Linda Xie on product management in the uncharted territory of the blockchain space and starting her own company
Linda Xie is a Product Manager at Coinbase Pro, previously known as GDAX. Here, she’s focused on building the best crypto trading experience and improving ease of use for all levels of retail investors. Previously, Linda was at Facebook, started a company, and worked at several startups in both Product and Engineering.
What first got you into the blockchain space?
During the bull run in 2017, I started trading crypto with a few friends. What drew me in was the volatility of the markets and the arbitrage opportunities everywhere. I hacked together a few trading bots and launched them on various exchanges. In addition to tuning my bots, I spent a good amount of time researching the assets I was trading. Though the technology wasn’t 100% there, the ideas were compelling and I was inspired. My hobby turned into an obsession.
How did you get into product?
The path I took into product was pretty unconventional. Growing up, I enjoyed taking risks and wasn’t stimulated by school. This combination got me into a lot of trouble. To make peace with my parents, I went to the University of Waterloo for a Math/Business double degree and decided I wanted to be a trader.
At 18, I landed an internship working on the trading floor of TD Securities as a trading associate. I was ecstatic. This was it. Work started at 5AM where I’d wake up in the dead of Canadian winter to get coffee for the traders on my desk. 6AM to 6PM was spent on the floor doing various mundane tasks to support my team. 6PM to 12AM primarily consisted of alcohol, also known as “entertaining clients” and/or “relationship building”. The lifestyle was rough and the harassment was real. I knew I had to get out. During my third week on the job, I emailed my advisor to switch my Math/Business double degree to Computer Science. I turned my sights to the tech industry and doubled down on getting there.
After TD, I went back to school and taught myself to code in 3 months. With a lot of work, I got a job at Facebook as an engineer. This was my first time in the US and Facebook was shinier than I imagined. With an ice cream shop on campus and more perks than I could enjoy, Facebook provided me constant dopamine without real satisfaction — it wasn’t clear if this was due to the work or the company. I gave engineering another shot in the context of startups and spent the next 2.5 years working at RelateIQ (acquired by Salesforce), Flatiron Health, and started my own company.
When I finally graduated from Waterloo, I had a clear criteria for what I wanted to do next — 1) develop my skills and mind for starting another company 2) think about problems/strategy at a high level 3) work with great people who I can learn from. I joined a startup called Sourcegraph as a Product Manager, with a mentor I trusted and wanted to learn from. Early on at Sourcegraph, I decided I wasn’t going to write code…so being a PM meant everything that wasn’t writing code. I worked on roadmap, execution, growth, marketing, user research, sales, and managing existing customers. This experience gave a lot of breadth and allowed me to practice things that felt unnatural.
After a few months of being absorbed in crypto, I realized it made no sense for me to not work in the space. I was especially drawn to crypto exchanges and saw clear gaps for improvement. I looked into centralized and decentralized exchanges. Ultimately, I decided decentralized exchanges were too early and defaulted to centralized. I set my sites on GDAX and Binance as they were my favourite exchanges at the time. The GDAX team happened to be down the street from my apartment, so Coinbase it was.
Today, I manage the experience for retail traders on Coinbase Pro (previously GDAX). This includes adding assets, international expansion, and building great product for users of all levels. I love these challenges. The one downside of working on Coinbase Pro is not being able to actively trade anymore.
Tell us more about starting your own company.
Let’s rewind back to my first year of university. I stumbled into Waterloo’s startup incubator, Velocity. This was a catalyst for me. I worked on several projects throughout my undergrad. Some favourites include a sports betting site (before realizing betting was heavily regulated in Canada) and an app that visually identifies specific pieces of clothing and suggests similar styles.
After my third internship, I came back to school feeling restless. I was stunned by the housing prices in Silicon Valley from my time there and wanted to change the way real estate was valued. I applied for the Lightspeed Ventures Fellowship Program with my friend/roommate at the time. Our business model was to 1) valuate residential properties using a model we designed and 2) predict the return on investment of home renovations. We’d then sell this offering to contractors, real estate agents, and property managers. After a few interviews, we were in. This experience was a whirlwind. We had no idea what we were doing and met with anyone and everyone that would talk to us. We ended up building out our initial vision and sold the offering to property managers. The challenge was getting this to scale and being hesitant to commit to bigger deals without a reliable data source. At the end of the program, we couldn’t align on a direction and decided to part ways.
What did you learn from the experience?
After Lightspeed I took a few months to reflect. My biggest takeaways were:
- Define what success means to you and set milestones to get there. You should do this before jumping into execution. We didn’t align on a shared definition of success and used the output of our work as momentum to guide our next steps — this was not sustainable.
- Persistence rarely ends with a no. Afraid of being told no is what prevents you from asking. I was cold calling contractors/ real estate agents/portfolio managers my first week at Lightspeed and remember being so relieved when the call went to voicemail. Making asks to people eventually became less daunting. If you get no the first time, ask again. I was pleasantly surprised by most people and the degree to which they were willing to help, buy, give advice, make intros, etc.
- Be kind to yourself and your teammates. Starting a company was the first time I didn’t have a clear path to direct my energy — I learned lack of structure brought out the worst in me. I took my frustration out on myself (by overworking) and sometimes on my cofounder. These are two things that will trigger consequences that make it hard to be productive.
- Be scrappy. When you’re starting a company, you have nothing. Scrappiness was how you turn nothing into something. When we were designing our algorithm, we had no idea how home renovations worked. I was staying with friends in Palo Alto townhouse at the time and decided to put up the property for sale (with no intention or authority to sell it). Many real estate agents reached out to represent the property and I invited them over to pick their brains. I then took their recommendations and invited contractors over to give estimates on the renovations the agents suggested. This gave us a lot of inspiration and I was able to take a bunch of meetings at home.
What do you bring from that experience to being a product manager today?
Being a product manager isn’t too dissimilar from being a founder, just with a lot less responsibility and stress. For most PMs, you’re trying to bring order to disorder, build a great experience for users, and rigorously define success while setting up your team to do their best work. I often find myself using learnings from my startup.
How is being a PM in the blockchain space different from being a PM in a more established industry?
The blockchain industry is like the Wild West. Concurrently, it’s at the forefront of technology. We’re in uncharted territory, with a ton of innovation, and it’s unclear who will come out on top. Right now you see a lot of competition on the protocol level e.g. Ethereum, EOS, NEO, Stellar, etc. Until there’s a winner, I think it’ll be hard to focus and build utility on top of one particular platform. This uncertainty and desire to hedge propagates through the industry. You see teams that are passionate but unfocused and trying to execute on too many fronts — this can be distracting and leads to decision fatigue for users. Additionally, there’s 1) a high contextual barrier to entry and 2) products are often technology/functionality first (vs user-friendly) — this results in people having low confidence when interacting with blockchain products. I love these challenges and enjoy operating in the uncertainty. When thinking about product in blockchain/crypto, I index on:
1) Building intuitive and reliable experiences that foster trust
2) Reducing friction while adding user education where possible
3) Having a clear definition of success while being vigilant to change
What are you most excited about in the space?
We’re paving the path for a new, and more open financial system. The innovation here has really just started. The most exciting part is not knowing where this will go, but knowing things will change.
Disclaimer: these are Linda’s personal opinions, not the opinions of Coinbase.
Write to Roshni Rawal at email@example.com. The she256: Fireside Chats are sponsored by Upscribe.