How I got a $375K PM offer from Instagram

Product Management
Linda ZhangLast updated

This is a story I did not expect to write.

In 2016, I applied to Facebook’s RPM program. Even with a referral, I was cast aside.

In 2017, a friend intro’d me to a tiny startup called Indigo Fair. I joined as “Head of Analytics” 😅 since I had no real product experience. Within two weeks, I started working on features to solve a major business crisis, and became a PM.

Fast forward to 2020. We’ve rebranded to Faire and reached a multibillion-dollar valuation at record pace. Along the way, I’ve shipped hundreds of products, and managed other PMs.

Recently, a Facebook recruiter reached out to me about senior PM openings. Curious, I went through the interview process to put my learnings to the test.

I received a $300K offer, which I negotiated to $375K. In the end, I walked away.  

It’s been a wild adventure, so I wanted to share the end-to-end experience with you: how I prepared, mistakes I made, my hard-ball negotiation, the secrets behind compensation, and how my blog boosted Instagram’s interest. Feel free to skip to whatever’s juiciest for you.

The interview process  

It was short and sweet. Three rounds total.

Round one: 30-minute recruiter screen
I was surprised by how much advice the recruiter gave on acing the interviews. She also shared a document with sample questions which proved to be a reliable guide.

Round two: 2 sets of 45-minute interviews with PMs
First interview is on execution to see whether you can diagnose a problem and come up with next steps. Second interview is on product sense to see whether you can come up with interesting, customer-friendly product solutions.  

Final round: 3 sets of 45-minute interviews with PMs
Same interview format as previous round, with an additional one on leadership & drive to see how you lead and work with others.

Now onto spicier details.

How I prepared + mistakes made

This section could be its own standalone post. I’m happy to go into more details, but will stick to the highlights for now.

I’ve interviewed A LOT of PM candidates on execution so I was fairly fearless in this arena. Here’s an article I wrote about how to handle metric-related questions.

I was less comfortable with product sense. The concept of building X for Y on the fly is mind-boggling to me, and not something I do day-to-day. I compiled a list of product sense questions, and then gave myself mock interviews. Some tips:

  1. Talking out loud is helpful. The trick to doing mocks is to make it feel real
  2. Ideal way to practice is to get feedback on how to improve. It’s hard finding someone who’s both qualified and has lots of time, so the best alternative is to look for online answers to see how others do. Distinguishing between bad vs. good vs. great answers is key, and seems like an underserved area
  3. Write down a framework for how you tackle these problems. There’s a finite set of flavors, which means you can prepare ahead of time to give a more organized response. Organized responses show that you can drive clarity
  4. I bombed some mocks. I share this to say that it’s ok to fail. The purpose of practice is to challenge yourself. Performance hinges on the questions, so try to see every interview as an independent event. Don't let the last one psych you out

On interview day, I did better on product sense than execution, which shows the impact of practice. In the execution interview, I forgot to explicitly define the timeframe (e.g., daily users instead of cumulative users) and the interviewer had to nudge me. A few nudges are ok, but to stand out, you should proactively clarify along the way.

For product sense, I was asked to build a product to help people with layovers. I love to travel, so this was fun for me. I came up with a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary. My solution wasn’t particularly original, but shows you don’t need to invent something new to impress. I laid out my thought process and brought my interviewer along the journey, so he was sold on the solution. I also explained how I would integrate with the airlines, so passengers could get an invite to begin their adventure the moment they landed. Add-on details are not critical, but it’s nice to show you have ideas on what makes a great customer experience.

It took a week, but the feedback came back overwhelmingly positive.

Final round

Carried by a gust of new confidence, I prepared for the new interview, leadership & drive. To do this, I came up with 3-4 unique stories from my time as a PM that would serve as useful lego blocks to answer a variety of behavioral questions, from proudest accomplishment to overcoming challenges and working on weaknesses. If you don’t have product experience, I recommend reflecting on times related to making decisions and driving outcomes.

Three tips:

  1. Write down your stories. Makes it easier to trim the fat. I recommend keeping the TLDR to ~2-3 minutes, so the interviewer can ask follow-ups
  2. Start with the headline. The best stories give people a reason to listen
  3. A good story is a lego block that can be used in many ways. The project you’re proudest of may also have been beset by challenges

The day of, I used the equation approach I developed to ace the execution question around investigating a drop in weekly active users. The interviewer was blown away.

My only slip-up was on product sense. This time, I was asked to create a product to connect doctors and patients. I try to avoid the healthcare system altogether, so I had less intuition around what to create. Having a clear framework helped me develop an ok answer.

It only took 2 days to hear back this time with a $300K offer for an L5 PM role.

How I negotiated (and why you should too)

I used to feel bad about negotiating. Then I had some aha moments:

  1. Companies expect you to negotiate. The initial offer you receive is much lower than what they are willing to pay you
  2. The money comes from the company’s budget, not your manager’s. It’s best to negotiate through the recruiter when you can though
  3. Once a company extends an offer, they are incentivized to sign you. They monitor yield (% of offers that get accepted) closely and want to bring it up
  4. The best way to get what you want is to have a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) aka quality backup options
  5. Negotiation boosts their perception of YOUR value, as long as you do so in good faith. Good faith = mean what you say, but you don’t have to say everything!

For example, I didn’t share details on my current pay because I wanted an offer based on the value I could create for Facebook. Using I knew $300K was on the lower end of the comp band for L5, so there was plenty of room to negotiate.

I met with the Instagram Reels team that was interested in me. I was impressed. Up until this point, I approached the whole thing as a curious adventure. Suddenly, I could see myself joining the team. Such is the magic of salesmanship. I decided to make a commitment.

If they could bring the total compensation to $400K, I would sign. Immediately. The team was psyched. I was psyched. They said they would talk to the recruiter and compensation team.

The blackbox of compensation

I’ve since learned that the compensation team exists as a check and balance for situations like mine. They set compensation, not the hiring manager. They do it based on level, which is determined by interview performance and years of experience. My experience put me at an L4 or L5, but no higher. They gave me L5 because of my strong performance. Not too shabby given a typical L5 has a median of 8 years of experience. I have 3 years of experience in product, and 5 years total.

Here’s a secret: people can get paid out of band for their level (i.e., $400K for L5). It’s very rare, but it can happen if you are a strong hire, and have a qualifying event such as an IPO, secondary, or bonus that exceeds the Facebook offer. Sadly, I did not have an upcoming cash bonanza.  

I stuck to my guns and said $400K or no deal. I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not have a sophisticated formula behind this. I have a few million in stock options, but they are illiquid. $400K felt right for the liquidity I would get, and the value they would get.

Because most of my existing compensation is locked up in illiquid options, the compensation team did not see it this way. They made begrudgingly small adjustments to my offer. Meanwhile, the Reels team went into overdrive.

How this blog boosted Instagram’s interest

The more I resisted, the more interested the team became. They found an article I wrote about TikTok. They announced that they paused conversations with all other candidates. They felt that I had a unique understanding of the space.

They had directors, VPs and even the Head of Instagram reach out to me. I tried not to get swept up in the fanfare. How long before Zuck himself came calling?

In all seriousness, I was getting a front-row seat to the way big companies work: the time they spent courting me far exceeded the cost of simply giving me what I asked for. But because of rules beyond their control, we all had to play along.

The negotiation stretched for weeks. Finally, I decided it wasn’t going anywhere. I had to cut it off. The team panicked and the compensation team gave a final, Hail Mary offer: $375K.

I turned it down.

All this… for what?

Truth be told, I believe $375K is a fair offer. I walked away not because they didn’t offer me $400K (although I would have kept my promise and signed if they did), but because the journey made me reconsider how I wanted to spend my time.

In hindsight, the biggest mistake in my negotiation was not accounting for the cost in exercising my stock options, which is hefty enough to perhaps be considered a qualifying event.

It’s all good, I’m not tormenting myself about it. I believe in a life of minimizing regrets. And I have no regrets here.

The most we can ask of experiences that don’t work out perfectly is that they teach us something. I got that, and much more. I met impressive people. I made some mistakes. And now I get to share them with you to hopefully save you some time and money, or at the very least, offer popcorn entertainment.

Next week, I will discuss why I decided to walk away from what seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Subscribe to follow along!

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