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13 min read

Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Mike Polner

Podcasts | Product Marketing
 

We got together with Mike Polner, Global Head of Product Marketing at UberEats to discuss all things building, growing, and scaling product marketing. He shares with us his own experiences of doing just that at Uber Eats over the past four years, how his experience in PMM has changed during that time, how he built and structured his team, the challenges he’s faced, and key lessons learned, plus top tips for others scaling and heaps more.

Full transcript:

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Product Marketing Life podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name's Emma Bilardi and I'm a content marketer here at PMA. This week, we're joined by Mike Polner and we'll be discussing building, growing, and scaling product marketing at Uber Eats.

Mike is the Global Head of Product Marketing at Uber Eats with 13 plus years experience driving highly analytical growth strategies, and building sustainable product and brand differentiation. Mike, it's really great to have you with us. Thank you.

Mike Polner  0:31

Thanks, Emma. Great to chat.

Emma Bildardi - PMA  0:34

Awesome. So could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Uber Eats?

Mike Polner  0:39

Absolutely. So as you mentioned, I'm the Global Head of product marketing for Eats. I started almost four years ago, in January, back when Uber Eats was not Uber Eats it was Uber is delivering food in the back of a car, how is this gonna work? And now I think over those four years, we've gone from delivering food in the back of the car to being the centerpiece of the Uber brand and the business. So it's been a wild four years, a lot of great adventures and a lot of fun times.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  1:06

Absolutely. So you joined six months post-startup, and as you say, Uber Eats has just exploded globally. So how has your experience of product marketing changed since the start of that?

Mike Polner  1:19

Yeah, absolutely, it has. It's grown as much as the business has, I would say. So I look at it as a little bit of chapters. The first chapter really, as we were growing and scaling was just establishing what product marketing really was on Eats. Product marketing, I think is still a little bit of a newer function in some parts of the industry, I think there are always some misconceptions of what product marketing is, it looks a little bit different at every company.

I've talked to some folks when I was interviewing trying to hire people. And actually, one person said, "Now I know my job title is in product marketing, but I actually don't do product marketing".

I think that there's a lot of definition that's still required in the industry. The beginning of the time on Eats really was just defining what product marketing was, I would talk about, I have a deck and a presentation that I call 'product-market product marketing', where you have to really define the core value of the function. And then as the business has grown and scaled, so has product marketing, so going from 1, 2, 3 people up to 6, 7, 8 up to 10, 11, 12. I think every time a team doubles, it's almost a new team again. So a lot of growth through that time.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  2:37

So, speaking of scaling up, can you talk us through how you built your current team?

Mike Polner  2:43

Yeah, so again, I would think a little bit about the stages that the business took, and then had to think about how product marketing would fit within that. So the first couple of hires we had on Eats product marketing specifically, were, not to use a sports analogy, I'm still looking for a better one, air quotes, athletes. And I think that these are people who were super analytical, I think a lot of them were honestly quite scrappy.

We really, in product marketing filled all the roles. So product marketers early on were expected to be able to think strategically as well as be able to execute, they were asked to think creatively as well as analytically, you have to work with performance marketing, and sometimes you have to write your own email copy. So the early product marketers we had on Eats were really super talented, really hard-working, scrappy, general product marketers who I think, fit the business at that time.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  3:43

Yeah. So I'm just wondering what the time frame looks like, and when you were looking, what you were looking for in PMMs at that point? Did those attributes change at all from senior to junior positions? Or did that change as you kind of scaled-up?

Mike Polner  4:04

Yeah, absolutely. I think I mentioned this a little bit earlier, but I really do think every time a team or a company doubles, it's a new team. So I think that there were these chapters, the first one of zero to two, zero to four, somewhere around there, that was the first stage. I did think there was some point probably around six or seven people, maybe when we started to scale, where I had too many direct reports.

That was the first moment for me where I would get this feeling where I was like, "Wow, I actually feel really stretched". And I think when that started to happen, that was my signal to scale. And that's what scaling felt like is I feel like it was like you're being pulled physically in so many different directions between one on ones and meetings and priorities and products.

That's when you start to need a management layer. To the point of the junior versus more senior employees, I think that management is a responsibility, and it's a big one. And I think that it is a natural point of people's career trajectory and career growth, to go from an IC to a manager. But I think that generally if you have a really thin middle layer, that's where people can either feel disempowered, or you don't scale the right way.

When I look for more senior leaders, I think I look for the things that make great product marketers, are you user-focused? Do you have a great ability to tell a story? Or do you have a spike in growth? But the element that I really stretch for is culture fit and what does that mean? Are you going to live out the values? Are you going to build the team? Are you going to be a supportive manager who's helping people learn and grow and develop? And I think that's the missing link that you really go from being a senior or a strong IC to being a manager and how that changes on the recruiting side.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  6:11

How many people do you currently manage? And how is the team structured?

Mike Polner  6:17

Yeah, so it's always a little complicated with dotted lines, hard lines, but I think it's generally around 12 to 14 people probably who are working on Eats or delivery in some way, shape, or form are in product marketing. In terms of the way the team is structured, as I kind of mentioned, we work in a matrix organization, which has been a change in the past year or two years of just seeing the business grow. And so we map quite closely to product.  

I would say that that's the underlying principle that I and the team has taken in building product marketing. I always say that the first word in our job title is product. So if we don't think about the product experience, you could just be a marketer, which I think is what makes product marketing special and unique. So we generally map the product areas.

There's a consumer bucket, which is the ear side, we have new verticals, which is all the exciting new businesses that Eats is getting into and the delivery business is getting into from restaurant food delivery to nonrestaurant food delivery, pet food to flowers, groceries around the world. So that's that second bucket.

The third bucket is around the B2B side. And that's merchants, so again, more than just restaurants we actually have as a side of the marketplace, we have to think about the B2B, the business side restaurants, grocery stores, alcohol stores, convenience shops, etc. And that's the third leg of the team and the structure essentially.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  7:55

Okay, so talking about that structure, how do you attribute roles and responsibilities to product marketers in your team? Is that a natural follow on from the structure of where you're at? And the size of the organization?

Mike Polner  8:11

Yeah, I think the first question when doing that is understanding quite deeply what the business and the product goals are, for example, we've actually just had quite an interesting philosophical question of how do we think about these new bets? So when you're thinking about Eats, for example, three or four years ago, Eats was a totally separate business, we had our own CEO, essentially, we had our own CMO for a while, we had our own head of product, and all these people reported up to the CEO of Eats. As the business grows and scales and you start to move to a much more centralized function for efficiencies and functional expertise, and all the reasons that make sense.

When you start to take another bet, which is grocery or a new vertical, for example, as I was alluding to earlier, you have to think about what the business goals and objectives are, and what are the problems that you're trying to solve? So I think at the heart of it, product marketing really does need to support the product, product marketing really does need to support the business. So you can't make any of those staffing or roll decisions in isolation, you have to understand what is the business strategy? What is the product strategy? And then how does your structure support that strategy?

Emma Bilardi - PMA  9:26

Okay, can you talk us through some of the hiring challenges you've faced when you've been building and structuring your teams?

Mike Polner  9:37

I think that hiring talent is always the hardest, but also the most rewarding and most important thing you can do. I think again, it comes to three checkboxes, I'd say. The first one is, is this person a product marketer? And this is where I find the line and the delineation gets a little wonky sometimes because I've interviewed hundreds of people and I would say a lot of them are really incredible brand or marketing managers.

But the area that I always look for, the little stretch on is do you have product intuition? And when I say product intuition, that really means two things. I think one, it means can you articulate trade-offs? Why would you make this decision versus this decision? How does this affect the product or the user experience?

Two is I think when you think about the user in this, do you have deep consumer empathy? Do you have deep customer empathy? And how does that show up? So the first checkbox, I would say is, you have to find somebody who has that product intuition. Just even that is a big, big screen. The second thing I would say as a challenge is finding where the marketer spikes or the product marketer spikes.

So, I've generally seen - this is a little bit of an overgeneralization, but I feel quite confident in this I think, you generally see that somebody is either a little bit more on the creative storyteller brand side, or they're more on the analytical growth performance side. We've been fortunate to have people on both ends of that spectrum. And then the final piece, the last checkbox of the challenge is really, are they fitting with the culture?

Because Uber is a unique place, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's fast-paced, it's hard, it's challenging, there's a lot of ambiguity. It's not for everybody, and I think that's okay. So I think that we've really pushed, I've really pushed to make it as clear as possible that this isn't going to be just a 10-4, you're not going to be bored, I promise you, this isn't all the problems have been solved. But I think finding people who are excited and engaged in that is really the final challenge that you have to overcome to be successful at Uber in product marketing.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  12:10

What are some of the lessons you've learned the hard way in your time as a product marketer?

Mike Polner  12:18

Oh, good one. I think that there are a couple, I think the first one I would say is, what got you here won't get you there. And I think that's probably the truest thing I could say about growth and scaling. Again, going from zero to two to four to eight to 16, to 12, whatever, at each stage, you needed something totally different. And I think just being really conscious, and really aware of all the things that have to change when you scale.

It's not just the people, it's not just the skills, it's actually really tactical things like how do you run meetings? How do you communicate out to the team? Do you send weekly emails? Do you send monthly emails? Are you sending team meetings? Are you sending audience meetings?

I think some of those are underrated elements of growth and scale that you have to actually be quite deliberate of how does information transfer when you're two or three people, everybody kind of knows everything. But when you're 16, people in three different cities and two different business lines - that's really a huge change. So I would kind of say that the overarching piece is, what got you here doesn't necessarily get you there. But the second thing I would say, to build on that, actually, is that you can't forget what got you here too.

That means that you have to build a culture, you have to have clearly defined values, you have to get people excited about why are they showing up every day, every morning, to do the work and what that is, and that shouldn't necessarily change, people should still be motivated by solving the hard problems with smart people, people should still be engaged in the mission and the products of the company, and people should still feel excited about the impact you can make. So I think those are the two things I would say, over the last four years of growth and scale that you have to keep in mind.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  14:23

Excellent. How do you decipher whether the team shape is structured by business product segment or region in such a big company? How does that work?

Mike Polner  14:34

I'll talk more broadly about the transition going from when we went from all reporting to the CEO to being in a matrix organization, which is all reporting into the Global Head of product marketing for Uber. I think that that was probably a really significant change because when you're in a line of business, you have a lot of autonomy, you are the startup, you have your own culture and your own identity.

Again I would come back to the hero principle of mapping the product and mapping of product areas. And I think that we've always taken our cue a little bit from product, which is aligned quite closely with the business. And we want to make sure that we're supporting that, I think, in terms of structuring in a big company, I think the complexity just increases in the number of nodes you have.

So you know, less so on the Eater side, for example, but do you go with the consumer bucket? Or do you go with an Eater and a Rider bucket? I think those are the types of challenges that you experience as you grow and scale from little scrappy startup to bigger company, and I don't think it necessarily has to change being part of Uber versus being in a 300 or 400 person company, I think that the principles are actually quite similar.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  15:56

Yeah. Okay, great. So, we normally like to wrap up the show with some words of wisdom. So could you give us your top three tips for scaling product marketing

Mike Polner  16:11

Yeah. I think the very first one is, nothing is set in stone, maybe, I think that there's a really unique balance you have to strike between optimizing for the here and now, and then the accumulation of debt that you have to have, you just have to take on.  Sometimes they'll make a decision and you'll go, "Oh, I know in six months I'm going to have to make this hard choice a different way". So you know, be purposeful around where you are and are not accumulating debt. I think that's the first one.

The second one, I would say is really, really define that culture and know what you're optimizing for and know what you're not optimizing for. And then the other thing I would say is build your recruiting process around that. One of my favorite stories actually was four years ago, or three and a half years ago, when we were hiring product markers, we had a really tough time bringing on people who would be getting through the loop, and the loop was a pretty rough loop, we ended up having our CEO interview every PMM at the time. So you really have to definitely be at the top of the game.

What it meant was, the type of person we optimized for was somebody who could think quickly on their feet, who would be quite analytical, because that was the stage of the business we were in. So we actually decided to change our recruiting process from going where you would have two weeks to build this big long case, with a lot of time to prepare to actually saying, "Hey, it's totally fine. These are the questions you have to answer. This is the case, you can build a deck or not. Or if you want to do it live and you want to go off the cuff, that's totally fine". And some of the most successful people we actually ended up hiring were the people who were able to do it really quickly and live because they had to pass that test.

And then I would say the last piece of advice really, is just honestly,  enjoy the ride. Because hypergrowth when you're in the moment feels scary, and you're stressed and you feel the pull of being stretched. But hyper-growth is also the moment where you learn and you grow, and you scale and there's so much opportunity and I reflect so fondly on the early days of Eats, where we were just this little scrappy team, doing so many big things. And just know that when you're in that period of hyper-growth that can feel stressful, or full of tension to build and grow and scale product and team. But that's the magic. That's some of the beauty of the job. So just be along for the ride and enjoy it.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  18:58

Stop and smell the roses.

Mike Polner  19:01

Exactly.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  19:03

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Mike. That was really insightful. And again, thanks for your time it was lovely to speak to you.

Mike Polner  19:13

Yeah. Thanks, Emma. Appreciate it.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  19:15

No problem.


Written by:

Emma Bilardi

Emma Bilardi

Emma is a Manchester-based freelance writer. She's been writing for as long as she can remember, and in the last few years predominantly about product design.

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Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Mike Polner