When I shut down my startup last year I thought to myself, “It would be nice to have a job where someone else told me what to do for a little while.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case when my next job ending up being a Product Manager at Yammer. Turns out, I joined a product-focused company that values autonomy, and took on a role that has little formal power but lots of responsibility. If that sounds a lot like being a startup founder, it’s probably also why founders so often end up as product managers.
I was initially discouraged by my search for a role as a product manager. While I had job offers from a few early stage startups, I couldn’t get past a resume screen at most of the growth-stage tech companies I talked to. I don’t have a computer science degree and my career doesn’t fit in any one box: I was a progressive nonprofit campaigner, an online marketing consultant, have an MBA and a Master’s in sustainability, and had founded a company in the HR space.
But the truth is, I’m a tech and product geek. I’ve been building websites for over ten years, know my way around front-end code and web architecture, have worked with plenty of engineers and designers, and followed the lean startup methodology for validated learning in my company (while learning Ruby/Rails). Thankfully, Yammer’s application process focused on my product abilities, not my pedigree (Cindy Alvarez, our Director of UX, explains in “Why I Don’t Read Your Resume”). Instead of focusing on my resume, I had to complete a homework assignment that looked at my product sense, including my reasoning abilities, understanding of metrics, visual communication, trade-offs/prioritization, and feature ideas. Now, as I focus on recruiting for our team, I think this is a much better predictor of success than a resume (of course, I’m biased… even though as an MBA I spent plenty of time trying to craft the perfect resume).
I now have the resources to build a great product and execute on the vision I have for a feature I’m working on. As an early-stage founder (and one that never found a technical cofounder), I was extremely limited in what I could build. I worked with a local development shop to build my MVP, but I didn’t have the team or the money to iterate fast enough when we received user feedback. That’s not to say I have unlimited resources at Yammer — not every project gets prioritized and we still believe in the value of small MVPs to validate our feature hypotheses (that means I need to cut as much as I build, or be a product editor as Jack Dorsey puts it). But now I have a team of amazingly talented designers, developers, and fellow PMs that are there to help me build a great product. There is also much less ambiguity about whether I’m shipping the right thing, as we have a large enough user base to A/B test our features, and an analytics team to keep me honest.
Being part of a team of talented product managers at Yammer also means that I now have a built in peer group. “It’s lonely at the top” as they say, so as a founder I had to actively seek out peers and mentors by joining groups like Founders Network. Even then, I was still the only person that really knew about my business (it wasn’t until after I shut down that I was able to connect with peers from companies trying to address the same market). There is little more valuable than having peers to bounce ideas off of, to lean on for support, and to help to call you out when you do something stupid. My learning about product has been rapidly accelerated by being part of such a wickedly smart, strongly opinionated, open and honest team.
Of course, there I things I miss from my time as an entrepreneur. While I have a lot of influence over what we build, my voice is only one of many that contributes to our vision. I also sometimes miss being “all hands on deck,” with everyone working on whatever needs to get done regardless of specialization. But I still do try to sneak a design mock or two into my product specs (which subsequently get torn apart by actual designers), and I recently wrote a few (bad) lines of code for a Yammer Hack Day project. But the reality is that every day I’m learning a ton about how to build great features, and getting to work on a product that millions of people use.
Not too bad.
Nick Fassler is a Product Manager at Yammer. If he ever starts another startup, it will have something to do with toast. He is President of Yammer’s Bread Club.