Johannes' blog

My Start as a Product Manager

In October 2020, I started as a Product Manager at Frontify. It is a nascent company (founded in 2013) that raised a $22M series B in 2020 and employs around 180 people. Frontify offers an all-in-one brand management solution. That means that the product helps manage assets (ex logos and photography) and manage dynamic guidelines for colors, text styles, and the tonality of written pieces. For example, a famous soft-drink brand wants to communicate the right red and white colors for marketing messages. In the following, I want to give a glimpse how it was to start as a product manager and what I learned from Frontify.

When I got my offer from Frontify, I had another competing offer from a big consulting company. The main reason why I chose Frontify was my first impression of their culture. From my interviews, I got the impression that the team spirit was very collaborative and ambitious. And after the first months at Frontify, I was happy to see that this impression was confirmed. The company has an incredible startup spirit that is very hands-on, and you get a lot of freedom. As a new product manager, this freedom can be intimidating at the beginning. You start and want to contribute to your companies success. You want to add value similarly to the other product manager. But to begin contributing, you have to understand the context and the dynamics of how to get things done in a new company. Moreover, when you are new, you will only move something when you collaborate effectively with your team. It all boils down to building trust and getting to know the people you work with. All this accumulated in the most significant challenge, to gain confidence in your new work environment. So let me take a step back. There is a lot to unpack here, and I will guide you through my challenges chronically. It is probably also worth mentioning that in the meantime, I have left Frontify, but I will get to this part as well.

Starting at Frontify, I was struggling with the freedom that I mentioned earlier. The problem was that I really wanted to learn and start working as a product manager as soon as possible but did not have a scope or a team at that point. My teammates assured me that I should relax and let it all come to me. But I could feel that I was lacking responsibility and a definition of success. I felt unconfident and was worried that my performance would not meet the expectations. Through reflection and talks with my colleagues, I learned to actively pull for feedback. Every time I got a minor assignment, I would ask how they would approach it. I realized that asking your peers how to do things puts the other person into a mentoring role and helps you to build trust with that person as you recognize them. The counter-intuitive thing is that the more open you are about your insecurities, the more people will trust you. You should not keep your concerns and worries to yourself. You have to learn how to communicate these emotions as they are essential information for your environment.

One conversation, in particular, stuck with me. In the beginning, I asked my manager what mistakes I should avoid making. The number one thing he mentioned was to first understand the context before you make suggestions for change. First, try to understand the environment before you propose revolutions that seem apparent to yourself. You should not add value by introducing new concepts before completely understanding the existing processes. That is very abstract. Let me give you an example. At Frontify, we had a tool to prioritize and manage our customer feedback. It was a repetitive task. Every PM had to work through ~30 tickets a week and assign them manually to a product area. When I started, it seemed evident that this task just robbed everyone's time and did not yield any value. Over time, I recognized that I began to better understand the product through this exercise. All these feedback snippets were data points that we collected and assigned to the right product. It helped me to learn much quicker how our customers used our product. In this manner, I tried to deal with everyone I worked with as if they were my coaches. When I got my first feature assignment that required discovery work. I tried to get as much input as possible from my PM colleagues. But also from the designers and engineers working on the feature. I had my own perspective on how I wanted to design the feature. But through listening to my peers, I learned the various different approaches on how to solve the problem. This also backfired in other ways. On the one hand, I would get a better idea of what I could build and how we could help customers. On the other hand, you have to be aware that there is no perfect solution and you can not make everyone happy. The more people you ask for their opinion, the more dispersed the expectations are. Aim to be naive in the beginning and try to make your mistakes fast. This will ultimately help you learn quicker. If you try to avoid mistakes, it will slow you down. Make reversible decisions fast.

In conclusion, the principles that I would derive from my experience starting as a new product manager:

Today, I am no longer working for Frontify. I accepted an offer from Google, where I will be working for Youtube. I am very excited about this as Google always was a company that I very much admired. Nevertheless, Frontify was an incredible experience. My colleagues were very welcoming, and I really appreciated working with each and every one.