How to think like a CEO to crush your startup PM interviews
Today’s memo is sponsored by Coda: No more scattering work across documents, spreadsheets, and a stack of workflow tools. Coda is the all-in-one doc that brings your valuable data, plans, objectives, strategies, integrations, and teams into one powerful canvas.
Want to make something amazing? Try Coda's free plan.
As we grow our careers as PMs, sometimes we apply for roles with a clear scope and standardized interview processes (like Facebook RPM or a generalist PM in Uber), but at times we also apply for PM roles with ambiguous scope (first PM role at a startup or PMs for building a whole new businesses).
For the latter, the interview processes feel different. Rather than trying to meet a set criteria, it instead feels like a mutual discovery process, where the candidate develops a holistic understanding of the company and asserts that they are able to identify business critical problems and that they are the perfect person to do it.
As a result, for interview preparation you’d spend a significantly more time studying the company and evaluating it, compared to preparing standard product sense cases.
This is how I’ve personally approached the process. It’s not perfect, but it has helped me get inside the minds of how founders take their fast-growing startups from 0 to 1.
To deconstruct the thought process, first I think about: What does this company need to get right to win? And this requires a few things:
1. Understand the environment the company is playing in.
The shape of the industry
What is the history of the industry, and how does the company fit in?
Example: If you were interviewing at an insur-tech startup, you’d spend time studying the history of the insurance industry. You may learn that regulations have a huge impact, different players are interconnected and form an ecosystem, and those that grew quickly in the past decade had a secret sauce in distribution. Over time, you’d build a mental model of the industry story and how the company fits in.
Exercise: Read articles about the company’s industry, the company, and its competitors.
2. Identify what the company needs to get right to win.
What does the company need to do to capture value to its largest extent? Is it pricing? Convenience? Quality? Something else?
What are the biggest risks?
How does the company sustain its advantage? Does it have a moat? What does the company need to do in order to create this moat?
Example: Let’s say you were interviewing at a consumer research startup that does surveys for companies. The real premise of the product is delivering survey results quickly, across a sufficiently large representative sample of survey takers. To get lots of people to take surveys, acquisition cost of new survey takers is very high. A big risk is - what secret do they have about lowering the acquisition cost?
Once identifying some of these risks, figure out how the company sustains its advantage.
Exercise: Follow the money from when the end customer pays a company money, to how the company uses those funds. Where are the biggest sources of friction?
3. Develop your best guess on where the company needs to prioritize.
How does the company’s existing roadmap align with your view of what the company needs to do to win?
Are there any gaps? Why or why not?
This is often the difference between a good PM and a great PM. A good PM might gather a lot of information and have a mental model, while a great PM also has an opinion on the better ways to approach it.
Example: Let’s say you are interviewing with an AI-as-a-service startup (e.g. from helping companies use AI to predict airline pricing or identify pedestrians in photos). You might identify that one of the biggest risks is its scalability – you don’t want the company to end up in a position where it essentially acts as a consulting company, building a custom ML model for every company. Then, one of the most important questions is: how do you ensure that the company is taking on projects that’d help them unlock scalability? The type of work a product manager would need to do then is to define the use cases that would lead to scalability, while supporting the company’s growth.
Exercise: Define which business risks are the most uncertain. Then, determine how that informs your priorities as a product manager, and what makes you the perfect candidate to take on the job.
These are some of the most challenging elements of the profession as a whole. Hopefully these guidelines can help you find your own framework, think critically about a business, and most importantly, use it to your advantage in recruiting for PM roles that are exciting but ambiguous in scope.