“I’m going to self-publish my first book during a global pandemic!” said no one. Ever.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty of why I wrote the book, how I wrote it, the mistakes I made and why that darn chicken crossed the road… I'll share the stack I used to self-publish my book, The Making of Product Managers.
My product stack
- Zoom (for conducting the interviews)
- Google Docs (for writing)
- Microsoft Word (for the Amazon KDP version)
- Grammarly annual subscription @ $150 (for checking my writing)
- Canva (for designing media assets)
- Inkscape (for designing the front cover)
- Diybookcovers.com (for creating a 3D look of the book cover for the landing page)
- GoDaddy (for a custom domain)
- Carrd.co (for a landing page)
- Gumroad (for selling the PDF/EPUB version)
- Amazon KDP (for selling the Amazon Kindle version)
- Mailchimp (for email marketing)
- LinkedIn profile (for marketing)
- Twitter profile (for marketing)
Alright, let’s get into it.
Hello product manager #28, how did YOU break into product?
In 2017, I had a terrible and tragic accident: I became a product manager. I didn’t plan it—it just happened. And that’s the last thing an aspiring product manager wants to hear.
Yet aspiring product managers ask me over and over again how I broke into product management. Madness, I tell you!
Aspiring product managers have figured out, though, they can’t possibly forge their own path to becoming a product manager based on one unique data point. So those clever creatures have taken to talking to 10, 20 or 30 product managers to find out how each one landed the role.
Pretty shrewd, I’ll admit, but it routinely killed me to see how much repetitive primary research and reinventing of the wheel these aspiring product managers were doing. So I figured I’d do my part for the community by completing my own round of 10 to 20 product manager interviews and then documenting the findings in a blog post.
I’d had it in my mind to self-publish a book someday after reading the book Authority by Nathan Barry in early 2020. But I would’ve laughed and rolled away on my own newly reinvented wheel had you told me I’d end up self-publishing my first book that same year.
*stares at the imaginary wheel for an awkward amount of time before moving on*
Seeking out product managers I didn’t already know
My goal was to interview product managers I didn’t already know. So I reached out to the following communities:
By mid-April 2020, I’d interviewed product managers all across the world in Canada, the United States, Singapore, Philippines, Israel, India and the United Kingdom.
I’m sorry, you did WHAT before you became a product manager?
I always knew product managers came from a variety of professional backgrounds. But I nearly fell off that newly reinvented wheel I told you about when I saw how insanely different each product manager’s story was.
Here are some examples of what these people did before becoming product managers:
- Owned a comic book store for 10 years.
- Worked in a yogurt factory as a process engineer.
- Worked in commercial banking as an underwriter.
I won’t spoil the book but you get the picture. And that’s when I knew: global pandemic or not, it was time to write my first book.
Retreating to my comfort zone (no, I’m not a masochist)
I know self-publishing a book probably isn’t your idea of returning to your comfort zone—but it was for me.
You see, one month prior to this, I’d quit my job as an innovation product manager and thrown myself into entrepreneurship (you can read more about that here.)
While working on my first ever product idea, I took quite the beating from the entrepreneurial Gods (I also documented that here.) So I needed to seek refuge in something I knew was my strength: writing.
My father has written several books—he’s even dedicated a few to me, which I’ve never read (yup, I’m a great daughter.) If I’d inherited his terrible sense of humour, surely I’d inherited his wonderful writing style too, right? Right.
Declaring a public deadline
I set a deadline of September 1, 2020, to self-publish my book and nervously announced it on LinkedIn and Twitter. I named it The Making of Product Managers.
I then connected the sign-up form to Mailchimp to send updates to my email list. And around June 2020, I started posting about the book on my LinkedIn profile, my Twitter profile and in Slack groups related to product management.
Did you know you wanted to be a product manager before or after you were conceived?
Based on my research, I knew aspiring product managers faced a lot of doubt about how long it would take them to become product managers. And whether they were headed in the right direction.
That’s where I felt a lot of the existing product manager stories out there fell short—they usually only covered what the product manager had done right before they became a product manager.
I decided my stories would be different. I’d represent each product manager’s entire career from when they graduated university to when they became a product manager.
It was crucial to show these aspiring product managers that no story was a straight line and each one involved several moments of doubt. What they were feeling was normal, albeit not pleasant.
The dreaded follow-up interviews
Recounting your career to someone is hard. But reading your notes from when someone recounted their career to you is like... putting together a spaceship puzzle you got from China during a global pandemic and the wrong pieces still fit together.
I finally scraped together the courage to ask a few product managers for follow-up interviews (and threw out that stupid spaceship puzzle in a frenzy.)
Surprisingly nobody got shot and instead, we jumped on a few Zoom calls and I got back to writing.
When people like your mission, they’ll happily offer you their time. No need to freak out and start throwing out spaceship puzzles from China.
He said me haffi write, write, write, write, write...
I basically wrote all of May, June, July and August. The 2020 lockdown did more than prevent the spread of COVID-19—it kept me writing.
By mid-July, I was sharing early drafts of each product manager’s story with them and iterating on their feedback.
Co-editing with my interviewees was a blast. Each one contributed to the finished product in their own way and made it that much better.
Here are some examples:
- One product manager added subheadings to her story, making it much easier to read. I later added subheadings to all the stories.
- A few product managers pushed back on some details I’d included they felt were irrelevant to their stories, making the stories more focused.
- Most interviewees preferred to stay anonymous so one product manager suggested I only use first names.
Finally, I slapped one of the stories on the landing page as a free sample story (Michael’s story) and started sharing it with people to get feedback.
Fun fact: it’s pretty hard to get honest feedback for a sample story of the first-ever book you’ve written you’re also unemployed because you’re trying to be an “entrepreneur” during a global pandemic. I had to practically force it out of people.
The birth of the final chapter, Takeaways
I’d always planned to write a short conclusion at the end of the book. But while writing the individual stories, I discovered clear patterns and themes across all the stories. After mapping them all out, I realized they formed almost a blueprint of how to break into product management.
The result was the final chapter of the book, Takeaways: eight actionable lessons about how to break into product management.
A fully home-grown project
The only cost I incurred while writing the book was a $150 annual Grammarly subscription. Everything else was done in-house, for free.
My boyfriend (now husband) designed the front cover from scratch in Inkscape:
He also designed the informational boxes within each story:
I managed to find two excellent editors in Zagreb, Croatia who loved my mission so much they were willing to work for free! Okay, fine, they were my parents. And I’d like to think it was our way of staying connected during a global pandemic. Or a strange family project they had no way of backing out of.
I have to hand it to my mother though—that woman edited every single story at least twice. Mothers are just a different breed.
The best editing advice you’ll ever get
Read your writing out loud. That’s it. That’s the best editing advice you’ll ever get.
It’s comical how good our writing sounds in our head. Compared to when you read it aloud and catch so many errors and lack of flow.
When I first read one of the stories out loud to my husband, I actually couldn’t even finish reading it because I went into a giant laughing fit from how awful it sounded. Super choppy, full of repetitions and ridiculously robotic.
(It felt good to laugh uncontrollably for once at a time when it felt like the world was falling apart.)
Apparently, my favourite word to repeat excessively was “stakeholders.” If you’re in product management, you know how much we love to drown on about stakeholder this, stakeholder that… and the occasional “stakeholder you!” when we’re angry.
I spent $0 on marketing
On the marketing side of things, I didn’t do any paid marketing. Here’s what I did instead:
- Dripped content from the book to LinkedIn and Twitter
- Posted the sample story in seven different Slack communities
- Advertised the book on my personal website lenasesardic.com
- Spoke on six podcasts about how I wrote the book and key insights from it (you can check out my interview on the Product Momentum podcast)
- Published another sample story (Negar’s story) on my website in February 2021 and contributed both sample stories to Product Coalition, a Medium publication)
- Participated in four speaking engagements related to breaking into product management (and offered some discounts)
Another fun fact: my first ever sale came from a product manager from Nigeria who has since then started working for a company in Oregon, United States (hey, Seun Faluyi!)
Coolest first sale ever.
By the way, here’s a special discount code for you for being kind enough to read this very long retrospective blog post: productcoalition4life. You can use it here to get $2 off the book (PDF or EPUB)—you’re welcome.
I really didn’t do it for the money
This was always a passion project for me. And a way for me to leave a concrete deliverable behind while embarking on my entrepreneurial journey. Turns out I got way more from the experience than I ever bargained for:
I met 19 amazing individuals from across the world, one of whom has become a close friend (hey, Negar Amiri!)
It gave me the opportunity to mentor 30+ aspiring product managers and watch many of them successfully break into product management (like my most recent mentee, Chris Ferreira!)
It gave me meaning and fulfillment during a difficult and isolating time.
I got to finally follow in my father’s footsteps and write a book.
I got invitations to speaking engagements at events and on podcasts for the first time in my life.
But the best part was discovering my love for writing. And I’m truly grateful for that.
What I wish I’d done better (full disclosure)
And now for the part you’re probably most interested in: a laundry list of all my mistakes and the things I could’ve done differently:
I wish I’d gotten beta readers for early feedback.
I wish I’d built in public more on LinkedIn and Twitter and shared updates along the way. I would’ve built up more of an audience and gotten more feedback during the process.
A few months later I got really into the #buildinpublic movement on Twitter and wish I’d started doing it sooner.
I wish I’d done pre-sales on Gumroad and used a bit of hype to drive up sales before the launch.
I wish I’d gotten more help with creating a compelling landing page. In hindsight, my landing page was not great—bland design, weak copy and not enough information about the book. In November 2020, I actually completely redesigned my landing page to make it more eye-catching and to showcase the book more. You can check out the new landing page here.
My biggest regret, though, is not bringing more of my personality and humour into my writing. Writing about other people was stressful; I didn’t want to risk taking away from each product manager’s story or come off as disrespectful. So I stuck to writing in a really safe way without much humour.
But that’s the point of failing—you learn painful lessons and you never want to repeat them again.
Since then, I’ve found my voice as a writer and am able to bring my true self (quirky humour and all) into my writing. And that’s how I really ended up falling in love with writing.
What I’m doing today for my book
At the heart of it, I’ve gotten what I wanted out of self-publishing my book—I wrote an entire book, I met new people, I opened new doors and I became a real writer. Anything else I do with my book is just additional experimentation and a chance to learn something new.
I have a call scheduled with a top copywriter from GrowthMentor soon to get feedback on the existing copy on my landing page and improve it so it converts better. But not necessarily because I want more sales for my book (although more sales are always nice.) It’s because I spire to become a copywriter. And the first step to becoming a copywriter is writing real copy that increases conversions.
Something else I’d like to experiment with for my book is paid advertising. I’ve never done paid ads and want to get some experience. Along with SEO, it’s an area of marketing that’s still a black hole to me. And if I can get the cost per click to make sense, I’ll happily continue to run ads to drive more sales.
My book, The Making of Product Managers, is essentially a vehicle I use to learn how to increase conversions and grow as a self-taught marketer.
The main takeaway
You don’t need to pay a fancy publisher or an expensive designer to publish a book. You can self-publish a book you’re proud of with just a Grammarly subscription and a small network of people who believe in your mission.
And you don’t have to get everything right from the beginning. I got a bunch of stuff wrong (and a few things right) and am still iterating a year later. Just f*ck it, ship it. Something will come out of it either way—I guarantee it.