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Building early stage product and how to get your foot in the door as a PM: Jacob Choi

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Event Summary

Jacob Choi hosted a session where he talked through product management in early stage companies, and how to get started on this career path. 

Main Takeaways

  1. Read the jobs list emails! Jacob found his first opportunity (at Going Merry) this way.
  2. Product management is best learned by doing, more so than in classes (though the entrepreneurial classes do teach some relevant skills.
  3. What product teams look like (at early stage companies): 1 x PM, 1 x designer, 2-5 x engineers. Double these numbers in a bigger company. Bigger companies will also have adjacent roles, eg, UX/UI, sales, engineering manager.
    • Associate PM’s earn around $100k, Senior PM’s earn around $200-$400k, engineers around the same as the PM’s, designers a little less. A core team is therefore about $1M/yr. So companies need this team to be good, because they’re expensive, and the company is likely to fail with the wrong product, even if the execution is amazing.
  4. Team relationships are critical - tight integration, working in the same room, “one pizza size”. 
  5. Typical process: ideas (lots of ambiguity) > design (less ambiguity) > code (little ambiguity).
  6. Chicken and Egg situation: need experience to get hired, but can’t get experience if not doing it. So then, how to get experience? At a small company, everyone needs to play a PM role.
  7. Great resources/ideas: newsletter/podcasts, early stage companies, staying adjacent (more on these below)
  8. Reach out to people on LinkedIn or email. Many won’t respond. It’s not personal. Enough will respond that it's a worthwhile exercise.
  9. Skills to highlight in application and interview: storytelling (you have to be able to tell your own story), passion for the product, documentation skills, experience with their product (create an account/sign up for a demo/read their documentation).
  10. In the interview - frame your gentle critique of their product as questions, eg, “I’d be curious to see the conversion rates/analytics at this point, because this is where I found the instructions to be confusing”

Details from the Discussion 

  1. Jacob graduated from Vanderbilt with his BS in CEE in 2012, and from Stanford with his MS in MS&E in 2018
  2. Going Merry was very early stage when he joined - they were literally finding high school students at Palo Alto Town and Country shopping center, and talking with them there. They raised a $2m seed round the following summer, built the company for the next 4 years, and were acquired in 2021. Jacob was COO at the time of the exit, and ¼ of all college bound students now use that product for their scholarship applications.
  3. Jacob went next to Floodgate, where he launched 2 accelerators.
  4. Currently, Jacob is at Beacons AI, he was the 10th hire. Founders are SU people.
  5. Over his PM career, Jacob has worked on product requirement documents (the main assignment that PM’s will do), design (Figma), operations (implementing lots of SaaS), sales and success (lots of calls, webinars, emails).
  6. Brainstorming is hard and slow to do remotely, so the most successful teams are in person.
  7. Newsletters/podcasts: Lennys newsletter, product founders podcasts - A16Z, 20VC, Floodgate (starting greatness)
  8. Good ways to find early stage companies: take startup classes, reach out to YC companies and angel list companies.
  9. PM adjacent roles - business operations, strategy, customer success, sales, engineering. The early stage companies wont have specific PM role job listings, so go into one of these adjacent roles where you can be part of the process and build your reputation.
  10. Scale smartly - create value for people *before* you approach them. Ten people who love your product is better than 100 who kinda like it.