We all have passions and desires in life, but how can we use our individual passions and channel this into creating products that customers love? In this week’s podcast, we speak with Manon Dave, Chief Product Officer to get our creative juices flowing in product management.
- Understanding the customer’s needs is crucial to building successful products.
- Product managers should balance their personal passions with the needs of the business and the customer.
- Product managers should stay curious and continue learning to stay up to date with the latest trends and technologies.
- Product managers should be open to feedback and willing to iterate on their products based on customer feedback.
- Manon Dave shares her own experience of discovering her passion for product management and how she has incorporated that passion into her role at Gloat.
- The article emphasizes the importance of finding a sense of purpose in your work and aligning that with the needs of the customer and the business
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Randy Silver (00:00):
Hey Lily, let’s kick off this week with an icebreaker question. So who’s the biggest celebrity that you’ve ever met?
Lily Smith (00:08):
Well, probably my most exciting celebrity moment was when I was about 11 years old and I was backstage at Glastonbury Festival, which was pretty cool, and this guy walked past me. He was tall, long, blowing locks and he’s like, “Hey Lily, how’s your mom?” And I was with my friend’s mom who was looking after me and she was just like, her jaw hit the floor because it was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, yes, asking me how I was and how my mom was. And yeah, I’d met him a couple of times before because we know his daughter, the family knows his daughter, and he recognised me and said hello. And I’m terrible, I don’t ever recognise celebrities so it was a good thing he did recognise me because I wouldn’t have known it was him walking past me at all.
Randy Silver (01:16):
Okay, well mine isn’t nearly as impressive as Led Zeppelin’s front man. I mean, that’s awesome. But I did get to meet some amazing people in my former life as a music journalist and I’m kind of, sort of, in the music video for A Tribe Called Quest scenario, which will never stop me from claiming I really am in it, but I was at the show where they filmed it and I was right up front. And I got to meet Snoop Dogg and Paul McCartney, but not at the same time, and I don’t think either of them would recognise me now.
Lily Smith (01:50):
Well, our guest this week trumps us both. Manon Dave is not only the chief product and creativity officer at Mind Valley, he’s also created music with Idris Elba and works with Will I Am.
Randy Silver (02:03):
Aside from that, Manon has also worked on some very cool products, mixing the physical world with the digital to create brand new products and experiences that inspire and teach.
Lily Smith (02:13):
And today, we talk to him about passion, how you find it, how you use it, and how it can make you a better product person. The product experience is brought to you by Mind The Product. Every week on the podcast, we talk to the best product people from around the globe. Visit mindtheproduct.com to catch up on past episodes and discover more.
Randy Silver (02:35):
Browse for free or become a Mind The Product member to unlock premium content, discounts to our conferences around the world and training opportunities. Mind The Product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. There’s probably one near you.
Manon, thank you so much for joining us tonight. We’re really excited to talk to you.
Manon Dave (02:58):
Me too. Thanks for having me.
Randy Silver (02:59):
So you were on the main stage here in London at Mind The Product last year talking about your career path, but for anyone who wasn’t at the conference or hasn’t actually watched the talk, can you give us a quick introduction? How’d you get into product in the first place and what are you up to these days?
Manon Dave (03:17):
Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m currently chief product officer at Mind Valley. I’ll come back to that in a second, but I guess to answer in the order that you asked, I got into product kind of by fluke, really, and I think it’s the case with so many people who I met, well not just at Mind The Product, but over the years. I actually studied computing and business management at Kingston University and I didn’t really know what I wanted out of it all, I just knew that I really enjoyed being creative and making stuff and I think I thought engineering was the way to go. So I started my career as a really, really crappy engineer. To be honest, I couldn’t really write code very well at all and very quickly fail safe’d into a QA role, not that that’s much easier and definitely not a fail safe for engineers, it’s almost engineering in its own right, but managed to scrape through building one of the first QA teams at a company called Affiliate Window, where I started my career, and very quickly realised that some of the stuff that I was doing, which I guess you can call kind of solution design, I started out as kind of like the technical services representative, helping customers integrate code and then obviously started that QA team.
And I sort of realised that as customers were identifying problems, there was a pattern to those problems. And then I would negotiate fixes with the engineers and then those fixes would become wholesale features in their own right, and suddenly I was the conduit between all of these different teams. And then I discovered that actually, look, there are some companies that have this role that kind of facilitates all of that, that they call product management. And so I went on, I think, one of those mountain goat software courses with Mike Cone and did my Scrum and Agile certifications. Then I quickly realised this is actually a very real profession and tried to persuade my boss at the time to sneak me into Mind The Product, at least get me a ticket for one person and I’ll try and squeeze in an extra couple of people, and I think I even sneaked in the back door a couple of times to be completely honest. But I really just fell in love with product from that point onwards. And as I say, I really saw it as a creative outlet for a otherwise technical career.
Lily Smith (05:42):
And now you’re working as CPO at Mind Valley. Tell us a bit about that business and your role there.
Manon Dave (05:48):
Yeah. So I’ve actually just started at Mind Valley the same week that I did the Mind The Product talk that you were mentioning. And Mind Valley is an interesting company because for the last few years I’ve been working within the ed tech space and Mind Valley positioned themselves to me, when we started speaking, as an ed tech company. And obviously when I looked them up, I saw that they have live events, they have a lot of this kind of personal growth content, and I wasn’t sure if it was much more than kind of Netflix for personal growth rather than an ed tech company. But joining the company and meeting the founder, Vishen, I’ve been pretty amazed by just how much tech they have under the hood and how much of a product-centric organisation it really is. So it’s a company that kind of spans six different categories of personal growth, from mind, body, soul or spiritual content, all the way through to entrepreneurial relationships, parenting, development in any aspect of life, really.
And I think that it’s become such a important part of culture today to kind of look at this balance, where there’s work life balance or wellbeing overall, and I just really wanted that to become a component in my career. So Mind Valley kind of operate within that space, but they really cut across the physical and the digital, and I’m sure we’ll talk about my career overall, but in my career, I’ve always kind of been fascinated about fusing those two things, the physical and the digital, so Mind Valley are really leading in that space, in my opinion.
Lily Smith (07:30):
And one of the things you started with in your talk is how to describe what product managers do or what product management is, and you’ve got your own kind of take on this, which I always love hearing how different people describe it. So, how would you describe it?
Manon Dave (07:49):
Yeah. So if I, I guess, rewind to the talk, but also what I was saying at the top of the conversation, I guess my definition of it, especially when it comes to telling people who have no idea about the role is, we make cool shit, and I think that’s kind of maybe a reflection on what I’ve always wanted to do and the fact that I tried to find meaning in the role, but I definitely think that that’s true for so many people. I think we get a joy out of seeing things come out and be used by your average consumer or average user, even when it comes to B2B products or SaaS products or API products or whatever, there is ultimately an end user utility and I think product folks are, in my opinion, kind of the central role in bringing those things to market and ensuring that they’re fit for purpose. So with that said, yeah, I really think that the definition of our job is to make cool shit.
Randy Silver (08:50):
So how have you actually applied this to your career? Because lots of us want to do stuff and want to do interesting stuff, but I’m not sure that everything we make is cool.
Manon Dave (09:03):
Well, I think that’s where maybe there is another perspective that I can offer because I think that when you have an itch that needs to be scratched, I think you can find the fun in a lot of stuff. And as I said, I started my career at A-Win building affiliate marketing products and behavioural retargeting algorithms and whatever. There was one project I had, which I loved and I think really gave me the passion for being creative in this space and honestly, when I describe it to you, you’re going to think, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” It was literally a data feed product where we ingested millions, 2 million products, I think, from retail brands like John Lewis and Vodafone and others, and we turned it into this kind of modular database which regenerated itself into an XML or CSV output of products that you wanted to integrate into your affiliate website.
I don’t know that there’s many people in the world who’d be excited by that, but the joy and the fun that I had in just, again, taking my pretty poor engineering brain and applying a little bit of end user kind of creative, I guess, output or insight, I should say, into the conceptualization of that, I think, was fun. And I think that, actually, it’s really about… You hear a lot of these inspirational quotes, but one I really kind of buy into is, you have to love the process of solving the problem, and whether you’re doing that, like I say, for a music app, which I had the privilege of building and had a lot fun building, or whether you’re doing it for this fairly niche data feed product, I think that there is some fun that you can find in the creative process, so that’s how I see it.
Lily Smith (11:10):
What is there… Because obviously not everyone has the benefit of feeling that sort of sense of joy in their work. When people aren’t feeling that, what do you think it is that’s sort of stopping people or holding people back? Because like you say, a data feed doesn’t seem like an exciting product, but you clearly felt really passionate and excited about it. So what is it that brings the excitement and what is it that kind of stops and stifles that excitement, do you think?
Manon Dave (11:41):
Yeah, I mean look, I think that this is where having done the talk at Mind The Product and met so many people afterwards who pointed to one specific example or aspect of my talk and said, at the after party or just after the event, “Oh my gosh, when you said that thing, that really resonated with me because I felt this way about so-and-so,” And usually, that so-and-so might be something creative or it might be that they’re really into sports or they’re filmmakers in their spare time or they’ve always dreamt of, I don’t know, climbing a mountain or whatever that thing was. The fact is, we have these kind of passions and desires for things that are many times parallel to our careers, and I think that one of the things I learned early on, through my journey, after university, I had 18 months or so out where I was writing music for TV shows all by complete fluke.
But that journey made me realise, “Wow, I just really, really want to make music and I have to find a way to make music.” And that was a very hard, as many people know, a really hard career path to pursue. But the knowledge or having tasted what could be possible in that world made me just realise whatever it takes to pay the bills, I need to have that kind of creative itch scratched. I need to make sure that I’m being somewhat creative. I need to have the same juices flowing as if I was writing a song or making a track. And I kind of never really shied away from emphasising to those I was working with from Day Dot, that I did this and I enjoyed it and I’m going to continue doing it and I might work until 3:00 AM making music and show up at 9:00 AM and I might be rubbing my eyes, but my work will never suffer because the knowledge that I can go home and do that is the most exciting thing.
And somehow, the acceptance of that… And I was pretty lucky. There’s a guy called Kevin Brown who ran that company and gave me my first job, who, himself, was just a bit of a prog rocker in his free time and just whenever. He had his own passion for it. I understand my circumstances were pretty lucky, but I think that there was an immediate kind of acceptance of like, this is just who this guy is and that made me comfortable in my skin and I was able to then just… I think the message I was trying to get across was, be my whole self at work and apply some of that, I guess, the same approaches to product that I would writing a song.
Randy Silver (14:20):
Manon, it’s obvious that you are a passionate guy and if you’re not engaged in something, you’re not going to be bringing your best self to it. But you were telling me the other day that you think that applying this passion also helps make you better at the job, not just being engaged. And I can see that there’s something that’s contagious that getting other people excited is part of it, but how else does it make you better at the job or how do you think it makes other people better at the job?
Manon Dave (14:47):
I think that, and this is a bit philosophical, but I think at the core, product people, for sure, and maybe all people, are, in essence, storytellers. And I think that as product people, the reason why I emphasise product folks in this case is, again, it is about that user journey and ensuring that there is a kind of arc to how somebody consumes the product. So for me, it’s just a pursuit of that that kind of made me feel that this is something that is a clear parallel to the other thing I like doing, in this case, music making. And I think whatever that kind of nugget is that you can find and apply from the things that you are otherwise passionate about that are mirrored in… I hate calling it the day job because I don’t think that that, for me at least, those things aren’t separate, but I think if you can take that and apply it to the thing that you are tackling in the product space or find the kind of parallel in it, I think it makes you inherently better.
And then I think the reason why is because naturally, you have more of an attention to detail, naturally, you have more of a stake in the outcome. And I think you become, again, inherently more articulate about communicating the areas that you want to improve or the things that you want to achieve or the way in which you collaborate with stakeholders and other people. I think all of those things just come part and parcel when you have that kind of backing of your own, I guess, incentive in doing the thing. So I think that all of those things that ideally, if you’re interviewing me to be a product person in your company, you’ll be looking for any way, become ever more apparent because you give a shit about it, and I think that’s kind of really the honest thing that I see in applying this technique, I guess.
Randy Silver (16:51):
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Lily Smith (17:06):
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Lily Smith (17:48):
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Randy Silver (18:00):
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Lily Smith (18:17):
So one of the things that I struggled with early on in my career, before I got into tech, because I used to want to be a filmmaker and I really enjoyed photography and shooting film, basically. And then I started doing that as a job and lost all my joy in doing it for my passion and then kind of moved into tech and found that sort of creative outlet, I guess I’m kind of similar to you, and now really enjoy my photography and making videos and stuff, but have that very separate from the money earning work.
Manon Dave (19:00):
Lily Smith (19:03):
So do you think there’s something about keeping that separation that’s helpful or is it good to be able to do both but maybe do the more creative stuff on your own terms?
Manon Dave (19:16):
Yeah, I mean I think this is something that comes up a lot when I speak to folks. I recently did a talk for a company, Offsite, for one of my friends who runs a design team at this company and one of his team members said to me, “Look, this sounds fantastic for you, but to me, it sounds like burnout because, actually, I’m a creative person. I do creative things every day and I have this other creative thing that I really enjoy doing and my day job or the work that I do for this company drains me creatively, so much so that it makes it really difficult for me to pursue this other stuff with the same intensity.”
And so, I think that there is a bit of ‘each to their own’ when it comes to this stuff in the sense that you just described that because you’ve been able to find the joy in what you’re doing in tech, maybe you’ve been able to, at some point, go back and continue making films or taking photos and doing it as what some people, not me, like to call a hobby, but I would argue it’s not a hobby, I would argue that, in fact, those things are already fueling each other in the sense that you have this kind of exhaust, if you like, from your tech job where you get to go out and do this other thing, which is, essentially, the right kind of tension between the two things. So I actually think, and this is hypothesis, that maybe you are happier and better in your job because you have gone back to being able to do that photography stuff.
So in my mind, it’s not that you have to necessarily converge the things, but I would hope, and I’m sure that you do often talk about or share with the folks that you work with in the tech world the other stuff that you are doing, if and for no other reason than just to say that you did it on the weekend or whatever, and I think that makes a material difference, genuinely, in the way that you collaborate with people and the understanding that folks have of you. And I think that people who are doing it in a completely ring fenced way miss out on that. They miss out on that extra level of collaboration, the extra level of understanding amongst peers and ultimately the extra opportunity that gives you and the affordance that gives you to experiment in the product space or the tech space.
Randy Silver (21:37):
When you’re working in a big company or in a big team or when you’re early in your career, sometimes you’ve got a huge amount of passion for something, but you might not have the station to really make a difference yet, or maybe your ambition outstrips your skillset at that point. You’re just getting started and you want to take on the world, but you just don’t have the tools yet. How do you combine that? How do you lean into your passion there and ramp it up in the right way so that you don’t burn out or don’t get frustrated all the time?
Manon Dave (22:14):
Yeah, that’s a journey that I think I’ve definitely been on. I think oftentimes, my ambition outweighs my capabilities and I think, again, there is a component of knowing that every lens is unique. I think accepting that you may never be able to match the expectation in one specific area, but also that nobody really has that kind of cocktail of perspective that you have when you start to bring into your world some of those other crafts and skill sets that enable you to do something completely different. And I think, again, my reference would be sort of music, but not just music. In recent years, that’s kind of led to me taking on creative director roles instead of product roles, and I think that’s something that I never expected to do and if I did, had no idea what a creative director even was in some of the contexts that I’ve been working in recently.
And I would say the same about Lilly. I’m not sure what your day-to-day tech world looks like, but I would argue the case that the kind of visual skillset that you have in filmmaking and photography and so on creates a type of perspective that only you can have when tackling those tech problems and challenges. And I think the hardest thing for anyone starting out, like myself when I was starting out, was, first of all, knowing what those things, what those unique perspectives were, and secondly, the kind of, I guess, awareness that I’m allowed to leverage those tools. And I think that you just kind of presume that you’re not supposed to be dipping into the skillset of your filmmaking knowledge when critiquing the user experience flow of a piece of software. To me, now, it’s super obvious that because I know how to write a radio friendly two and a half, three and a half minute song that I obviously know how an onboarding flow for an app should go. Like, of course, it’s the same damn thing.
Randy Silver (24:33):
I can see the parallels.
Manon Dave (24:35):
I genuinely feel that there are parallels and I think that it is about moments of delight and as I talked about on the stage at of Mind The Product, the big base drop that sets off the foam and gets you back to the bar to take the shots, that’s the freemium model, right? I’m joking. But there is an element of that. So I think, again, when you dip into that skillset, it just offers you unique perspective and I think I would just really encourage people who are starting a career in product to look at that and say, look, what can I bring to the table from my own passions and skills and crafts and hobbies or whatever you want to call them, and how does that change how I see things that offers a unique advantage to my team?
Lily Smith (25:23):
I think that’s a really interesting point and it’s definitely something that’s much easier to do retrospectively, but a really interesting exercise for those out there that are still trying to understand who they are in this world and what strengths they bring. I think for me, for sure, similarly, it’s taken me a long time to go, “Oh, actually, I find that quite easy,” Or, “That comes quite naturally to me,” Or, “I love doing that thing that other people find quite hard.” So yeah, like trying to find the bits that you bring, I feel that’s actually quite hard until you reflect retrospectively on the type of work that you’ve done and what you brought in that moment.
Manon Dave (26:15):
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. My granddad has this phrase that he uses, like a saying in Sanskrit, which essentially is to connect the dots backwards. You can only ever know in hindsight, however, once you know, I honestly feel like it becomes a reference point, it becomes second nature to say, “I was working on this thing in the studio with this artist and he or she said so and so is a great inspiration,” And then when I realised that’s actually the same baseline as was used in this thing, and actually, it makes, now, complete sense that we should retrofit the UX to use the buttons at the bottom like it used to be because that’s the throwback to the nineties, whatever, you know what I mean? Honestly, that’s the process that I think I find myself going through instinctively a bit more than a few years ago because again, you afford yourself the kind of luxury of dipping into that stuff.
Lily Smith (27:19):
And you are working as a CPO now, so how do you support your team in developing their own passions and them bringing those into the workplace?
Manon Dave (27:30):
Yeah, I mean you have to use, I guess, language that people are used to or understand so I like leveraging the side hustle culture and sort of saying, “I don’t see it as a side hustle, I just see it all as one big hustle,” But I think that I encourage it a lot. I think in many places, they have Hack Fridays, you have a little innovation day or whatever. I’m a big fan of let’s do that as much as possible and all the time, ideally, and I like to know, I want to know what people are working on, I don’t shy away from it, I don’t get concerned about like, “Well, how much time are you spending on the day job?” I mean, the expectation, as adults and as creative folks or as product folks, is the work has to get done.
So that never really comes into play, but instead, I actually really try to flip it on its head and say, “Hey, look, I urge you to kind of pursue this other stuff that you want to experiment with. I will try and find time where we can at work to make that a possibility for us to collaborate internally on some of this stuff.” And to be honest, some of the best ideas we’ve had, award-winning ideas and products, have come out of those exercises. So I think my job is, as a chief product officer, is to enable, more than anything else, as many other CPOs would do, but I also think that means enabling some of those grassroots ideas to be really brought to the fore when it comes to some of these experiments.
Randy Silver (29:04):
I wanted to ask you, also, about almost the flip side of passion. So a lot of times when we work with people, we’re doing strengths assessments and what are your strengths and weaknesses and looking at all that and there’s all these things of 360s and ways to say to you, what am I good at and what do I still need to work on? When you are helping to develop people or even work on your own development, there’s two schools of thoughts, do you lean into strengths, shore up weaknesses, some combination of both?
Manon Dave (29:37):
I definitely have moved from a, I need to be really, really well-rounded and have really strong deep roots or skills in these various areas. And I think as a product person, you could probably list, on one hand, what those things are. Be more data-driven, be more commercially aware or astute, be more numbers driven, be more creative, be more engineering and tech focused, any and all of those things. But as I’ve kind of gone through the motions and gone into all of these different roles over time and in three different industries between early on ed tech, music tech, and then ed tech, I think what I’ve realised is I subscribe a lot more to the first one, which is to lean into your strengths and I think shore up the weaknesses, not just through your own practises, but I think therein lies is the idea of a team and really building a team that has complimentary skill sets and covers all the bases, but more than covers the bases, I think, goes deep in each of those areas.
And I think you can’t do that as an individual. You really need the right folks around you, you really need the right environment as well to kind of cater for that. And that’s what I tried to create, where I can, in the businesses that I’m in, is recognise the fact that, look, I’m definitely more creative leaning, I have a good handle of data and how to leverage it and experience design and how to deliver it but when you need somebody to crunch the numbers and look at commercial models and look at some of the deeper underlying tech stuff, maybe that’s somebody else. Maybe you need someone else for that. Maybe we need to pull in the right folks to help me deliver that. So I’m a fan of, again, emphasising that in the other product folks in my team and the company, and recently I’ve also taken over the design function at Mind Valley and same thing, I’m just saying, “Hey, look, I think we need to all become more data driven and more commercially astute, but design folks and product folks under one roof, maybe we can cover some of those bases more broadly.” So yeah, that’s how I think about it.
Lily Smith (32:08):
So when you are hiring, do you specifically look for people who have passions and side hustles going on in their lives?
Manon Dave (32:21):
Yeah, I think for me, I don’t discriminate. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for you to have a bunch of side hustles, but for sure, I’m a fan of folks who at least demonstrate the pursuit of something that they enjoy on the side. This might be running marathons, it doesn’t have to be something that is directly related to product management or engineering or design or any of the areas that I might be involved in, but I do think that there are folks who live and breathe whatever they’re doing in the organisation, let’s say engineering, and anything additional that they do is engineering, and I think that’s also great. I’m a fan of that too. But I do definitely believe that sometimes when you’re inside a problem and you’re solving that problem, you forget about the other problems that exist in the parallel spaces and I think that is really what this is all about. It’s just about saying that there are those other wormholes that lead to the same outcome or the same feeling or the same goal.
And I think that there are ways to access that when you stop breaking out of the confines of an individual problem. So I think that’s more what I’m interested in. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be releasing an album every other month between sprints and software releases.
Randy Silver (34:03):
So Manon, this has been fantastic. I think we’ve got time for just one last question. And again, I want to turn something around on you. Earlier, you talked about the parallels between an EDM track and an onboarding flow, and I can see how you bring your love of music into everything else you do. I’m curious, is there ever a time you’re sitting in a studio and you’re trying to work on a track and you’ve brought something from your product background into it and said, “This actually helped me. I’ve done a discovery on this track. I’m using a backlog…” [inaudible 00:34:37].
Manon Dave (34:38):
Actually, all the time, and I know it sounds unbelievable, but I’ve honestly had the luck of working with some pretty amazing, equally kind of anomaly, cross-functional people. I’ll name drop a little bit only because I think it’s really interesting how they work, but folks Will I Am from the Black Eyed Peas, Idris Elba, who most people know as an actor, but has a whole music career and a label. And I think these folks actually really invite this. It’s really strange. But yeah, someone like Will, he’s a massive proponent of having technology folks around him when writing an album, when building songs and I think he takes a very tech first approach to the music production world.
I don’t think I can reference a specific API product or something, that I was thinking about when writing a song, but I definitely know that, especially in the music tech space, some of the products that we build, hardware and software, when I explained how they worked, completely changed the way that some of these folks thought about how to write the song. So I’d like to think that there’s an ounce of input that I had in that way on some of those records.
Randy Silver (36:09):
I’m looking forward to this summer’s smash track. It’s got to be called MVP, and let’s just go with that.
Manon Dave (36:15):
Let’s go with that. MVP by the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. Take it back to Staten Island. That would be great.
Lily Smith (36:23):
Amazing Manon. Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.
Manon Dave (36:26):
Thank you guys.
Lily Smith (36:37):
The product experience is the first…
Randy Silver (36:39):
And the best…
Lily Smith (36:41):
Podcast from Mind The Product. Our hosts are me, Lily Smith.
Randy Silver (36:46):
And me, Randy Silver.
Lily Smith (36:48):
Louron Pratt is our producer and Luke Smith is our editor.
Randy Silver (36:52):
Our theme music is from Hamburg based band PAU, that’s P A U. Thanks to Arne Kitler who curates both Product Tank and MTP Engage in Hamburg and who also plays base in the band for letting us use their music. You can connect with your local product community via Product Tank, regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide.
Lily Smith (37:13):
If there’s not one near you, maybe you should think about starting one. To find out more, go to Mind The Product.com/product tank.