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How to Product and Sefunmi Osinaike
How a book on product management morphed into a company that helps give people practical experience to confidently break into the tech industry
I’m back this week with a conversation about how a book on product management that launched a year ago, morphed into a company that helps give people practical experience to confidently break into the tech industry. Meet Sefunmi Osinaike. He released ‘How to Product’ in April 2020, which included his learnings from over 40 interviews with product managers from Google, Shopify, Coursera and others. The book has stories that inspire people who are trying to land their first job as a Product Manager in Tech. After he wrote the book and received positive feedback from the tech community, he was motivated to build a product that solved the problem so many people face: how to land that first job as a PM, product designer, or software developer. Called Co.Lab and founded with Helen Huang, the company helps people get past just the theory behind these roles, and actually work collaboratively to ship a real product with a cross-functional team.
In our conversation, Sefunmi talks about:
The inspiration for ‘How to Product’
Why it’s important for aspiring PMs to actually ship something and have that practical experience
How traditional product bootcamps and online courses don’t solve this problem
How Co.Lab’s goal is to help more people with non-traditional backgrounds get into tech #YouBelongInTech
Here is my conversation with Sefunmi Osinaike, co-founder of Co.Lab and author of ‘How to Product:’
It seems like the book, ‘How to Product,’ has evolved into a company with a product course, a workshop, and other resources to help people break into tech. Let’s start back at the beginning, was it the plan all along that ‘How to Product’ would be one part of a broader business?
Sefunmi Osinaike: That's an interesting question, but before I go into it, let me step back a bit. Previously I was a product manager and interned at Microsoft and Apple in product management roles. That really was the start of my firsthand experience in product and after I graduated, I worked at a company called ecobee, which is a smart home company and a Nest competitor. So while I was there, a lot of people kept reaching out to me and asking me how I got into product. They saw that I was a new grad who had already landed a product manager role, and not the more junior “Associate Product Manager” role. The people reaching out to me were established people with MBAs, and I had dozens of these coffee chats in just my first year. Also around that time I saw this Wall Street Journal article that said the most coveted role for an MBA graduate was a product manager. First of all, that's mind blowing, that people pay tens of thousands of dollars to get an MBA just to be product managers. That was very, very interesting to me. Now, I loved being a PM. It was something I felt that I was good at and I enjoyed having these conversations with aspiring PMs. But I was finding that the same themes kept coming up. I asked my friend, Helen, who’s now my co-founder and who I had met when we both were PMs at Microsoft, if she was getting a lot of people reaching out to her also. It turns out she was doing a lot of these coffees too and that’s when we realized we should do something about this.
I was looking for a project to work on, something special, and I said to Helen, “I'm down to investigate this. This is something I'm relatively interested in.” She agreed and so we came together to figure out how we can help get more people into product management. So in December 2018 we gave ourselves a week to do a research spike and try to find out what would be the best solution and what could we actually build to solve it. We looked at a lot of different things, such as bootcamps or online courses, and we came to the conclusion that in order to be a product manager, you need to ship something. In a lot of the entry level jobs you aren’t doing the strategy or high-level thinking, instead it’s all execution focused.
That's where we had the idea for Co.Lab. We wanted it to actually make a difference. The idea was to have aspiring PMs build something by collaborating with product designers and software developers. That's how you get the product manager into tech. But, as we explored this idea more we realized it would be a lot of work. We were both working full-time as PMs so instead we decided to do something smaller and we thought about what is the v1, the smallest set of things that we can do to help aspiring PMs? And that was the book. Tell stories of how people transitioned into product. It won't necessarily solve the problem of shipping something, but hopefully it would give people tips. We still weren’t sure if we were going to do that big grand idea for a business, but we wanted to work on a project and thought the book was a good place to start.
I love that backstory and how the idea came about. How was the writing process for you?
SO: Helen and I had started to write it together, but after some time, I just took it on, so it ended up being a solo project, but she supported me throughout the entire process. I interviewed 40 people even though the book only has 25 interviews. I had so many interesting conversations and heard about how people really did struggle. It was nice to hear authentic stories of how people transitioned. I kept thinking, if anyone reads, they are going to be able to build their own strategies and see themselves in some of these people because all the stories are diverse. I interviewed people who came from cinema studies, photography, marketing, customer support, journalism, and other walks of life. This book covers a lot of backgrounds and the feedback when we shared it was that a lot of people felt inspired. It showed that it really is this hard and it takes a long time. There's no silver bullet.
When you launched, ‘How to Product,’ on Product Hunt in April of last year, did you have a specific goal in mind that would signal to you that you should go get started on the broader idea of Co.Lab?
SO: We still felt the original idea was too big and even after ‘How to Product’ was released I wasn’t thinking then we’d go tackle that big thing. It eventually became a stepping stone to Co.Lab, but it wasn’t that initially, if I’m being honest. Because at the time, I was learning and growing as a PM, I still wanted to build those muscles. I wasn't trying to do this new startup or anything, because I felt like I had so much more to learn.
So for me success was two things. Number one, I wanted the book to answer those questions that I was regularly getting so I could reach more people faster than I’d be able to do coffee chats. Number two, I wanted to give back to the product community and have ‘How to Product’ be a resource for everyone, which is why when I released, it was free. Right now, technically it is still free today, there's only the paperback that costs money, but we don't push it that much and all the proceeds go to charity. Anyways, I wanted people to know that if they ever want to get into product management they can go through this book and be inspired to find their way. I knew it wasn't going to solve the problem. When you read it you’re not going to become a product manager. I don't believe you can read a book and become something else. But it can give you that movement, that incentive. So when it came to launch, I wanted it to reach as many people as possible. That's what my goal was and if anyone ever asked me that question, “how did you get into product management?” I can point them to this resource and say, “hey, read this.” Now, I hear from so many people who have read the book and recommend it. That’s so fulfilling to me and inspiring.
Besides Product Hunt, were there other places that you promoted the book that were helpful?
SO: I pretty much put all of my efforts into Product Hunt, as well as, Twitter and LinkedIn, but everything was focused on Product Hunt. My goal was to get to number one and I did it, which was so great.
Congrats, that’s great to hear. Let’s talk about how things have evolved. Can you tell me how the book turned into Co.Lab?
SO: I launched in April 2020 and I thought that now that there was this book less people would reach out to ask for advice, but the opposite happened. More people were reaching out to me saying that they read the book, they loved it, and they wanted to know what they should do next. I was very open that the book was going to inspire people, not land them a product job. So I looked at the book again, and re-read all the interviews and realized that almost every single person in the book had some sort of project to show employers. It wasn’t a coincidence that all these different people who come from different walks of life, different parts of North America, they all did this and it was one of the things that made them successful. So I reached out to Helen and I said, “hey I want to do this again, let’s spend some time thinking about it.”
So in June, I decided a product management course would be the best first step, but I wanted the course to be different. My approach was that yes you can teach them product theory, what product managers do day to day, and all the frameworks, but all that stuff you can get online for free. I wanted to make sure that they’d be able to see a product manager, live in action so that they could really understand what product managers do and how they work with their teams. To do this, I decided to build an app with my team and record us doing everything so that they could watch the videos in the course, in addition to the regular product management theory. The app we built is called Wins, to help people celebrate moments as they occur. This approach was the initial premise for the ‘How to Product’ course.
For the first cohort I reached out to people who had downloaded the book and nine people signed up. That class wasn’t free, but it also wasn’t very expensive, I was just trying to validate the idea. The course structure was that the first four weeks was me teaching them the basics and then watching the recorded videos of me using those same skills working with my team. Then in week five is where we realized that we can help people actually build something. Helen helped me recruit volunteer designers and developers who wanted to improve their skills and we paired them up with our PMs. This is where the name Co.Lab came from. This was going to be a collaboration between PM, dev, and design.
After we paired people up they spent four weeks building stuff and we did a demo day in September. I was immediately blown away and could see the value not just for the PMs, but for the designers and developers. They were also gaining something for their portfolio. Then shortly after people started getting jobs off of that experience. This is also when we realized there was a gap on the designer and developer side as well. Knowing the skills of design or development is good, but knowing how to collaborate and make tradeoffs is another skill.
As we saw more people from the first cohort get hired at places like Microsoft, General Motors, Twilio, and interesting startups, we realized we were solving another problem too. The problem is that even when people get into the workplace they don't necessarily feel that confident. Especially if they're breaking in. That’s one thing that I didn't touch on enough in the book. It’s not just breaking in, but also succeeding. Which is why we also came up with the phase “You belong in tech.” You can succeed, you are credible, you bring all these things to the table.
So when did you begin to have cohorts that included designers and developers?
SO: The idea of collaboration really solidified in September of last year. The next thing we wanted to do was to validate that we had customers across all three disciplines. We ran another cohort, again with nine teams, but this time all three disciplines were paying customers. This cohort really validated that our program was valuable because we saw developers hired, designers hired, and PMs hired after the course. Seeing this was another push to keep moving.
We added mentors, office hours, and other support for the new disciplines. We just finished our Winter cohort, which had 21 teams and 64 collaborators. All paying customers and they are getting a lot of benefit from it. It’s been two weeks since we’ve finished and already six job offers have come in just last week, we had more who had job offers during the cohort and many more who are in the interview stage. I always like to highlight the work that they do. They get in on their own merit. We are just facilitating and giving them the practical experience so they can feel confident and capable. We give them a low stakes environment. If their project fails they’re not going to get fired and ultimately failures help you grow as a technologist, whether you're a developer, designer or PM.
That’s great, I really like your approach. Where a lot of courses just teach people theory, your project approach really helps people learn all the nuances that come with collaborating and building something together. What’s been the most effective marketing channel to recruit new cohorts?
SO: Right now we rely on word of mouth. Some of our collaborators are very vocal online talking about their experience, which is good, and gives us a lot of organic leads. We haven’t done any serious marketing. I think marketing is one of the things that we're going to try to do now that I have more time on my hands to focus on Co.Lab. This is actually my first full week, full time. Before this I was working as a PM at Copper, a company based out of SF. But now I'm really spending a lot of my time on Co.Lab trying to see how we can make the programs better.
Looking ahead, how do you expect Co.Lab to change over the next year?
SO: Our goal at Co.Lab is to see more people with non-traditional backgrounds get into tech. We want to make sure people feel supported in one way or another and feel like they're able to reach their goals. So one thing that is very important is our community and our mentors. We have a lot of good people in our community and it’s all about collective achievement. ‘How to Product’ wouldn’t have been possible if those 40 PMs didn't give their time to tell their story. We have mentors who are giving their time to help out in one small way or another and in other large ways. I want to see more of that. I think over the next year, I'm looking forward to creating an environment where a lot of people can help pull the ladder back down and help people come up and break into tech because that’s the best and fastest way to a world where there's a lot of diverse folks in tech. I want there to be more people who are building products that impact society and the people who are building them are a good representation of our society. So that's what I’m looking forward to in the coming years.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Is there anything else you want to share with people?
SO: Follow Co.Lab and support us. If you want to be a mentor, reach out. We believe in storytelling and how they spark action, so if you want to tell your story or do an AMA reach out. We’re all about finding creative ways to tell stories and get people involved. You can find me on Twitter. Or go to Co.Lab and sign up for our spring cohort.