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Something Different Every Day

with Ashley Lewis of Dollar Shave Club
Nov 23, 2016
Back to Podcasts
Something Different Every Day | 100 PM
Something Different Every Day | 100 PM

Suzanne: The very fact that you have a mobile application and this online ordering, digital user experience, is arguably part of what sets Dollar Shave Club apart from the classic, when I think razors, I think CPG. You guys don't think of yourselves as CPG.

Ashley: Correct. We definitely think of ourselves as a tech company, and it's really interesting, if you think of our initial offering was the razor subscription, and you know, a lot of tech products, their goal is to get users coming back day after day. At first, with Dollar Shave Club if a member was really happy, they wouldn't need to come back, they would set it and forget it. There wasn't much for them to do on the website. As we're evolving into a men's grooming company, we really see that day to day interaction with our members as chiefly important. We do see ourselves as a tech company, lots of data driven decisions, that sort of thing, and as you'll start to see more of content and interactive experiences that really allow us to engage with our customers in ways that traditional CPG's haven't been able to do.

Suzanne: With so much happening in the artificial intelligence world, is it part of the road map that you'll just eventually have robots that can come and do the shaving for everybody, they won't even need their own razors?

Ashley: Sure, that would be nice, right? I think what traditional CPG struggled with is that they always had to sell their products through a retailer, they were not direct to consumer. By Dollar Shave Club going direct to consumer, we're able to collect a lot of that data that traditional CPG's didn't have access to, which allows us to make smarter recommendations, just have much more insight into these daily habits of our customers.

Suzanne: We dove right in, and normally I like to go gentle at first and then get to the hard stuff, but it's so cool being here, you guys are expanding, this is an awesome office. Let's talk about you. You don't just walk in as director of product, so you have yourself a very impressive and long history in the world of product management. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about how you found product or how it found you, and just what some of those experiences have been leading up to this?

Ashley: Absolutely, so right out of college I started working for an interactive agency, we were making websites and rich internet applications for some big name clients, and I was functioning in a producer project manager type of role, I would interface with our customers, I would collect assets, I would oversee design development, I would do QA. At the time, I had no idea that these were going to really be the building blocks of my career, it was a fun job out of college and I didn't think about it much more than that.

I ended up working for a company that provided tools for members of Congress to communicate with their constituents. I was at first doing the same sort of thing, working with our clients, overseeing their website development, et cetera. One day the CTO came to me and said, "I want you to be our first product manager." I didn't know what a product manager was, I didn't know what a product manager did, but I said, "Sure, I would love to, sign me up." We figured it out together and ever since then, I fell in love with product management.

Suzanne: Did they know what product management was, or they had just sort of stumbled across the term, thought, "We need this, who's available? Oh that Ashley's doing a good job, let's appoint her."

Ashley: I think the CTO did know what product management was, he was a very smart guy, we're still friends. He knew what he was doing and he definitely coached me, taught me a lot of the ropes, I learned what a road map was because he told me I needed to have one, that sort of thing. With some coaching, but really sort of threw me into the deep end and yeah, it was a fantastic learning experience that obviously set me up for my entire career.

Suzanne: Can we stop for a minute and talk about road mapping? This is such a big piece of the product manager piece. Certainly, if you're operating at a more senior level, right? One would argue that in a, perhaps an enterprise level organization or where there's a big product team, that responsibility is going to float up to the most strategic product person. Can you describe your first road map and maybe just as compared to what you understand about it now from having done it, subsequently?

Ashley: Sure, absolutely. The one thing it has in common, I mean, I've always just been real basic when it comes to road mapping, I use an Excel document, I've never used any sort of software for it, so that stayed the same, but in the beginning when I was first starting out, it was a lot of just taking orders or taking requests, if you will, maybe adding in things that I wanted to work on, but generally, I was the filter that would take requests from our customers or requests from management and fit the puzzle pieces in. It was almost like, "Okay, I have these six things I need to do and maybe there are some fixed deadlines from above, so how do you fit everything together so that it aligns nicely over the course of a year?"

Obviously as you get more senior, as I have progressed in my career, there's been a lot more strategy to it, where you start to think about level of difficulty to execute versus potential business impact. You start to be able to push back on requests coming from above, or push back on hard deadlines that have been given to you. You start to understand that not everything a customer requests is something that you need to build. At the heart of it, it's still working on these pieces of a puzzle to fit them in over the course of the year, but you just learn to better triage, to better understand the impact of your decision and your ordering of things. On the road map, it starts to become much more of a strategic business exercise.

Suzanne: Let's talk about this pushing back from above, right? This is an important piece, too. A lot of people get into product and they think they have it in their mind that they're going to have all of this jurisdiction, when in reality, it's a lot more like you have all of this responsibility and zero jurisdiction, and most of the time, the least amount of expertise when looking around at your peers.

Ashley: Sure.

Suzanne: Your role is to be the lifeline to the customer, that sort of person on the inside who's keeping those different customer groups front and center in the meetings, through the design process, through the road mapping process, and then there's interruptions from CEO's maybe who started the company and thought, "No, no, no, I want to see this here." How do you, when you're not the founder, when you're not part of the executive management team, how is the process of defending the customer's position, when you're ultimately doing that against your direct supervisors?

Ashley: Sure, absolutely, that's one of the most challenging things about product management, as you know. Really, it comes down to having the data necessary to defend your position, so you gave an example specifically of protecting the customer, but it could also be that their request doesn't make business sense, or it doesn't make financial sense, or if you were to model it out, it doesn't have the impact that they think it's going to have. For me, the best way to approach an executive if I want to push back on something that they're asking for is just to come prepared with data. "I've talked to 50 customers, or I looked at our conversion funnel this way, or that way, and what you think is going to happen is not actually what's going to happen." What I've found is the more prepared you are, the better you're able to articulate that.

Usually, they'll come around. Sometimes they won't, and you know, sometimes you aren't sure, maybe you don't have the data, and so sometimes you have to just sort of negotiate or find a balance, let different stakeholders win when necessary or when you're able to, just to kind of keep the chain moving.

Suzanne: Especially, how many people at Dollar Shave Club now?

Ashley: We're north of 200 now.

Suzanne: North of 200, but you've worked in smaller organizations as well.

Ashley: Correct.

Suzanne: In a start up configuration or company that grows quickly, often times it is the CEO or one of the founding members that occupies that product manager role for a long time, so I think the other part of this is, they know this position and they've necessarily left it behind because that's part of scaling and putting the right people in the right roles, but then you're also sometimes defending against a person who might feel they know better, or they know just as well, even if they've been out of it a while.

Ashley: Absolutely, well being out of it a while I think is one of the trickier positions to be in. They knew what the customer looked like in that first six months to a year post launch when they were the head of product, but they've been more removed, the data maybe is different now, maybe the customer is different now because at the beginning it was an early [inaudible 00:10:51] or something like that, so that's definitely one of the most challenging parts of the job and again, I go back to just being able to defend your position coming in with data to support it, both quantitative as well as qualitative. Sometimes you can get through and sometimes you can't. At the end, there's always someone, when you're a junior PM you've got your directors above you at this level, you've got executives above you, but even CEO has the board and there's always someone to answer to. The best you can do is just present your case in a well thought out way and different executives handle that differently, it's one of the biggest challenges of the job.

Suzanne: Would most people suggest they see you walking around in the halls and you always have a [inaudible 00:11:42] with you, because you're just ready to throw down some sort of data report? If any conversation erupts [crosstalk 00:11:47].

Ashley: I'm going to pull out my spreadsheet, and show you why I think you should listen to me.

Suzanne: Noted. Talk to me about what you consider to be your special blend of PM skill sets. One of the other things that we talk about a lot on this show is, every product manager can look a little different. That's part of what's interesting about it, that's part of what's challenging about it. Your blend of skills may allow you to thrive in one environment, and then sort of leave you floundering in a different one. If you were going to pitch me on the kind of product manager that you are, where do you think you're strong, what do you think you do best?

Ashley: Sure, so I have sort of an interesting mix of technical, business, and creative. I took quite an extensive amount of computer science classes in undergrad. I didn't end up majoring in computer science, but it allowed me to really have a good understanding of the technical component of product management. I went to business school, so I have a mix of business as well as technical. If you were to think of the three core components of business, technical, and creative, I have formal education in the first two but really what it comes down to, I think what I do best is working with different types of people. I can adapt quite well to the engineers, anyone with a business hat on, working with the designers, UX designers, et cetera. The ability to communicate with all of them, work together with all of them, is probably I would say one of the strengths there, just kind of having that unique blend of understanding for each of the facets of the business.

Suzanne: Right, who are, not to out any one particular person on the team, but in your career, which groups of internal stakeholders are the hardest to connect with, for you?

Ashley: That's tricky, I would say personally, one of the most difficult challenging groups has been marketing, I would say, because usually you have incredibly talented folks in marketing who often have different visions and come from different backgrounds than the folks in product management. Everyone sees the future of the business in their own light and with their own priorities. Ensuring that you can work closely with marketing is obviously mission critical to the business, and an area where I think a lot of companies have a little bit of friction.

Usually, marketing needs product management to bring their ideas to life, because they need to build an on site experience or vice versa, product needs marketing to bring their ideas to life through email or other customer communication. Everyone's working towards the same goal at the end of the day, you have to remember that, but company after company that I've worked at, it's those two teams who often have to be aware of their differences and work together towards that common goal.

Suzanne: One of the things that comes up for me when I teach product management to students is, we talk about the importance of tools like personas, as an example, as being a shareable piece of information that all departments can get behind, and that all departments can use. In a smaller organization, it's easy to see how that can be feasible. There might only be a UX team of two or three or four people. There might only be a couple developers, maybe one or two product people, so we all get together in a room, we jam out, we develop some personas based on the data, everybody prints one and puts it by their desk and goes.

As an organization scales, or even if an organization is already big and maybe didn't go through some of those fundamental building blocks, I think what I'm seeing more and more is you have examples of marketing has their own personas, they've downloaded some templates from Hubspot and they're running a strategy and it's good, you know, they're using process. The UX team has their personas, so there's this everyone is following process, but they're doing it in this siloed way. Have you encountered that at all?

Ashley: Absolutely and you used personas as an example, but I'll take it one step further and say a lot of times I'm seeing goals, KPI's, major targets that you're working towards, be inconsistent across platforms. You might target certain KPI's for marketing that are at odds with certain KPI's for product. I'll give you an example. If you were to give a KPI to marketing of X amount of traffic or X number of home page visits, but then you were to give product a conversion goal, a straight percentage conversion rate, that's tricky because they can bring a large volume of low quality traffic that's going to impact your ability to reach your conversion target. Similarly, we could do something to have really cheap conversions through the funnel but they're not going to be a quality customer, especially if it's an ecosystem driven product, they're not going to be a positive component to that ecosystem.

I think ensuring from the top that you're all focused on the same set of goals or as you said, personas, that top down alignment on "This is the north store, this is what we're working towards" becomes critically important, and that's one of the things I've seen time and time again where there's misalignment on what you're working towards and as you grow, you have to be really cognizant of that because it can become a huge problem, not just because you have a bunch of heads running in different directions but it will add to that friction you can sometimes see between departments where they are working towards different goals so the alignment on things that are going to be developed just mismatches.

Suzanne: This takes us back to road maps which we were talking about before. Again, it's always the battle of the Utopian circumstance versus the reality that comes with constraints. In the Utopian circumstance, you're in a room, maybe it's got a white board, and you're flowing, quite literally, down from the company objective to the department objective to the project objective to the team objective, and it's very, very easy or it's easier to keep those things, the checks and balances. You're looking at the whole thing like a painter and saying, "Oh, now that I've set up this key result over here, I see that it's in direct conflict with this key result over here. How do I get them jiving?"

That's also in a world where you're the one doing all of that planning, but I have to imagine in a company of 200 people, there's not one person road mapping the entire organization, there's a bit of a collaborate.

Ashley: Correct.

Suzanne: How does that come together in your experiences that you've seen as everyone gives their little picture of the road map and someone's supposed to stitch it together like a quilt?

Ashley: It's really tricky and exactly what you just explained, we could all outline what the Utopian solution would look like, and every project is graded for level of effort versus potential impact. I've seen many, many things tried over the years, I wish I could tell you I've seen a process that perfected it, I haven't yet. I think the key thing when you're taking requests from different departments or different stakeholders and trying to get them into one road map is just to ensure that whatever the process is, everyone buys into it because what you don't want to have happen, I could easily tell you that using intuition in my 10 years of experience, I could magically place everything into the road map but certainly, that wouldn't be what finance would want to hear when they find out that their project is at the end of the line. That wouldn't necessarily be too comforting for them.

Usually what works best is having representatives from each department sitting in a room, a lot of times this is done in off sites where you'd take all of your initiatives and you pitch them and you say, "This is what I want to do, this is why I want to do it, this is how long it's going to take, and this is what the expected outcome is going to be." Weighing all of those against each other, usually, collaboratively you can put a road map together now. Again, it's never quite as easy as that, but making sure that everyone has bought into the process so that it doesn't feel like product is just secretly behind the scenes, black box putting everything together and then presenting it outwards. That's usually the quickest way to lose trust from other departments. Making it as collaborative as possible, at least as it relates to the process, in my experience, has worked the best.

Suzanne: The other thing that road mapping brings up for me is just how quickly KPI's can proliferate. I think there's such an instinct because there are so many tools that allow us to collect data, the instinct, of course, is "Let's collect everything." Even if you use that example, that flow example, where you have a key result for the company, you have some key results for departments, every department, every project, every team has one KPI, maybe two. In an organization that's quite large you can see how even just the agreed to KPI's could be 30, 40, 50 different metrics that are being gathered up at any given time. How does an organization manage looking at that many things, or does it just sort of become secondary? I have this other suspicion, which is that there's what we all think people are doing if we're reading "Fast Company" and "Tech Crunch" we all think everyone is really buttoned up, and then there's the reality of people aren't looking at dashboards.

Ashley: Right, I would say it's definitely tricky. As the company gets larger and you start to have the luxury of a data analysis team, or someone who can actually publish reports that utilize consistent definitions that everyone's looking at, that's really nice to have that not everyone has the luxury of having. You're absolutely right, I think in most companies even if you have two people looking at a report of your current subscribers or your current revenue, definitions can be quite inconsistent from one report to the next. I've always been an advocate of just focusing on some key and some core metrics and analysis and getting those right, having a shared understanding of what certain terms mean, or having shared definitions of how certain metrics are looked at, I think, is mission critical.

Even in small organizations, it can be so easy to take for granted that people are understanding things in a similar fashion. Like I said, I've always just focused on getting a few key things right and doing the best you can to ensure that everyone is speaking in the same language. Having a good data analyst from the beginning, even if you're a small company, who can traffic those things, make sure that if one person is asking for something but someone else has already asked for it that you're not duplicating effort, that can be one of your most important hires early on. I've seen companies struggle without it and I've seen companies get that higher right and just have massive success with the way that they're able to make data driven decisions going forward.

Suzanne: I've somewhat by accident, have managed to attend half a dozen data science panels over the last several weeks. I think the thing that I recognize from data scientists, hearing them speak on panels, is you have all of these incredibly bright people who seem to struggle in their ability to communicate what the hell it actually, they do all day long. When you say to our listeners "Go out and get a good data person." Some of those listeners who may already be product managers and may already be thinking, "Aren't I supposed to be the one to be looking at the data?" Where, in your mind, does the line cross between a product manager who understands the importance of data and collecting it and reviewing it, versus a data scientist whose role is to really be in the data all day long, organizing it, aggregating it, and disseminating it.

Ashley: Absolutely, so there are certainly different types of data folks, everyone from someone who is going to be running quarries for you to someone who is able to help you with the analysis to one step further where they're actually looking for trends and patterns that can be utilized for much more forward looking business types of decisions. When I say "Get a strong data person." I really just mean a partner who can understand with you the KPI's, help you track them, help you look for trends that maybe you didn't notice.

I think product managers certainly need to have the ability to analyze their own data, understand their own data, and take it and make business decisions off of it. To say that you don't need someone to lean on or you can't have someone to lean on, I think is trying to do too much. I think, you'll never, in a standard day of a product manager, have enough time to devote to the data on your own. Having a strong partner that can pull reports for you and even be one step ahead of you, pull reports that you didn't even know you needed or wanted, is a huge asset for product management.

Suzanne: Are there, on the same topic of processes, processes that should be there versus processes that aren't, what are some of the other things that you've seen behind the walls? Not just here at Dollar Shave, but in other organizations and even organizations you haven't worked at but have friends that do, where it's way more wild west than anybody would actually believe. I ask this question because I think part of it is giving yourselves a break. I think there's so much pressure to know so many different things, there's a lot of this rhetoric around full stack developer, which is such an impossible reality. There's a lot of rhetoric around becoming integrated, and I understand the importance of being integrated, but the reality of being integrated means knowing a lot about a lot of different things, more of which is proliferating all the time. How much of it is in real life way more wild west?

Ashley: I would say that there's a lot more wild west going on, exactly to your point earlier about you read these articles from companies in Fortune and whatnot, of how buttoned up everything is. I've worked at really small start ups to much more, Dollar Shave, like I said, north of 200. I've worked at Zynga which is much larger than that. There's always room for some wild west to happen. I think sometimes you need a little wild west to happen to get things done, so especially larger organizations where there's a lot of process in place, sometimes you have to just roll up your sleeves and get something done.

You have to be a little bit ninja like in order to get what you're looking for completed, so I don't pay too much attention to formalized process, I mean it's there for a reason and you need to understand what that reason is. At the same time, if that process is blocking you or getting in your way or otherwise just becoming processed for the sake of process, you need to do what's right for you, you need to do what's right for your team, and figure out a way to get it done.

Suzanne: Let's come back to Dollar Shave Club. You know I'm taking, I'm working from the assumption that people know about the company. There may very well be people who don't. Company has been incredibly successful, can you give us the really brief, Reader's Digest history of what is Dollar Shave Club?

Ashley: Absolutely, so our CEO Mike had an idea back in 2011, 2012 to change the way that men purchased razors. Many times when you go to buy razors at the drug store, they're under lock and key and they're quite expensive. He was looking for a better way for men to not only buy razors, but he had this long term vision of changing the way that men handle their grooming. Most people have seen, at this point, the video that went viral of Mike promoting the razors, it's still on our home page. That was really the start, that just started this huge growth curve of membership signups.

It took off from there, so it started as a monthly razor subscription business. It went on to other men's grooming categories, we have a line of hair products, shaving support products like shave butter and post shave, and now what's most exciting is we're going into the area of content. We just launched a section of the site called Original Content, which brings together both our bathroom minutes blog, which is men's grooming tips and whatnot, as well as men's lifestyle, it's called MEL industries, and that's where you'll see a lot of lifestyle, non grooming related articles, even some short video clips. We've built out an entire editorial team to push that area of the business forward, so it's really been fantastically received by men, by customers. We have over three million subscribers, 240 million revenue, and as you know, we were recently acquired by Unilever.

Suzanne: That's right, you were. Now you're part of the big machine, but still operating, hopefully, some of that start up mentality is still alive and well?

Ashley: Absolutely, Unilever wanted to maintain our start up vibe, they didn't want to get in the way, they liked our culture and wanted that to stay our culture. If you weren't here the day that the acquisition was announced, you might not even know that we were part of the Unilever family, you really don't see it on a day to day basis. Now, I suspect there are certain departments that see it more than others, if you're responsible for contracts or financial reporting, that sort of thing, I'm sure there's hooks. From a product management, our road map, we're still completely autonomous, we really don't see much. They've gone through great effort to allow us to keep moving the way we had been prior to the acquisition.

Suzanne: To go back to that now famous video, is it considered around here to be Dollar Shave Club minimum viable product? It reminds me of the drop box video, that nobody's going to buy this thing, we know it's easy to use, we know there's value, how can we show people? I know, I'll just record myself showing you how easy it is. Was the business way more built out and proven out and that video just became marketing famous?

Ashley: I wasn't around back then, so I can't answer that specifically, I don't know exactly what stage of the business it was in when he came out with the video, but I do know that that definitely helped to catapult the business from an acquisition standpoint. Of course, it's tricky.

Suzanne: Customer acquisition.

Ashley: Exactly, customer acquisition standpoint. It's tricky because I'm sure a lot of businesses would love to replicate that, I'm sure Mike gets asked a lot, "How do I create a video that's that viral?" As anyone knows, you can't just set out to create something that is that viral, I mean it had something so special about it, which is why we still keep it around to this day.

Suzanne: What I love about the story is it really is the epitome of great product. Great product is kind of the rain to California's drought. When the need is so deep or so deeply felt that if that solution comes along, and it's the right solution, it sort of goes on it's own. That's because everything is dry, everything's been overlooked, and then great new hope.

Ashley: Absolutely, I think people just love the concept. You can see if you were to go onto any of our social media sites, not even as an employee, if you just went and took a look at our Facebook page, for example, customers just love us, they just do. We have the best customers, and they're very loyal. I think they just found something to hold onto. "However much for these razors I'm getting at the drug store is crazy, I'm going to turn to this company that gets me." You see that loud and clear from our customers, just via social media alone.

Suzanne: In terms of, you mentioned that there's 200 or so people here, what is that high level construct? How many people are on the product team, or maybe I should ask first, how many products are there? You talked about your role as being part of the mobile app, and presumably there's a team who's responsible for the physical product and it's journey, you've got additional product lines. Can you give us a little bit of the anatomy?

Ashley: Absolutely, so there's a department who is responsible for the actual, physical product, as you said. They have backgrounds in formulation, et cetera so we don't work with them too much, of course we have to be aligned with them with regards to physical product launch timing, because we have to be prepared to get those products onto the site and onto the app. We work with them from a scheduling perspective, but they're a separate department. Actual product management, in a traditional sense, we have of course, a team that manages the website, my team which manages the mobile apps, and then as I mentioned our new content team, which oversees the develop of content on both our site as well as working with the native app team to bring that content to life, via the native app. That's how we're set up, I've seen some product teams at different companies are organized around features. At the most top level of our product organization, we're split by platform and then within each of those platform teams, we have groupings by business focus or feature focus, that sort of thing.

Suzanne: When you say platform, are you referring to operating system platforms or something else?

Ashley: Just website and native app, so we're split at the top, website and native apps, so that's what I mean when I say platform, the dot com platform or the native app platform.

Suzanne: The company baseball game, it's the mobile app team versus the [inaudible 00:35:49] team?

Ashley: Correct.

Suzanne: Do you guys win?

Ashley: We're certainly trying to catch up, we were late to the game, so now we're trying to catch up.

Suzanne: Amazing. Talk to me about the difference, because you worked at eHarmony?

Ashley: Correct.

Suzanne: You've worked in several, what I would call, electron based organizations. In some ways, people are talking a lot about product management lately, but it's not that it's a new domain, I think it's just that one, the proliferation of tech based companies has created more opportunities for product managers, and two, many people just still refer to it by it's old fashioned name, brand management, which is especially prevalent for CPG based businesses, or traditional sort of retail. You come from a lot of electron based experiences, and now you're in a world where even though Dollar Shave Club considers itself to be a tech company, there is very much a physical product piece. How has your role as product manager been different just between those two different types of environments?

Ashley: I would say that working at Dollar Shave Club where we have physical product is one of the challenges that I was most excited about. Exactly as you said, I've worked at eHarmony where the experience is the website or the app. Very much at Zynga where I worked, the game that I was working on was the experience, it was the product, there were no offline.

Suzanne: What was the game?

Ashley: I was on the product team of Words With Friends.

Suzanne: That's a very good game to be part of the team.

Ashley: It was an app that everyone definitely had heard of, and had most likely downloaded, so that was a good time for sure. It's very, very different working on a product like Words With Friends than something like Dollar Shave Club where you have this physical product component, but that was one of the challenges I was most excited about. If you think about the Las Angeles tech scene, more and more, the companies that you're hearing about have a physical product component. You've got Honest, you've got Thrive Market, there's a number of them, right?

Even if you think of in the sharing economy space, I also was at Dog Vacay for a while, there's that offline experience that you can't control. I think as a product manager, rounding out your breadth of experience, being able to work on a product where what you're working on isn't the only facet of the product is a great learning opportunity. I'm getting to work with people who have really strong CPG backgrounds and are used to working with retailers, you name it, it's just a really unique experience that I was really, really excited to get to try.

Suzanne: You bring up an interesting point, I'm just curious; do you think that that is specific to Las Angeles? You're right to highlight that we have a very exciting, thriving, emerging tech community here. Of course, when people talk about tech on a national scale, it's always Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley. What do you think characterizes the tech scene here?

Ashley: That's a great question. I did spend a little bit of time up in San Francisco, when I was working at Zynga I was in a San Francisco office. I was only there for a short time, but I will say it had a very different feel than the tech scene down in Las Angeles. In San Francisco, pretty much everyone you meet was in the tech scene, at least from my experience, that was what I saw. You were really ingrained in all tech, all the time. There were lots of meet ups, there was lots of out of the office conversations happening, there was just a lot of noise related to the tech space.

Down in LA, it's quite different. It's far more diverse. I think tech is really starting to build a name for itself. I think the funding in Las Angeles is starting to grow, which is fantastic, but you don't feel all immersed in the way that you do when you're in the Bay Area. Definitely different, but very exciting to see it growing and to see more attention coming to the start ups that are coming out of Las Angeles, and hopefully we'll have a little bit more diversity with regards to options available from a career standpoint.

Suzanne: I love that you bring that up, because that was one of the experiences that I had when I moved here. When I was coming to Las Angeles, I was visiting a lot for personal reasons, for business, and I thought, "Oh, the outside world has this perception that the only thing that happens in LA is entertainment." Of course, that does happen and it is huge. When you're here, you realize, "Oh, no there's a lot going on. There is fashion stuff that's going on, there is art stuff that's going on."

I would echo that sentiment. It's nice that you can find yourself in conversation with people who are part of tech and that equally, there's people at the table who aren't and they bring color and perspective. For the same reason when we say we can't fall in love with our own solution or design products based on what we would choose, because most of the time, we already know too much, which is why we have to remember our customer. I think it's the same thing, industry wide. Sometimes it's just good to hear what people are doing who aren't in tech as a way of thinking about our own industry.

Ashley: Absolutely.

Suzanne: Score one for Las Angeles.

Ashley: Definitely.

Suzanne: Plus we have the weather.

Ashley: Right.

Suzanne: Are you from here originally?

Ashley: Yes, I was originally from Las Angeles, and when I took the job up in San Francisco, I'll never forget, I moved up in August. It was 80 degrees down here and I was very excited to move to San Francisco, but I got up there and it was sweater and scarf weather, and I thought, "What have I got myself into?"

Suzanne: Was it weather that ultimately drove you back? "How can I survive like this?"

Ashley: No, it wasn't weather that ultimately drove me back, I missed my family and there was a great opportunity for me to come back, but I haven't ruled out going back up there at some point, we'll see.

Suzanne: One of the segments that we have here on the show is what I call Get the Job, Learn the Job, Love the Job. You guys are hiring, aren't you?

Ashley: We are.

Suzanne: This will be interesting. Let's talk first about getting the job, which is advice for up and comers, career changers, people who are junior that want to take that next step. What advice would you, Ashley, give to somebody who wants to get into the world of product, or thinks they do? By extension, what advice would you give them if they were hearing this episode and submitting their resume to you and wanting to come and work with you or part of your product team?

Ashley: Absolutely, so I have always, when hiring, looked for people who are smart, sharp, attention to detail, and really, really eager to do a good job. I often look for either recent grads or folks with just a year or couple years of product management experience, so I would say even if you don't have an extensive background in product management, that's okay. A lot of times product teams are looking for folks witih the right skill set that give them a lot of potential.

Suzanne: You might get hundreds of resumes, "She just said I don't need experience, what's her email address?"

Ashley: What I look for, so I always figure, I can train how to do a road map, I can train how to use [inaudible 00:43:44] that sort of thing, so it's having those key skills that we look for. If you don't have product management experience, have you led an organization, maybe in college, or a community volunteer organization, can you prove you have leadership skills? Can you prove that you have a little bit of a technical understanding? Entry level computer science classes are a lot of fun and in this day and age, there are so many opportunities to take them at lower, sometimes even no cost. Have you shown that you are interested in being somewhat technical, have you taken some entry computer science classes?

It's really just proving that you have the potential to show leadership, you have the potential to work well with the engineers, that you're hungry. Maybe you have a side project, maybe you've participated in a start up weekend, for example, or a hack-a-thon where they're looking for people with a diverse set of backgrounds. Proving that you're interested in learning, have an eagerness to learn, really can get your foot in the door.

That would be my advice is just seek out these things that you can do without getting hired, per say. Taking classes, volunteer opportunities, that sort of thing. Talking to a bunch of different product managers, don't be afraid to reach out on Linked In, ask for advice, ask how they got to where they were. People are constantly asking for a quick 15 minute chat with me to get some insight into how to get to where I am, so that would be my advice. Certainly, if you have a little bit of product management experience, it helps, but especially in the LA market, it's very difficult to find good talent. In the absence of that I will look for someone who I can grow into good talent.

Suzanne: When you say it's difficult to find good talent, is that regarding the fact that the tech industry itself is relatively young, and so most people have been in different disciplines, or is there a deeper problem? There may be some people listening in going, "I have lots of talent, why?" I'm wondering is there just a disconnect between companies that are looking for great people and great people that are looking for companies?

Ashley: It could be, I will say this, in the Bay Area obviously we talked about there being just a much larger volume, a much larger pool of candidates to pull from. In LA, it's not quite as big of a pool and maybe it's just a function of again, the diverse people that you come in contact with, maybe there is a disconnect between the candidates and the people looking. I will say we aren't flooded with candidates that fit what we're looking for in the way that you might think, it's a bit trickier. Like I said, I laid out a few skills that can really help you set yourself apart from the other candidates, and I would really encourage that because really, it's not as large of a pool to pull from so any of those things you can do to set yourself above will stand out.

Suzanne: We should offer our listeners a 100 PM URL extension so that when they apply, if they reference this code, we know they're listening, which is some indication that they're actually trying to learn a thing or two, that's part of why this show exists is product management can look so different. You're a living testament to this, from one environment to the next the culture's different, the demands are different, the skills that you need to have are different. Even when you do know it, even when you are seasoned, there's always going to be an opportunity for you to learn something.

Ashley: Absolutely. I will say, I think you would be surprised how many people we talk to for positions who haven't taken the time to check out the product that they're interviewing for. If I offer just one piece of advice for folks interviewing, it may seem so obvious, but just make sure you do your research, really understand the product that you're going to be working on, what that companies background is, what they offer, that sort of thing. Little things like that seem so minor, but they will set you apart from the crowd. Really just important to anything you can do to kind of stand out is worth it.

Suzanne: Listening to you say that got me thinking and wondering, this is a men's grooming company. Obviously, you're a woman here. Do you think there might be a perception out there that the only people who work here are a bunch of dude bros and if that is a perception, do you want to offer us a different insight?

Ashley: Absolutely, I actually was told that when I was interviewing from someone that that was their perception, and it's anything but. I will say, not to shamelessly plug the product, but they are all unisex products so you can use them. I use most of our products myself, the razors included, so they are great products. Certainly, no, I mean it doesn't matter if you want to work for a men's grooming company, or if you're married and you want to work at eHarmony, as long as you can find a way to be passionate about the product that you're going to be working on.

Even if it's not the most direct line, for example Dollar Shave Club, I love that we don't test our products on animals, they're 100 percent cruelty free. That I can throw my weight behind, right? It turns out that the products are fantastic for women, and I love using them myself anyways. It doesn't matter if you are the exact customer of the product that you're going to be working on, as long as you yourself can find a way to be passionate about it, it will work.

Suzanne: I think women out there appreciate that they don't have to pay the pink tax if you're a partner with Dollar Shave Club. A lot of that original value proposition to men, which was stop paying wild fees for all of these fancy blades when this product is perfectly good, I think extended equally to women who have a long history of, "Oh, ours costs two times as much and everything is pink because women love pink or women love butterflies."

Ashley: Sure, sure, absolutely. I'll tell you this, I took a look at our SPF face moisturizer, and I compared it to my much more expensive woman's face moisturizer and it was the exact same, so I'm a convert, I love it.

Suzanne: This is all good insight. What about learning the job. Has there been a big mistake, failure, break down in tears, just a moment where you thought you knew what you were doing and then you discovered on some scale that you didn't? That you're far enough away from now that you can share and laugh about?

Ashley: Sure, I mean gosh back when I first started at eHarmony, I was originally working on two of our niche business lines, one of which was a high end personal match maker business and with that one, I definitely felt like I was a little bit in over my head. There were things where we were supposed to be launching it as a test and I would make some bizarre decision to put something on the website to a hundred percent of users because engineering talked me into it for one reason or another, and you're left thinking, "What was I thinking? Obviously this wasn't going to work." That sort of thing, so I would say when you're first learning, just making sure you think everything through.

It's really easy to talk to one set of folks on your team, engineers, maybe, and get convinced to do one thing and then you know, go over here and talk to your designer and get convinced to do something else and that can really throw you off. That threw me off, that was the time I went home in tears wondering if I could do this job because I made such a stupid mistake. Really just take your time, make sure you really understand the problem that you're working on from all different angles and what the potential consequences are of certain decisions. That was where I started learning, "You really have to think things through." Everyone makes mistakes. In the beginning, one of the things that was tough for me to learn, also, was not everything is going to be perfect. I would leave in tears a lot because my deadlines got missed or, oh gosh, in the beginning if a bug would go out on something I was working on, tears, most likely I would just be so upset about it.

Suzanne: You were falling apart a lot in the beginning.

Ashley: I was falling, I know, now I'm just making myself sound like I was a complete mess back in 2011. It's a lot, it's a very stressful role, being responsible for deadlines, keeping people happy, making sure that your product is high quality, that your customers are going to like it. It's a very, very high stress role. You can't take it too seriously. I tell people on my team a lot, at the end of the day it's a job, and the fact that you're so upset is proof that you're passionate about what you're working on. The day someone doesn't get upset about something, I'll worry. It's okay to ask for help, it's okay to say you're stressed out, it's okay to say you feel in over your head, I think all product managers go through that.

Suzanne: Is there one facet of the job that has evaded you throughout? "I'm just never going to be that product manager because that little piece is just not my forte, thank goodness I have this great data scientist by my side." Whatever example.

Ashley: Sure, I would definitely say it's funny, in some areas I have great attention to detail. If you put me in charge of QA, I could really nail that. In other areas, I'm just a mess. Maybe this is why I recommended a data analyst early on, if you took a look at some of the spreadsheets I have saved on my desktop, gosh, I mean I'm the only one that could potentially ever understand them, they're a complete mess. I would say when it comes to data, I can pull my own numbers, but it's going to look like a war zone on that Excel spreadsheet by the time I'm done, so maybe that's why I recommended having a strong data analyst early on, because that's what I need.

Suzanne: This is just evidence of your strength overall, which is I think the saying is, "Know what you know and own what you don't." Some people really struggle with saying, "I don't know." I think "I know" are the two most dangerous words when put together in a sentence. There's a lot of maturity in just saying, "I'm not the most technical person here, I can offer this level of insight and if we really need to make a decision, let's go and bring our tech lead in the room, or get somebody else who can speak to that." Feel really comfortable to say it's okay. Most of the time as we talked about, you won't be the smartest person in the room because your skills are diluted across a number of different domains whereas somebody working in design or in engineering, they're doing that role day in and day out, being amazing at that specific skill or small constellation of skills.

Ashley: Absolutely, I would say it doesn't matter if you're a senior PM coming into a new role, or senior director, vice president, when you're coming into a new company, there's a lot more that you don't know than you know. I've seen some top level leaders come into companies acting like they know more than the team that they're managing, simply because of their seniority, and fall flat on their faces because it's simply not true.

They may know more about what's led them to be successful in the past, they may have some great ideas on processes and procedures and ways of looking at the future that will help them to be successful in the future, but even if at your last company something took one month to build, that doesn't mean it's going to take one month to build at the new company. Always, always, always, it's okay to say you don't know, to learn, to ask questions. You look far better doing that than acting like you know more than you do. Especially in the role of product management where it's important to have that trust with everyone on your team, doing anything to discredit yourself right out of the gate, it's going to be really hard to come back from that.

Suzanne: What's your favorite thing about product management?

Ashley: My favorite thing is that I do something different every day. Usually it's whatever i'm sort of in the mood for. If I'm in the mood for working on some feature, road mapping, I can do it. If I'm in the mood for wire framing something out, checking out other apps from different companies or just interfacing with the engineers, seeing what they're up to. Every day is different and every day is fun. If there's something I'm not particularly interested in doing, most of the time it's okay to put it off to tomorrow. I just love the autonomy and the flexibility that product management provides.

Suzanne: That's awesome. We have at, an ever growing resource list. Books, podcasts, blogs, things that we've collected from our various guests. Do you have any in your library? They don't have to be product management specific, it could be this really great science thing that you love, but just anything that you've encountered that you think, "Oh, this is gold."

Ashley: My first two, because you had asked me this question in preparation for our time here, and so I pulled out two that I thought were going to be super useful and then I checked and they were already on the site, so I'm going to give a plus one vote to the first round blog, I think is super useful. I think that's definitely a resource that product managers should reference often. The book, Crossing the Chasm, I can't recommend that enough. I'm going to back those two with my vote. A couple other things, I look at pattern websites all the time, so there's a great one, pattrns, and I can send you the URL. They're constantly posting screens for you name it. You want to find welcome screens, or a sign up screen, or what have you, I look at that constantly. Most of the ideas, it never hurts to borrow from other sites that have solved that problem before you.

The other thing, this isn't necessarily a resource, but I would just recommend, I'm always downloading new apps in the app store every weekend if I'm on my couch or have some downtime just downloading five new apps on the iTunes homepage, that sort of thing. Not necessarily a specific resource you can list, but for people listening, something I would highly recommend that you do.

Suzanne: As a process for staying aligned with what's happening.

Ashley: Exactly, staying in the loop and in the know and up to date on certain trends. If you're looking for a job or you're going to be looking for a job, you're always going to get asked, "What are some of your favorite apps, what are some of your favorite sites?" You should never be caught off guard by that question, and so keeping yourself up to date, "Oh, I saw this really great app last week on iTunes it was such and such." Especially if it's something that maybe someone hasn't heard of, it's just a good resource to have in your arsenal.

Suzanne: Have you stumbled across anything great that we should all know about?

Ashley: You're going to catch me off guard with my own question.

Suzanne: Never be caught off guard not knowing which apps are awesome. Things that you've seen that are cool.

Ashley: You know what I'll tell you, the trend that I've been super fascinated by lately, is anything having to do with chat bots. I think the chat bot phenomenon is really something fascinating to watch, I think, from a customer service standpoint, I ordered some sunglasses from a company called Blenders and everything was communicated to me through Facebook messenger via a bot. I was a judge at the Santa Clarita Valley start up weekend a little bit ago and the winner was a chat based bot for receiving an auto insurance quote, which I thought was so interesting. A industry that's just ripe for disruption and the fact that they were doing it by way of a bot, very different than all of the other entries which were website and app based, so that's one trend I've been, it's not necessarily an app so I didn't answer your question directly, but anything I'm seeing coming out in the bot space has been something I've been keeping my eye on.

Suzanne: Right on. Last question for you Ashley. If you go down in product management hall of fame, and I hope that you do. You're certainly on the way. Is there an inspirational quote or mantra, either that you use professionally to guide you or just something that you use personally that you want to share?

Ashley: Sure, it's a quote that everyone has heard of before, so it's not going to be revolutionary in that regard, but "Everything happens for a reason." I have it by my bedside in a frame, and I think it's so true. If you don't get the job you want, I'm confident it's because the universe has a different plan for you, and usually a better plan. There's been plenty of jobs I've wanted, didn't get, and it works out for the better always. Not only do I think it to myself regularly, but I say it all the time, "Everything happens for a reason." I think it's super powerful.

Suzanne: I agree with you, my version of that is "Trust the process." I think sometimes in life we're zoomed into 300 DPI and we can't really see the big picture, we just need to kind of come out and go, "Oh, that's what's being formulated." You're right, we don't know what's good or bad, so we try to label it based on the context we have at the time. For those people listening in, if somebody does want to come and apply here, how do they do it?

Ashley: Absolutely, we have a jobs page on our website, There's a careers link in the footer, and you can just click on that. It will have the listing of all of our jobs, we're hiring for quite a few things now, not just product management but across the board. You could submit your resume that way, and of course a recruiter would be in touch if there was an interest in moving forward.

Suzanne: Awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Ashley: Thank you.

Suzanne: Ashley Lewis, Dollar Shave Club, everyone check it out. Thank you.

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Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club is a Venice, California-based company that delivers cost-effective razors and other personal grooming products straight to consumers by mail via a monthly subscription.
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Los Angeles is a sprawling Southern California city and the center of the nation’s film and television industry. Near its iconic Hollywood sign, studios such as Paramount Pictures, Universal and Warner Brothers offer behind-the-scenes tours. On Hollywood Boulevard, TCL Chinese Theatre displays celebrities’ hand- and footprints, the Walk of Fame honors thousands of luminaries and vendors sell maps to stars’ homes.