While many in Boston may be content with the city’s brand as “The World’s R&D Lab,” there is at least one group that wants to be known for something more. On Monday, over 100 product managers filled the ballroom at Northeastern University’s Curry Student Center for Unbox, a new event for frontline product managers, organized by Boston Product.
The tone of the day was set by opening remarks from Adam Sigel, a product manager at Jibo who has been running Boston Product as a side gig for several years. He told the story of a man whose daily routine is enabled by a wide range of products built in Boston. The implication was clear: Boston companies don’t just develop technologies for other businesses, they create amazing human experiences powered by novel solutions. It’s a stark contrast to the typical Boston narratives that paint the city as a Biotech and B2B specialist, and one the audience eagerly accepted.
The day’s agenda offered a mix of lectures, panel discussions, and workshops led by a diverse speaker lineup. Nearly half of the speakers were women or persons of color representing companies like FlyWire, LogMeIn, Owl Labs, and Google. Covering topics like road mapping, pricing, and board presentation tips, the sessions shared a common goal of providing product managers with the skills and knowledge they need to perform a job that’s high on responsibility and low on clarity.
Between sessions, attendees were encouraged to play games customized especially for product managers like Product Risk Jenga where each piece represented a risk you take at work, or Product Pictionary with phrases like “swoop and poop” and “server farm.”
Unbox was supported by several local investors, including Accomplice, Pillar, and Silicon Valley Bank, as well as Pluralsight, who has an office in Boston by way of its Smarterer acquisition. Sam Clemens, co-founder and Chief Product Officer for InsightSquared, who also works closely with Accomplice, said, “We were happy to support Boston Product and Unbox. I might be a little biased, but I happen to believe product people make great founders. We want to make sure that Boston has a deep bench of product talent, and Boston Product has done a great job serving as a resource for that community.”
Boston Product began as a simple meetup three years ago in the office of NextView Ventures. Adam, still in his first product role as a member of the Aereo team, was looking for perspectives on how other people dealt with the challenges he was facing. “It turns out I wasn’t alone, and every other PM feels the same frustrations, whether it’s managing internal feedback or dealing with being under-resourced. Our monthly breakfasts are more like group therapy than an industry event. Sometimes it’s just helpful to be reminded that everyone else is just as crazy as you are.”
Now, the community boasts several hundred members, holds regular events and runs a jobs board through Slack. Sigel and several other Boston Product organizers—Jenny Miller of insurance startup Quilt, Aakar Shroff of Raizlabs, Jennifer Burner of Imprivata, and Greg Sham of edX—decided to do a full-day conference based on feedback from their community. “You read a lot about pillar companies,” said Sigel. “One of the benefits of those companies is that they train up really talented people who go off and start their own businesses, but that can happen at any stage. Most product managers fancy themselves as future founders, and we want to make sure they make the rest of us look good when they do it.”
What's next for Boston Product? The team is working on an offering to help companies attract the best product managers. “Every company defines product differently, so the first round of interviews is really about figuring out what the role is,” said Sigel. “We’ve felt this pain on both sides of the table, so we’re uniquely able to help companies figure out what kind of PM they need to hire, and how they can go about finding them.”
The group plans to bring Unbox back next year.