Ben Foster has more than 20 years of product management experience. He was formerly a senior product manager at eBay, vice president of product at Opower, and chief product officer at GoCanvas. Here’s how he got his most recent job in product as a CPO at WHOOP.
Roles and responsibilities
Every day is unique, but work generally falls into three categories:
- Executive meetings and cross-functional planning,
- Working sessions on product challenges with team members,
- Ideation and heads-down focus on product vision, strategy, and measurement of outcomes.
WHOOP is capturing data no other device has captured. We’re not catching up to some competitor or stuck having to dig ourselves out of enormous technical debt. We can basically take the product in any direction we would like, and there’s no one obvious path. Our growth rate supports the investment, so our hands are not tied with unreasonable budget constraints. That’s not typical for most product organizations. It’s fun to have so much optionality, but I also feel a tremendous responsibility to get it right.
What were you doing before this job?
Over 20 years, I’ve risen through the ranks at every level: product manager, senior product manager, director product manager, senior director product manager, VP product and UX, and finally CPO.
Between VP Product and CPO. I was part of the biggest tech flop ever (Webvan in 2000) part of Marty Cagan’s team at eBay in 2001, and I helped take Opower public for $1B valuation (as VP product) in 2014.
I also founded an advisory practice through which I was a formal advisor to 40+ startups over 4 years. I did so in order to teach, but actually found that I learned as much as my clients did. That unique experience allowed me to “see the matrix” of what made product teams successful, which I was happy to share in later advisory work, through my book (Build What Matters), and ultimately put into use directly as CPO at GoCanvas and now WHOOP. I was an advisor to WHOOP prior to joining and this role was actually crafted for me specifically as a way to pull me in full time.
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What was the job application process like?
My current job was crafted for me. An open role was never posted. That’s because of the strong relationship and trust that was built while I had advised the company years before. The role appealed to me because I loved the company, the people, the product, and the consumer problem we are trying to solve (unlocking human performance). I’ve always enjoyed the hyper-growth environment and WHOOP is undoubtedly on the stage, and will be for the next couple of years.
During the application process:
1. I used the product extensively and captured all of my notes in a Google doc. I wanted to show my attention to detail when appropriate.
2. I poured over public user reviews of the product and considered potentially viable solutions to the problems that users described.
3. I reviewed the backgrounds of everyone I would be interviewing with to try to understand what they would be interested in learning from me.
4. I wrote down and memorized bullets of the important points I wanted to be sure I could get across during each interview so I wasn’t flat-footed.
5. I wrote down three highly relevant questions I wanted to ask each interviewer, tailored to them, that both gave me the information I wanted, but also showcased through example my orientation toward the company and the role.
6. I spoke with people I was connected to who used to work at the company who could help identify cultural norms or landmines that I needed to navigate during the interview process.
I reached out to the CEO and explained to him what I thought I could provide as CPO, and how the company would benefit from having someone fill that role. I wasn’t replacing anyone. Because I had previously advised the company, this was less of an application for a position, and more of positioning of myself as the right person to take the company to the next stage.
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
I am changing customers’ lives for the better while simultaneously creating a product vision and strategy that could ultimately reshape the fitness industry.
Tips on landing a role in product
1. Remember that as a CPO, you’re not just the head of product, you’re also a member of the executive team setting the overall direction for the company. That means you have to understand the mechanics—and contribute to the company’s success—beyond product and engineering: financial wellness, unit economics, operations, people, and so on, are all part of your responsibility. If you want to be a CPO, and you’re a strong product leader already, study the other VP-level functions.
2. Build a strong network and reconnect with them ahead of time. It’s easy to see who the mutual connections are on LinkedIn. No CPO is going to get hired simply because their resume is great and they interviewed well. The “whole interview” also includes backchannel endorsements, and without them, you’re unlikely to get the job. The cost of a company mis-hiring at that level is too high, so companies validate their hiring decisions through other trusted leaders.
3. Be prepared—crazy prepared. Don’t just show up to a phone screen or interview without having used the product, having specific ideas to share, having identified the key points you want to make in the conversation, having a very succinct but impressive description of your own background, etc. Not being prepared will mean that at best you will sound disorganized, which is not okay. I would spend a minimum of 2-3 hours preparing for a 30-minute call, and at least a full day preparing for a set of interviews.
4. Continue the conversation after the interview. This is remarkably easy and yet almost no one does it. Don’t just send a two-liner email thanking them for their time. Share with them a related article that you wrote or found. Ask an additional question you didn’t have time for during the interview. Ideally, you can make the interviews feel like you are already doing the job by interacting with them in all the right ways. This will set you apart from other candidates and also create champions in the organization who will go to bat for you vs. the other person also qualified for the role.
How has product management changed since you started?
When I started, product management barely existed. It’s become much more data-driven and iterative through agile development practices, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s more of a “science” now with more demonstrable ROI now, but I also believe some of the “art” has been lost along the way.