How I Found Success as the First Product Management Intern @ Clearbanc

I founded the Product Management Internship program at Canada’s #1 rated startup, as voted by LinkedIn - Clearbanc. Clearbanc is an extremely high-growth startup that has built itself as an alternative financing option to traditional VC funding for small eCommerce businesses via revenue-share agreements. The target audience for this article is incoming product interns who are aspiring to make as big an impact they can at their company.

As a by-product of creating a new position within a company, there weren’t well-defined responsibilities or expectations for the role. Therefore, there was a lot of ambiguity regarding what I was to do, what I was to achieve, how I would measure success, and how big of an impact I could have on my team and the business as a whole. A few of the key attributes/activities that enabled me to be successful as a first-time PM are:

  1. Communication
  2. Curiosity/Pursuit of Understanding
  3. Actively Looking for Areas of Improvement
  4. Organization
  5. Confidence

Communication is the oil that allows the whole engine to run smoothly. Especially in the advent of remote work, getting alignment from all stakeholders is no easy task and requires exceptional communication. Never assume anyone knows a process or a piece of context unless they explicitly say so, or you directly tell them so. Further, when executing on an initiative, periodically check in with your team to understand timelines, blockers, scope changes, or any other nuances that went unseen at first. Providing more context into the initiative may be useful as well — explaining why we are doing it now, how it fits into the overall theme, and what it unlocks only enrich the understanding of your team and boosts morale for the execution.

Tips:

- Set up a weekly 1:1 with your manager and keep a working document to track what was discussed, how things are progressing, and any action items that come out of your discussion

- Be upfront and set expectations on what you hope to accomplish and get out of the internship. Goal setting can evolve and rescope as the internship unfolds, but doing so early on will set the pace of your term. These goals should be ambitious as well — in the 3rd week of my internship I told my manager, and I quote, “If I don’t have a full time offer by the end of this internship, I won’t feel I succeeded at Clearbanc”.

- Assess which stakeholders you are speaking with and determine which context is relevant and which is not. This is increasingly important as you ramp up to work on more cross-department initiatives where not every piece of information is required for every stakeholder.

Before even attempting to keep up with the breakneck pace of a startup, or understand the interwoven complexities at an enterprise-level company, you need to have a thorough understanding of how the products work, how they interact with one another, who they serve, and which direction they are heading in. In order to do so, you need to ask lots and lots of questions to build up your context catalogue. As you expand your horizons into different facets of the organization, recalibrate yourself to understand the basics of:

  • The near term goal/purpose of the team/initiative
  • The long term goal of the team/initiative
  • How the team/initiative fits into the larger company vision

By consciously doing this, you should feel comfortable making informed, sharp, and poignant decisions.

Tips:

- For your first few weeks, create a working document to capture any and all questions about the company, product(s), target market, etc. If it helps, add screenshots and videos/gifs to ensure you are capturing the question fully. Ask your manager about these questions during your 1:1 or ask someone else who would have the knowhow to answer your questions.

- Join as many relevant meetings as you can, as early as you can. While a lot of the information will go over your head, this is a great opportunity to formulate questions and gain an understanding of how internal dependencies work and which teams handle which tasks. Once you feel that you aren’t getting as much use out of these meetings as you once did, begin to remove yourself from them if you are not a critical component. Instead of attending a meeting where you aren’t explicitly needed, draft and send out a quick status update to buy back some time in your day.

High growth startups’ greatest asset and greatest problem is the speed at which they work. Organization (coupled with communication) is the primary factor in reducing the burden of speed. As a PM, you are responsible for the execution of many things, and as such, you need to organize yourself. This is applicable in every sense, from planning out your day and tracking your laundry list of things to do, to ensuring your project management software is reflective of the actual progress being made.

Tips:

- On a bi-weekly basis, reassess your hierarchy of responsibilities and ensure the prioritization is accurate. Things frequently change due to bottlenecks, exec pressure, or shifting market opportunities. By constantly reassessing what your priorities are, you ensure you are working on the most impactful initiatives first. This is another great activity to do with your manager in your weekly 1:1.

- Use a lite-weight daily planner. Seriously. Track what you have on your plate for that day, take notes, record emerging questions, add new TODOs and more. This will help you drop fewer and fewer balls once you get into a rhythm.

As a new hire, you are coming into this role with fresh eyes. A lot of people who have been working on these products for months, if not years, are wearing the goggles, so to speak. Before your eyes adjust to the product and company experience, identify areas where strides of improvement can be made. Even questioning why certain things are done the way they are done is immensely valuable in grounding the core understanding of the products.

You can use this as a great opportunity to develop certain PM skills. Where do your interests lie? Where do you want to specialize? Focus on a core sector of design, data, strategic planning, etc. and use your extra time to deliver value in one of those avenues. For example, I spent some time looking into customer analytics at Clearbanc; and while they were comprehensive in quantity, they lacked in functionality and usability. I took the liberty of brushing the dust off of some analytics tools and built some new funnel charts to better understand where we should be putting our resources towards. From this low-priority side-project, I got involved in a whole new team and was renowned around the company as the customer data guy. I found an area of need where a small amount of work delivered large value.

Tip:

When presenting an idea, no matter how extreme or minor it is, always provide some rationale as to why you think that way. For example, I was working on changing the front end designs for when a customer views their revenue share offers. An opportunity arose to expand the scope of the changes to improve the experience for a new group of customers. This is how I pitched the idea and solution to my managers:

An example of seeking approval by asking a question, yet voicing an opinion in a quick, easy-to-digest way

By proposing a solution along with the problem and the cost of solving it, it shows that you’ve taken the time to think it through and still believe it is the correct approach. By identifying an area of improvement and clearly communicating, both of my managers approved of the change and it was pushed into production.

This may be cheesy, but it’s true — you were hired for a reason! The whole point of internship programs is to bring on young talent to groom and develop them with the hopes of the intern returning to the company after graduation. If that wasn’t on the table, I promise, you wouldn’t be coming on as an intern. Voice your opinion, challenge conventional thought, make a case for your opinion and stance, and help to uncover the best ideas. There should be no sacred cows, so call it out when you see it!

You can make a tremendous impact on the company in a short 4–8 month window. Having the confidence and conviction in your decisions is invaluable and sought after. Come prepared with your arguments and, if possible, support your claim with data. If you can do that, the sky's the limit.

You got this,

Jack

Product focused Mechatronics Engineer @ the University of Waterloo, aspiring to be on the bleeding edge