Meet the founder of Exponent
Product management is a rapidly growing, dynamic discipline with a wide range of potential definitions. Most tech companies (and many other companies as well) know they need product managers, but not everyone knows exactly what they do. Many folks hear about the role and immediately ask themselves the following questions: “Do I want to become a product manager? How do I get started?”
Answering both of those questions is surprisingly hard. The role is generally responsible for defining what products a team will build and why, but the specifics of can vary a lot from one company to another. Product management can be really hard to break into—especially for folks without previous experience in product management.
In this ambiguity, Stephen Cognetta found an interesting opportunity. His company, Exponent offers coaching, courses, and resources designed to help prospective product managers ace interviews and break into this fascinating, rapidly-growing field. Since founding the company, he's also added coaching for other highly competitive jobs in tech and product development.
Finding the right business idea
Exponent, Stephen says, is born out of empathy with the struggle of getting a product management job. When he first learned about project management, he was studying computer science in college.
I was, at the time, really interested in computer science but I wasn’t really sure where I fit in because I wasn’t interested in coding so much. I was really lost in my career, and I was really stressed out, and I didn’t understand where I would fit in and what job was right for me. Then I went to a career fair and stumbled on this job called product management. It’s at the intersection of technology, and design, and business. I fell in love with the role as soon as I found out about it and I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do as soon as I graduated.
Stephen started interviewing for jobs and internships, and quickly learned that the field he had fallen in love with was extremely competitive. “The interview process was really challenging and the odds of getting a new grad job in product management is like 1%, especially in top-tier companies like Google and Facebook.”
Despite the challenges, he kept interviewing and studying and networking, and eventually got a product management internship at Google (where he continued to work after graduation). At Google, Stephen was able to dive in and work on a variety of products focused on user delight. “I got to work on really amazing projects—I got to work on Google Doodles, I worked with Google Assistant, and I also got to work on Android Wear (the smartwatch team at Google).”
After a few years, Stephen decided it was time to take the next step in his career, and he started by taking some time off.
I felt like I had learned a lot at Google, and I really wanted that deep learning curve spike again. I wanted to throw myself into the wild. I got a car and drove around the U.S. for a couple of months, going to different states and meeting people and having these wild different experiences.
After spending some time exploring, Stephen decided that he needed to work again, and rather than working for someone else, he wanted to start a business. He knew he wanted to do something related to product management, and he realized there was a huge need for resources, education, and guidance for prospective product managers.
Product management is a hard field to break into. People don’t understand what it is, partly because people don’t do a great job of explaining it but also because the role can be really dynamic and change depending on the company you’re at. It’s a really misunderstood career path.
Despite the challenges he experienced when he was interviewing and trying to get his first job in project management, he loved the process.
I think that interviewing for project management is the coolest kind of interviewing I’ve ever done. You get to talk about the future of industry and how you design technology. I love having these conversations, and I want to help others develop their thoughts so they can have these conversations more effectively.
Transitioning from employee to entrepreneur
Working for yourself is a pretty significant transition from being an employee. Although Stephen has sought out a lot of changes in his life and career, and been successful through them, it hasn’t always been easy. He says “Leaving Google was a huge challenge—learning how to manage my time, learning how to work alone, maintaining a social network …”
- It’s harder to stay motivated and on track when you’re working alone. When he started, Stephen was working primarily by himself. He says “It was great but I felt like there was more I could do. I was lazy about deadlines and always pushing milestones down the road.”
- Prioritization is hard, since there are virtually unlimited options. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re setting your own goals and picking your own strategies, and there are very few boundaries. “There are a lot of cool things I could do do support the business: I could write a book, or advertise more, or reach out to old clients for referrals. There’s almost an infinite amount of things to do.”
Building a network
He found that the solution for these challenges was expanding his network. He began working with two business partners and co-founders: Nihar Madhavan and Jacob Simon. “Now that I am working in a group, it’s enhanced my enjoyment of my work and my productivity, and we have come up with new ideas. Working with others has been a great hack for keeping myself accountable and motivated.”
He also started building a community of folks with similar interests: fellow entrepreneurs, folks who are interested in technology more broadly. This network of peers, mentors, and mentees has helped him build his business strategy and reach more people.
At first, I really didn’t really understand what it meant to have a mentor, or what that relationship looked like. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it. If I meet someone who I admire, or who is doing similar work, I’ll reach out. I’ve found that asking them a specific question, or asking for help in a specific area, is more helpful than asking them for something vague.
Part of building this community has been giving back, sharing his own advice and expertise with other entrepreneurs and aspiring product managers. He’s learned a lot from the people in his network, and he wants to pass it along and give other folks a leg up.
There’s this tit for tat mentality in the world. However, game theoretically, the better strategy is “tit for tat with forgiveness.” You do what they do, but every now again you are randomly are just kind, and give something back. In nature, this strategy often results in better outcomes for the whole ecosystem, and I think this certainly applies to the entrepreneurial world. It pays to be kind.
His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
Just do it. Too many times, I talk to people who have great ideas but are too afraid or hesitant to actually work on them. Be bold and brave.
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