Transition from Product Management to Founder - Israel Shalom, former Product Leader @Google, Dropbox shares his story
What is it like to transition from Product Management in Tech to being the Founder of your own company? What skills are transferrable and what skills do you need to learn afresh? How do you hone these skills on the job?
Learn about all this and more in this discussion with Israel Shalom, former Product Leader at Google and Dropbox, who has now started his own company (currently in Stealth mode).
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Here's a summary of the discussion with Israel:
[LED] Can you tell us a bit about your background, and why you got into Product Management?
[Israel] My background is in engineering. I actually have a Masters from Technion, there was a time I thought I would be a PhD. The one thing that my Masters taught me was that I don't want to do a PhD. I loved engineering, and I quickly moved to leadership there, and at that time when I looked around me I realized that the problem wasn't that there weren't enough smart engineers around, but more often was that we were not necessarily building the right things to solve human problems. So I got fascinated by that, and always leaned into talking more to customers to create value. After I arrived at Google I realized that there's a role for this, and decided to make the switch.
[LED] You've been a PM in Big Tech for a long time - Google, Dropbox. How did you decide to quit and start your own company?
[Israel] I think deep down I always knew it was going to happen at some point. I wanted to build a whole company culture and see what a scrappy startup feels like, and I thought what better way to do it as a founder.
[LED] Did having worked as a PM help you make the transition to a Founder?
[Israel] Absolutely. The biggest thing that was different between engineering and PM was that progress was not linear. When you're an engineer, more often than not you're making progress towards something, submitting some code, fixing a bug, creating a design, what have you. It's pretty linear. When you're a PM, there are so many exogenous factors you don't control. Some team you're dependent on may not deliver, an engineer you're counting on may quit, or the users may not react to your product the way you think they do. And with all these exogenous factors, you're still on the hook, you're still where the buck stops. So one day you may make huge progress, and one day you may actually go back, so that's a big change. And you have to manage your psychology for that.
Founder — the same things happen, only 10x. You're not only on the hook for your project's outcomes, but you're on the hook for the financial wellbeing of your employees and your shareholders.
[LED] What would you say are the top 5 skills that you pick up as a PM? Can you share examples?
[Israel] I'll speak for myself as an engineer.
User empathy. You're ultimately the advocate for the user so you really need to understand their psyche. As an example you're just exposed to user research. You spend two-three days listening to your users, you get a really good sense to how different people have different needs.
Communication. You're often presenting stuff to leadership, to counterparts, and to your team. You really nail the art of making everything as simple as they should be, but no simpler.
Influence without authority. As a PM you're not really in charge of anyone, you're nobody's boss. Yet you're ultimately accountable for the outcomes. So it takes a really keen ability to understand everyone's motivations and interest, paint a great vision, and apply small nudges to get where you need to get. Like for example, you don't really tell engineers what to do, you just kind of paint a beautiful picture and they are intrinsically motivated to do it.
[LED] Are these skills relevant when starting your company? Examples?
[Israel] User empathy is really useful in doing a startup. I think there's a bit of a misnomer around what people think as "ideation" where people think that if you sit enough hours in front of a whiteboard you would come up with a great idea all of a sudden. What it usually more looks like is that you go around talking to a bunch of people about their problems, and try to really understand. Like 50% of a founder's job at the beginning is talk to users.
Communication, absolutely. This is the other 50% of what you're doing, you're communicating to the team, to stakeholders and to user what you and the company is all about.
Influence without authority, I guess that depends on stage, but this one might be slightly maladaptive to the role of a founder early in the road, you actually want to learn how to wield authority the best way.
[LED] What's a good way to cultivate and hone these skills as a PM?
User empathy: work with your UX researcher! Attend some studies, be interested in their process. Too often PMs skip user studies, which is a damn shame if you ask me. And also, read the mom test.
Communication: This is hard not to, but one thing I always stress is brevity. Brevity is the soul of wit. A lot of your job is to take a complex reality, and communicate it in the way that is most expedient for the readers. For example, you're writing a PRD, can you make sure it makes a good 1-minute read, 10-minute read, and 1 hour read? If yes then both your VP, your peer PM and your engineers will be able to benefit from it. Can you sell to prospective members why they should join your team? Those are all skills you can pay particular attention to. One trick that worked for me is: whenever I think "oh they just don't get it", I mentally replace with "I didn't explain it right"
Influence without authority: Try to get a lot of feedback, especially from your UX and Eng partners. Ask them how you can be the best partners to them in order to get them to do their best work. Check-in with them periodically on how you're doing and how you can get to a 10.
[LED] What are skills that you don't learn as a PM, but you do need as a founder?
[Israel] Micromanaging. As a PM you need to create leverage and rely on your peers. You have to let designers do what they do, let engineers do what they do, and try to build the best relationships with all of them. In fact, often the relationship becomes more important than getting stuff done in the short-term, because it's what allows you to get things done in the long-term, not to mention that it's what helps you get ahead career wise.
So as a founder, it cuts to the bone more immediately. If your engineer is not handling this, you cannot afford to say "OK, I'll let them make this mistake" or "OK I'll stay in my swimlane, they might know what they're doing". No such thing. As your team grows you may able to delegate some, but it's still different.
[LED] Any parting advice for PMs who might be contemplating starting something?
[Israel] The biggest thing I would say is don't quit before finding your engineering counterpart. The world is full of idea guys who are looking for builders. Make sure you have someone great you're looking to go along this journey with.