytelling, Jobs to Be Done, strategy mapping, and managing upward. Outside experts like G20 Ventures’s Mike Troiano, InVision’s Rebecca Kerr, and Mad*Pow’s Amy Bucher told us about leadership, stakeholder communication, and behavioral psychology. The day was made possible by companies powered by great products like Underscore, Cimpress, Wayfair, Accomplice, CarGurus, Pluralsight, and Stripes Learning.
Unbox 2019 was a true celebration of Boston’s product ecosystem—the breadth of companies in town, the camaraderie within our community, and the staggering depth of our product talent.
A Day for Influence
While planning for Unbox in 2018, it was clear that the event and attendees benefit from having a cohesive element that ties everything together. This year, we chose a theme of influence. It’s the essential currency of a great PM, so it made for a frothy, relevant topic for attendees while helping us select sessions, bring in new voices, market the event, and round out the experience with details like our All-Influence Playlist.
A unifying point of view helps people decide whether to attend, and clarifies what they should expect out of the day. To execute well on a theme, you have to be fully committed to it, and next year we plan to turn our theme up to 11. Attendees like some optionality in the agenda to choose the specific sessions that suit them best.
“It’s nice to have this type of event for professional development. It was also great to take a step back and to reflect on being a product manger — this is where I want to be!” — Emily Balkam, Circulation Health
By Product Managers, For Product Managers
Since its inception, Unbox has been a community-driven event. It is largely planned, attended, and led by members of the Boston Product community. That means people are likely to see a friendly face in the room. It allows us to design the conference with a great deal of empathy. For example, panels don’t hold our audiences’ attention, and that PMs notice the details our volunteer-based organizing team puts care into.
That realization allowed us to inject more personality into Unbox this year. For example, we’ve always hand-signed every notebook our attendees get. This year, we did fewer generic pleasantries like, “Thank you for coming,” and did more poetry, easter eggs, and inside jokes that are special to our community. Those details resulted in our most popular tweet from the day. We had so much fun with these messages, there’s now a store full of the things product managers think but haven’t been able to say.
Roses Are Red...
Keats said, "Beauty is truth. Truth, beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know." And he died at 25…
“PM conference run by PMs is an excellent idea. Never felt marketed to or sold any products, just pure information sharing.” — Prasant Lokinendi, Turo
A common thread we heard from attendees in their feedback is that they appreciate the unique vibe of Unbox. It has the feel of a grassroots event, but it’s tightly run. It feels like a get-together with friends that happens to be good for your career. This is not to say Unbox is cliquey or exclusive. Boston Product has always been an inclusive community that makes sure all people are represented and all voices are heard. This year we partnered with a local non-profit to provide free tickets to underrepresented PMs. There’s always room for improvement, though, and next year we’ll review our talks and workshops more carefully to bring inclusivity to our sessions as well.
“I love the community and the sharing of ideas. This group and this event helps to grow and educate great product people.” — Nichole Mace, BevSpot
As we do every year, the organizers get together for a post-Unbox retro and identify what we want to keep and change for next year. Here are a few of our big takeaways:
Growth Means Tradeoffs
We made a conscious choice that this year would be meaningfully bigger than Unbox 2018, and we wouldn’t abandon what makes it special. That said, scale always comes with a price. Broadening the audience meant that it would be harder to design an experience that met everyone’s needs. We’ve always stayed away from “PM101” topics, and this year’s agenda had a mix of PM201 and PM301 content. For the more experienced attendees, the PM201 stuff felt basic.
We can’t give every person a custom agenda, and this year, we tagged each workshop based on their relevance to someone’s role, product type, and stage to help them choose. In 2020, we’re going to introduce tracks to make this decision even easier.
Load Testing Matters
I was at the Marriott walking through our space just a few days beforehand testing the wifi signal strength and running speed tests from various spots. What I forgot was how different that connection would be when 200 other people with their devices were in the room as well. We had intentionally deprioritized the importance of wifi this year to let attendees focus on the shared, in-person experience of Unbox, but the issue was disruptive enough to affect some sessions. Lesson learned.
In a previous walkthrough, we had also identified where we needed signage on the floor to direct people to registration, sessions, games, and the afterparty. What we underestimated is what happens to line of sight when you fill a space with people. So, you can look forward to way more signs when Unbox returns next year.
Plan the Final Mile
There are always going to be obstacles and last minute surprises, and this year was no different. We handled some of them well—and there were others we could have handled better.
For example, one of our workshop leaders went radio silent, so we made the difficult choice to replace the session with only a month to go. That prompted the question, “What if one of our speakers simply doesn’t show up on the big day?” We had a short list of people who said they’d be willing to fill in, but we didn’t lock down exactly how—if the situation called for it that morning—we’d contact them, get them set up on short notice, or adjust the program/tell the audience.
We also missed a step with our contingency plan for slides. We had offline copies of all our slides offline on a USB drive, but—and this is a real 🤦♀—we forgot to take into account how many USB ports would be available. So when Google Slides did a rogue reload, we lost the content. Even though the backup slides were quickly on hand, it meant we had to unplug the adapter for the presenter’s remote. Well, you can be sure that’s never happening again.
See You In 2020
We are encouraged by what we learned this year and the feedback we got from the community. We’ll be back in 2020 with our best event ever.
It’s Boston Product’s mission to help our city thrive through leadership in product management. As long as Unbox helps us deliver this mission even a little, that’s enough to keep us going.
Deepest thanks to Aakar Shroff , Bhavika Shah, Greg Sham, Lis Gorra, and Sara Sigel for organizing. To Amy Bucher, Andrea Schneider, Andrew Grochal, Emily Levada, Greg Achenbach, Jeff Vincent, Kathy Pham, Mike Troiano, Prateek Prasad, Rebecca Kerr, Shobhit Chugh, and Srini Kadamati for leading sessions. To Elvis Ge, Olga Stroilova, Pragya Jalan, Randy Carlton, and Rhan Kim for volunteering. It takes a village to elevate our city.
If you want to keep up with the latest from Boston Product, sign up here to get our newsletter and request an invite to our private Slack. In addition to Unbox, we run monthly breakfasts, evening events, and other programming throughout the year. We’d love to see you 👋