Coffee with Merci Grace

Welcome to the first post in my “Coffee with” series, where I meet fellow women in product, learn about their story, thoughts on product management, and current challenges over coffee.

To kick off this series, I met up with Merci Grace. Merci leads growth at Slack, is the founder of Women in Product (a Slack community of 800+ women), and GameLayers (a social games company).

I first met Merci at Slack’s Girl Geek Dinner — I was hooked as soon as she mentioned power posing before taking the stage. We also share a background in gaming and starting companies in our early twenties.

How did you get into product management?

I’ve always been bossy and organized — two prominent traits of a product manager. In the 9 months after graduating from university and starting GameLayers, I was a receptionist at Bad Robot — I thought I wanted to be a creature designer so I went to Bad Robot to learn motion graphics and 3D modeling.

While I was there, we were offered seed funding for GameLayers. I had to make a choice — stay at Bad Robot or start my own company. I was 22, had already decided the movie industry wasn’t for me, and VC’s were offering us $500,000 — more money than I’d ever heard of, so I said “let’s do this”.

When I’m hiring, especially junior people that I’m looking to mentor, I look for those innate qualities: determination, focus, grit, emotional resilience and flexibility.

Did you always want to start a company?

I’ve always loved making stuff. At high school, I ran the school newspaper and the school year book — I wanted to be a journalist, specifically a war and conflict reporter; I wanted to take down powerful structures that hurt every day people. I went to USC because they have the highest ranked undergraduate journalism program in the nation. I found the ranking in U.S. News & World Report magazine— I was like “this is the Harvard of journalism and I am going to go there”.

I worked really hard throughout high school, totally focused on getting into this school and into this program. This is part of being a PM — bossy, organized and then, stubborn is the other shining quality.

When I got there it was a huge disappointment — the professors themselves could barely write, the class choices were reporting on Hollywood, sports reporting etc. I met with the Dean of the School of Journalism — he said I wish there were more students like you, but there aren’t, and I recommend that you change majors. I was 17 at this point.

If you’re the type of person who hears about something happening to someone and views that as a problem and your reaction is “how can I help solve that problem for that person?”, then product management might be a really great fit for you — it’s creative problem solving at the end of the day.

Where do you think your focus and resilience comes from?

I think a lot of it is innate — personality type. I first took the Myers Briggs test when I was 15/16. I take it every couple of years and I’ve been an ENTJ the whole time. Most people’s Myers Briggs will change as they go through different life stages — mine has never changed. I’ve been bossy, stubborn and organized my whole life.

I haven’t always been focused on one career path but I’ve always had a lot of focus. There is something unteachable about that. When I’m hiring, especially junior people that I’m looking to mentor, I look for those innate qualities: determination, focus, grit, emotional resilience and flexibility. They’re often innate qualities — you can’t train someone to get knocked down 95 times and keep getting back up, refocussed; to get up in the morning and be refreshed emotionally.

If you’re the type of person who wants to make stuff, especially stuff that other people use and you’re not afraid of fucking it up, then you’re going to be able to get up every morning no matter how difficult the job gets or how dysfunctional your team is and say, “I’m going to keep making this thing”.

What habits or techniques do you use to maintain focus and resilience?

I use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I found out about CBT 3 or 4 years ago from Michael Dearing, the head of Harrison Metal. Michael teaches classes that I recommend to everyone — if you go to Harrison Metal, he has classes on there that are just so good.

The core of CBT is that your thoughts determine how you feel, and you can change your thoughts. It’s incredible — I have been so stressed out or unhappy about something, either at work or in my personal life — I’ll be so distraught that I’m crying when I’m journalling, sobbing hysterically trying to write and then 15–20 minutes later as I’m finishing, I’m laughing at how upset I was 15 minutes ago. It’s incredibly transformative.

What do you believe to be the top traits / skills of a great PM?

  1. Storytelling — this is the combination of empathy and being able to write and communicate clearly.
  2. Empathy — being able to connect with users.
  3. The ability to write and communicate clearly — this is important when writing specs, briefs etc.
  4. Stubbornness
  5. Optimism
  6. Critical thinking — always questioning assumptions.
  7. A drive to create — that’s the thing that will keep you getting up in the morning.

If you’re the type of person who hears about something happening to someone and views that as a problem and your reaction is “how can I help solve that problem for that person?”, then product management might be a really great fit for you — it’s creative problem solving at the end of the day.

If you’re the type of person who wants to make stuff, especially stuff that other people use and you’re not afraid of fucking it up, then you’re going to be able to get up every morning no matter how difficult the job gets or how dysfunctional your team is and say, “I’m going to keep making this thing”.

I left coffee with Merci with an enormous appreciation for her focus and fearlessness, or as I like to call it “badassness”. Laser-focus is a common theme throughout Merci’s story and it’s apparent from the start — from picking USC and getting in to approaching the Dean, and starting GameLayers at 22— that’s a level of focus and commitment that I have huge respect for. Thanks for grabbing coffee, Merci :)

And thank you for reading — let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you have questions for my next coffee.

Hungry for more? Find more “Coffee with” interviews here.