Coffee Chats for Product Managers

Coffee Chats for Product Managers

The best product managers treat themselves as products, and that means that they have a deep understanding of which market segments they target and which pains they solve within that market segment.

Part of the reason why it’s so hard for a candidate to become a product manager at a different company is that she may not yet have a clear grasp of that company’s needs and pains. One of the best ways to close that gap is to speak with someone who is currently working at that targeted company.

After all, finding a new company to work for as a product manager is like dating. Before you commit to the full application and interview process, you want to get some signal about that company - whether it’s actually what you think it’s like, and whether you’d be a good fit there.

So, how might you get the opportunity to speak with someone who works at that company? One of the best ways to do that is to have a coffee chat with them.

Below, I’ll discuss what a coffee chat is and why it matters to your career. Then, I’ll discuss how to secure a coffee chat. Finally, I’ll share best practices for having an effective coffee chat.

What is a coffee chat?

A coffee chat is an informal discussion between you and an employer at the company that you’re interested in. It typically lasts between 30 minutes to 1 hour.

If it’s longer than 1 hour, you’ll tire out your conversational partner, and you’ll also start to forget crucial details. If it’s shorter than 30 minutes, you won’t have enough time to establish rapport or to get a good sense about the company.

The best analogy to the coffee chat is to think of it like a user research interview. You want to be both empathetic and analytical, and you want to have a free-flowing conversation but you still need it to have a clear structure.

Your goals during the coffee chat is to understand more about the company and about your conversational partner. What is their role in the company, and why did they decide to join? What is their day-to-day like, what do they love about their job, and what do they hate about their job? What pain are they trying to solve in the company, and what pain do they themselves face in trying to help the company overcome its pains? What does the company value in its employees, what are the strengths of the company, and what are its areas of improvement?

Your goal is not to discuss the basics. Anything that’s already publicly available on the company’s website is not good to talk about. So, don’t ask about what the company does or what the company’s products are or who funded the company, because that should be readily available for you to find.

Note that this conversation is not an elevator pitch. You are not trying to sell them on your candidacy - you’re coming in with an open mind just to learn more about the company. Most people dislike it when people sell them when they didn’t ask for it - just think of all of the telemarketing calls that you’ve rejected. You want to listen to them and to demonstrate that you’re deeply interested in them. After all, just about every person in the world loves to be listened to and to be treated as important!

Another note - do not call this an “informational interview.”

An informational interview sounds too cold, too impersonal, and too formal. You are not there to dissect them, and they have no obligation to be interviewed by you. When you say “coffee chat”, you’re signaling that it will be much more fluid and casual, and this implies mutual interest in one another. You’re getting their consent in a respectful and friendly manner. Don’t artificially increase the barrier to acceptance by calling it an informational interview!

Why do coffee chats matter for product managers?

The market for product managers is currently heavily lopsided. There are too many people who want to become product managers, and not enough job openings available. That means that you’re tackling serious competition wherever you apply.

When there are so many candidates, it’s hard for the recruiter or the hiring manager to be able to accurately sift through so many candidates. You need to find a way to stand out, and one of the best ways to stand out is to have social proof. If someone within the company has a favorable impression of you, that will go a lot further than any resume or cover letter you write. Human beings are social creatures and they lean more on word-of-mouth and reputation than on facts and figures.

Furthermore, a coffee chat is the highest fidelity research you can do about the company. Companies are usually incentivized to show only the best versions of themselves in their marketing materials, whereas employees are likely to be more honest about their company. You’ll be able to learn much more about the pains of the company and its areas of improvement, and this is a powerful way to check that you’re really ready to dedicate the next few years of your life solely to growing the company and its products.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a coffee chat is a fantastic forcing function. It forces you to narrow down to key companies that you’re interested in. After all, shotgunning your applications is not a good way to get hired, which I discuss in depth in this article on finding product manager jobs.

And, the other thing about coffee chats is that they’re enjoyable for both you and your conversational partner! People love being listened to, and you shouldn’t feel like a burden. Plus, employees are incentivized to refer potential candidates, as they can earn referral bonuses if their referral is successfully hired.

So, if you want to significantly increase your chances of getting hired by a specific organization, you should invest in conducting a coffee chat with that organization. That’s the only way you’ll learn about the true pains of the organization, and that’s one of the best ways for you to get social proof.

How to secure a coffee chat as a product manager

First, identify someone that you’re genuinely interested in talking to within the company. Do not reach out to the hiring manager or the recruiter because they’re too busy, and they’ve likely already gotten a ton of coffee chat invites.

Ideally, you’ll want to reach out to a product manager who works at that company, because they’ll have the deepest insight into the company, its products, and its customers. But, the downside here is that product managers are typically very busy, and they may not have time to chat with you.

If that’s the case, it’s still valuable to reach out to someone who works at the company, even if they’re not a product manager. They’ll still have much more insight about the company, its products, and its customers than you’ll find on your own! Plus, their impression of you can still be quite valuable in your recruiting process.

Also, don’t reach out to more than 1 or 2 people within the same company. People talk and news spreads, so you don’t want to have so many people within the company talking about how they were approached by you. If that happens, you’ll appear desperate, and it’ll be pretty clear that you were just shotgunning, which makes people feel unvalued. Limit yourself.

Once you’ve identified who you want to chat with, you’ll want to send an outreach message through LinkedIn or through email, if you happen to have their email address.

But what does a good outreach message look like? Great question! I’ll share the details below.

How to craft a solid coffee chat invitation

A great coffee chat invite begins with a quick introduction, then leads into a concrete asks, and ends with clear options.

In your introduction, share a little bit about yourself, but focus on why that person caught your attention. Do not make this about you - make it about them. Consider doing some research about them over social media, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram, so that you can speak clearly to this person's interests - though please don't do in a way that violates their privacy!

The reason I say that you should focus on the other person is because I’ve gotten so many coffee chat invites that had 4 paragraphs of introduction about the candidate. I reject those invites outright because they care more about themselves than they care about me.

Good product managers seek to focus on their customers rather than on themselves, so your coffee chat invite should be no different. Ideally, your self-introduction should be no longer than one sentence, and the rest of your introduction should focus on why you’re specifically interested about the company and about the other person.

Specify why that person really stands out to you, and why you really want to talk about them. If you don’t specify why they’re special, they won’t feel flattered - rather, they’ll feel that you’re using them.

Here’s an example of what not to do in an introduction. Here, Clement is an aspiring student who wants to reach out to Jane, a product manager at a fintech company that Clement is interested in.

“Hi Jane, nice to meet you! I’m Clement, and I’m currently a student at UC Berkeley. I’m an aspiring product manager and I’m really interested in fintech because I want to learn about cool new technologies. Finance has always been an interest of mine, and tech seems like a great way to make finance better. I’m majoring in economics and computer science so that I can make the most impact. I’m an innovative leader and I have experience in running student organizations. I want to find my passion in life and I think that product management at ABC Company is the best way to do that. When can we talk? I promise I’ll use the time well!”

Notice how this introduction is entirely focused on Clement, and isn’t focused on Jane at all. That’s not the way to do it! Here’s a better one.

“Hi Jane, nice to meet you! I’m Clement, and I’m really interested in fintech as a way to make people’s lives meaningfully better. I read your recent blog post about your product launch at ABC Company, and I loved reading it! It’s so clear that you have a deep understanding of your users and that you’re tackling a really impactful space, and I wanted to reach out to you specifically to learn more about the work that you’re doing and about your thoughts on the industry.”

Notice how I’m entirely focused on Jane, and why I’m really excited about talking to her specifically. My goal is to make her feel special, but I don’t use insincere flattery.

Now that you have an introduction, the next part is to make a specific and concrete ask. Don’t mince your words, and don’t create confusion. You don’t want to leave it up to interpretation.

Here’s a bad ask: “I would love to connect with you to learn more.”

What does this mean? Does it mean that you’re just a connection on LinkedIn and that you’re following their shares and posts? Does it mean that you want to speak with them? And what did you want to learn more about? Did you want to learn more about general product management? Or about the industry? Or about their job? Or about how to break into product? The more vague your ask, the less likely someone will respond at all.

Here’s a good ask: “I’d like to get coffee with you for 30 minutes to discuss why you decided to work for ABC Corp, what you’re currently working on, and the competitors in your space that you’re worried about.”

It’s clear that I already know what I want to learn. When you make it concrete, this person now knows whether they’re the right person to address your question, or whether they should route you to someone else.

For example, here’s a good ask that I got from an engineer once: “I’d like to spend 30 minutes to discuss how you selected the technical stack that you’re using, what refactors you’re focusing on, and what new technical capabilities you’re looking to unlock in the next 6 months.”

I was not the right person for this discussion, but I knew who would be a good fit. I routed them to someone else in my company who could address all of those questions, and they got their questions answered in that coffee chat.

So, now you’ve made your clear ask. The final part is to provide clear logistics to remove mental overhead. Are you going to chat over the phone, through a video call, or in person? Where will you meet, if so?

Do not put the burden on the other person to come up with a place and do not give them multiple options to choose from. You need to minimize the overhead that they’re dealing with. Find a single place that is close to their work. Of course, when you propose a place, give them the leeway to suggest a different place, in case they don’t like the place you picked.

Give some dates and times. You want to give at least 2 time slots, but you don’t want to give more than 5. This is about giving them optionality and clarity. And, when giving dates and times, be sure to account for time zones if you’re going to be meeting remotely.

Here’s a good set of logistics for an in-person meeting:

“If you’re available, let’s meet at XYZ Coffee Shop (but also open to other suggestions). Let me know if any of the times below work for you:

  • Tuesday, July 2nd, 9 - 10 AM Pacific
  • Wednesday, July 3rd, 1 - 2 PM Pacific

Looking forward to hearing back from you!”

And here’s a good set of logistics for a phone meeting:

“If you’re available, let’s chat over the phone. My number is 123-456-7890, let me know your number and I can call you. Do any of these times work for you?

  • Tuesday, July 2nd, 9 - 10 AM Pacific (12 - 1 PM Eastern)
  • Wednesday, July 3rd, 1 - 2 PM Pacific (4 - 5 PM Eastern)

Hoping that we’ll be able to chat soon!”

If you're doing a virtual coffee chat over Zoom, replace the phone number above with a Zoom link.

So, you’ve now crafted your targeted coffee chat invite with an introduction that focuses on the other person, a clear ask, and easy-to-understand logistics. Remember, do not reuse this coffee chat invite - you must write a different one for every person that you wish to speak to!

Once you’ve sent it, don’t pester the person. Give them at least 7 days to respond, and send a gentle follow-up reminder if you haven’t heard back after 7 days. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a response, since they’re likely busy.

For context, I regularly reject coffee chats because I receive about 20 asks per week. I can’t do them all (or else I’d never do any work!), and it’s not fair if I arbitrarily accept one call but reject the rest. That’s why I reject all of them, though I keep myself open to answering questions through LinkedIn.

If you do get back a response but they’ve turned you down, ask them to refer you to someone else if possible. Sometimes this works! For example, if they turned you down because they aren’t a product manager and aren’t sure that they can answer your questions, you can ask them to route you to someone who can answer.

If you get rejected yet again, then thank them for their time and kick off another outreach email from scratch. Do not pressure them to route you.

Why might people not be comfortable with routing you to someone else? That’s because when they refer you, their social reputation is on the line, and you’re a stranger. You’ll get a lot more traction by restarting the process from scratch.

So let’s say that you do successfully secure a coffee chat - how do you ensure that you make the best use of this time?

Best practices for effective coffee chats

Before the coffee chat, make sure that you’re well-prepared. Read up about the company again - you can use our pre-interview research guide to make sure that you have a strong sense about the company and its existing products.

Also, prepare something like an interview guide for yourself. Outline the key questions that you want to make sure you address as part of the coffee chat.

Know how you want to be dressed for the coffee chat. You can almost never go wrong with business casual, though some folks might prefer that you wear a T-shirt and jeans instead. Use your best judgment, based on the company culture and the company website.

During the coffee chat itself, be yourself and be a genuine human being! Don’t refer to the interview guide and don’t take down notes, or else your conversational partner will feel like you’re dissecting them. You want to demonstrate that you're focused on the face-to-face conversation.

Pay attention during the coffee chat and listen. The goal is not to impress them. They’re the star, not you - so don’t interrupt them. Have a regular conversation, and don’t be afraid to dive deep for areas of interest. Feel free to ask them about their co-workers, the career paths that they took, the career advice that they found most valuable, what a typical day looks like for them and other relevant topics.

Towards the end of the conversation, ask yourself whether you feel that you and your conversational partner had chemistry together, and whether you’re still interested in this company. If both are true, then ask them whether they’re comfortable with referring you for the role that you’re interested in.

Even if they say no, respect their decision and don’t push. The goal was to learn more about the company - if you push, you’ll leave a bad impression, and that bad impression can quickly sink any chances that you have with the company, no matter how much research you did and no matter how strong your value proposition is.

Verbally thank them at the end of the coffee chat, and ask whether they’d be open to answering any additional questions that you have. Where possible, be sure to treat them to something - whether that’s buying them a cup of coffee and food upfront, or whether it’s a small gift card to thank them for giving your time.

One of the most impressive thank you gestures I’ve ever received was when the person brought a handwritten thank you note. She stood out in my mind, and because we had a great conversation, I advocated on her behalf.

Summary

Coffee chats are a highly underappreciated avenue for you to learn more about a targeted organization. It's an avenue for meeting people outside of networking events and webinars, and enables you to dive deep into a particular organization that you're interested in.

By getting coffee with someone who works at the company that you want to work at, you’ll gain lots of fantastic insights. These insights will help you decide whether you want to apply there or not, and will also help you to fine-tune your value proposition for the company. On top of that, a coffee chat is one way to get a referral from an employee, which can boost your chances of making it into the interview stage.

When reaching out, focus on the other person. Make them feel special, be clear in your ask, and reduce the mental effort they need to take to accept your invite.

During the coffee chat, have a genuine conversation and focus on the questions that you want to learn more about. If you feel that you’ve established a genuine bond, then ask for a referral, and ask whether you can ask more questions to them in the future. Thank them for their time, both with words and with actions.

And of course, after the coffee chat, reflect on what you’ve learned. Pull these insights into your resume, your cover letter, and your interview. You’ll then demonstrate much more product / market fit as a product manager, and therefore stand out amongst other applicants!


Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around product manager coffee chats? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!