Rich, founder of Product Gym, speaks to Ajay Rajani who has been a founder and Product Manager for the last decade. Ajay’s current venture, Mural, helps Product Manager members showcase and translate their previous experiences for Product Manager interviews
Product Gym: All right, this is Rich, founder of Product Gym, bringing you another podcast live from our office in New York. I’m on the phone today with Ajay Rajani. How’s it going, Ajay?
Ajay: How’s it going, Rich?
Rich: I can’t complain, just getting ready to take off for the holidays you know. I’ll be around in the area spending time with family so it should be should be resting, resting, relaxing and then getting back to work in the New Year. How long has it been since I last saw you in person? I think it was last January.
Ajay: I was either last January. But I suspect it may be may have been the January before last. I’ve never chance to go back in time. But just tracking kind of the permutations. And I know when I’ve been working on I’m pretty sure it was by a year and a half or two years ago, I had to guess.
Rich: So much has changed! So tell me what’s been new with you?
Ajay: Yeah, so essentially, since the beginning of 2018. So for the last year, I’ve been full time building a product called Mural which I’m excited to share more with you about today. Obviously, I think it’s got a lot of applications for, you know, up and coming kind of starting out their career Product Managers is definitely one of the use cases that I had in mind. And, you know, I was in that boat, you know, about 10 years ago, but, it’s still fresh in my head. So that’s been the focus for for the last year, you know, obviously, prior to that I’ve helped build and start some venture backed companies. I spent a lot of my career on a Product which does digital lending, and credit scoring in emerging markets. And so, you know, its a very different use case than what I’m building for now, a very different use case. And I’m born and raised, grew up here in America. But building that Product and scaling the business, now it’s over a couple million borrowers and customers across the world. It was a really exciting experience. And since then, you know, I’ve really been focused on investing in and trying out new ideas. With the case of Mural, when ideas are making sense, and it’s getting the kind of traction we want to see, getting those early MVP’s out and really doubling down on it, that’s what 2018 was about and 2019 should be a continuation of that.
Product Gym: Is it better to be a Product Manager or better to be a Founder?
Ajay: That’s a really good question. I think, intellectually, at least the way I practice Product and the way in the case of Grovo, which was my first gig as a Product Manager, as the CEO. And then in the case of Tala, I was the CEO and in more and many ways than my co-founder. I think intellectually, it really did correspond on a lot of what I had to do as the founder, and you think there are a lot of the same problems, I’m able to focus more on the stuff that I enjoy, honestly, which is building a product, but I think emotionally, there’s nothing that can prepare you for becoming a founder. And I say that as like a parent, like, I have a kid. And still, I think starting, building and growing a company is harder and is emotionally more challenging. I think it’s more challenging in a lot of ways than even raising a child can be.
Product Gym: Wow! So, Mural, so you told us a little bit about it. Who do you think this is? Who do you think like is gonna This is cater to like, who can use this?
Ajay: Yeah, so I mean, we really see it as the missing identity layer for the modern knowledge worker. And I’m going to unpack that a little bit. What I mean by knowledge worker, we are talking about our folks like, Product Managers, marketers, copywriters, those are a lot of use cases, instructional designers, it’s someone who a lot of your work is involved in the exercise and communication of your judgment. And in many cases, you’re not the ones designing the screen necessarily, or translating it into code. But you’re a key part of the process that takes an idea into design, which is a key part of the process, then that takes the design into code and a key part of that feedback loop the track whether that that product is itself up working, and what should come next.
And we think, what we mean by the missing identity layer, is that we just want to give those people the ability to use verbs to describe what they do, and signal that they’re good at it instead of just now. And so that means, what am I doing? What have I done, you know, what am I learning? What have I learned, what have I contributed to, what am I contributing to, versus just giving you my job title and the name of my company, which for a long time has really been how knowledge workers kind of signal that they’re good at what they do, and also explain what it is that they do. And we think that that very idea sits at kind of the nexus of two really key shifts and knowledge work.
And one is just like the rise of this idea of a portfolio career where your moving people from structured sequential step ladders, where there’s a clear path and clear end goal in mind to people looking at their careers is now more of like a diverse portfolio of projects and learning or even towards duty as we often would describe it. And the second key shift is just a move towards more transparency and authenticity about your career. And so you see that in the build and public kind of mentality, a lot of startups including Mural take, where they’re able to share, they’re excited to share more about kind of how, the mustard is made behind the scenes, but also get to see it in the amount of blogging and podcasting that goes on, even in finance and law, people are just a lot more transparent about what what it is they actually do. And so that’s kind of the shift that we see those two shifts we think, really create an opportunity. For a Product like Mural to help folks like Product Managers, especially the ones who are starting out, right, they don’t have those job titles, they don’t have those employers yet, this is a key way to demonstrate what you can do, what you have done, and what your next employer or consulting client can expect from you.
Product Gym: Absolutely. I think a lot of people probably in the digital marketing space could probably use something like this to describe exactly what it is that their expertise is, because it would allow, I think, for all types of service providers, it would allow the end user to make a more informed, educated decision on whether or not this is the right professional for you to be working with.
Ajay: I think I think that’s exactly right. The two things that you and I talked about earlier; one is, like you said, you want the fastest, most efficient and reliable way to build trust with the person, the audience that you’re selling to you, especially if you’re a freelancer or a more of a portfolio worker. But even if you’re not, and you’re looking to nail that first gig, how can you really quickly and efficiently and precisely signal that, like, I’m the right person to do what you need the person in this role to achieve for you. And then the second thing is given how prolific we all are now, right, that, you know, it could be a matter of how many projects you are working on at a time, it could also just be a matter of the amount of tools you use to do your job. The average knowledge worker uses, like 36 different services at their job to do just that job. And so when we’re so prolific, we’re creating docs and spreadsheets, and we’re speaking on podcasts, we’re hosting podcasts, we’re creating videos, we’re creating tutorials, you know, there’s so much we’re posting on Instagram, we’re blogging, a lot of these have professional context, and a professional value. And so when you’re so prolific, it’s really important to then be able to curate down what it is you want to share with a specific audience, because they only care about X percent of that stuff that really applies to what they’re going to be asking you to do, or what they’re hoping to get from the opportunity that you’re interviewing for.
Product Gym: 100%! Okay, so anything, I know you are always working on at least on a few projects? Is this the main one that you’re working on right now?
Ajay: Yeah, at the beginning of the year, we kind of raised money and pursued an experimental path. And so we tested a couple different ideas out, but really with Mural, I think the three things that we saw that really excited us were, One, that a wide swath of users got a ton of value from the product, right? And we measure value by like, do you set up a Mural? Do you share that Mural, how often you come back and update it, how often do you come back and curate a different collection for maybe a new job opportunity, new client, or even a mentor/advisor, you want to get thoughts on one specific part of your portfolio.
Those things they were being used by a wide swath of like functional professionals, such as Product Managers, marketers, copywriters, instructional designers, freelancers, full-time people, and just geographically, it is like all over the world. And so that really spoke to me. And I think two it was because how simple and easy the Product was to use It was just an easy foundation to build on. And so, you know, we keep iterating and rolling out new features every month, so sometimes we’re really right about it, and users love it. Sometimes they barely notice. And it’s okay because it’s a very lean, simple foundation for us to put things in and take things out. And I’m also happy to kind of share a little bit of insight from specifically Product Managers that I think have gotten a lot of value out of building a Mural portfolio. I’m, you know, I’m happy to kind of chat through that as well, if you think it would be helpful.
Product Gym: Yeah, awesome I’d love to hear a bit more about that aspect of it.
Ajay: So I think like, you know, generally when, when I think about building a portfolio, and we try to embed this into the platform itself, it really comes down to three things you want to demonstrate to your audience. One is that value, right? What outcomes have your work help drive? And in the case of Product Managers, I think that’s incredibly important, because many times you are going to be judged and evaluated based off of the outcomes, you help drive, you know, a product is is created, iterated is tweaked and refined to achieve business outcomes, right? You really sit in that bridge between design and engineering and business, right.
And so if the goal of a specific feature is to increase engagement, you need to show that. If it is to increase conversion, you need to show that, if it’s to increase signup rate, and you need to show that as well. Right, so the first key layer is value. The second right below that is just repeatability, right, just showing that there’s a method to what you do that you created this outcome once, and there’s a likelihood that you can do it again, because you’ve got specific processes, you distilled best practices and learning. And that also is very important, I think, for a Product Manager you need to focus primarily on the outcomes you’ll drive, but secondarily on the unique and compelling ways that you did it and or how you conduct Product Management in general. And so that’s where things like a spec template that you use, or your approach to road mapping or, you know, with our tooling make it easy to restrict certain pieces of content or certain work assets to different audiences, you can actually show a sample spec that you wrote. Maybe because the feature got deprecated and the company doesn’t care about revealing it. Or maybe because the company is one of those building public startups. If you can share a real example, not just the template or, a set of best practices, I can really differentiate you from the crowd.
And then the third (after value and repeatability) is transferability, right? How it applies to what you might want to do next. And there, we think it’s really important for you to be able to show a sense of experimentation. And what it is that you do that there’s a curiosity behind what you’re doing, that doesn’t limit you to just knowing this one thing really well, yes, that is incredibly important. But if you’re seeking to either shift sectors, you know, from b2b or b2c, or shift competencies, maybe from project manager to product strategy, something along those lines, just being able to show the variety and experimentation, experimental nature of what you’ve been doing, creates that third layer, which is really the kind of icing on the cake, which is you showing them that you’ve driven value, and can do it again. I have methods and I can repeat it, and there’s a likelihood that I can transfer it something into something a little bit different than what I’ve been doing in the past. And we’ve got examples of Mural that we think do that, do that do that particularly well.
Product Gym: Got it! Yeah, well, let’s just say in the case of the founder of Product Gym, we have a proven track record of helping people make the transition to into Product Management. Do you think somebody like me, would be able to use Mural?
Ajay: Yeah, I think so. Like, when I think about what it is that you’re doing, it’s a mix, like a what we’re describing of like, your example of the people that we were able to take from where they were, to the successful goal, right. And those are all different paths, right? It might be someone who was doing something totally unrelated, it might have been in finance, or consulting, right. And it’s like, this is the path, this is the outcome that we drove for that person, we took them from a finance professional to a Product Managers of Salesforce, I’m just, you know, throwing out an example. A different path is someone who’s, like, worked in startups, but maybe as like a community manager, or, really a project lead, but not really doing any product strategy. And this is how we took them from that role at a startup to, you know, to a product role at a startup, right, that’s a different outcome. That’s a different path.
That first layer is outcomes. And then the second layer is, this is how we do it, right, this gives you a sense of what happened, this is a sample lesson that you will, you’ll see, here’s a sample video, right? And then being able to, you might have like, 10 different examples of all of those, and then being able to curate it down into, like, different collections, right? Like, if you’re a finance person looking to work at a big tech company, this is your Mural of what it’s like for you to experience Product Gym. If you’re a startup like kind of like an athlete, or like all over the place of the startup, this is your path, to really focusing on product. You mix outcome and methods in that Mural and you really give the person like you said, a clear trust within the trust of what the process is going to be like for them, typically.
Product Gym: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the way that I see it for my members, but I think a lot of our instructors and speakers that come in here to, to Product Gym, from both sides of the coast, this would be something that I think that they could use to go and showcase exactly what their expertise in this field is. Because I’m starting to see more and more Product Managers, as they’re getting more senior in their career, they’re having the challenge of deciding what it is that they’re going to do next. And the job isn’t what they want to do. They don’t have an idea that they can get strongly enough, but they’re holding on to all this knowledge. They want to go to they want to go out there do consulting, because the hot thing is like setting your own hours, right and being able to work remotely. And being able to tackle very specific challenges that they know better than anybody else. So this will be just be a very interesting product for the speakers as well.
Ajay: Yeah, no, that’s a great, sorry, I kind of misinterpreted the question. But, yeah, I think a much cleaner fit is those who are practicing Product Management or are looking to practice Product Management. And so we know who our best users are, you know, product leaders at very large tech companies, like very reputable people at very reputable companies, but they’re looking to level up into what they want to do next, right. And so often, that is like, I want to not only do this full time job, but I want to experiment with, like having a portfolio of consulting or advisory clients, right. And so how do I do that, it’s one thing to be able to say, I’m XYZ title XYZ company. But if I can share with you some of the assets that I’ve created now, they could be public, it could be a blog post that I wrote, you know, about my learning from being a Product Manager at Amazon for the last three years, it could be, you know, that’s one example.
If I’m putting a Mural and I just be, you know, maybe an announcement of a release that I did, where I ran, and I can add some color and context to that piece of work as well, by saying, what the outcome was that we drove or how we did it, right. And in some cases, I said, for certain clients, you can really show them some real specific stuff because we help you restrict privacy and really curate who can see what on your Mural. You could show them the specs you wrote, show them your roadmap, you can show them how to do cohort analysis, all those things. And so that helps those types of people really level up to what they want to do next. And I also think like, we’ve seen literally folks who are looking to transition careers, right, we have someone who is going from a people ops role, but really deeply studied the empathy of professional development and career growth. To them, getting a Product Management job at a professional development focused startup, but she used her portfolio, her Mural of all the work she did in her people ops role, it was all about understanding the persona of the young employees that were coming into the company, understanding what it would take to get them to level up and really where the friction was. And she used that is that collateral as part of our portfolio to then become a Product Manager.
And I think that was a really great use case as well, that if you’re starting out looking to do something new, it’s really important to demonstrate what you have done is relevant because there’s no other signal that people can really rely on, you know, the signal of graduating Product Gym members is absolutely, you know, essential and huge. And then if you can back that up with some examples of the work or the or the stuff you created while you’re while you’re working on a transition, I think that’s icing on the cake.
Product Gym: Okay. So if you were to walk us through, right now, on a podcast, a Mural so is this like a series of slides that’s mobile? Give us an impression on what the end product looks like, if I was to go ahead and want to start with Mural right now?
Ajay: So I encourage everyone to get a Mural (www.muralapp.io). If you add a /discover, you’ll see examples of tons of Murals people created. But it’s actually it’s a very, very simple paradigm. We believe that all work now is in the cloud. And that means it’s just one link away. And so the way you add work to your mural is you simply copy and paste URLs, and it could be from anywhere. It could be a Google Doc, it could be a Dropbox link, it could be a YouTube video, a Medium link, it could be anything that’s in the cloud. When you paste it in, we auto generate a card that previews that piece of work, what it’s about, what the image will look like, you can add specific context on top of that as well, and that’s a great place to talk about the outcome, the work you helped drive and it’s a great place to talk about the message, or maybe generally, what you learned in the process of doing that.
And then you can also tag contributors in which adds the social proof, really saying that this happened, I played this role and I’m willing to risk my reputation by tagging this person that I worked on it with, or that I did it for as the boss or client as well. So then that creates a card in your Mural. And then once you have that card, you can do a ton of different things in it, let’s say, you now added five or six cards, to your Mural, you can start and add sections to tell a story with your Mural, right, you could maybe make the sections different companies you’ve worked with, or worked at, different roles you’ve had, or just different competencies you have as well.
And then you start really creating a visual story with your Mural. The third thing you then do is you can filter that Mural as well by specific keywords. And that makes it easier to like across different sections, only feature certain things in your Mural. So you might tag it as Product, you may tag it as strategy, you might tag it as roadmap. And then it becomes very easy for you to curate what you want to show to whom, either by section either by keyword or some combination thereof. And then the fourth thing that you do with your Mural is you add a story or narrative to introduce it, right.
And so your your general public Mural will have maybe your bio, and your mission statement and your photo, all that stuff is a really beautiful header that appears to people before they go in and click view your work. So you have a chance to really introduce yourself as a professional before they get into the nitty gritty of your work. And the cool part is that we now give you the ability to customize that story. Customize that narrative that people see for those specific collections you might curate, right, so if I’m going to have just my roadmap collection, I’m going to have just my strategy collection, I’m going to have just my project management collection, I can customize the story that goes with each of those. And then each audience is really getting the perfect version of yourself for the opportunity you are presenting yourself for.
Product Gym: I’ll be excited to kind of play with it. The next week, we we’ve had a few tracks here, like how to transition to product management from a management consulting, background, a finance, background, all backgrounds, sales backgrounds, so I guess we’ll be putting together a Mural for that. What are the what are the big plans for the New Year?
Ajay: It’s a great question. So, you know, I think we’re going to continue like really listening closely to our users and iterating, iterating on their on their feedback, I think we’re gonna be a lot more aggressive about growth, because there’s pretty clear signs of a product market fit with a bunch of our audiences. And so we’re gonna be looking to do more partnerships, looking to do, you know, more business development in that regard. And then I think the third thing is that we want to test the more I say ambitious business strategies. And so like really taking the Murals that we have and seeing if we can open up opportunities for people that are on a Mural themselves. Right now it’s kind of a software they use for their own personal branding, sharing of work, building relationships, but I think we can start matching them with opportunities, whether it be great feedback right from you know, maybe your a second year Product Manager or second year marketer and you want to get some really robust feedback on your work and your growth from someone outside your company.
We want to provide that feedback from someone who’s more senior to you, and we can match you with that person, maybe we can match you actual job opportunities and freelance opportunities as well. Because, like almost any other platform on the web, there’s real evidence on Mural. It’s not just what you’re saying about your work, it’s what you’ve actually done. And I think that’s a really rich graph that that that we’re excited to start utilizing the online opportunity for our users.
Product Gym: Thank you so much, man. I mean, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. I’m excited for you guys. Yeah. So having said that, we definitely would love to get you in at some point to let our members know about this, most likely after New Year. Ajay, thank you so much for making time and you know I appreciate that.
Ajay: Congrats on everything going on at Product Gym. I’m excited to follow you guys. And yeah, we can work together a little more closely and with members potentially.
Product Gym: Have a great holiday. We’ll talk soon. And this has been another podcast from Product Gym. This is Rich, signing out.
About Ajay Rajani
Ajay is the Founder and CEO of Core Labs, a computer software company which runs experiments and builds products for the future of work, with a particular focus on professional identity and connection in the bottoms-up economy.
Ajay attended New York University of Law, with a shared background in economics and government. Since then he has worked as a Product/Growth Consultant, has been the Founder of two startups and has spent the bulk of his career building companies which create simple solutions to big problems.