Season 7 - Episode 3

Product Thinking and Hyper-Growth by Run The World CEO

In this episode Xiaoyin Qu, CEO of Run The World walks us through what it was like to build an online events company before the whole world moved online, and how she hires the right teams for hyper-growth.

What’s your story? How did you get your start?

I was born and raised in China originally, and I moved to the US when I was 18 years old for college. I initially was an economics major because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. But then I got an internship program when I was a sophomore. There was a special program at my school where we took a semester off to go work for a company in Silicon Valley.

Actually, I didn’t know anything about tech back then, but I thought it was a great time because I was bored of school. I just want to get out. So I got an internship at a company that, long ago, maybe 8 years ago, was really a small company.

I really loved the internship. There were only a few hundred people in Atlassian, and back then, I was one of their first marketing hires into the Asian market. So it was like really, really young. I loved tech and I loved Atlassian.

I realized that because I didn’t have any tech background, I didn’t really get to say anything about the product…it was whatever the product managers decided to build. I got to build social media marketing materials around that, but I don’t get to control anything because I thought, oh, it would be really cool if I can be a product manager. Then I realized, oh, you need to have a CS degree. So I went back to school actually a junior year, I decided to major in computer science in addition to economics.

I basically did like two years of computer science and then I graduated. And then I was really fortunate to get an offer from Facebook, to work in their special program, there’s an RPM program – Rotational Product Manager program. So I became like a really Junior PM at Facebook. But then I kind of grew my career at Facebook and Instagram. After a few years, I went to Stanford for an MBA, but I dropped out to start Run The World. So that’s kind of my whole journey so far.

At Atlassian, did you know what Product Management was, or did you find out on the job?

No, I had no idea. So there were some coworkers having lunch one day and they told me that, you know, Product Manager is a really cool job. I think that was like a casual conversation. They were complaining about something, and they’re like, oh, I wish I could be the Product Manager. And I was like, wait, what is that? And then they kind of explained to me how it worked.

And then they told me that there’s a special program that back then Google had called the Associate Product Manager (APM) program. They told me that was the best program. That’s like the McKinsey of tech or something. I was like, oh, well, that sounds interesting. So that’s how I heard about Product Management….from a marketing co-workers complaint!

What are the requirements for RPM and APM programs?

For Facebook, there aren’t many requirements. There’s no requirement that you have to have a CS degree, actually for Google, it was required. So for Facebook…anybody can apply. And they will typically ask you a few rounds of questions, around designing an app that helps you celebrate birthdays, for example, some like random ideas.

And then you build a product…that they will ask you a lot of questions on like metrics and how do you analyze the right data. It’s something that I didn’t really prepare for, back then there were no Product Management interview materials.

Anyone can apply to Facebook. We have people who are musicians, people who are bankers, and also people in college that come from different majors too. It could be biology, pre-med, legal, economics…So it’s really kind of all over the place. But I know that Google requires you to have a CS degree and they even interview you on coding. I remember that one of my interviews at Google for the internship I failed because I didn’t pass the coding interview. So I know that they have a coding interview.  

How does the program at Facebook work? Do you learn on the go?

That’s right. So once I joined, I got assigned to three different teams and they are typically very different. Each team is like half a year, and then you get to experience a different stage of the product. So one of my first products was in Pages. It was fairly mature. There’s like a bunch of analytics that helps the businesses and Facebook understand their performance, how many followers they have, and which content makes the most sense for them. So that was my first product.

And then I went to Instagram, which is completely different, now serving more consumers, I was more focusing on growth. So how, how to get more people using Instagram, back then it was a few hundred million people. It’s at like a billion people right now. So that was a really interesting experience as well.

And then I went back to Facebook for the video team. And that in that case, it was entirely zero to one, building a lot of new things for influencers and creators of Facebook to monetize and better engage with their fans. So that was a new problem space back then at Facebook.

So the idea is that through those rotations, you get to work on a couple of different products at different stages and solve different problems. Some of them are analytics problems, some of them are search and ranking problems. Some of them are growth problems, and some of them are more creative, building new things from scratch. 

Then you’re asked, which team do you want to join permanently? By permanently Facebook means like a year and a half. So that’s kind of how the program works. 

And at that point you said ‘this is cool, but I want to go build my own thing and be a CEO.’

I think I always wanted to build my own thing. I did a lot of hackathons. It was probably like a three-year mark at that time. I was a Senior PM and then typically…once you become a Senior Product Manager or Senior Engineer or whatever, that’s your awakening moment realizing, hey, what am I doing with my life. I gotta do something more than that. Typically you will feel puzzled for a few months or something. You either choose to stay with Facebook because you just bought a house, and you want to pay the mortgage, or you’re like I just want to move to a different company. Or do my own thing. You see that a lot of people make some kind of career move when they become seniors.

So I was in that same exact boat. And I guess after a few months of puzzling, I was thinking that I wanted to start a company, but I wasn’t sure what idea to pursue back then. I didn’t have an idea. But I just knew that I couldn’t stay in the large company for too long. So I chose to go do an MBA actually, and just to figure it out there. Maybe shift my environment a little bit and talk to some more people. That’s when I decided to go to Stanford.

I started Run the World in 2019. A little over a year ago. At that time there was no COVID, there were no virtual events. My mom was a doctor in China, and she had never been to an international conference before. So she got to go to international conferences for the first time in 2019, it was physical. So she flew all the way to the US and met another doctor from Dubai. It turns out they shared the same rare patient case. So it was super helpful for her to kind of learn from the other doctor and figure out what she wants to do with her own patient. But that experience was really hard because my family is from China, and it’s really hard to get a visa.

So it’s really hard for her to travel all the time to go to this international conference. And that was her first time after 35 years in medicine. So I thought, there must be a way that my mom can meet other doctors more often.

We concluded the only way possible would be to build an event that’s entirely online, so my mom can socialize with other people. That’s kind of why we decided to pursue the idea. Most people thought that was really stupid back then because there was no COVID, but we just thought that was a good idea. So we just pursued it. 

Now we kind of grew really fast. We raised our series eight total, like $15 million in fundraising. We have almost 15,000 more events hosted and created on our platform.

How did your experience as a Product Manager help you to build your own company?

Our company is really a product-first company. We’re not really doing any logistics or operations as much as DoorDash or some other company. We’re entirely a software company. So product is at the very core of our business. In the current team we have around 50 people, 30+ are in product and engineering. So that’s exactly like what I did before, which is really helpful.

And then the other thing is more like, if you think about what we do, we are innovating in a new space that didn’t exist before. So it requires a lot of iterations and new ways to build new things and test really quickly. So that is, again, it’s a lot of product thinking day today. I couldn’t really start Run The World if I didn’t have the necessary experiences from the past as a Product Manager.

What do you think will be the future of virtual events?

We are really seeing three things.

One is that the events are getting shorter, but more engaging. Historically, when we first started the company, we launched our first product earlier in 2020, most people just want to shift their virtual conferences for three-day events, from physical to online. It was really long.

It was more focusing on content delivery. Now we’re seeing more events that are shorter because people don’t have a really long attention span, but also more interactive. We offer the ability for the audience to come to the stage and ask questions. So in this show, for example, someone can come and their face can pop up. We’re focusing a lot on networking like spin-out working or matchmaking functionality.

We’re focusing a lot on group discussions. People can choose which topic they want to talk about, and then they can go off on the topic they’re interested in. So there’s a bunch of things that we’re really building to facilitate an interaction, which we find is the most important thing.

So that’s like first, events are getting shorter. The second is that they’re getting more interactive.

The third is that we’re seeing more and more monetization popping up in virtual events. So today we enable people to sell tickets. They can monetize that way. We’ll have somebody who makes like $400,000 in the year, just running events around the world.

So we’re seeing more and more new monetization mechanisms, whether it’s ticketing or tipping or membership fees. So we’re continuously going to build more. In 2020, most people were not willing to, or they don’t dare to charge anything yet, because they’re not sure what value they’re bringing. But now we’re seeing more and more people starting to ask us, how do we monetize it better?

So in the old days, you had Instagram Live where you’re more focusing on broadcasting, but the audience themselves can not really interact with the speaker directly in an intimate fashion, or the audience themselves could not interact with each other.

But for example, right now we have a bunch of people watching. I’m pretty sure they’re all interested in getting into product management. So it would be great if they can share tips on which company you interviewed for, what are the questions you were asked?

But today, without virtual events, like what we’re doing, there’s no way that you can have those conversations. You could do this offline, but not online. So we’re hoping to do the same.

How has your day-to-day changed, from being the founder of a small business to running a decent-sized organization?

I think learning to adapt to be really honest with you. I historically do everything myself. I even did the first version of our design, which was really awful. We then took months to get rid of my design, but I initially did everything. Then I started hiring managers, I hired actually individual contributors who know the space. For example, we hire designers, we hire engineers, we hire operation managers. Now I’m at the stage where I have to hire senior managers who can manage the individual contributors. So that’s the thing that I’m still learning to adapt to. And then basically you need to hire an experienced manager who can help scale the company.

That’s kind of where we are, we have 50 people. Me and my co-founder, we each own maybe like 20+ people of the company. And he’s doing more engineering and QA, I’m doing product marketing, business, operation, everything. For me, I’m learning about different functions that I have never done before.

The other challenge that I’m learning is that there are many things that I’ve never done before, and I have no clue what it is, but I need to hire a good person who understands that. So even if I don’t do that, I need to learn what a great person in that field looks like. Which is something that I, frankly, I made a lot of mistakes in trying to figure out, what does a good person like that look like? I’m pretty sure you’re doing the same thing. You now have a lot of people too.

I think that the biggest thing is to hire and manage people who are way more experienced than I am and have the expertise that I have no idea about. So that’s kind of the stage I’m in right now. 

Growing is non-negotiable. You have to have the right people to do it.

Yeah, and I think I learned this really the hard way. I made a bunch of mistakes. I guess I’m happy to share that. First, I hired the people who I thought understood what we’re supposed to do, but it turns out they don’t. That is a pretty painful mistake. We had let somebody go because I didn’t really know what the role required.

Sometimes I hire somebody that can do this, but then the company grew really fast and now they have to do more than they expected, but then they don’t have the skill to do that. So in that case, you either train them or you replace them. So that’s the other thing, I guess I’m learning.

And the third is, I realized I have to learn at least some of that. Like, I couldn’t just kind of say, hey, marketing, you just do this. I need to learn enough about marketing. So at least I can guide the marketer in the right way. There are just so many other things, I also don’t know. HR, legal, finance…

It’s that product mindset. You need to know enough to guide the different teams.

Yeah, I mean, on my Pages team at Facebook, we had 30 people, which is also across many different divisions. One thing about musicians is that the copyright is very critical because that’s how they get paid. On my previous team, we had like four lawyers because Facebook got sued all the time. So I did have experience working with different functions, which was definitely very helpful for right now. I at least have a general idea. I know, hey, before the product is launched, there’s a bunch of teams, there are operations involved, there’s product involved, there’s legal involved.

At least I have a general framework of what the types of people that we might need are. And then I can delve deeper into understanding each of them, what exact type we need. So I think the product mindset is helpful in that. It’s not just telling you what feature to build, but also how do you make the product go to market? We know what the puzzles that you need to do are, and also learn about how to motivate other people.

But at Facebook though, the difference is that I was not their boss, so I couldn’t really ask them to do anything. I can only motivate them to do those things themselves because I don’t have any control over what they’re doing right now. I guess it is getting easier because I can tell them what to do.

But I think the same tactic of…you always want to make sure your employees feel like they themselves choose to do it, not that you push them to do it. So I think that being a Product Manager at Facebook, you’re powerful, yet powerless because you don’t get to control anybody. So, I kind of learned a lot of tactics for how to motivate different people, who have different incentives. I think that’s very helpful too. At Facebook, for example, some engineers don’t care about getting promoted, but they really wanted to work on the most challenging problem. For some people, it’s all about getting promoted and they want to move in their career.

Some people would just want more visibility, they’re shy and they don’t get any chance to kind of showcase their work because they’re a little shy, they don’t raise their hand, but they secretly want somebody to call them and then give them the visibility. So there are many different people with different incentives working at Facebook, for example. It’s about understanding different people’s incentives and motivating them in the right way. So I think the same tactic is still working now that I started my own company. 

How is remote work going for you and Run The World? Do you use your own product internally?

We use our own product, and we have an all-hands which, actually our product is very good for all-hands. We initially designed it for more like industry meetups or gatherings or, where some creators lead events and share their expertise. But we realized in order to make the events great, we need to make it engaging, which actually makes all-hands a very good use case. So we do a lot of all hands in our company.

Every two weeks we have our all-hands on product. I use our own product for one-on-ones and for a bunch of team meetings. Then we will do a talent show or some fun stuff in the company, also using our product.

That’s something that we do all the time, and we even assigned a person to start a different event every week. They have to plan and make it interesting for the company to participate. We also encourage our employees to do some events. One person did a wedding anniversary in our own product, inviting his friends over and everything. So they didn’t let me know cause they didn’t want me to crash their party, they told me after.

It’s amazing to build a product with a certain use case in mind, and then have people use it in completely different ways.

That’s right, this is totally not what I expected. We had a bunch of that kind of wedding anniversary type of events. We actually had a whole comedy show that was very profitable. We just had a huge concert, like a music festival, where there are many different stages. You can go into a stage and mingle with this DJ, you can request her songs.

So it was really funny to hear a music festival entirely in Run The World, not what I expected, but I love music. That’s not really what I expected, but I see that we can actually support that case very, very well.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think I felt really ambitious when I was young, but at the same time I was really puzzled sometimes. I got really frustrated when I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, especially when you’re trying to find a new idea. Sometimes you don’t have an idea. So my young self would be very anxious, thinking I have to find some idea and then I feel really bad if I don’t find an idea.

So I think the advice that I would give is, sometimes it’s okay if you just let yourself experiment with different things. I’m learning something new, so you don’t necessarily need to get it right the first time. It’s more about what you’ve learned each time.

It’s more like changing the mindset from, I have to get this one versus, what did I learn from a different process? So that is the mindset. Once I changed that, I think I started getting calmer. I started seeing myself more in the growth mindset, than just focusing on getting a particular one.

I think if you have this mindset, it kind of helps you stay the course, and get calmer, and accomplish your goals eventually.

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