This is a story I did not expect to write.
In 2016, I applied to Facebook’s RPM program. Even with a referral, I was cast aside.
In 2017, a friend intro’d me to a tiny startup called Indigo Fair. I joined as “Head of Analytics” 😅. Within two weeks, I started working on features to solve a major business crisis, and became a PM.
Fast forward to 2020. We’ve rebranded to Faire and reached a multibillion-dollar valuation at record pace. Along the way, I’ve shipped hundreds of features, and managed other PMs.
Recently, a Facebook recruiter reached out to me about PM openings. Curious, I went through the interview process to put my learnings to the test.
I received a $300K offer, which I negotiated to $375K. In the end, I walked away.
It’s been a wild adventure, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you: how I prepared, mistakes I made, my hard-ball negotiation, the secrets behind compensation, and how this newsletter boosted Instagram’s interest. Feel free to skip to whatever’s juiciest for you.
How I prepared
I was pleasantly surprised by how much advice the recruiter gave on acing the interviews. She also shared a document with sample questions which proved to be a reliable guide. There would be only two rounds of interviews. Round 1 would consist of execution (diagnosing a problem and coming up with next steps) and product sense (coming up with interesting, customer-friendly solutions).
I was fairly fearless when it came to execution because I’ve interviewed a lot of PM candidates on the topic. Here’s an article I wrote about handling metric-related questions, an approach that impressed my interviewer.
I was less comfortable with product sense. The concept of building X for Y on the fly is mind-boggling to me, and not something I do day-to-day. I compiled a list of product sense questions, and then gave myself mock interviews. Some learnings:
Make it feel real. To that end, talking out loud is very helpful - maybe even record yourself if you feel up to it
Understanding the difference between bad vs. good vs. great answers is key, and seems like an underserved area. I searched for answers online to see what I missed, and wrote down how I could improve
Organized responses are important because they show you can drive clarity. Since there’s a finite set of flavors, preparing flexible frameworks will help you deliver more organized responses
Performance hinges on the questions, so try to see every interview as an independent event. To paraphrase a Michael Jordan quote: why worry about missing a shot you haven’t taken? I bombed some mocks, and still got an offer. The purpose of practice is to challenge yourself
I ended up doing better on product sense than execution, which shows the impact practice makes. In the execution interview, I forgot to explicitly define the timeframe (e.g., daily users instead of cumulative users) and the interviewer had to nudge me. A few nudges are ok, but it’s better to proactively clarify along the way.
For product sense, I was asked to build a product to help people with layovers. I love to travel, so this was fun for me. I came up with a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary. It shows you don’t need to invent something new to impress. I brought the interview along my thought process, so he was sold on the solution. I also explained how I would integrate with the airlines, so passengers could get an invite to begin their adventure upon landing. Add-on details are not critical, but it’s nice to show you understand what makes a great customer experience.
It took a week, but the feedback came back overwhelmingly positive.
Carried by a gust of new confidence, I prepared for the new interview format, leadership & drive. To do this, I came up with 3-4 unique stories from my time as a PM that would serve as useful lego blocks to answer a variety of behavioral questions. If you don’t have product experience, I recommend reflecting on times related to making decisions and driving outcomes. Three tips:
Keep your stories to ~2-3 minutes, so the interviewer can ask follow-ups. Recommend writing your stories down to make it easier to trim the fat
Start with the headline. The best stories give people a reason to listen
A good story is a lego block that can be used in many ways. The project you’re proudest of may also have been beset by challenges
It only took 2 days to hear back this time with a $300K offer for an L5 PM role.
How I negotiated (and why you should too)
I used to feel bad about negotiating. Then I had some aha moments:
Companies expect you to negotiate. Your initial offer is much lower than what they’re willing to pay you
The money comes from the company’s budget, not your manager’s. It’s best to negotiate through the recruiter when you can though
Once a company extends an offer, they are incentivized to sign you. They monitor yield closely (% of offers that get accepted) and want to bring it up
To get what you want, have a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) aka quality backup options
Negotiation boosts their perception of YOUR value, as long as you do so in good faith. Good faith = mean what you say, but you don’t have to say everything!
For example, I didn’t share details on my current pay because I wanted an offer based on the value I could create for Facebook. Using levels.fyi I knew $300K was on the lower end of the compensation band for L5, so there was plenty of room to negotiate.
I met with the Instagram Reels team that was interested in me. I was impressed. Up until this point, I approached the whole thing as a curious adventure. Suddenly, I could see myself joining the team. Such is the magic of salesmanship. I decided to make a bold commitment.
If they could bring the total compensation to $400K, I would sign. Immediately.
The team was psyched. I was psyched. They said they would talk to the recruiter and compensation team.
The blackbox of compensation
I’ve since learned that the compensation team exists as a check and balance for situations like mine. They set compensation, not the hiring manager. They do it based on leveling, which is determined by interview performance and years of experience.
My experience put me at an L4 or L5, but no higher. They gave me L5 because of my strong performance. I later learned that a typical L5 has a median of 8 years of experience. I have 3 years of experience in product, and 5 years total. Not bad.
Here’s a secret: people can get paid out of band for their level (i.e., $400K for L5). It’s very rare, but it can happen if you are a strong hire, and have a qualifying event like an IPO, secondary, or bonus that exceeds the offer. Sadly, I did not have an upcoming cash bonanza.
I stuck to my guns and said $400K or no deal.
I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not have a sophisticated formula behind this. I have a few million in stock options, but they are illiquid. $400K felt right for the liquidity I would get, and the value they would get.
The compensation team did not see it this way, however, because most of my existing compensation is locked up in illiquid options. They made begrudgingly small adjustments to my offer. Meanwhile, the Reels team went into overdrive.
How this newsletter boosted Instagram’s interest
The more I resisted, the more interested the team became. They found an article I wrote about TikTok. They announced that they paused conversations with all other candidates. They felt that I had a unique understanding of the space.
They had directors, VPs and even the Head of Instagram reach out to me. I tried not to get swept up in the fanfare. How long before Zuck himself came calling?
In all seriousness, I was getting a front-row seat to the way big companies work: the time they spent courting me far exceeded the cost of simply giving me what I asked for. But because of rules beyond their control, we all had to play along.
The negotiation stretched for weeks. Finally, I decided it wasn’t going anywhere. I had to pull the plug. The team panicked and the compensation team gave a final, Hail Mary offer: $375K.
I turned it down.
All this… for what?
Truth be told, I believe $375K is a fair offer. An incremental $25K would not change my life. I walked away because the journey made me question my long-term goals, although I would have kept my promise and signed if they gave me what I asked for.
In hindsight, the biggest mistake in my negotiation was not accounting for the cost in exercising my Faire stock options, which is hefty enough to perhaps be considered a qualifying event. For those in a similar position, I recommend trying it.
As for me, I see this as a triumph. The most we can ask of experiences that don’t work out perfectly is that they teach us something. I got that, and much more. I met impressive people. I made some mistakes. And now I get to share them with you to hopefully save you some time and money, or at the very least, offer popcorn entertainment.
Next week, I will share why exactly I decided to walk away from what seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. If you haven’t already, subscribe below to follow along!
I am also welcoming new subscribers with a FREE welcome gift: 7 secrets to accelerate your (product) career.
These opened my eyes to the art of negotiation:
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Thanks for reading!