5 Minutes with Trent Mankelow
Trent Mankelow is Chief Product Officer at Trade Me. He’s speaking at Leading the Product in Melbourne on 19th October and Sydney 24th October. Below he shares how he got into Product Management, and his favourite book.
1. Product Managers often have varied backgrounds before becoming a Product Manager. How did you get into Product Management?
I started out as a software engineer, working for a large IT services company. It was pretty clear early on that it wasn’t a good fit for me, so I left and started doing little bits and pieces of contracting work. One of those contracts turned into something bigger, when I got asked to be the CTO of a fledgling start-up. We were trying to copy the lastminute.com model and allow people to buy things last minute at a discount. After 18 months of hard work, we ended up shutting down the company without a product in the market, thanks to never-ending scope creep. We tried to sell distressed products, events, flights, accommodation – everything! I didn’t lose my shirt, but there were a lot of hard lessons learnt.
Fast forward a little bit and I decided to join my friend in creating a usability consultancy company. (Obviously one failed start-up wasn’t a deterrent). This was back in 2003, where the only people consulting in usability in New Zealand were a couple of forward-thinking universities. The two of us started out sharing a desk in a business incubator, and made $37K in year one. Thankfully, things grew and grew, and by the time we sold to PwC in July 2014 we had more than 30 people in offices in Wellington, Auckland and Sydney.
I actually left the company before the sale, as I was getting a bit tired after a decade as the CEO, and was ready for a change. I did stints as the Chief Product Officer at a start-up called Vend, spent some time at the corporate venturing arm of Telecom (now Spark), before landing the role as CPO at Trade Me.
In some ways, if you look at the classic PM venn diagram, I am a bit of a cliché. I have the business nous that comes from running my own company, the technology experience with my training as a software engineer, and a focus on the customer thanks to a decade running a user experience company (including doing a lot of observational research).
2. People often help along the way, has there been somebody that really helped you and how?
We were lucky in that we started our company in a business incubator, who plugged us into a bunch of really smart and interesting people. On our first advisory board we had the ex-mayor of Wellington and the ex-Managing Director of IBM NZ. On our board of directors, we had a director who was also on the board of Xero. We’ve also always had great lawyers and accountants, which have been very influential and helpful.
So yeah, no one person stands out, but there have been a large group of people who have said ‘yes’ when I’ve asked for help over the years, which I’m really grateful for.
3. We love reading here at Brainmates and have quite the library of books. What book have you read lately that has really influenced you?
The books that I tend to enjoy are more pop psychology and sociology than straight tech or product. In that vein, I have to say that The Power of Habit has to be one of the most influential books that I’ve read in the last five years. It documents the science in a really engaging way, which is obviously useful if you want to build habit-forming products, but I also found it directly applicable to my own life. I’ve since gone on create a number of ‘keystone habits’, directly inspired by the book.
4. How do you do Product management? What’s your secret sauce? What we really want here are things that others can apply in their job.
My role is quite removed from day-to-day product management, but if I had one secret, it would be GTD. I’ve used Getting Things Done as a time-management method since 2005. It helps me get everything out of my head, ensures that I’m productive when I’m low energy, and helps me keep track of commitments I’ve made to others (and myself). It’s a (pretty much) foolproof system for collecting what I need to do, while ensuring that I don’t use much ‘CPU time’ worrying, revisiting or wondering if I’ve forgotten anything. You have to be disciplined, but I can’t imagine doing my job without it!
5. There’s a lot happening in the area of Product Management. What do you see as the most exciting development for Product Management?
It feels a bit trite to say machine learning, but the easy access to powerful, API-driven models and algorithms is a game changer. And I’m actually more excited by the liberal sprinkling of machine learning everywhere throughout products, than products that are more obviously data-driven. In our world, that means telling our members how much they should sell their stuff for, whether it’s a car or a couch or a condo, or even simple stuff like personalising the order of search results. Each of these adds up to an experience feeling more intuitive and useful. We’ve only just begun.