How do I even begin looking for a company to apply to?
As with any job hunt, you’ll want to compile a list of target companies. This process will be similar to looking for any other job, but here’s some advice that is more focused for a hunt for a PM job.
Creating your list
There are lots of tech companies out there. Not all tech companies will have PMs – very early startups, for example, usually have the CEO covering “product” and might not have the resources to devote to a full-time PM. But, out of all the remaining companies out there, how do you compile a reasonable list of potential companies? The short answer is to impose a few filters.
Big potential first filter: geography
If you have geographic constraints that will keep you away from the Bay Area, that is probably going to be one of the strongest filters. If this is the case, it doesn’t spell doom for your PM job hunt – there are a lot of tech companies based elsewhere. But, you should adjust your expectations accordingly: because job hunts can involve a lot of luck, and because you might be transitioning from a different career into product management, the fewer companies you’re able to put on your list, the harder it will be to secure a job.
Other big geographies for tech companies today include New York, Boston, Austin, Los Angeles and Seattle (basically the other major cities in the US). If you’re looking in one or multiple of these cities, there will still be plenty of tech firms to sift through.
It’s also useful to be aware that different cities might have slightly different flavors of startups. For example, NYC is known to be a strong center for adtech / digital marketing tech, as well as ecommerce companies. Boston is a bit stronger in tech companies that involve the hard sciences, thanks to the presence of Harvard and MIT. Also consider that different cities have different tech “pillars” – large or prominent tech companies that boost the tech scene there. For example, LA currently has Snapchat while Seattle has Microsoft. These pillars sometimes create a small ecosystem of related startups around them.
The size filter
Knowing what size of company you’re aiming for can also help narrow down the list.
Small tech companies, e.g. 1-40 people, will allow you to have more autonomy, but the other side of that coin is that things will be much less structured, and you might have to build a lot of the processes that you might be used to at a large company.
Because small companies tend to be very cognizant of “fit” when hiring, and because they might be less willing to take a chance on an unproven PM, targeting small companies is inherently a bit harder for a job hunt. But, the variance of outcomes and things you can do to make a good impression is much higher. For example, referrals from an employee or from a trusted investor or adviser mean a lot more to smaller companies!
Large tech companies, e.g. 300+ employees, could be great places to start off as a PM because they have a lot of processes and structures in place, and there will be other PMs to learn from. However, large companies also tend to move more slowly, and more of the PM’s job is about people management rather than strict product thinking.
Large tech firms are sometimes sticklers about any PM applicants having relevant (or at least technical) experience. In these cases, it’s not out of the question to get your first PM job at such a company, but you’ll want to bolster your resume and application even more before applying. Note that there are also some large tech firms that are completely willing to consider PM applicants from completely unrelated fields! In either case, if you have the kind of background or resume that the company is looking for, there’s a bit less variance in the hiring process, though there will always be a good dose of luck involved.
That leaves medium-sized tech companies, e.g. everything in-between small and large. These probably have some product processes and structures in place, but are still fairly open to changing and improving them. There will also likely be some other PMs there to learn from.
These firms are also in-between small and large in terms of hiring philosophies. They would probably prefer candidates with some PM or tech background, but are willing to be swayed by other factors. Referrals still carry a good deal of weight with these firms, so always worth getting!
The industry filter
One underappreciated fact is that larger tech firms, especially ones that span different industries, will have more opportunities to move around internally. This means it may be more possible to start in a different role at one of these companies and later transition to being a PM, or that it’s possible for PMs to rotate to different products over time, which gives you experience working on different products while still building tenure at the firm.
Tech firms all operate within a given sub-industry. You will probably have better luck targeting a tech firm in a sub-industry that you have experience in. For example, if you’ve worked in insurance, you might match up better with a tech firm trying to operate in or sell to the insurance industry. If you’re a consultant with experience in retail / CPG, perhaps an ecommerce company would be interested in your knowledge and experience.
Remember also that the hotter the sub-industry, the greater the competition there. Right now (2017), artificial intelligence / machine learning and autonomous vehicles are two examples of hot sub-industries, so while there may be slightly more open jobs in those industries, competition for those slots will be fierce.
A non-filter: brand recognition
Don’t shy away from firms you haven’t heard of! Many companies may be fairly promising or prominent in their fields, but just don’t have huge brand awareness yet. This is especially true for B2B companies.
While compiling your list, if you encounter some companies you haven’t heard of before, try finding a VC friend and asking them for their opinion on those companies, or the firms that have invested in those companies. In other words, look for other signals about the strength of a company.
Use Crunchbase to filter!
Crunchbase is a great website for compiling your list of job hunt targets. There, you can filter the world of tech firms by most of the parameters described above. As a first step, focus on compiling a long list of firms that fulfill all or most of your criteria. Know where you can be flexible – if geography is a hard constraint, don’t look at firms that don’t operate in your city. But, even if you’re targeting larger tech firms, perhaps you’re flexible and would be willing to consider medium-sized and some smaller firms as well.
For now, don’t worry about whether a given firm has job openings listed online. Not only are these job postings often inaccurate, but when searching for a tech job, it never hurts to try reaching out to companies just to initiate a conversation. You never know what might turn up, now or in the future, due to this kind of outreach!
Fundraising data can be helpful
As you’re looking on Crunchbase for tech firms, it is useful to keep an eye on a company’s fundraising record. If the firm recently raised a round, that might be a signal that it’s looking to hire and grow. If a company has recently had a flat or down round (meaning the amount they raised in the most recent round is at the same or a lower valuation than a previous round), that might not be a good signal of the health of the company, and certainly not of their current hiring goals. This is not a definitive signal – for example, a company that hasn’t raised a round in a few years might actually be doing really well and is already profitable! But, this is always useful data to look at to start to gauge a company’s current health.
Cross-check with LinkedIn
As you compile your list, it’s also useful to look at a rough list of the company’s current employees on LinkedIn (some companies will also have a full roster of their employees on their website). How many employees does the company currently have? What is the mix of functions you see? This data might begin to signal about a company’s culture and its current prioritieis. For example, if a company’s team has a lot of salespeople, that might suggest that sales has a stronger influence on the company culture, and the company is currently prioritizing increasing field sales.
Separate your list into different tiers of interest
As you’re adding names of companies to your list, try to roughly divide them into large tiers of how interesting they are to you, e.g. high, medium and low. The goal is to have a reasonably-sized list of companies in each tier.
Some tactics for going through the list
If you’re new to the PM world, or even if you’re not, one tip is to not start with direct outreach to your top-choice companies. Having some informational interviews to learn more about the company is fine, but sometimes, once you begin more formal talks or submit an application, you lose control of the momentum and timing of the process. In other words, it might be useful to get practice with other firms before trying to tackle your top choices.
Thus, it may be worthwhile to start with outreach to some companies in your middle or even low tier. This will help you get practice with companies that are of less interest to you, to help you get warmed up in this process.
What do you do with a company on your list? It’s all about discipline and repetition. First do some light research on the company, and then try to establish contact with somebody in the company or who might know something about the company. As things progress, do more research and slowly transition any conversations from being informational interviews to conversations where you’re trying to sell yourself as a great candidate. Especially with smaller companies, you can never speak to too many people who are in some way connected to that company (and it’s often not easy to find a lot of people in this position!). It’ll be useful to keep track of everything you’ve learned and everyone you’ve spoken to about a company – consider creating a Google Doc for each company to serve as a “dossier” on it.
One piece of advice might go without saying: when doing outreach to people in or related to a company, don’t immediately ask if there’s a job opening. Approach these conversations as learning exercises first. You’re trying to gather data about how the company works, how the company thinks, what its priorities are, what the culture is like, how it views the world, etc. These are all tidbits of information that help you shape your application, and which you can bring up later in an interview, if you get to that stage.
The power of referrals
Perhaps like any industry, referrals can go a long way in tech companies. The smaller the company, the more valuable a referral is. The closer the referrer to the company, the more valuable the referral is. The more the referrer can speak positively about your previous work (even if it wasn’t in tech or product management), the more valuable the referral is. The closer the referrer is to the product function at that company, the more valuable the referral is. It is always useful to have an advocate within the company, if for no other reason than to argue that you’d be a good cultural fit.
In other words, if you’re serious about a company, try to find a referral. Remember that a tech firm will be listening to a few different channels for referrals; for example, getting a referral from an investor in that company could be very valuable as well.
Try to find out what the company is looking for
After you initiate conversations with a company, it’s then useful to get a sense for what the company is currently looking for, PM-wise. If they are actively looking for a PM and are OK with someone without prior PM experience, then great (assuming you’re transitioning into the PM role for the first time). If they’re looking for a PM with prior experience, then at least you know there’s an opening – your job is then to convince them to take a chance on you. If they’re not currently looking for a PM but may be open to it, you might try the tactic of showing them your potential value by potentially doing a side project for them, on either a paid or unpaid basis. If they’re not at all open to the idea of a PM, then it’ll still be good to be connected with them for the future, but it might be a tough hill to climb today (if you really like the company, you might ask yourself if you’re willing to work in a different function there to start).
A job hunt always takes time and is often hard, especially when you’re trying to switch careers. It comes down to a mix of luck, diligence and persistence. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and keep pushing for what you want!