My personal journey to Product Design is a bit unorthodox. I spent several years in other roles before I’d learn why and how I’d become a Product Designer, but that breadth of experience has made me a better contributor and leader in so many ways.
For most of my life, I’ve been splitting time between disparate skill groups. I was both a nerd and a jock, I studied Art as well as Business, and my professional path traversed from Sales to Product Marketing to Product Management and finally to Product Design.
I view my professional journey as a series of chapters lasting 4-5 years.
Your mileage may vary, but my advice is to learn how to be valuable in a skill that’s needed at great companies. Work your butt off to join a great company on those grounds and then learn about other roles while excelling in your current one. The thing about great companies is they tend to grow, so there’s a good chance you’ll get a taste of everything from one seat.
By 22, I was running a digital operation helping small businesses get on Facebook. These were early days of web 2.0 and there was plenty of room to add value. Along the way, I was fortunate to get an introduction to Facebook’s growing Direct Sales team, and well-positioned to hit the ground running. I went from working with mom-and-pop businesses to managing fortune 100 relationships.
I’m fully aware of how “lucky” it was land at Facebook in 2008, but I subscribe to “luck is a function of surface area” and believe it’s entirely possible to improve your luck. In this case, my summer jobs in door-to-door sales helped create the luck I needed to excel in Sales.
At Facebook, I had a front-row seat to modern company building. I was “crushing it” in Sales and had plenty of seasoned team members singing my praises, but Facebook’s “builder” culture was steering my aspirations in a different direction. “We don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services” was Zuckerberg’s mantra.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see why product-led companies outcompete the ones allowing monetization to steer the ship. But at the time, reinforcing this hierarchy was required to grow Facebook into the user-centric juggernaut it would become, and I took note.
Another unique aspect of Facebook’s culture was the informal adherence to a meritocratic org structure. Most product roles were handed to 20-somethings with entrepreneurial clout, and it was working. I wasn’t ready to leave and found a company yet, but I did make sure my talent was recognized when an opportunity for a product role materialized.
Marketing is everything
That opportunity came when Facebook re-org’d the Monetization teams to create a new group focused on Marketing. Not how Facebook markets itself (there was a Growth team for that), but how every company in every vertical of the world markets itself, so that Facebook could solve their problems and ultimately increase revenues.
To call this a post-grad business education is an understatement. I worked alongside a team of the very best marketers in every vertical: Auto, CPG, Retail, Finance, QSR, Pharma, Consumer Tech, Entertainment, you name it. My job was to help shape product development for Monetization to meet their unique needs, and along the way I came to understand the fundamental nature of Marketing.
While growing Facebook’s revenues from hundreds of millions to tens of billions, I was given the opportunity design and launch vertical marketing strategies across our global teams. We developed internal software to manage adoption and I got my first real taste of product management and design, building and releasing products used by thousands of people.
I knew that designing and building product was where I belonged, but I was still a far cry from the seasoned product designers I’d befriended across the room. I asked them to coffee to learn about their unique paths while plotting my own.
Burn the boats
Despite many colleagues encouraging me to stay, by 2013 I’d decided I was ready jump ship and see how well I could swim in the open sea. I knew that I was insulated from many hard lessons at Facebook, and I needed more hands-on experience if I really wanted to design products full time.
I had my first startup client lined up before my last day at Facebook, and began selling my services as a Product Designer even though I was helping in many other areas. Outside of client work, I dove into communities online and offline to learn all the soft and hard skills required to excel in this role.
Every client project I designed became a rung in my ladder to the career I wanted, and each time I used my sales skills to find better clients at that next rung. Over the course of six years I became a highly skilled, highly paid Product Designer, and in 2018 when my client earned an acquisition from Google, I decided I was ready to go back in-house and own the role I’d earned.
I’m a mission-driven organism at heart. Consulting was a necessary lifestyle choice for that stage of my career, but I missed being on a team chasing an important vision over a long time horizon.
Bring to bear
While exploring opportunities, I got introduced to OhmConnect who was building a service networking residential energy customers to reduce carbon emissions and enable a transition to renewable energy.
OhmConnect was still early in their journey but the service was creating real-world value and I immediately fell in love with the design challenges at hand: finding ways to make a complex solution simple for customers and grow the network to improve the looming climate crisis. I joined OhmConnect in 2018 and immediately began threading Product Design execution into the product development teams.
My first project focused on enabling customers to adopt and connect smart home devices to the platform for automated energy control. Historically, the team had be able to increase customer adoption very incrementally, from around 5%-8%. But over the course of one quarter, I led a team to design and implement a new system that increased adoption over 30%. Today, automation makes up the majority of the user base.
As the company grew, I established Product Design functions end-to-end in product development, from early concept validation through high-definitely shipping and optimization. I instituted Design Sprints to steer new products toward validation make the best use of our most precious resource: time.
Along the way, it became clear that our product’s technology stack was limiting our potential. In order to move us forward, I led a large organizational effort to adopt a new technology stack — a process aligning stakeholders from every team. Once adopted, this allowed me to lead a comprehensive redesign of our product suite, including mobile, desktop, messaging and branding, scaling up an in-house design system with the help of engineering.
Over several years, we grew the business from thousands of users in CA to millions of users globally, and embracing Design helped us get there.
Design is good business
What is the value of Design? Any startup making efficient use of resources should be asking this question. Most business success is dictated by a simple formula: how much $ we spend to make $. In software, this is often dictated by CAC (cost of acquiring a customer) and LTV (lifetime value of an acquired customer). Applying thoughtful Product Design to these company metrics is the clearest path to associating value.
Improving CAC: By focusing on our customer-acquisition experience (very much in scope for product design) through a combination of functional and behavioral strategies, we were able to bring acquisition costs down by over 50%. Optimistic design patterns, social proof, referral incentives, and many other cohesive solutions helped us get there.
Improving LTV: Unpacking the core value prop and how customers experience it is the key to improving retention. By shepherding customers over hurdles and around obstacles, thoughtful UX improvements help customers experience the value of the product and stick around longer. Drawing on behavioral science lessons and the design patterns that embrace them, we eventually increased customer retention over 100%.
Is Design valuable? As a matter of fact, Design just helped 4x your business model efficacy.
The next chapter
Through each chapter I’ve leveraged my broader skillset to earn opportunities, and worked hard to contribute value through my passion for Design.
In this last chapter, my personal life also changed quite a bit. I got married, had kids and moved to the suburbs. I’m not done building software by any means, but I do feel the time is right to start a new chapter. I’m older, wiser and have even more to bring to the table.
As a child, whenever I received that common question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would invariably respond with “an inventor.” My internal reward loop still runs on this principle of creation, I right now I’m increasing my surface area of “luck” to write this next chapter.