Hi Kevin! Tell us about your background and Product Manager HQ.
Hey, I'm Kevin Lee. I founded and run Product Manager HQ, the web's destination for learning how to break into product management. I started this business because I was fed up with a lack of resources in the industry after struggling and finally managing to break into product management from my first career in investment banking.
Product Manager HQ is a fairly straightforward content / media business that is currently comprised of 4 components: free website articles, a free weekly newsletter with top product reads, a paid membership Slack community (the world's first & largest product community on Slack) with thousands of members from 500+ companies around the world, and a paid online course called One Week PM, that teaches the fundamentals of product management.
The business is about 2.5 years old and has helped thousands of people break into or improve their chances of breaking into product management. Product Manager HQ has been featured around the web in Forbes (as a top Slack community for tech entrepreneurs / product people), the Breaking Into Startups podcast (Entrepreneur magazine's top 24 podcasts for entrepreneurs), and as a 2014/2015 Top Influencer in Product Management.
I recently started a new role as an early stage VC at FundersClub investing in seed / series A startups, so I've dialed back my time significantly and roughly spend 1-2 hours per week on the business, which generates anywhere from ~$75-100k in annual revenue.
The business is completely bootstrapped with minimal maintenance costs and no paid marketing — the only major cost is a community manager who I recently hired to help out with a few tasks.
What motivated you to get started with Product Manager HQ? What were your initial goals? And how'd you come up with the idea?
I studied at UC Berkeley, graduated with a degree in Business Administration, and had a very limited technical background. My first job out of college was in technology investment banking where I worked up to 100-120 hours per week.
After a few months on the job, I realized that while I had joined the team to learn more about the tech industry, I craved more direct involvement in building products.
One day I was browsing one of my favorite websites, Quora, and came across the topic of Product Management. I began to obsessively consume any information I could find about product management, but there weren't any central resources, and I found myself trying to piece together bits and pieces of information across multiple blogs, articles, books, and online courses.
Even when I cold-emailed product managers in the industry and did informational interviews, none of them were able to recommend any central resources to learn about product management either! It was as if everyone had gone through this journey of learning about product management in the exact same scattered way and everyone had ignored this huge elephant in the room regarding a lack of a cohesive guide or resource for learning about product management and breaking into the industry.
It took a few months of going through multiple rounds of product management interviews, but I finally landed my first product manager offer and made the career switch.
After a few months into my new product role, I decided to give back to the amazing Quorans who gave me so much advice when I was doing my own job search. I started writing for the product management topic, and over time people on Quora and LinkedIn began to cold message or email me to ask if I could meet for coffee and give them advice on breaking into product management.
At first, I took as many local coffee meetings as I could, but over time, the requests became overwhelming and I realized there weren't enough hours in the day for me to be able to help everyone. To alleviate this issue, I bought the domain for Product Manager HQ, installed the first decent looking WordPress theme I could find, cobbled together a terrible looking logo (which has since been re-designed), and started writing articles summarizing the most common topics that kept coming up during these coffee meetings.
When people cold-emailed me, I began sending them links to these articles instead, while apologizing and letting them know that the content in the articles is what I would have told them during an in-person coffee meeting anyways.
So things started off as a collection of articles and info. How'd you end up turning the site into a community?
Six months into founding Product Manager HQ, I was getting slow and steady traffic, but I didn't really dedicate any more time towards building out the website apart from publishing a few articles every now and then.
Meanwhile, in my product manager role, I kept noticing a few recurring pain points. First, I noticed how lonely the product manager job was (the typical product manager to engineer ratio can be 1:8 or 1:10 at most companies), and how I oftentimes craved more real-time peer-to-peer feedback so I could know what I was doing right or wrong. Secondly, I noticed that experienced product managers kept preaching the importance of "finding a product mentor", but I was having a hard time finding one within my company.
After some Googling, I found a few sparse meetups but nothing spectacular. I craved a real community where I could chat with other PMs from other companies or find a product mentor even if he/she were halfway across the world.
All of this was happening around 2013, and as luck would have it, an interesting company called Slack had just closed its original MMORPG game in 2012 and pivoted to a real-time collaboration platform (the Slack we know today). I fell in love with the Slack platform as soon as I started using it, and realized that it would be an amazing medium to run a live community. The rest is history.
You're not a programmer yourself. How did you go about building and managing your website?
I've strived to exercise my "hustle muscle" since I was in early college, and many of my earlier 8-10 "failed" projects were also simple WordPress sites that I just hacked together with little to no programming knowledge. Through a decent amount of trial and error, I've come to realize that you can scrape together a pretty decent MVP for most ideas (especially for content-heavy businesses) with WordPress and a lot of 3rd party plugins.
Tools that I use:
- WordPress + a ton of plugins: website (a bit of HTML / CSS / PHP gets you pretty far)
- Bluehost: domain / server hosting
- ConvertKit: email sequences + newsletters + managing subscribers (shoutout to Nathan Barry)
- Teachable: hosting the online course — One Week PM (shoutout to Ankur Nagpal)
- SumoMe: social sharing + converting readers to subscribers (shoutout to Noah Kagan)
- Justin Jackson's website: reading for inspiration because his writing was the first to inspire me to start selling digital products online (shoutout to Justin Jackson)
- Zapier: automations to make it look like there's a team behind the scenes when really it's just me #foreveralone
- Gumroad: payments
- Paypal: invoicing sponsors
- Trello: managing tasks and my "roadmap"
- Google Drive: general organization
- Sketch: pretending to be a designer (fortunately, my girlfriend is a talented designer who has graciously lent some of her time to help redo most of the website)
How have you grown Product Manager HQ over time, and what have you done to attract users to the community?
I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been the absolute best about growing website traffic over the past few years, so I don't have the most spectacular figures to show off.
I initially drove 99% of website traffic from Quora by answering product management focused questions and linking back to my site wherever appropriate. A few years ago, Quora was the open wild west, and they were so focused on core user growth that you could get away with linking back to your site in every answer you wrote. Quora has since become extremely strict about external links in answers, and their content moderation bot is pretty good about flagging blatantly spammy answers, so it's no longer the growth channel it used to be.
Product Manager HQ has since significantly weaned off Quora, and now the majority of traffic comes in through SEO (~12-15k organic unique users every month). Over the past year, Product Manager HQ has also been fortunate enough to be featured on a number of reputable publications like Forbes and now has a decent number of backlinks.
As for the Product Manager HQ community, when I first started it on Slack, it was free to join and I seeded the initial 10-20 members with product manager friends. I wish I could tell you about some amazing "indie-hack" that I used for massive virality, but honestly, all of the organic growth came from good ol' fashioned community building.
In the early days, I would DM (direct message) every single member and start conversations to befriend them and learn about what products they were working on. Between a typeform that people had to fill out to join the community and a mini google spreadsheet CRM that I used to store information on each member, I had a nice mental map of who I should be connecting to whom.
I likened a lot of this initial community building to an experience of attending a cocktail party. Think of the times where you've walked into a party solo and awkwardly tried to make your way into a conversation circle — frankly, that experience sucks. Now contrast that to a cocktail party where a friend of yours knows everyone and pulls you into circles while saying "Hey everyone, have you met my friend _________?" It's a much more accommodating experience, and you're likely to have a better time.
If one member told me about a problem he/she was having when PM'ing an enterprise SaaS product, I would find another member working on a similar product, introduce them to each other, and ask them to both chat about their issues in public channels so that other people could learn from their conversation. To help kickoff conversations and engage lurkers, I seeded questions in public channels (i.e. "Has anyone here tried any product roadmapping tools? What were your favorite ones?") every single day.
At around 200-400 members, I started to see more word-of-mouth growth as members started referring friends and colleagues in the industry to join the community and conversations started to organically happen daily without much input from me.
Personally welcoming every new member in the community became a bit overwhelming (especially because people joined from different time zones when I might be sleeping), so I began to use tools like Zapier and Slack integrations / bots for more sophisticated and automated onboarding messages.
To help engage the community, I also reached out to specific "power user" members who were chatting daily and asked them if they would be interested in becoming community moderators. I created a private group for these moderators, set some light guidelines, and trusted them to help engage with the community and let me know of any "bad behavior", i.e. spammers or recruiters.
As a solopreneur who was so used to doing everything myself, establishing this moderator group was one of the most important lessons for me in terms of learning to let go / not trying to do everything myself and distributing responsibility amongst the community.
At around 1000 members, I began to notice a trend where over 90% of new members joining would churn after the first few weeks (Slack provides a weekly report of which members become "inactive"). A large part of this was because joining was free, so many people joined out of curiosity and left shortly after. I suspected this trend was also happening because the community was now large enough where conversations were happening daily and it probably became quickly overwhelming for new members who had never intended to seriously engage in the first place.
To counteract this, I replaced my typeform with a new landing page / Gumroad plugin and started charging a one-time lifetime membership fee of $25 to weed out inactives and people who weren't serious about participating in the community. After instituting the paywall, the churn trend completely reversed.
To help justify the $25 one-time fee, I made sure to include plenty of benefits such as instituting bi-monthly AMAs (ask me anything) with product leaders and working with product conferences / events to negotiate large discounts for community members. The community has since featured AMAs with well-known product people in the industry including Ken Norton (Product Partner at Google Ventures), Punit Soni (Former CPO at Flipkart), Alexandra Cavoulacos (Co-Founder at The Muse), David Cancel (CEO at Drift), and Ellen Chisa (VP of Product at Lola), amongst many others.
To date, the community has grown organically to ~2,900 product people from companies all over the world like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Slack, Airbnb, Pinterest, Twitter, Microsoft, and 500+ others.
In-person meetups around the world happen organically through initial interactions in the community, and our last San Francisco meetup (which was supposed to be with a small group of PMHQ members) went viral on Facebook and brought in 200 aspiring / current PMs to fill up a local bar. Large enterprise companies such as Intuit have even onboarded their entire 200+ global PM organization into the community and continue to onboard each new cohort of PMs every year.
How much money are you making from PMHQ, and what are the various revenue streams that contribute to that total?
Revenue currently fluctuates between $75k to $100k per year — probably leaning towards the lower end of that range, as I haven't spent too much time with marketing or PR recently. Fortunately, I now get enough SEO traffic every day with a steady conversion rate, so I can predict a fairly stable baseline revenue amount.
Revenue is generally split:
- One-time community membership fee: 50%
- One Week PM course: 40%
- Newsletter sponsors / sponsored job listings: 10%
Costs are pretty minimal, so the margins are fairly high. I pay recurring subscription fees for certain tools (listed in a previous question) and recently hired a community manager to help out with a few tasks here and there.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned so far? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Story-telling is key.
"We all love stories. We're born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmation that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories." —Andrew Stanton, director and writer at Pixar
For the first year, I used to have a very standard/dry email drip sequence for every new subscriber, and it was boring in every way possible because I thought I was being "professional."
Meanwhile, in my personal life, I kept noticing that I had a tendency to adopt a product or service (regardless of how good it was compared to competing offerings) simply if I loved the founding story behind it.
A prime example of this is when I was emotionally captivated by the founder story behind ConvertKit and decided to cancel MailChimp and switch over to ConvertKit, despite ConvertKit lacking a few core feature sets at the time. (It's since reached relative parity and exceeded MailChimp in many other ways.)
I decided to drastically change up my drip sequence and include a personal story about my own struggle transitioning into product management in the very first email that new subscribers received. By treating that first touchpoint with a new subscriber as an opportunity to be vulnerable and tell my story, I built instant rapport/trust and new subscribers were much more likely to respond to questions in my emails as well as tell their friends to subscribe.
Because of this change I made, 7% of new subscribers will take the time to reply to my email drip sequence, tell me their own story, and respond to every single question I ask in my emails, which provides extremely valuable qualitative feedback to refine my site content and offerings.
What's been most helpful to you on your journey? What do you think your biggest advantages have been?
I'm a big believer that staying motivated with your indie projects requires the "little wins." Unless you have extreme discipline and internal motivation (which you should 100% strive to have!), it's really easy to lose your drive over time. One of he most helpful advantages along your journey will be to celebrate the little wins.
The little wins for me were seeing hundreds of personal messages that members sent to me over the past few years expressing thanks for the value they've gotten from the community. I've lost count of the number of members who have landed jobs from the community. (I try to save as many screenshots of these moments as I can in a folder on my desktop labeled "Why This is Important".)
What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
Read and internalize this quote (I have this written on a post-it note above my monitor):
"Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call "life" was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."
Where can we go to learn more?
Product Manager HQ:
Leave me a question in the comments below and I'll aim to get back to you as soon as I can!