How Mentors Can Help You Break Into Product
This week on The Product Podcast, Matt Bilotti brings his product savviness to discuss the wild west of the PM world. Join as we learn what is necessary to build products people love and how having a mentor can be the key to breaking into the Product world.
Question [00:01:02] When you were growing up did you ever wonder about how the biggest brands, services or even just everyday objects worked or how they got built. Is that something you thought about at all?
Matt [00:01:16] It’s funny, I would say no. I just never really thought about it until I was in school. I took a design course and then that made me realize how much effort and time goes into the thought process behind this.
My first job where I was product manager learned that there’s so much more to [the products] that we use every day, and you don’t really think about the people spending their lives figuring out how [these products] operate and work. So I would say growing up, no, but as I started doing product I realized that it’s pretty important thing.
Question [00:02:28] You were President of the Entrepreneur Club and you also had study abroad experiences in Santo Domingo and South Africa. Would you say that in your case the university experience was key in leading you to product?
Matt [00:02:59] I would say without having gone to Northeastern, I don’t think I would have wound up being in product. If I hadn’t been involved in product, I don’t I would have learned as quickly and as much as I did with the types of roles that I wound up getting.
Because of the opportunities that I got through Northeastern with the on campus activities as well as off campus activities in Boston, those things were critical to me landing in the world of product in the first place.
Question [00:04:00] We’ve seen people from Europe travel to San Francisco and discover product there. We’ve also seen people travel all over the world and when they come home they realize how isolated their experience is where they’re from. Do you think it’s important for product people to travel to other places to gain a broader perspective?
Matt [00:04:17] Yes, and I would add to that and say that different areas of the world have different industries that thrive. So the type of product thought and the type of product learning differ between areas.
For example, San Francisco is very obviously has a strong B2C industry, right? Consumer Apps, and a very high volume of that type stuff. And building an app Airbnb (for example) is very different than Boston where most [well-established] companies are B2B; so they’re all business to business tools. Building a B2B tool is fundamentally different from building a consumer app.
In Boston, there aren’t many product managers that really understand B2C and consumer app products. This is because there aren’t many companies that do that in Boston. So I would say it’s different in each place, and it’s important to think about what kind of work you want to do as a product manager.
Question [00:05:57] So your first product experience was in Boston at Influencers. What did you learn in your time working on the realtime market research platform? how did you start building this sort of user centered strategy? What was your first approach?
Matt [00:06:49] I will be honest in saying I had no idea what I was doing, and and it was an incredible experience. I didn’t even know what product management was before I took that job, because there was my mentor from school and I just wanted to work with him. Then he said, “We need this thing called a Product Manager, do you want to do it?”
So I totally fell face first into it, and I didn’t know what I was doing. My initial work that I did for was urgent things that had to get done. For example, we have to outline how the mechanics will work for the product.
One of the things that I did during that role was getting a mentor at a local company. I went to a product Meetup and I saw the VP of product at Hubspot at the time, and I said, “wow, this guy really knows what he’s doing. I feel like I could learn a lot from him.” So I reached out to him and he became a person that when I’d run into a big challenge around product I could send him an email with an outline of the challenge.
So having that mentor was really critical for me figuring out what things to do in that first role because I was the only one doing product at that first company. So it was very much a wild west learning experience as I went along.
I certainly learned quite a lot. I think one of my biggest lessons for me was I took too long spending time to truly understand the paying customer side of things. For example, you can answer questions to get free stuff and companies would pay to ask these types of questions to customers, so we spent a ton of time building the side where you would answer questions to get free stuff, right? It was great, but we never really understood who the customer really was; we didn’t know if this person would actually pay us and if we were building the tools that they need. We did that secondarily, and ultimately that was a major downfall to the whole thing because we had tons of people answering questions, but there was no one on the other side supporting the prizes that people are getting.
Question [00:27:40] Most recently you switched to growth product management. What are the challenges in coordinating with stakeholders who are directly in contact with the customers vs. stakeholders who are not? How do you do that when you are building like a global operation?
Matt [00:28:19] It’s tough. I think the key is to find more ways to bring team members who aren’t close to the users closer to them. One of the mistakes that product managers make– and I made this mistake a lot and I still do — is spending too much time trying to filter all of the customer feedback and the customer views into a very cohesive point, and then saying to the rest of the team that they don’t need to worry about the details.
I think it’s really important to fight the urge to shelter the details, because the details are what allows your team to better understand the customer and come to the same conclusions. So my interpretation of all this stuff is: Why don’t you also look at it and see if you agree with me, right? I think it’s an ongoing challenge and it especially gets tougher as a company gets bigger and bigger, but you have to kind of fight that urge. And find ways to continue to bring either the team to the customer or the customer to the team in some unfiltered way.
Question [00:33:34] Out of all the skills that you developed and acquired over your career, would you say that there is a most important one? Or one that has opened more doors for you?
Matt [00:33:49]I personally think for me that — and this is something I’m still learning and getting better at — is storytelling. It’s so important to be a good storyteller as a product manager, because you have to be able to tell the stories to the customers, as well as understand the stories that they’re trying to tell you.
You have to be able to tell stories to your team to get them on board. You have to be able to tell stories to the rest of your company so that the customer team knows how the product is going to work and how they can talk about it to their customers. This is one of the most critical pieces because as a product manager you have a lot of the responsibility and none of the authority. And so you have to figure out how to be really influential and one of the best ways to do that is through storytelling.
Question [00:34:40] How do you measure the impact of the products that you build, and what metrics are your North star?
Matt [00:35:21] it depends a lot on the actual product that’s being worked on. For example, today we’re spending a lot of time working on activations; how many people are actively using the product. What’s important — but also hard to do — is to try to find a way to quantify the product usage in some sort of revenue metric.
At the end of the day, the product has to be impacting revenue because if the revenues aren’t coming in, you can’t keep building the product. So finding a way to tie it back to, okay, this much revenue uses this part of the product every week. Right? You can start to understand things like 10% of all of the revenue across your customers who have engaged with this part of the product recently.
That’s a wrap on this week’s episode! Take Matt Bilotti’s insights, put them into action and catch our upcoming episode at the same time next week with Ammar Jawad from Expedia group.