From the moment you watched Steve Jobs announce the iPhone, you knew what you wanted to do with your life: you wanted to be a product manager. It was such a massive shift in paradigm that you finally understood what “paradigm” really meant. Anyone could launch a product that made life better, you thought, but you wanted to be a true visionary and create things that made life different.
You switched your major from computer science to psychology because you wanted to live in the head of the consumer. When your classmates were all doing summer internships at blue chip companies where they wouldn’t do much more than order lunch, you were doing real work at startups, taking notes in meetings and downloading CSVs of Google Analytics data to recreate the charts in Excel because the CMO didn’t know how to use the web. Sure, it was unpaid and you were putting in 60-80 hours a week, but you could just feel yourself soaking in the experiences that would buzz around inside the back of your brain just waiting for the day you would be in a position to make use of them.
The summer before your junior year you were interning at a startup whose mission statement was “10x the PTA” and was perpetually “weeks away” from a closed beta of the MVP—an app to manage class parent snack rotation. You didn’t know that there were no investors lining up for this. You didn’t know that no market research had been done and that none of the early user tests had resulted in anything other than potential non-customers saying “why would I want this?” and that all attempts to get schools to pay for the platform ended in a hard pass. All you knew was that when the product manager quit after an argument with the CEO almost came to blows in the WeWork conference room that housed the whole operation, there was an opportunity for you to move up. You dropped out of school and started your first official product job after an exhilarating meeting with the founder where he raved about how you’d been killing it and how you were destined to be a rockstar and how he valued, no, craved your ideas.
He did not. In fact, at every turn, he found ways to make it clear that all of your ideas were bad and you should feel bad for having them. The company folded the same day your first student loan payment came due.
This was the first, but nowhere near the last time you worked with a founder who had too much faith in their own vision. After a few years, the patterns were clear. Every company you landed at was either focused on making a plus-one incremental improvement that nobody cared about (“it’s like Uber but you can choose what color car picks you up!”), or they were attempting to disrupt an industry that was undisruptable (“it’s like Uber but for unregulated clinical trials!”).
The one thing all these would-be visionaries had in common was the frothing worship of Steve Jobs and the belief that you ding the universe by pushing your idea into the world until the people who didn’t know they wanted it declare “I want it!” You stopped telling people your origin story.
Five years passed and you hadn’t worked on a single product that made it to market and survived, let alone changed the world. Meanwhile, all your former classmates who’d fetched coffee for resume fodder were moving up the ranks and getting bonuses and VP titles and working on products that people would actually see.
When the opportunity came to join an established, venerated food brand at an even more established, venerated, and publicly traded media company, you didn’t think twice. Their products already had millions of users, and they were—they promised—pushing hard into the new digital frontier.
It didn’t take long to realize that whatever digital frontier they were pushing into was full of tumbleweeds and dry creek beds. For all the big talk at annual OKR meetings about taking big swings and moving the proverbial needle, the mandate for all product development was simple: increase pageviews at all costs and don’t touch anything at all ever between Thanksgiving and Christmas lest you jeopardize the almighty holiday cooking traffic.
Not only were you not innovating, you weren’t even incrementally improving anything. When you weren’t updating Jira, you were reading about the latest SEO best practices and A/B testing whether one font drove more ad clicks than another. And while the products you worked on were beloved by their users, it was that jealous kind of love that didn’t allow for anything to change or grow, just be what someone decided it should be years before you took the job.
You did your best to change the culture, trying to educate and inculcate practices like Design Thinking and the Kano method, but between a management structure that was intent on clinging to a dying business model, engineering leadership that would only tell you why something wouldn’t work, and a general apathy toward doing anything new, you only got more and more frustrated. Anything that wasn’t about generating ad money via pageviews was “too risky for right now.” You presented research on why the ad model was doomed and pitched products that could generate revenue directly, but always hit a wall.
After three years as a glorified project manager you decided it was time to take one of those big swings leadership kept claiming to want. You put together a small group—one developer, one designer, and yourself—and covertly built a VR recipe explorer that created a rich graphical interactive experience for users looking for holiday dinner ideas. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when everyone had gone home, you pushed it live.
User feedback poured in over the holiday weekend, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. People were tweeting about how cool it was. NPS scores soared. You entered the office the following Monday expecting a hero’s welcome. Your boss was at your desk, waiting.
It didn’t matter that the new feature was cool and popular, or that social traffic was at an all-time high. Pageviews were down 30% because people were abandoning the tried-and-true clunky recipe slideshows for this new experience. It was too big a revenue drop to ignore and you were escorted from the office before rush hour even ended.
When your severance ran out, you took a job at Starbucks, and though the pay was half what you made before, you couldn’t help but take satisfaction in the knowledge that you were finally creating a product with fierce, loyal, and even addicted users, and putting a ding in the universe one latte at a time.
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