“I love challenges, I love problems, and I love competing.”
Speaking with Michael Matias for 20-Minute Leaders, 280 Group CEO Rina Vernovskaya shares that demand for product management and the growing role of product managers is outpacing supply
I have to go all the way back to you playing pool. What was that about?
I did it for about a year. I played in the American Pool Association in a bar pool league in New York City while I was working in finance, and I absolutely loved it. I’m very competitive, so it was a great way for me to release some steam as well.
Rina, your journey is so incredible from McKinsey to MetLife, Harvard Business School, and CEO of Dacha Prime.
I graduated high school during the start of the financial crisis, so I thought, “Wow, that is a very interesting problem; how did it happen that this went below the radar for so long by so many smart people?” That's what really interested me in the finance industry. I worked for McKinsey right after college for a period of three years, and I was their credit analyst. I had a blast. My mentor there, I still talk to him today. It’s always about the people. It’s about the people you surround yourself with.
What does a credit analyst do?
It’s just a different way of making money in the financial markets, and credit default swaps were the big thing in 2008, which blew up because they were essentially insurance products on bonds. I loved working in finance. I thought they were really interesting problems, but I realized when you work in finance, you're not really working as much with people. So that’s what drew me to consider business school. It changes your life when you can not only be exposed to so many different people, so many different ideas, but you can try new things. I went into business school thinking maybe I’ll actually start my own finance firm. I decided I wanted to work with people, so I went and did a summer internship with MetLife in their global leadership development program.
Harvard Business School is not ordinary business school. Why is it so life changing?
I came into Harvard Business School with this idea about staying in finance, and then I got exposed to so many different people, so many new ideas. Entrepreneurship, for me, was something scary; it was something totally unknown. At business school was where I actually started realizing what entrepreneurship was; I saw many different kinds of examples, and I saw that it was attainable and reachable for myself in new ways. I’m now an entrepreneur, and I am so so happy. My life happiness has increased, I don’t even know how much. I owe so much to that school.
Talk to me a little bit about what you are doing today with 280 Group.
At business school, I learned something very interesting, which was entrepreneurship through acquisition. My husband is a founder, and they have to be passionate about what they’re working on because it is nonstop hard work. I decided I am not sure exactly what I am passionate about yet, but there is a way for me to become an entrepreneur. That’s by finding a business that’s been around for many years, which has already had product-market fit, so it’s de-risked and I can learn so much from the owner and founder. There’s a lot of founders who don’t think about an exit strategy, and when they meet someone like me, they realize that it could be a match. It could protect their legacy.
At 280 Group, we do product management training and consulting. We are the world’s only company that I know that does both, and those two elements are so important. In the summer I worked at MetLife in their office of innovation, I was trying to figure out how entrepreneurship works at a large enterprise. They did not understand what agile methodology was. I actually gave a presentation on that, and it was so hard to be innovative. That’s why 280 Group is so powerful. In a large company, the way those companies were built, decision making is built at the top. When you’re thinking about the ways companies innovate today, that decision making really needs to be done on the front line. Product managers who are talking to consumers and are also getting information from customer support, from sales, from all of these other areas on the front line need to be able to make clear decisions about resources and allocating those resources. At 280 Group, we work with these companies and we hire people who love product management. We know that product management has really evolved and continues to evolve over time, and the demand for product management is outpacing supply. We know that this means that many people who actually end up in product management don’t come with a background of having experience. We found that just training people, I’m not even talking about my training, just letting people know what is product management and what do you do at each stage of the product life cycle helps increase skills by 11%. If you have a process, that increases skills by 30%. And if you do both, 44%. We don’t want to come in and train, we want to come in and change.
But how does that actually work, Rina? How do you integrate into these companies to quickly provide the value and assimilate well enough to be able to move the needle?
I’m going to push back on the word “quick” there because it’s not quick. If you are looking for a quick solution to something that does not have a quick solution, it’s not going to work. For a single team, we can have a quick one, but if we’re talking about an organizational level, it can be many years. We do not come in to the organization saying, “We’re going to now make you all follow our optimal product process.” What we do instead is spend the first two, three months of our engagement talking to all the people who touch product management. We’re going to spend time getting to know you. We’re going to take a look at your documents. This is actually a really huge source of information. Then we produce a report, essentially a gap assessment, where we provide what we saw, what can be improved, and a roadmap. We customize our training to include their terminology, focus on the elements that we’ve identified that need the most support, and whenever possible, we try to bring people outside of product management into the training as well.
I’d love to pick your brain on where we are headed with product management as a discipline?
The tools that product managers have has increased, and there’s a lot more demands from the product management function at any organization. There are a lot of tools now that allow product managers to analyze that information quicker to be able to provide much more rapid change.
I think the biggest challenge up ahead is the signal versus noise issue with having all of this data. It really stems from the top from having a really clear cut product strategy that allows them to make prioritization decisions even with larger amounts of data.
What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Kind. That is not the same as nice. I love people and I love seeing their potential, so I approach people with this positive mind-set and I try to be kind. My best friend probably describes me as brave, and I think that has to do with my willingness to solve hairy problems and challenges. And I am competitive. I love challenges, I love problems, and I love competing.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz