My Path into Product

My journey into product management was a lot more timing and luck than a deliberate path. I have come to realize though that a circuitous route to product management is more the norm than the exception. Here is a little bit about how I found my way into product management. 

During law school, I focused most of my time with startups. I did market research, worked with the tech transfer department, and got the opportunity to volunteer with a local angel group, the Willamette Angel Conference. These initial experiences made me want to become a lawyer at a startup.

I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I wanted to start my career in New York City. With no opportunities approaching the end of law school, I was able to get a short meeting with David S. Rose, the founder of Gust. I thought it was just going to be a good chance to connect into the NYC startup community. After a 30 minute meeting with David though, I somehow left with a short-term opportunity working with Gust to help support their products. Definitely not what I was expecting, but I was thrilled that I was able to snag softer landing into NYC.

My initial time at Gust was eye-opening. I entered an environment where my legal training wasn’t quite as impressive as I had thought it would be. This was more a reflection on me than on my co-workers. My first role was in customer support on the cap table management product, Gust Equity Management. I knew my way around financing documents and the jargon so I did a lot of onboarding and demos to help current and potential customers better understand the product. I thought this would be an interesting temporary role to give me a taste of the startup experience. Once again though, I was surprised to be offered a permanent position with Gust in a business development and sales role. 

Now to be blunt, I did not find great success on the sales side. I didn’t have the right personality to thrive in that environment. I did though get to build the legal partnerships for the newest Gust product, Gust Launch. The initial legal partnership was not meeting customer expectations and leadership wanted to provide customers the opportunity to connect with startup lawyers. Being a lawyer myself, I welcomed the opportunity. 

Over the next few months, I built the partnership process from the ground up. I also got to work with design on implementing the initial request process within the product. I helped shape the offering, wrote the FAQ copy, and did a lot of research on legal ethics. I got to be a key stakeholder in product development. I enjoyed the experience and wanted more opportunities to participate in the product.

After shipping the legal partnership process with Gust Launch, I was given more opportunities to work directly on feature development. Most of the early work I did was as a subject matter expert for the legal workflows. This comprised mostly performing a bunch of research and producing documentation. After a year in this role, I gathered my wits and asked to become a product manager. Once again, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity. I have been in this role for nearly two years and learn something new every day.

Takeaways

Here are a few things I hope an aspiring product manager can take from my path to product management:

  1. Take calculated risks and ask for opportunities that benefit the product team. I did a lot of “product” work long before I was titled a product manager. Getting early product experience often takes a willingness to work outside your role. 
  2. There are several paths to product management. You don’t have to be a developer to become a product manager. Leverage those experiences to help shape your product skills. My customer support experience continues to help me be a better product manager. 
  3. Stay just outside of your comfort zone. You might feel like an idiot or look like you don’t know what you are doing. Your colleagues are much more gracious to you than you are to yourself. This is where the most rapid learning and growth happens. 
  4. Some things take time to come together. Be patient and focus on finding ways to apply what you are learning.