The Most Essential Qualities of a PM

Or, how to measure the right metrics to inform product decisions

👋 Hello, and welcome to a new edition of Expander. I’m Abhishek, and each week I share the essential skills, frameworks, and practices you need to learn to grow in your career. Send me your questions and in return I’ll humbly offer BS-free actionable advice.

To receive this newsletter in your inbox weekly, consider subscribing. 👇

If you find this post valuable, check out some of my other posts:

  1. Don’t share your ideas

  2. Five factors to keep in mind while changing jobs

  3. The ultimate guide to Product Vision

  4. A bad process is better than no process

Q: While there are tonnes of posts written on being a good PM, what do you think are the most basic and essential qualities of a good PM?

While there are tonnes of things a PM has to do, it boils down to three core things according to me. They build on top of each other, hence all of them are equally important. Failing to nail one can easily lead you astray, so pay attention. Now, let’s crack on!

A good PM is one who never looks at numbers in the abstract. “Total page views” and “total logged in accounts” have no meaning on their own. What you measure should always talk about “users”—what they are doing that aligns with the business goals.

For example, “profile views” is more important than “total page views” at LinkedIn. Profile views indicate how many people are using LinkedIn to find other people and how many people are being viewed on LinkedIn. This aligns with the business goals of the company.

Interestingly, while it’s important for LinkedIn, profile page views don’t have much value in Twitter. Even if Twitter has crazy profile page views, it isn’t part of the core value proposition of the product—unlike LinkedIn where people actually go to find other people. A more important metric for Twitter is related to the timeline—how many people look at their timeline, read tweets, and tweet—that’s what drives the business.

A good PM knows what are the core features of the product (that drives the business) and measures them. Let’s call it product/business fit. For example, Calendly has no purpose looking at how many “logged in accounts” they have. Calendly is only concerned about how many meeting links are shared, how many meetings are scheduled, and how many people schedule them.

Tall talks like, “We have 5M uniques with 50M page views per month” are just that—tall talks. They are too abstract to have any real value. When you start to dig you find out nearly all of the 5M come from search engines, stay for 10 secs, and never come back. Even “We have a 25% DAU/MAU” may not convey much—especially if the app is spammy and draws new users in quickly but none come back next time.

This correct metric signals that people are using the product in the way it is expected to be used. And by extension, they are using it enough for you to believe they will come back to use it more.

Once you define a metric that does both, you can start to track your growth on a day-to-day, week-over-week, month-over-month basis. For example, “x people did 3 searches in the last 7 days”. Or “y people uploaded a file 9 times in the last 30 days”. Or “z people made at least one purchase in the last 90 days.” That’s Job #1.

The next job is to identify the key supporting metric that indicates how likely are more people to use the product on a frequent basis, how likely they are to stay on it (retain) vs leave (churn).

For example, in their early days, if a user created 7 friends in 10 days, they’ll become a long term user at Facebook. If a user visited the site 7 times in one month, they’ll visit Twitter the next month as well. These are proxy metrics.

Proxy metrics are predictive of the business goals. They also create a unifying vision for the team and enable the PM to iterate faster (this is Job #2), which brings me to the third job of a PM: using this focus to refine the roadmap—implement features, communication, nudges, hacks, etc.—to get more people to use the product.

It’s a capital mistake to prioritise the roadmap without knowing what to optimise it for. Defining the roadmap seems to be the most common job that all PMs do, but it’s preceeded by two crucial jobs that you can’t ignore. Do so at your own peril.

Many PMs (including me) have the habit of building “cool new features” that nobody uses. It’s a strong urge indeed, but it only serves the PM and not the product. It’s something I like to call Résumé Driven Development (RDD), and it’s the sign of an extremely poor PM. A good PM uses data to inform their decisions, and doesn’t fire in the dark.

Having said that, Job #1 and Job #2 are no mean feat. While it’s fairly easy to know which is the right metric to measure, what’s a good rate of growth (that signals that it’s gonna get better with time) is a different ball game. It’ll take time, effort, and experimentation to arrive at the correct rate.

Also, Facebook didn’t have the “7 friends in 10 days” metric from the get-go. It’s not at all important to rack your brain over it before product/market fit. Once you have a few engaged users and you start to see patterns, it would become easier to find the proxy metrics. Keep looking.

In conclusion, the core job of a PM is threefold: identify the metric that indicates how many people use the product (this is related to the North Star); figure out what data indicates that more people will be using the product in future (the proxy metric); and finally, prioritise what to build using this information. Everything else is secondary.

Share Your Thoughts

Do you agree with what I said, or do you think otherwise? Share your comments, counters, and questions. Also, don’t forget to share how you would approach today’s problem. Use the comments!

Until next week,
Abhishek 👋