How I Became a Product Manager

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Two years ago, I had a nervous meltdown on my way to work, complete with hyperventilating and uncontrollable public sobbing on the train. My immediate reaction was guilt: why was I breaking down? I had no business being depressed or anxious. My job at Goldman Sachs was dull, but I assumed that was true for any six-year long career. I had respect and some autonomy with my role, my coworkers were great, and my pay wasn’t too shabby. Supportive family, wonderful boyfriend, beautiful home. Why was I so miserable?

Every day since then, for the past two years, I’ve been pondering that question and trying to understand the root of my sudden onset depression and anxiety (with a therapist, while baking cookies, while crying on the floor in the shower, and so on). At first, I ignored all the suggestions of existential ennui, and, a couple of weeks after I left Goldman, I scheduled an interview with Bloomberg. I missed the interview because I was sitting on my couch in a suit, staring at the door that led outside with palpable dread. A couple of months after, I received a job offer from a small financial consulting firm, and never mustered the energy to call them back.

I eventually changed tack and looked for opportunities in fields I ostensibly enjoyed. I thought I wanted to start a noodle shop, but after I waited tables at a restaurant for a few months, I went on vacation, and never went back to work. I started a mobile gaming startup, and quit. I tried to start a sustainable, ethically made lingerie brand, and stopped that, too. Every now and again, I stopped leaving the apartment for weeks and months at a time.

My depression ate up every failure and every day spent crying on the couch, and became this sloppy, unpredictable ugliness in my life. All my starts and stops, however, began to subconsciously crystalize into a list of things that made me happy, and things that didn’t. As a kid with typical immigrant parents, ‘happiness’ was never a criteria for my career planning. But, slowly, instead of panicking about money and trying to hyper-realize myself into a random second career (Restaurant owner! Startup founder! Ethical lingerie visionary!), I just started doing things that made me happy, and stopped doing things that didn’t. Happy Ventrice appeared when I got enough sleep, took walks outside, brainstormed cool business ideas and product road maps with interesting people, and micromanaged big, complex projects. Sad Ventrice reared her ugly head when I stayed in my apartment all day, Googled job postings until four in the morning, and sulked jealously about other people who had passions.

Part of the process involved finding people who were excited by the work they did, so I could mimic their behaviors. I spent five days a week networking, skipping days only when I couldn’t get myself to leave the house. In the beginning, I introduced myself with, “Hi! I’m Ventrice. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” and eventually learned instead to pitch myself as a generally competent person who was eager to learn and would trade free hours “being useful” for an opportunity to shadow founders at small startups. And so, in late 2015 and early 2016, I worked for companies in over 9 different industries and learned more over a six-month period than I had in six years at Goldman.

I also learned that there were some things that a career in financial operations made me exceptionally good at, but had never realized, because I did them every day for six years, the way you brush your teeth or tie your shoes, surrounded by other people doing the same thing. I was used to handling people with big egos and deflating impractical ideas. I was really good at project management; solidifying vague concepts and executing on them. I was fucking spectacular at translating and talking through complicated, multi-stage technical requirements with non-technical business people. Most importantly, I really, genuinely, enjoyed it when the subject matter was interesting to me.

And, slowly, but surely, I learned that people would pay me for the time I spent “being useful.” My first paying client paid me $50 to change the color of a font on a WordPress site, so I put on the hat of a front-end developer and began freelancing on WordPress and Shopify sites. But after working on three different variations of “party on demand” businesses, I started feeling empty again, and began gravitating towards businesses with social impact.

Another 10-12 clients later, just as I finally found a niche where I could be impactful by helping non-technical founders spec out and build their web products, and clients were happily referring me to their networks, my confidence fell into a pit for no rhyme or reason and I started applying for jobs again.

I was rejected from every, single one.

Every interviewer asked me why I wanted to stop freelancing, and I wasn’t capable of giving any of them a satisfying answer. I said I wanted to be part of a team again, that working alone from my apartment every day was driving me nuts, and that I was looking for mentorship – and while all these things were true, what I really wanted was corporate validation. I wanted any company from the “professional” world to see me and acknowledge that I was still a valuable individual, even though I had almost a dozen clients validating me with cold hard cash every day.

One morning, Brian Tait, the founder of FounderTherapy, asked me to grab breakfast with him. We had been through several rounds of interviews, and I think he felt my hesitance to join, despite my excitement at the role and my admiration of the work they do, helping non-technical subject matter experts build up their businesses and technical platforms.

The alignment was perfect – FounderTherapy did what I did, as Ventrice the freelancer, but at a much more sophisticated level of the game, and with a fantastic, experienced team that I could learn from. They even had a Tech for Good mission. The thought, however, of leaving my clients and handing off their projects to other people made me feel sick and sad, and by now, I’d learned to trust my gut and consciously avoid doing things that made me sad.

We discussed the role, the clients, and future growth opportunities, and then his own experiences with freelancing and eventually starting his own product shop, and finally, Brian asked me, “Why do you even do what you do?”

I didn’t really have an answer ready, except that doing product management made me happier than it made me sad – my trusty shorthand for decision making during the worst phase of my depression.  After some stuttering, I finally realized, “I guess… I want to help women and minorities build their businesses.” It was true – so many of my clients had been ignored or taken advantage of by freelancers who realized that they didn’t know the difference between iOS and Android. And it annoyed me – infuriated me – that had we not met, their genuinely inspiring products would still be unbuilt, collecting cobwebs in a pitch deck, just because they didn’t have technical backgrounds.

That spark of fury was the first true step out of my depression, because now I could get angry. And if could get angry, I could get motivated.

It was an emotional moment, so I can’t recall exactly what I said, or how Brian responded, exactly, but what I heard was, “If you think there needs to be more women and minority-run businesses, then why are you – a woman and a minority – quitting your own business to join someone else’s?” And that’s the story about that time I started sobbing in the aisle of a deli in the Financial District while being awkwardly hugged by the guy interviewing me for a job.

It may have been just another Tuesday for Brian – because he’s simply just a helpful, inspiring person with a passion for education (seriously, go find him at FounderTherapy) – but it was possibly the most important conversation in my life to date.

That one conversation propelled me from “oh, you know, I do freelance product stuff while I figure out what I want to do” to “I’m a product strategy consultant that empowers non-technical entrepreneurs to build out their great product ideas.” As soon as I embraced the message, and vocalized it out loud to the world, the referrals started pouring in.

I can’t say I don’t still have low confidence days, or days where I struggle with imposter syndrome, but my newly realized existential need to see more female and minority founders succeed drives my daily process of self care and mindfulness. It’s always a journey, and once you’ve fallen into the depression pit once, it’s always a struggle to stay out of it, but finding that sense of purpose is the best safety harness I could ask for.

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