For those who are unaware, AMA stands for ‘Ask Me Anything’ where you’ll have the chance to ask our featured guest any question you’d like. Our product guest of honor is:
Alexandra Cavoulacos is the Co-Founder of The Muse, the most beloved and trusted career destination, where she leads the Product and Operations teams. Alex was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Media, INC’s 15 Women to Watch in Tech and Business Insider’s 30 Most Important Women Under 30 in Tech. Having spoken on WNYC and at SxSW, Alex is a frequent keynote on productivity and entrepreneurship, and a champion for women in tech. Prior to founding The Muse, Alex was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. She graduated from Yale University, and is an alumna of Y Combinator.
The Muse is the only online career resource that offers a behind-the-scenes look at job opportunities with hundreds of companies, original career advice from prominent experts, and access to the best coaches to get personalized and private career help. We believe that you can and should love your job—and be successful at it—and we want to help you make that happen. On the
Very inspiring to see a fellow woman accomplish what you have! I’m wondering if you can tell us what your biggest mistake ever was, (something that had a huge impact) and how you learned from it, moved on from it?
Great question. Before starting The Muse, my co-founder Kathryn and I started a business with two other women. It only lasted 10 months and died in raging flames and threats of unmerited lawsuits. The biggest lesson for me was making sure that I work with people who share my core values and have integrity and to trust my gut on people. It was the hardest thing I’ve been through, but out of it came The Muse and my great working relationship with Kathryn.
Where do you start when you need to create an improvement to an existing product?
When I need to make an improvement to an existing product, I start with current usage patterns, and where there are dropoffs in flow. I love drawing (I’m super visual) so there’s usually some sort of whiteboarding session to make sure we’re looking at the whole experience. After that, I like to dig in with my PMs with real users, with a focus on understanding their needs and how we can better address them through this product.
This might seem like a weird question, what is it like working with such an unusual brand? Are people highly confused by what “The Muse” is?
We definitely get some confusion, but usually more from the industry/investors earlier on in the process, rather than from users. We see ourselves as solving a bucket of needs for end-users: “I’m worried about my career” or “I’m thinking about my next step at work” — right now those needs are segmented between services and bringing them together has made intuitive sense to our userbase.
Any recruitment/hiring tips for finding amazing talent? (Outside of the normal networking/meetups etc..)
Finding great talent is a constant question on my mind. I think the biggest thing for our hiring has been really looking at our job descriptions. We’ve A/B tested titles and length in the past, to see if it has an impact (hint: it does), and also found that the more authentic you are, the more you attract your tribe. Take a look at that, and it’ll have an effect on all of the other initiatives you have posting jobs/networking/meetups, etc..
What are the 3 biggest you want all PMs to know or think about?
The 3 biggest you want all PMs to know or think about:
1) We all know that building what users say they want isn’t the best approach (there’s a common adage that “users don’t always know that they want”) but it’s important to be very thoughtful about the flipside, and just because users can’t always articulate what they need or want, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need there. It’s our job to dig.
2) Your product is only as good as your communication. Be the best communicator in your company. That’s both what you saw and how you say it AND how you listen to people and synthesize information for people who aren’t there.
3) You should always, always be thinking about what you’ve learned. If you run a test, talk to a user, look at data: what did you learn? Share that learning, and make sure it affects a decision or next step. If not, you’re wasting your time.
What are your top 3 qualities for a Product Manager? In other words, what do you look for when hiring for PM positions?
The top three things I look for in a PM are (1) killer communication skills, (2) empathy in spades – for users, their teams, clients, everyone, and (3) intelligence. The third might sound like a given, but so much of PMing is solving new problems every day, having someone who “gets it” quickly is an accelerant to the business.
How do you see the threat of LinkedIn to The Muse?
We’re in a space that’s always had a number of big winners at a time (LinkedIn, Indeed, in the last era Monster, Careerbuilder…and even HotJobs back in the day) so we think that there’s always going to be room for 2-3 players at the top. I don’t worry about the threat of LinkedIn for our core business proposition because we’re filling different needs.
Two of our core strengths are (1) creating authentic, valuable content, and (2) our demographic. Our avg age is 29, is 45+, our users are 65% female, LinkedIn is the only major social network with more men than women using the site.
Those differences meant that our shared clients use us for different reasons. Not to mention that the acquisition by Microsoft likely won’t make LinkedIn’s user experience better/more consumer-friendly, which is another place we diverge in where we focus.
What should you be doing as a PM on your first day and first week on the job?
Great question! We just had a product manager start last Friday, so I’ve been thinking about onboarding more than usual recently. My perspective on PM onboarding is that it’s a little different than other roles. PM success hinges on having the right information/inputs, and involving/informing the right people. Because of that, new PMs on my team spend their first 2-3 weeks learning EVERYTHING, but doing very little. And then they hit a tipping point where they can do a ton because they know what they need to know and whom to work with for anything.
That means in onboarding they do everything from reading all of the relevant tickets shipped in the current quarter (and flagging ones they don’t understand) to getting to know our site architecture, going to other non-technical teams’ standup meetings, getting super familiar with OKRs, etc
Are there any frameworks that you use that are helpful in thinking about product vision, strategy, roadmap, features, etc?
We’re big users of OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) at The Muse – and coming up with our quarterly OKRs is something we spend a lot of time on, both at the executive level and with my teams. We do a company-based OKR and a team-based OKR, but don’t flow it down to the individual level since it hasn’t been useful to date. Getting everyone aligned on that has been really successful for the 3-month roadmaps and aligning on outputs instead of features.
One of the things to avoid is a list of features to ship — shipping a feature in and of itself isn’t a win. We try to define, wherever possible, the output we want, and give the freedom to the PM/Technical Lead for each team, working closely with any business stakeholders, to figure out HOW to get there. That means we do a ton of testing — using a built-in bandit testing infrastructure we made for our back-end — to learn quickly and decide which ideas and features to throw out and which to double down on
As a PM in digital media, I’m curious what your take is on the recent consolidation trend that’s happening in the business (Mashable, IBT, AJA have all laid-off employees in the recent months) and where do you think the future of The Muse is?
You’ve definitely hit on a trend, but I would say that it’s bigger than digital media in my mind. I’ve seen across tech/startups in general, at all stages, a (healthy) re-focusing on the fundamentals. Many companies focused on growth at all costs, or assuming the best case scenario would continue, and with the marketing cooling a bit earlier this year and funding being less easy to come by, many have started to put in place corrective measures now to make sure they’re in good shape for burn/spend/profitability.
It’s never easy to make those decisions (and fortunately we haven’t had to think about layoffs here) but I see this as companies realizing where they got out a bit too far over their skis and readjusting their center of gravity.
When a product provides multiple services (For ex: job opportunities, career advice, access to coaches in the case of The Muse), how do you prioritize which services to focus one’s efforts on when you are building your product? Would also love to hear your perspective on how this could vary as time progresses.
That’s a great question. Prioritizing across service isn’t easy, especially in a marketplace like ours where we’re dealing with the needs of our users (where we put our primary focus) and of our clients/employers as well. We try to tie things back to the core objectives for the quarter — if one of them is to help users discover the right next step for them (not our current OKR, but just an example), then there may be ways to do so through profiles, through jobs, through articles or through coaching. We can do that through email or on-site.
That gives us a chance to try a lot of different things, then invest where we see the biggest return. And that balance definitely changes. One way we’ve also approached it is by not splitting our PM or dev team by product, but instead by user segments (B2B vs B2C) and on the needs of those segments. So as those needs change, and how we support those needs evolves, the areas of focus change alongside it. But it’s never easy!
What one piece of advice have you often found yourself giving to new founders?
1) Do not do business with people you are not on the same page as. Just don’t. Co-founder issues are the #1 reason startups fail, but most people don’t talk about it. Do you share a vision? Have you agreed on equity split? Do you trust them, like really trust them? If in a year you have $0 revenue and no real investors, do you agree on what to do then?
2) Get standard legal docs from the get-go. Incorporate in standard ways, do standard vesting, and make sure you do have vesting. Having a co-founder bail 2 months in and own 50% of the company will make it nearly impossible for you to raise capital (not to mention it sucks a lot)
3) Do things that don’t scale (and read Paul Graham’s essay on this). If you can no longer do it because things have scaled, that’s a great problem to have. Your “MVP” probably isn’t really an MVP yet — dial it back.
4) Be honest with yourself about how the company is doing. If you’re not tracking 1-3 key metrics, you’re probably not growing them. Don’t be an ostrich, or let yourself chase vanity metrics.
5) This is going to be super hard and it’s not for everyone. That’s OK. Be kind to yourself, and remember: you just need to learn faster than the business. So keep learning, and asking, and hustling, and finding ways up, under, down, around, and through to get to your goals.
6) Revenue is king. If you have money, you get time, and with time, everything else is figure-out-able.
Any tips for achieving work-life balance? Product management can be intensely rewarding, but also sometimes just plain intense.
Ah the elusive work-life balance. To be honest, as a founder, running a 120 person that was 25 people 18 months ago, and as the head of both product and ops ….I’m not the best role model. I work too much and need that balance too. That being said, I’ve found and tried a few things that work for me, even if I don’t always apply them.
One was trying a technology curfew (I wrote about it: https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-4-best–i-learned-from-giving-myself-a-technology-curfew) and giving myself more time to think/be present.
I also have found that working even a few hours from a coffee shop or home, getting myself out of the office, can do wonders for my productivity. As a product person, people need us to talk to and be inputs/listeners/sources of information. It’s so key to carve out time to get actual work done too, so that doesn’t bleed into nights and weekends regularly.
(I write a productivity column once a month for The Muse so you can read more on things I use/have tried: https://www.themuse.com/tags/no-seriouslydo-this-now-by-alex-cavoulacos)