Lessons from a Startup Founder – Alumni Stories

Editor’s note: this content was updated in 2021 as part of our 7th Anniversary celebrations. That’s right, 7 whole years of Product School! Come and celebrate with us…

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Many roads lead to product, and the same is true for the roads that lead to getting certified as a Product Manager with Product School.

You may think that, like traditional education, most of our students are recent graduates looking to get their first job in product management. You’d be surprised to learn, however, that many of our students come from established professional backgrounds. Consultants, graphic designers, engineers, digital marketers, UX designers…they’ve all come through our virtual doors!

Why is this so great? First off, it gives you a community of diverse professionals with fascinating backgrounds to connect with and learn from. In our alumni interviews, we aim to showcase their talents and let them show you what they’ve learned in their careers.

This week, we chatted with Eduardo Cordova, founder of multiple startups including Excuses to Meet. We dove into the lessons he learned from building startups, why he chose to pursue a product management certification, and his advice for product people in 2020.

Eduardo Cordova

You were a Founder of PenceMe, a Co-Founder of PicMe, and Founder of Excuses to Meet. What does it take to be a founder? Is there a special skill set or attitude needed for success?

PenceMe was my very first startup, it was a web platform which allowed end-users to engage with cool brands and earn small amounts of money by interacting with their ads, quizzes, surveys and contests. The main lesson from PenceMe was the importance of moving forward in small steps, testing for value especially before justifying any serious coding; this really helped me understand the need to work in more lean/agile ways.

For my next startup PicMe there were two of us, Ruslan as technical co-founder and myself. For a week or so we would interview people shopping in Regent Street and Oxford Street (London) to better understand their buying behaviour and their buying process, this within the context of the rapidly growing photo-sharing (Instagram) macro-trend that was taking place in 2014.

We’d go to the stores and it was a bit difficult approaching shoppers at first, sometimes 10 minutes would pass before we would loosen up and make our first approach I remember, but eventually we did and then every next approach felt easier. That experience has been invaluable to this day, not just learning how to interview people in a way that does not influence their response, but also learning how to approach strangers in a way that would feel natural and not (overly) intrusive to them as they went through their day.


All that user feedback confirmed to us our key persona and the untapped opportunity we observed – young females taking mirror-selfies and sharing them privately with family and friends for pre-purchase feedback. Could these shops tap into this? We started building mock-ups and low fidelity screencasts of the PicMe app, which we’d then take back to shoppers in the stores and demoed for them a way to share their mirror-selfies with their close network, but in sponsorship with the stores.

We kept on getting the same response “What’s the name of the app?” they’d ask. At that point we decided to build V1 of the PicMe app for the Android Play Store – that took Ruslan about a week, and we continued coming back to the same stores and talking to our Persona, now really testing if they’d download and use the app, which was a tricky thing to do due to the implied founder bias, but to our delight they downloaded the app and tried it! We then launched a V1 in iOS and started securing gift cards from these shops as the final incentive for shoppers to share their mirror-selfies to win these gift cards, which also proved successful.

Within a year of starting, we had made a lot of progress on many fronts, but most importantly the learning experience of running the full show just between a team of two.. ultimately though, we had a buyer from the fashion industry and sold the app within a year of starting.

My last and most recent startup was Excuses to Meet (E2M). After conducting some initial user research within the TechHub and GoogleCampus community, we initially launched it as a Friendship app available in the App Store and Play Store under the name “Excuses to Meet”, an app to help newcomers make new friends when they had just relocated to London. When we launched, we were experimenting with some scrappy growth-hacking techniques and were really lucky to get some exposure in the likes of TimeOut, The Guardian, and a handful of other media which really helped us secure a good volume of early adopters.

Excuses to Meet

Over time though, despite our messaging and user experience reinforcing the Friendship element to the app, the app had become a Dating app, and this was not a direction we wanted to head in. 

In parallel we noticed that many of our users were au pairs and they were using the app quite a bit specifically and exclusively to meet other au pairs.. Researching some more the au pair industry we found out two key things: 1) They were moving to the UK where they didn’t know anyone other than the family they’d be placed with which made for a somewhat lonely start to their experience, and 2) They would join a bunch of au pair Facebook groups to find other au pair friends which proved a very tedious task and a somewhat risky way to meet absolut strangers (ie, unverified profiles).

And so for us it was a no brainer, we needed to be the platform where au pairs could meet other (verified) au pairs, we would provide the technology, while our client (au pair agencies) would be the ones powering the growth by inviting their au pairs to the platform and verifying they were genuine au pairs. Offering the service in this way actually kept user behaviour in check (non-dating), and very much so with the Friendship experience we had always strived for.

So the natural pivot for Excuses to Meet was to provide our technology to large organisations so that they could then privately invite their own members to the white-label platform. Our first such client was BAPAA, the British AuPair Agencies Association, 30 agencies who together represent the entirety of the formal au pair industry in the UK. 

Eventually we also started offering the service to universities so that they could help their 1st year students make new connections with each other even prior to arrivals week. Delivering the service this way kept conversations between users on a true-friendship basis, and allowed us as a company to offer it on a per user per year cost model.

So to answer your question about skill set and attitude needed, I’d say that to give yourself the best possible chance of success, you have to make it your point to know your customer inside out, talk with them, visit them, see what they are tweeting, join their social media groups, ask them about their day to day, see how they do the activities they do, educate yourself on user research techniques, and build a good understanding about the pain you’re trying to solve for them (with them), and then move in small quick steps trying to validate together with them if your solution (prototype, mockups, MVP, MLP, etc) to their problem is of real value to them. Do they even use it? How often? Will they pay for it? Are they coming back asking for more? And so forth. Metrics are important here, what primary metric (and secondary) are you trying to move? You have to be clear on this before you get started.

And then Validation is tough because it can sound very binary, however in the real world human beings are really all the grey area in between, so don’t focus so much on pass or fail, focus on learning and getting better and getting closer to the outcomes you’re pursuing, all the while listening to and adapting to what your customers really need.

Adapting is a tricky thing because the customer won’t always straight out tell you what they really need, but if you’re really listening you’ll be able to grasp the underlying pain that you need to be solving for them. So again, listen to your customer and solve their problems together with them, focus on solving their problems rather than merely building features. Tackle the biggest risks up-front and be scrappy about it to save time and resources as you continue to iterate in small steps.

What got you started on your Product journey?

After some years in startups I felt it was my time to go back into the workforce and was split between pursuing Business Development or Product Management, obviously as an entrepreneur you’re required to wear a little bit of both hats and I had quite enjoyed both the internal Product aspect of the startup journey, as well as the external aspect of opening doors and getting to know the customer when meeting universities across the UK, Latin America, California and parts of Europe.

Eduardo Cordova giving a talk

Between the two, I knew the Product Management role was probably the most natural transition from entrepreneurship back into the workforce and coming from an Industrial Engineering background myself, where process improvement is at the core of what we do, I felt that Product Management would in the end just about edge out my other passion of Business Development. I guess the sweet spot between the two is a Product role looking at Growth! 

What do you think are the major challenges facing Product Managers in 2020?

I think that the main challenge for every company and for every customer at the moment is being able to stay afloat, while demand remains on the sidelines. As Product Managers we need to keep an eye on our customer and learn what’s most important to them RIGHT NOW and be empathetic to their situation.

No matter your company’s WHY – at this moment we all have the same job which is to help people sleep a little better each night. If as Product Managers we can leverage the strengths of our respective companies to help our customers in their time of need, be it by adding a feature, reducing or removing pricing where possible, organising quality networking or training opportunities, etc – if the PM can reposition its products and services in the short term, that really is the right thing to do, and it says a lot about the values of the company and their long-term focus to help their customer by being with them every step of the way.

The world will one day move fast again and customers will choose to re-engage with those who not only listened during times of crisis, but also those who helped them better ride out the storm.

What inspired you to pursue a certification in Product Management?

Once committed to pursuing Product Management over Business Development, I was doing a lot of the usual job finding activities.. but for a month or so things were really going nowhere.

While networking in the Old Street area just months before the Covid19-lockdown, I came to learn of Product School’s Product Management Certificate (PMC). In proper “Agile” fashion, I decided to test the credibility of the PMC prior to actually enrolling for the 8 week (40-hour) course. I started changing the conversation a little bit, not only in my CV but also in networking events and in conversations with hiring managers, this time reiterating my Product experience from my time in my 3 startups, and also mentioning I’d be pursuing the PMC in the weeks ahead to help with this transition.

Fortunately that small tweak led to more interest in my profile / applications; at that point I felt that pursuing the PMC was a logical step for me. In the end, I’m really happy to have pursued the PMC, not only for the benefits of converting more job applications, but also because it really did provide a solid foundation for Product Management, both by confirming things I’d learn hands-on as an entrepreneur and also teaching me more about the Product role within the scope of a Product team in a larger company. The PMC also helped me better prepare for the PM interviews I was continuing to secure during the 8 week programme.

What was your experience like with your instructor?

Our instructor Felipe Vieira was the best. Coming into the PMC I was not sure what to expect to be honest, I was not sure what type of balance the instructor would strike between PM theory and practice, or where in the curriculum we’d stop to take deeper dives, but it all worked out quite nicely.

Felipe Vieira

Meet Eduardo’s instructor: Felipe Vieira, Senior PM at TripAdvisor

The curriculum covers the full product cycle and the material has been very well curated. Felipe had a very good relationship with each and every one of us, and he had a good gauge for what the group collectively wanted to focus on, I think this really helped; some classmates were taking the course to become better PMs, others took the course because they wanted to transition into their first PM role, and others took the course because they wanted to shift their teams into a more product-oriented, agile framework.

From a teaching point of view, Felipe promoted a very interactive and collaborative environment, while also drawing from his PM experience at Trip Advisor which made the lessons and examples very real for us. We had the opportunity to complete the first 6 Saturdays in the classroom environment which was great as you get to really know the other classmates in class, in the coffee breaks, lunch, etc. And then the final 2 via Zoom due to COVID, which means we’re all still due for a beers get together once the world restarts! Months later I’m still in touch with Felipe who’s been a great mentor and friend.

Product School cohort

What’s your advice for future Product School students?

I’d say that you’ll get as much out of this as you put into it. That goes for your relationship with your instructor, for your dedication to your final project, the time you put into the weekly readings and homework, and also the effort you make even before you join your PMC, for example reading some books related to Product Management or Entrepreneurship would go a long way.

A few books I had read prior to the course included: The Art of the Start 2.0, Inspired, Start with Why, Sprint, The Lean Startup, Hooked, Cracking the PM Interview, The Mom Test, The Product Book by PS (during the course), Predictable Revenue, Blitzscaling, Prospect by Sandler, and many others, and through completing the course, as alumni you keep access to the entire LMS which has been super handy.

You might also be interested in: The Top 20 Most Read Books by Product Managers

If you had to sum up Product Management in 3 words, what would they be?

Be customer obsessed!

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