Many people are often curious about the backstory behind kicking off the Product Manager HQ community so I thought I’d write a quick post outlining some of the initial thought process.
My very first Associate Product Manager role was at a company called Kabam, a web / mobile gaming company that primarily worked with Hollywood IPs, helping to make games for legendary franchises like the Godfather, the Hobbit, Fast and Furious, Marvel, Star Wars, Transformers, etc…
I joined the company in it’s hyper growth phase (it scaled from 300-800 employees in the 2 years I was there) and like many first-time PMs, I was thrown into the fray with very little guidance.
The PM group hadn’t established a formal onboarding program and each PM seemed to run their games / P&L differently, so the first few months were a struggle for me to establish a baseline of whether I was “doing product management correctly.”
Shortly after I joined the company, Kabam became one of the very first massive publishers to make the crucial strategic shift away from web into mobile. As a result, many of the PMs were entering unfamiliar territory where existing web product development processes started to break down when applied to mobile (i.e. release cycles were much longer due to Apple’s stringent 1-2 week build approval process).
Since everyone was busy adapting to mobile and putting out their own fires, it was difficult for me to find a mentor within the company who would be able to dedicate time towards helping me grow into the product role.
Secondly, our product teams regularly collaborated / synced for product reviews which helped to standardize certain practices, but given this was my first product role, I was always curious how product teams at other companies might have approached solving the same problems we were facing as a company.
I chatted with a few product manager buddies at other companies and realized that I wasn’t the only one facing these problems. Other new PMs were having a hard time:
1) Finding a product mentor outside of the company
2) Finding a peer group of PMs to chat with about best practices / ideas
To solve these problems, I first turned to attending as many product events in the city as I could find. However, I quickly realized that these one-off interactions with attendees once a month weren’t enough to solidify the trust necessary to develop mentor/mentee relationships or establish a support group that I could turn to whenever I needed advice.
Additionally, I often came across time-sensitive issues at work and there wasn’t a synchronous medium that I could tap into in order to get immediate feedback.
All of this was happening around 2013, and as luck would have it, an interesting company called Slack had just pivoted into a real-time collaboration platform (the Slack we know today). I fell in love with the Slack platform as soon as I started using it, and realized that it would be an amazing medium to run a live community.
When I first kicked off the community on Slack, it was free to join and I seeded the initial 10-20 members with product manager friends.
In the early days, I would DM (direct message) every single member and start conversations to befriend them and learn about what products they were working on. Between a typeform that people had to fill out to join the community and a mini google spreadsheet CRM that I used to store information on each member, I had a nice mental map of who I should be connecting to whom.
I likened a lot of this initial community building to an experience of attending a cocktail party. Think of the times where you’ve walked into a party solo and awkwardly tried to make your way into a conversation circle – frankly, that experience sucks. Now contrast that to a cocktail party where a friend of yours knows everyone and pulls you into circles while saying “Hey everyone, have you met my friend _________?” It’s a much more accommodating experience, and you’re likely to have a better time.
If one member told me about a problem he/she was having when PM’ing an enterprise SaaS product, I would find another member working on a similar product, introduce them to each other, and ask them to both chat about their issues in public channels so that other people could learn from their conversation. To help kickoff conversations and engage lurkers, I seeded questions in public channels (i.e. “Has anyone here tried any product roadmapping tools? What were your favorite ones?”) every single day.
At around 200-400 members, I started to see more word-of-mouth growth as members started referring friends and colleagues in the industry to join the community and conversations started to organically happen daily without much input from me.
Personally welcoming every new member in the community became a bit overwhelming (especially because people joined from different time zones when I might be sleeping), so I began to use tools like Zapier and Slack integrations / bots for more sophisticated and automated onboarding messages.
To help engage the community, I also reached out to specific “power user” members who were chatting daily and asked them if they would be interested in becoming community moderators. I created a private group for these moderators, set some light guidelines, and trusted them to help engage with the community and let me know of any “bad behavior”, i.e. spammers or recruiters.
As a solopreneur who was so used to doing everything myself, establishing this moderator group was one of the most important lessons for me in terms of learning to let go / not trying to do everything myself and distributing responsibility amongst the community.
At around 1000 members, I began to notice a trend where over 90% of new members joining would churn after the first few weeks (Slack provides a weekly report of which members become “inactive”). A large part of this was because joining was free, so many people joined out of curiosity and left shortly after. I suspected this trend was also happening because the community was now large enough where conversations were happening daily and it probably became quickly overwhelming for new members who had never intended to seriously engage in the first place.
To counteract this, I replaced my typeform with a new landing page / Gumroad plugin and started charging a one-time lifetime membership fee of $25 to weed out inactives and people who weren’t serious about participating in the community. After instituting the paywall, the churn trend completely reversed.
To help justify the $25 one-time fee, I made sure to include plenty of benefits such as instituting bi-monthly AMAs (ask me anything) with product leaders and working with product conferences / events to negotiate large discounts for community members. The community has since featured AMAs with well-known product people in the industry including Ken Norton (Product Partner at Google Ventures), Josh Elman (Partner at Greylock Partners), Punit Soni (Former CPO at Flipkart), Alexandra Cavoulacos (Co-Founder at The Muse), David Cancel (CEO at Drift), and Ellen Chisa (VP of Product at Lola), amongst many others.
The thing that brings me the greatest satisfaction in all of this is the value that I’ve helped to create in the product management community.
In-person meetups around the world happen organically through initial interactions in the community, and our last San Francisco meetup (which was supposed to be with a small group of PMHQ members) blew up on Facebook and brought in 200 aspiring / current PMs to fill up a local bar. Large enterprise companies such as Intuit have even onboarded their entire 200+ global PM organization into the community and continue to onboard each new cohort of PMs every year.
Over the past few years, I’ve lost count of the number of members who have landed jobs from the community. (I try to save as many screenshots of these moments as I can in a folder on my desktop labeled “Why This is Important”.)
And lastly, I’d like to think that product organizations worldwide have gained real insights into how other teams think about product and have shipped better products as a result.