In the early days of Product School, Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia was the only teacher. From its modest bootstrapped days, the institute has grown its community to over a million product professionals now. The serial entrepreneur behind this growth speaks to us about how he built the Product School and scaled it up. He weighs in on how minimum can a Minimum Viable Product be, what are the top skills of a product manager when a startup should hire a product manager and the trends for the future of product management.
Q. Tell us about your journey and what led you to found Product School
Carlos: I’m from Spain, and I moved to the Silicon Valley ten years ago. I’m a software engineer by profession. I wanted to do something different but didn’t know how I could leverage my technical background. I decided to join a business school, and I joined the University of California, Berkeley.
At University, I had a breakthrough. I realised there were a lot of other engineers like myself who were thinking business. At the same time, I also met many incredible students from different backgrounds, such as management, consulting, finance, and marketing, who wanted to build something. But they were feeling a little intimidated by not having a traditional engineering degree.
There wasn’t a single class in business school about product management or digital marketing, data analytics, UX design, or other skills that many founders use daily. And that was the inspiration behind Product School. A hybrid between an engineering school and a business school that can deliver this type of training efficiently for people who are serious about getting a product management job or growing their product career.
Today, we are a community of over 1 million product professionals across the world. Internally, we are north of one hundred people full time. Our instructors who participate in our scholar programmes are product professionals working at other companies like Uber, Netflix, Airbnb, or Amazon. They moonlight for us on weeknights, or weekends, just to give back to the community because they didn’t have a Product School when they were getting started.
Q. How did you find your initial set of users for Product School?
Carlos: At the beginning, it was just myself. The easy way for me to connect with users was to answer questions on Quora and Reddit and other discussion forums where people were asking about product management. From there, I would connect with them on LinkedIn and in some cases, I even met them in San Francisco.
Later I started my workshops. I organised free weekly events in San Francisco to teach little things about product management, such as creating wireframes and creating roadmaps. I also offered free resume reviews. The point was to build a community and ensure people got value before I tried to monetise it.
Q. What are some of the approaches that you’ve seen entrepreneurs and product builders take to build a Minimum Viable Product?
Carlos: If you are a founder or a product manager, you’re trying to build a solution to a particular problem at the end of the day. I always start with the problem. I used to get too excited about shiny ideas and solutions. But at the end of the day, you have to spend time with your customer and ask questions and listen more instead of talking more.
You have to create a process to talk to customers and understand and validate your hypotheses before building anything. I know this sounds hard for all of us builders. But you can save a lot of time and money by just listening to your customers, getting down to understanding their pain points. And then, once you’re ready to build something, instead of going all out and creating something crazy, make something that’s small enough that solves the problem in a simple way.
Then put it in front of the user, let them play with it and based on their feedback, you can go back to the drawing board and build the next iteration.
Q. Did you have a Northstar metric to assess product-market fit?
Carlos: Sometimes, we may get too obsessed with growth and growing too fast. In the beginning, it should be about getting your first customer, and then it’s making sure that your customer is so happy with your service that he or she is going to go out there and tell their friends.
I had two metrics. When I talked about my classes, I needed to get four students to pay for the training to validate that I could keep the lights on later and run the show. I didn’t need to do anything big. I just needed to convince four people to give me a chance to help them get a job. And that’s what I did.
The second metric was about the satisfaction of this person. If you focus on the top of the funnel metrics, like the number of people who sign up for your service or pay for your service, that is not enough. You also need to control the quality. To ensure quality, we use Net Promoter Score (NPS). These two things combined are very powerful. Because first, you know if there are people out there who are willing to pay for your service. And then you make sure that the service is worth the money, so customers could potentially go out there and bring their friends.
Q. What’s the best time for a product manager to be hired at a startup?
Carlos: Let’s say you start with two or three people. There has to be an engineer if you’re building something. When it gets to a point where you have at least five to ten engineers is when you should start thinking about hiring your first product manager.
But getting a job as a product manager at a startup is not always a great idea, especially if it’s a super early stage, because first of all, they are not hiring. And second of all, the role is not just product. It’s doing whatever it takes, which might work for some people. But if what you’re looking for is something more structured in product, with someone senior who can act as your mentor and help you grow in that specific function, it’s better to look for a company in their 25-50 employee range.
Q. What are the things that you would expect a good product manager to know and to be able to deal with in a startup?
Carlos: As a product manager, you’re in between the three groups—business, design and engineering. And you pretty much have to do whatever it takes. There’s an article from 2015 in which Ken Norton said product managers ‘Bring the Donuts’. You have to support the real doers to ensure that they are as effective and clear on what they are building as possible.
As a product manager, you connect the dots and identify the problem you are trying to solve? What is the number one thing everyone should be looking at? Who is the customer? You have to solve that problem. Then you have to make sure that all the pieces are in place and that people can execute according to plan to make sure that the right solution is shipped on time.
Q. What are the skills that make a good product manager?
Carlos: It comes down to three things. One is technical acumen. You need to be technical enough because you’re going to spend a lot of time with engineers. You need to understand how they think, their pain points and even more about their process. If you come from an engineering background, you have an edge here, but if you don’t, you still need to spend enough time working, collaborating with them, and earning their respect.
The number two is business acumen. You can also think of it as industry knowledge, especially at the beginning of your career in product. If you want to get a job in product, and you don’t have a product management record, the recruiter will ask you how you can prove that you can add value right away? That’s usually so because you understand the market or the industry well. It’s essential to understand and be passionate about the market, the customer and the problem you’re trying to solve.
Number three is communication skills. This is especially relevant as you grow in your career. Because you will not be selling, coding or designing, you’re going to be collaborating with many different groups of people. You need to feel comfortable talking to them, saying no, changing context all the time using email, using Zoom.
Combining these three things—being technical enough, being business-driven, and communicating and articulating your thoughts are the main things that make a good product manager.
Q. What are the challenges that product managers are likely to face?
Carlos: The typical problem is that your engineers are excited about a technical solution and want to build something different from what you think is best for the business. How do you convince your engineers to do something else? It sounds funny, but in reality, it’s quite complicated.
Another classic example would be when the CEO or some of the executive team members are excited about an idea and want to push it down your roadmap. But you just finalised your planning for the next two months, and you have all the engineers and the other resources working in the same direction. Now you have to decide between making an exception and breaking thrust or sticking to your guts and continuing with your plan.
Another challenge would be when you ship something, it goes to the market, and then it just doesn’t work. What do you do? Do you continue iterating that product? Do you kill that feature? Do you focus on something else?
One of the things that I love about this role is that every day is different. You are literally in the driver’s seat, making decisions, talking with so many different people trying to figure out and build the future while still not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. You need to feel comfortable in this uncertainty. You need to be scrappy and curious enough to talk to the right people, look at the right data, then go out there and decide what’s going to be next. And hopefully, you’re right most of the time.
Q. How do you convince engineers to change their mind on things?
Carlos: I’ll give you an example. Back in the day in my previous startup, all of our engineers were very excited about having the capability to start selling our products worldwide. We started the company in Europe, and then we were going to extend to Latin America. They were excited about integrating new payment solutions because now everyone can pay in different currencies.
That’s great, but who is going to bring in the customers? The fact that people can pay in Mexican pesos doesn’t mean that we would collect revenue yet. I remember trying to push back on that. To make them understand that there were other priorities which we had to prepare as a business. We had to localise our product, make sure that the users understood the value proposition. In which case, we have to work with copywriters, spend time talking with customers, and make other improvements on the website, which may not be as exciting from a technical standpoint.
It’s about attacking ideas and not attacking people and making them see the bigger picture. That’s why I think it’s essential to set up the right culture, where people understand that we are part of a bigger mission. We’re building something bigger than ourselves. And sometimes, we need to put our ego aside.
Q. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing emerging in product management?
Carlos: The first trend is pure growth. The industry recognises that this is not just a thing for high tech companies in Silicon Valley. Product management is everywhere in every single sector in every single location. There’s never been a better time to build products because the world is moving online, and more and more companies are working remotely. They are using a lot of products every single day. And that requires more product managers. Product managers now have a seat at the table, and many companies now have a Chief Product Officer (CPO) role, whereas previously, the head of product used to report to the CTO or the CMO.
The second trend is that the transformation is being accelerated by traditional industries trying to become more data-oriented. The product managers are the ones who are at the driver’s seat of this data transformation. Banks, insurance companies, healthcare companies, they’re all craving to have more data processes and product managers who understand how to move some of their offline services to the online world.
A third trend that I’ve seen is product-led growth. A lot of businesses are claiming to be product-led, which is the opposite of being sales lead. If you were to buy a service in the traditional world, you would have to talk to a sales rep, schedule a product demo, and then decide if that’s for you. You don’t get to use the product before you pay. Now, there are more and more companies that are leading with the product. They allow the users to try the product for a few days or weeks and use it for free to a certain degree. The decision-making process is switching, where the user can do much more before they talk to sales.
Q. If our listeners want to reach out to you, what’s the best way to do that?
Carlos: I’m active on social media, especially on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect with me. Send me a message, and I’ll do my best to get back to you. If you want to enjoy some of our free resources, just go to our website.