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Interview Guest: Andrea Hong
Role: Product Manager (PM) at Thumbtack
What is Thumbtack?: Thumbtack is an online marketplace that connects local professionals with individuals who need projects done. Thumbtack has over 1000 services available, in areas such as home, wellness, events, lessons, and more. Since being founded in 2008, Thumbtack has raised over $423M from leading investors such as Sequoia Capital, CapitalG, Baillie Gifford, Tiger Global Management, Javelin Venture Partners, and more.
Michael’s favorite quotes from the interview:
On Thumbtack: “Thumbtack is a marketplace made up of small business professionals (“pros”) looking for projects that they can take on and customers who need projects done.”
On hypergrowth: “It's been a really exciting ride, going from knowing almost every single person at the company to getting to the point where I am suddenly in the cafeteria, look around, and realize that I don't really know most of these people around me.”
On taking a sabbatical to join Hillary for America: “I talked to the team at Thumbtack and told them that I was interested in doing this, and they were super supportive.”
On breaking into tech / product: “In technology, everyone is trying to help each other. The incentives align with that. Unlike politics, which can be a zero-sum game, the pie is almost infinite in tech.”
On students interested in product: “For undergrads that are trying to get into product immediately, read the books and do your homework — they're super helpful in providing a high-level overview of the expectations and job of a PM.”
On getting into good companies: “It's important to work at the right companies and with the right people — so before you start your search or join a team, try talking to previous employees who will give you honest feedback about an organization and leadership.”
Michael: Andrea is a product manager at Thumbtack. What does her role entail? What might a typical day look like for her?
Andrea: I'm the product manager for the growth of our supply side. Thumbtack is a marketplace made up of small business professionals (“pros”) looking for projects that they can take on and customers who need projects done. For context, we have hundreds of different categories — everything from dog walking to wedding planning to catering to plumbing.
We want to become so synonymous that Thumbtack becomes a verb, similar to how people say, "Are you Ubering somewhere?" Whenever something breaks, we want people to say, "Oh, you can Thumbtack that." A lot of my day focuses on trying to find small businesses that need more customers. The tricky part of this is that we are in basically every geo in the US, and we have a lot of different verticals; that is the blessing and the curse of working at a marketplace like Thumbtack.
Day-to-day, I work with a lot of cross-functional partners. We recently doubled our sales team, creating a new acquisition channel for us. I work with our growth marketing team, who leads the digital acquisition and paid marketing pieces of our supply growth channels. I also work with our engineers, designers, and product marketers to make sure that when the sales team and paid marketing teams are successful at getting new pros to Thumbtack, the product is compelling and easy to use so that pros can easily find jobs through our platform.
Michael: Andrea has been at Thumbtack for just over 5 years. Shortly after she joined, Thumbtack raised its Series E round. Last summer, Thumbtack raised a Series F, led by Sequoia. During Andrea's time at Thumbtack, the company has gone through hypergrowth. What exactly has Thumbtack's growth looked like during Andrea’s time at the company?
Andrea: It's always really exciting to be at a company that is going through hypergrowth. When I first started, there were about 100 employees working at Thumbtack. Now, we have over 600 employees, not only in San Francisco, but also in international offices, such as in the Philippines, and other US cities, such as Salt Lake City. It's been a really exciting ride, going from knowing almost every single person at the company to getting to the point where I am suddenly in the cafeteria, look around, and realize that I don't really know most of these people around me.
The only reason why we were able to go from 100 to 600 employees is that the business is growing. And, as the business grows there’s always a new challenge and new people that want to help you solve them. One of the interesting things I’ve seen at Thumbtack is how we have changed the composition of the team. Early on, we hired a lot of generalists — people that we believed were great problem solvers. As the company has matured, we still hire for problem-solving but index more heavily on experience and expertise.
Things have definitely changed at Thumbtack, but I think the core values have remained the same, which is one of the reasons I love working there.
Michael: Thumbtack is headquartered in San Francisco. How helpful is being HQ'd in SF when going through hypergrowth and expanding a team, adding several hundred engineers, product people, designers, and so on?
Andrea: The opinion on this is definitely changing, but I believe that being in the San Francisco / Bay Area is still pretty important. There has been a lot of talk and Medium articles about the mass exodus out of California. I think that is happening, to some extent, but when it comes to recruiting, I often find that a lot of our candidates are already living in the Bay Area.
A lot of times people hear about new companies and job opportunities through word of mouth. It's always helpful when people have friends of friends who live in or near SF and are able to commute. It will be interesting to see how things change after the COVID situation.
Michael: Having so many talented individuals in the Bay Area who have previously worked at companies going through hypergrowth must be super helpful, too.
Andrea has a super interesting background, aside from Thumbtack! What are some of the other things she has been involved with?
Andrea: Before I joined Thumbtack, I cut my teeth in digital marketing through helping a lot of political campaigns and nonprofits, everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Barbara Boxer to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I have worked on over two dozen political campaigns.
In 2015, I reached out to my friend who was a part of Hillary for America, and said, “I am willing to volunteer for a month, no pay needed. Can I please help?” I reached out around the time of the primary, and it was a lot more competitive than a lot of people expected. My friend told me that they needed a Digital Director in California and asked if I wanted the role. I said, “yes,” and joined the team.
I talked to the team at Thumbtack and told them that I was interested in doing this, and they were super supportive. Thumbtack didn’t want to hold me back and told me that if this was really important to me and a dream of mine, then I should definitely do it.
I took a seven-month sabbatical from Thumbtack to first be the Digital Director for the California primary for Hillary Clinton. A few weeks later, I moved to headquarters in Brooklyn and was a regional digital director running digital programs for 12 states.
Michael: Thumbtack sounds awesome! Letting its employees pursue their interests and passions — even though it may have short-term consequences for the business. Employees first!
Andrea: That's a big reason why I have stayed at Thumbtack for so long. A lot of companies talk about how important it is for their employees to live full lives, and Thumbtack put their money where their mouth was.
The election itself was the most fun I've had in my life, until it was, probably, one of the most heartbreaking days in my career. I hold it very close to my heart. It was inspiring to be a part of something so much bigger than myself and to be working with so many experts who were there for the right reasons.
Michael: Onto advice for our subscribers. Let’s see what advice Andrea has for students who are interested in getting into tech and, more specifically, product.
Andrea: People shouldn't be afraid to reach out. In technology, everyone is trying to help each other. The incentives align with that. Unlike politics, which can be a zero-sum game, the pie is almost infinite in tech. People know that if you help someone, oftentimes it comes back to you and you get to be a part of that person's or company's winning story. People not only like to invest in companies but also in people's careers.
Don't be afraid to send cold emails. You might not get a reply every time, but it only takes a couple of conversations to really understand what the lay of the land is. To get into product is a trickier one. The job of a product manager has changed a lot over the past 10 years. 10 years ago, no one really knew what the product manager’s job was. That's still the case in a lot of places, but it is becoming more defined with all these books, case studies, and classes that you can take online that teach you how to be a product manager.
I came into product from a somewhat untraditional route, coming from growth marketing into a growth product manager role. A lot of growth product managers take that route. For undergrads that are trying to get into product immediately, read the books and do your homework — they're super helpful in providing a high-level overview of the expectations and job of a PM.
In addition, try to find opportunities where you can practice the PM role, whether through a rotational role at a large company or by finding a really great mentor or someone who has expertise in a PM function who can help coach and guide you. Coaching, either in a structured environment through a rotational program or through a constructive manager, mentor, or coach, is going to be the thing that catapults you to be effective and a great contributor to any team you join.
The risk of being a product manager right now is that anyone can say they are a product manager. A lot of companies say they need a product manager, but not every role is one in which you know what good looks like. It's important to work at the right companies and with the right people — so before you start your search or join a team, try talking to previous employees who will give you honest feedback about an organization and leadership.
Michael: Awesome advice! But, what if someone without a CS background wants to be a PM? How important is it to have a CS or engineering background to become a product manager? How heavy is the weight of technical skills, versus skills such as organization, prioritization, management, and so on?
Andrea: I don't have a CS background, but it helps if you have one. The reason why it's important to have a CS background is that it allows you to be a much better communicator and collaborator with your engineering partners. You can help them scope things a lot more tightly. When engineers are trying to explain why something can or can't be done, it helps to be able to have a deep conversation.
Without a CS background, you can compensate through a lot of the skills that you just mentioned. Strong communication and organization are super helpful. If you're not writing code, it is important to make it easier for your teammates to do their job, whether through tightly scoped projects, speaking on their behalf, or making sure that you're protecting the team's morale and time.
Michael: Above, Andrea discusses the importance of reading books and “doing your homework.” What are some of her favorite tech- and product-related books and podcasts?
Andrea: Cracking the PM Interview is a classic that a lot of people read. The Twenty Minute VC is a great podcast; it interviews a variety of people who have built companies, many of whom don't come from CS backgrounds and don't have super traditional backgrounds in terms of school or first job out of college.
The Twenty Minute VC makes it really clear that the path to success in tech and Silicon Valley is not defined and is constantly changing. There is an email newsletter that is great, Drinking From the Firehose (by Alex Taussig — Partner at Lightspeed). It's more about consumer-oriented products, but I always find the newsletter really insightful.
Michael: How does Andrea stay physically and mentally fit?
Andrea: This is something that I have had to develop over the past 10 or so years. For fitness, I do a lot of indoor and outdoor cycling. In this COVID environment, I have been Pelotoning a lot. I try to do some form of meditation for at least 20 minutes a day.
For me, that comes from either doing a guided meditation through an app, or recently during this COVID situation, I have taken on gardening. About six months ago, I rescued a dog and that has been amazing. Having a dog forces me to make sure that I'm keeping structure and routine in my life because… she needs me!
That’s it for Edition # 20 of The Takeoff! We hope you enjoyed our newest Edition!
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