Mandy Steinmetz is VP of Product at Muck Rack, a public relations management (PRM) software company that helps PR organizations manage relationships with the media. Her path to product leadership was atypical, having transitioned from search advertising roles that unexpectedly exposed her to the world of software development and refinement. Before joining Muck Rack, Mandy worked in product leadership at advertising and SaaS companies, including VivaKi, Performics, and UpTake.
In our conversation, Mandy recounts her unconventional journey to product management and how being forced to learn on the fly gave her the confidence to try new things as she progressed to leadership roles. She also discusses how she aligns her company on new initiatives and the importance of nurturing soft skills as you grow into your executive presence.
I kind of fell into product management. I started in search advertising when it first got big around 2005, and I was working for a media agency, Starcom, which is under the Publicis Groupe family.
I did keyword search advertising for three years, which was tedious to say the least. My boss at the time knew that I was a double French major in college and that I was looking to expand my role. He told me that there was this other part of Publicis Groupe creating a product for our internal Publicis agencies that would scrape search engines and show which advertisers are bidding on certain keywords. The team that was building it out was in Paris, so he asked if I wanted to go and interview. I’d go to Paris for a couple of weeks, learn it, bring it back, and train all the US agencies. I was like, “Who would pass that up?”
And that’s where I landed: providing all the support and training for the product, building out a team in the US, and, eventually, leading the whole team in both EMEA and the US. We built out in APAC too, and we were doing everything from strategy to product management, customer success, and development.
I’ve been in progressive product management roles since then. It actually was difficult moving from the media world to Uptake, which was more of a “real” product company, and proving that I was really doing product in the media land. It was a big milestone for me that I was able to prove my skills enough to go to an actual software company.
It was hard to navigate at the time because I didn’t have a boss who did the product management. I did, however, have media group leadership that was helping guide and mentor me, but they expected me to do everything.
Within six months, I was doing pricing, strategy, support, training, and defining requirements. It was chaotic but it forced me to learn everything across the board early on. Because I got exposure to that, I was presenting to the entire leadership team. I was in all the strategic leadership sessions six months in and had anxiety attacks as a 25-year-old.
But that got me really comfortable with those things and allowed me to progress and get consistently promoted into roles that were more senior. That’s what allowed me to move through things maybe more quickly than others, and where I might’ve been more resistant or scared to try new things, I didn’t have a choice. It was a blessing in disguise.
Our primary users at Muck Rack are PR teams, and one big problem or challenge for them is proving their worth and the impact that they can have, and that their efforts really do make a difference for the brand.
One of our primary goals is to help them illustrate that impact. Right now, we’re placing a strong focus on reporting and beautifying our reports. It sounds silly, but at the end of the day, when you’re trying to justify yourself to executives, it matters how you show up and what your outputs look like. We’re putting a lot behind investing in that area and providing the flexibility, customization, and addressing the small gaps that they have.
And then, of course, being able to easily find and get in touch with those journalists who can help them make a big impact and generate the coverage that they’re looking for. It’s a fine balance of helping PR teams solve the problems that they have — reaching out to the right journalists to generate the coverage — but also staying true to the journalist community and the best practices of the industry.
You cannot be in product without talking to customers, but it’s really easy to not talk to customers. We have an amazing CS team and sales team. They do everything they can to understand what’s on our roadmap and the functionalities.
Every time we come into the conversation and show we really care about the customers, that makes a huge difference in the relationship too. Product managers need to be there. They need to see the pain and feel the person’s aggravation to feel committed to solving it.
We also analyze every piece of feedback that comes in and gets pushed to our tracking system. We have an incredible ops team that goes through every single one, tags it, categorizes it, and provides highlights to product managers.
One of the main things I love about Muck Rack is that we’re very obsessed with analyzing data, especially churn and lost business deals. We very carefully track the trends of those key reasons and dig into why. If it’s a budget thing, what can we do? If it’s for another reason, what can we do? It’s a healthy obsession. And that has allowed us to identify strategically where we should go and where we really need to invest.
As I mentioned, we’re really focused on enhancing our reporting right now because it’s what our customers and users need the most. They told us, “We love using Muck Rack for the database, but if we also had just a little bit better reporting, we could just use one tool.” All the data and the feedback pointed to reporting being the biggest business opportunity for us.
We aligned on that being our biggest focus for the next six to nine months — enhancing that part of the product because our users want us to and we have a great business opportunity to do so too.
We have a very tight-knit, hands-on leadership group. Everyone is very aware of what’s happening on the ground level and knows the customers. It was coming up more often and people were very vocal about those things.
It was in a leadership offsite back in June where we all seriously talked about it and decided that I’d come back with a strategy and proposal for our roadmap. I did, and then we tweaked a few small things. It took months of deep-dive meetings with the revenue teams and everyone from managers and those selling to customers. We talked to so many internal teams too, to make sure we really were hitting the top things that would make a difference.
Absolutely. At prior jobs, it was a smaller product, or, at Uptake, I focused on one part or one product of many. The scale of this is bigger, of course. I have a fully staffed product team with product operations, product management, and UX research, design, and writing. We could always use 20 more people, but I have really appreciated staying small.
I think some of the biggest issues I saw at previous companies were growing too quickly and not really focusing on more of the efficiency side. Once you have the right team and they get up to speed, the momentum and output produced are so much more than just the quantity of people. Investing in those people and their growth is important.
Having to lay everyone off when things don’t go right is a big one.
In general, though, we grew a ton at Muck Rack the first year after I joined. Because everyone was getting up to speed and trying to learn the product, learn how the company worked, and learn the customers, it took a while for us to get a good momentum for launching features. I think it made sense — it was nice ripping off the band-aid — and now we’re rolling and aren’t in interviews all day long. It took us a while for us to figure out how to work best together.
Probably dealing with the challenges of stakeholder management. I gave a talk to a cohort of product managers recently and it was so interesting to hear how similar our challenges are in this area. We were dealing with crafting, re-crafting, re-messaging, and trying to handle the outward management of the information that we have. Bringing everyone together to align and move forward on things is challenging.
So much of your executive presence encompasses things that you aren’t trained for. They are soft skills that you have to grow into. You have to adjust what you’re saying and how you’re saying it depending on who you’re talking to and how you want to be perceived, and that takes a lot of work.
Especially at Uptake, I was in meetings with executives when it took me a while to figure out even the small things: how to look confident, how to sit, when to speak, what to say, when to stop talking.
I think I learned through that experience by seeing what their reaction was like, or whether I was invited back to meetings. In some cases, if I totally botched it, it was probably the last time I was in front of that executive for a while. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences about what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what’s been appreciated. Every executive is different and has their own likes, dislikes, and areas of interest, so I have to be a chameleon there. I still struggle at times; it’s not easy.
It’s challenging, but I think it’s important to really understand that person. What do they value? What are the details they care about? What are the ones they don’t care about?
Every 1:1, every update, every presentation you do, you have that in mind — who’s the audience and what do they care about? — and never bury the lead. Always start there and let them ask questions if they want more. I think it’s really just filtering and customizing your messaging for them and who they are as a person.
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