Mission-driven Product Management

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Stephen CognettaStephen CognettaLast updated

We interview Lisa Wang, former Google PM and CEO and founder of Almost Fun on her journey in product management and how she found a mission-driven career by building an ed-tech non-profit.

How did your experience with product management help you found a mission-driven non-profit?
There’s quite a few practices I learned as a product manager that heavily influence the way I’ve built Almost Fun. In the earliest stages, I relied heavily on what I learned from user experience researchers at Google in terms of asking questions that really help you understand the people you’re building for. When designing the first MVP, I drew on bread-and-butter PM skills of prioritizing goals and user journeys, writing out the specifications, and identifying success metrics. As we began building out the MVP and planning launch, I found myself going through the same mental exercise of balancing getting early feedback and protecting our brand.

How does product management change when thinking about mission-driven problems?
For me personally, my mindset has shifted much more towards depth vs. breadth of impact. In a context that’s less mission-driven, the focus tends to skew more towards pure user growth - DAU, MAU, growth - these are key metrics tech companies focus on. But in a mission-driven context, the core metrics are often different. Reaching millions of users at the expense of having relatively small impact on each is typically not the goal. The goal is to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives even if it means scaling slower.

Especially in the early days, this means you spend a lot more time with and thinking about a specific target beneficiary. The problems that keep me up at night are related to how we can better improve the lives of each of our users, not how we can grow faster. And if you ask me to choose between 10x growth and 10x impact for each individual user, I would choose 10x impact any day.

What’s been the most fulfilling part of moving to your work at Almost Fun?
At Almost Fun, we build culturally relevant and relatable SAT prep for low-income students and students of color. I used to volunteer as an SAT prep instructor, and I can confidently say I had never seen students have fun doing SAT prep.

For the first couple of months this year, I spent most of my mornings observing students at high-poverty schools interacting with our content. Seeing them light up and animatedly discuss whether a graph does or does not support Rihanna’s claim that Fenty is more inclusive than other makeup brands - that is definitely the most fulfilling part of my job. Helping to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for students and seeing the impact that can have on their learning is by far the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.

For folks looking to find a product management role at a truly mission-driven company, do you have any advice?
I think it’s important to find a company that’s eco-centric vs. ego-centric. This means that the company is focused on solving a problem, not on being the ones to solve the problem. This mindset affects how a company strategically prioritizes as well as whether or not they collaborate with other organizations. And because this mindset is set by the founding team, it impacts the entire culture of the company. If a founder is driven by a desire to be the one to solve the problem instead of just having the problem solved, it creates a misalignment of incentives within the company and with you, a potential employee looking for a mission-driven company.

What’s your favorite product and why?
I have two right now. Duolingo is such a well-designed product that’s really changed the way people learn languages. It wasn’t too long ago that Rosetta Stone was the go-to solution, and now anyone can learn a new language for free from their phone. And one look at any of their features tells you this is a company that understands and deeply cares about the user experience. Everything from their core lessons to their tips to the green owl that can strike either fear or joy into the heart of any student demonstrates a perfect melding of interactive and engaging learning.

Upsolve is a tech non-profit that I really admire. They’ve transformed the way people file for bankruptcy, turning an extremely complex process into a tech-empowered, accessible solution for any person or family. I think they’re an incredible example of what tech can do for people when you have a team that cares about social impact.

Any last comments/thoughts?
Every person has unique skills and talents that can be leveraged to help others. Spend some time thinking about the causes and people you care about and, if you have the privilege to do so, think about what you can do to support them. That might mean volunteering your time or donating to an organization or even a career change. There is always a way to support those around you!

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