Treat your time like investors treat money

When we review strategic plans at Redfin, Glenn reminds us that he wants to behave more like an allocator of capital. This means he wants to evaluate different ways Redfin can spend its money, the potential return for those investments, and then decide what will return the most.

That may seem like a cold way to decide what to do and not do. In truth, we consider much more than just return on capital invested when making strategic decisions. We’ll pass on investing in something that doesn’t make a customer’s buying or selling experience meaningfully better, or an agent’s work experience better. But thinking about return on capital is a good balance to avoid getting too attracted to interesting ideas that have a low chance of paying off.

Time is your scarce resource

As a product manager, you inevitably have more to do than there is time in which to do it. You have user research to conduct, designs to review, specs to write, metrics to evaluate, and roadmaps to put together. You have asks from other teams to manage. You have new people to ramp up. You have random issues in production that your team needs guidance on.

For this problem, I like to think of myself not as an allocator of capital, but as an allocator of another scarce resource: time.

Do your due diligence

When faced with a decision about where to spend your time, think about what return you’ll get for that time investment. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Cost: How much time will this take? Is this a high-confidence estimate or could it take much more or less time depending on unknown things?
  2. Value: How valuable is the thing that gets returned for putting the time in? Why?
  3. Expertise: Will you be the most effective if you spend time on this? Or, is there someone better suited that can do it faster and/or better?
  4. Opportunity: What else could you be doing, if you weren’t doing this? Are those things going to return something that’s more valuable?

Saying no is necessary

Investors want to put their money in more things than they are able. They have to say no to some investment options in order to say yes to others.

As an allocator of time, you’ll need to do the same. Saying no to doing something means you get to say yes to something else and give it your full focus. Saying no also may mean you need to find someone else to do it, or get agreement that it can wait.

Make your investments public

Make a list of the main things you’re driving, and where you draw the line below which items remain unfunded.

If your manager or a colleague wants you to invest in something new, share with them your list of where your time is currently allocated, and ask the above questions: what’s the new item’s cost and return, who’s best for it, and is it worth more than current investments?


Having a focused, high-return list of investments of your time is the way you’ll make the most impact as a product manager. As a bonus, it should also help you stay balanced and avoid overwork.

A Few Product Thoughts on Cryptocurrencies

Relying on other people to tell you about a product you’ve never seen or used is like having someone describe to you what it’s like to ride a rollercoaster; you can sort of imagine it, but you can’t form an opinion of whether you like being hurled up and down a track in a little buggy until you try it.

I was ignorant about cryptocurrency as a product. So, I recently decided to get hands-on and think about it from a product perspective.

Dipping my toe in

I did what I think are the very basics with cryptocurrency: I acquired, transferred, and exchanged.

  1. Acquired: I used an online exchange to convert some US dollars into one cryptocurrency. I also found some places online that would give a small amount of cryptocurrency in exchange for viewing ads or letting a browser “mine” for coins.
  2. Transferred: I used a couple of ways of transferring cryptocurrency from one place to another. Specifically, I transferred from an exchange into an online wallet.
  3. Exchanged: I used a few different means to exchange that one cryptocurrency into another.

In the span of minutes, I witnessed my US dollars being converted into a digital store of value and be sent over to a virtual storage place. I watched as a distributed ledger running on a bunch of different computers confirmed the transaction. I also watched fees paid to those running the computers that helped me do the transfer or exchange.

First impression: it works, but it’s hard

I was impressed that the technology worked and worked quickly. Transferring money was much faster than an Automated Clearing House transfer between banks, and in some cases was lower cost than a credit card transaction fee or a Paypal merchant fee.

However, most options to buy, transfer, and exchange cryptocurrencies are not well documented, not easy to access, and confusing. I ended up committing several hours of research and experimentation with about a dozen different websites to do what I did. And I feel I was just scratching the surface.

The walls are up, but there’s still no running water

If cryptocurrency was a house, it would be far from ready to live in for most people. Sure, developers will point to the walls and say “look, they’re standing!” and take pride in the tarp roof they’ve stretched across the walls. But most people will point to the lack of a toilet and ask, “where do I go to pee?”

Developers are busy addressing infrastructural problems, like how much information is part of each section of the distributed ledger, how fast the transactions are processed, how the transactions are verified or proven, and how time- and energy-efficient the verification process can be. There is demand for this work because coins are racing to differentiate from each other in order to get adopted by those running servers to verify transactions and those interested in buying the coins.

So. Much. Hype.

As of this writing, there are over 1,400 cryptocurrencies listed on CoinMarketCap. The barrier to entry is low. Can you fork an existing open-source project, setup a server running that code, and create a reasonably nice-looking website? Congratulations, you’ve just started a cryptocurrency.

Also as of this writing, there are over 1,000 books on Amazon about cryptocurrency.  Many focus on cryptocurrencies as an investment vehicle, promising some insider secrets that others don’t have.

So, what’s it good for?

Right now, not a lot. You can buy some coins and keep them, speculating on their future value. You can buy them to send money to people, but the transaction fees sometimes make this unappealing compared to Paypal or Venmo or just a simple check. You can also go online and argue about why one coin is better than another, in various forums.

So what about the future? Optimists say cryptocurrencies will replace gold as safe stores of value. Others think they will upgrade or replace the banking system, and expand money services for those unbanked and for those wishing to send money overseas. Still others see the distributed ledger as a way to create a new computing platform, complete with file storage and information transfer.

And then the pessimists point to the crazy state of the product today: lose your private key? Congratulations, you’ve lost your money. The same congratulations is warranted if you keep your money in an exchange and the exchange gets hacked. Oh, and you can lose your money trying to buy a cryptocurrency from an ATM because the transaction fees are too high.

I think that both optimists and pessimists are right; currently, cryptocurrencies aren’t ready for the mainstream user. What I don’t know is whether the innovations will hit a critical mass that will free developers to focus on building things at the application layer, solve end-user problems, and allow for everyone to easily adopt the technology.

This could be another BitTorrent

Remember BitTorrent, the distributed file sharing system, letting you quickly download files from multiple other computers that had all or part of those files? Movie studios and music labels were shaking at the prospect of everyone downloading films and albums for free with this technology. Then, the streaming revolution happened, and people realized paying a few bucks to Netflix and Spotify was much easier than spending time downloading a pixelated version of a movie with Portuguese-dubbed audio only to then receive a stern letter from their ISP.

Or, this could be the future.

Cryptocurrencies could follow the same path as BitTorrent: a lot of hype around a cool technology that remains in the margins, outside of most people’s everyday life. Or, it could be the beginning of the next platform in computing, creating a new way to store, transfer, and transact value and information without a central authority with killer apps yet to be imagined.

Only product people’s creativity, developer’s ingenuity, and what customers ultimately spend their time and money on, will tell.

Right Questions, Right Product

My vision prescription changed recently, and I was in the market to buy some new glasses. I was intrigued by the potential for buying glasses online, both for convenience and price. But, I had no idea what it meant to purchase glasses online. I had only ever bought glasses in a physical store, trying them on in front of a mirror while receiving semi-helpful guidance from a store employee. And, there are countless online retailers to consider (and yes, even Amazon has some options). Where does one start?

Knowing so little about buying glasses online, I started visiting a bunch of different online eyeglass vendors’ websites. As I browsed their sites, I started cataloging what they highlighted as features. For example, some vendors were keen to advertise their try-on-at-home program, where you are sent frames to try on at home before deciding on a pair to buy. Others touted low prices, while still others advertised their frames’ quality or designer pedigree.

Once I figured out the landscape of features, I set to work. My wife makes fun of me for it, but whenever I research making a new purchase I build a spreadsheet to organize my information. In this case, my spreadsheet had 14 rows and 9 columns. Each row was an online vendor. Each column was a question I was trying to answer. Questions included the following:

  1. What’s the price range for the glasses this vendor offers?
  2. What’s the return policy for this vendor?
  3. Does this vendor offer a try-at-home option?
  4. How stylish are this vendors’ frame options?
  5. Any other perks from this vendor?

Then, I started sorting my spreadsheet, ranking the best answers to the top. I landed on a few of my top vendors based on what I thought the most important questions were. Then, and only then, I started actively shopping for glasses.

The key to figuring out what glasses to buy wasn’t flipping endlessly through pictures of frames until I spotted one I liked and then clicked on a buy button. With that technique, I may have picked a nice looking pair of glasses that fit terribly from a vendor with a bad return policy, and ended up dissatisfied. Instead, I identified what was important to me first and then figured out who could give me what I valued most. And I did so by identifying what questions mattered the most to me.

The Right Questions

Imagine we’re building a new online eyeglasses company. If we just took a bricks-and-mortar shop, cataloged its inventory, and put it online, we’d most likely fail. Why? After all, we’ve taken an existing product (a glasses shop) and added a feature (a buy button online). Incremental improvement is better, right?

Here’s why that idea would likely fail:

  1. Not understanding what customers value: people who are interested in buying glasses online probably don’t value the same things as people interested in buying glasses in a store. For example, people buying online are probably motivated more by convenience and price, while those buying in person are probably motivated more by personal service and the ability to do quick, in-person adjustments and returns.
  2. Asking the wrong questions: if you ask people visiting an eyeglass store what problems they see, they may say “needs better hours” or “needs more employees to serve me without waiting”, as they think about how to incrementally improve the existing experience. The focus should be on what customers want, not on how to improve what already exists.
  3. Not understanding what’s possible: a storefront is a decades-old, fairly refined way of selling glasses. Customers or shop employees probably won’t think of things like a try-at-home program (the glasses are right there, try them on!) or a way to find glasses by entering dimensions of your current glasses and clicking “find similar” (just scan the store for similar frames, or ask a store employee!).

Instead, we should talk to people who are buying glasses, understand what they like and don’t like, show them some ideas about buying glasses online, and watch and listen to their reactions. As we amass more and more information, we can start figuring out the questions to ask (is a super easy return policy important? what’s the most you’d pay? are designer brands important? what do you think of this crazy augmented reality prototype for trying glasses on?).

Once you have your questions, you still have to decide which ones are most important to your target customers. Once you have that, you’re on your way to figuring out how to deliver something to make customers happy.

And yes, go ahead and make that giant spreadsheet to organize your thoughts. I won’t criticize.

How To Land Your First Product Management Job

I’ve talked to dozens of aspiring product managers who ask me how to get into product management. They want to be at the intersection of customer, business, and technology. They want to deliver products people love. They want to grow a business. But, how does one get started?

First, let’s clarify a couple of things:

  1. There’s no one educational path to product management. I know great product managers (PMs) who have technical degrees, history degrees, and no degrees. While it may be common for product managers at software companies to have computer science degrees, a technical degree is not required to be a product manager.
  2. There’s no one career path to product management. Some come from engineering backgrounds, others from business backgrounds, and still others from user research and design. You can exercise and grow the skills needed to be a product manager in many different roles. Becoming a product manager means applying those things full-time.

Here are some approaches to getting your first product management job.

Internships

If you’re early in your career, one of the best ways to get into product management is to complete an internship. Product management is an applied trade; there’s no better way to learn than to own real product decisions at a real company with great mentors to help you grow. Internships also let you vet a company to see if you want to work there long-term.

If you’re at a college or university with career fairs, talk to companies hiring product managers at those fairs and find a role that matches your interests and experience. Also, seek out companies you admire online, and contact them to see if they’re hiring PM interns.

School projects

If you’re in college, sign up for as much project-based work as possible. And, make sure you do the work that answers questions that product managers focus on: Who is the customer? What do they want? What problem does the product solve? What is the look and feel of the product? How will you get feedback on the product? How will you measure success?

Sign up for product work

Are you working at a company with product managers? Find a way to stretch into the work they are doing. Talk to a product manager who you work closely with, and see if you can take a task or project from him. Start small: a little customer research, a design wireframe, or a beta test plan is a good first step. Make it clear that you’re there to both do the work and to learn from it, so you’re given something of appropriate scope.

After you do the work, get feedback from the product manager on what went well and what could have gone better. Then, ask for more! Ideally, you get to the point where you are a product manager in all but name, and it’s an easy sell to the right manager to have you formally join the team.

Get a mentor

Have coffee once a month with a product person in your company or at a company in which you have a connection. Find someone that has not just lots of experience, but the kind of experience you’re interested in (consumer products, business products, developer products, and so on). Learn from her what the job entails from her perspective. Ask her to walk you through how she makes product decisions. Get feedback on skills she thinks you need to grow and be successful as a product manager.

Side projects

Have an idea for something great? Come up with the plan, write it down, and socialize it. If you do this for something your company currently focuses on (or should), then pitch the idea to a decision maker. If not, write it down and socialize it with product managers for feedback.

Also, consider a personal project. This can be especially good for those with a technical background who can not only plan and design their product but also build it.

What about classes and books?

I have nothing against product management training. Free, online courses from Coursera may be good if you are brand new to the role and are looking to understand some of the basics. However, I don’t think coursework alone can land you a product management job. A lot of courses out there focus on the mechanics of product management, which is more akin to project management, and are very light on topics like strategy, design, tradeoffs, and experimentation/beta testing.

If you’re considering a paid course, make sure it’s well rounded. And, ask the following: how many graduates have gone on to land product management roles within a few months of completion? If the provider can’t or won’t answer that, I’d be wary of using their program as the primary way to land a product job.

As for books, I’d honestly spend time scouring sites like Medium for posts from product managers talking about their products, instead of reading books about product management.

Hang in there!

Remember, product management is an applied trade. Regardless of how inexperienced you feel, find a way to start doing the job, and get feedback along the way. Sooner or later, you’ll land the role you want.

Oh, and by the way: I’m hiring.