In 2016, I applied to Facebook’s RPM program. Even with a referral, I was cast aside.
In 2017, a friend intro’d me to a tiny startup. In true startup fashion, I joined under an inflated title as “Head of Analytics”. Within two weeks though, I was solving a major business crisis, and became an official PM.
Fast forward to present day, the tiny startup has grown into a multibillion-dollar company. Along the way, I’ve shipped hundreds of features, and managed other PMs.
Then Facebook came knocking with senior PM openings. Curious, I went through the interview process to put my learnings to the test. They gave me a $300K offer including salary and equity, which I negotiated to $375K. In the end, I walked away.
It’s been a wild adventure, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned: how I prepped, mistakes I made, negotiation tactics that worked, the secrets I learned about compensation, and how this newsletter boosted their interest.
First, I was surprised by how much interview advice the recruiter offered, including sample questions. There were only two rounds of interviews. Round 1 consisted of execution (diagnosing a problem, identifying next steps) and product sense (coming up with a customer-friendly solution).
I was fairly confident in execution because I’ve interviewed a lot of PM candidates on the topic. Here’s my approach for handling metric-related questions, which impressed my interviewer.
I was less comfortable with product sense. The concept of building X for Y on the fly is mind-boggling to me, so I focused my interview prep here.
Here are some steps that worked:
- Make it feel real. To that end, giving yourself mocks as if you were doing the real interview is invaluable. Talking out loud is also very helpful - maybe even record yourself if you feel up to it
- Understand the difference between good vs. great answers - this seems like an underserved area. For every question I answered, I finished by searching for answers online to see what I missed. Then I made notes on how I could improve, which I re-read before every new mock
- Structured responses are important because they show you can drive clarity. Preparing flexible frameworks will help you deliver on this consistently
- Performance is heavily dependent on the questions, so try to see every interview as an independent event. To paraphrase a Michael Jordan quote: why worry about missing a shot you haven’t taken? I bombed some mocks, and still got an offer. The purpose of practice is to challenge yourself
In a surprising turn of events, I ended up doing better on product sense than execution, which shows the difference practice makes.
In the execution interview, I forgot to explicitly define the timeframe (e.g., daily users instead of cumulative users) and the interviewer had to nudge me. A few nudges are ok, but it’s ideal to proactively clarify along the way.
For product sense, I was asked to build a product to help people with layovers. I love to travel, so this was fun for me. I came up with a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary. I made sure to bring the interview along, so he was sold on the solution. I also explained how I would integrate with the airlines, so passengers could get an invite to begin their adventure upon landing. Add-on details are not a requirement, but showing you understand what makes a great customer experience can take you from good to great.
After a week of waiting, the feedback came back overwhelmingly positive.
Carried by a gust of new confidence, I prepared for the final interview format, leadership & drive. To do this, I came up with 3-4 unique stories from my time as a PM that would serve as lego blocks for answering behavioral questions.
Even if you don't have official product experience, I recommend reflecting on three types of stories: when you overcame an unexpected obstacle, when you found an opportunity that improved the business, and when you worked through team conflicts.
- Keep your stories to ~2-3 minutes, so the interviewer can ask follow-ups. Write your stories down in advance to trim the fat
- Start with the headline. The best stories give people a reason to listen. Interviewers have to show up, but they don't have to stay engaged, so make sure to earn their undivided attention
- Good stories are lego blocks that can be used in many ways. The project you're most proud of may have been riddled with obstacles; the time you overcame said obstacle may have involved team conflicts or uncovered an overlooked business opportunity.
Two days after my final round, I heard back with a $300K offer for an L5 PM role.
How I negotiated (and why you should too)
I used to feel weird about negotiating. Then I had some aha moments:
- Companies expect you to negotiate. Your initial offer is much lower than what they’re willing to pay you
- The money comes from the company’s budget, not your manager’s. It’s best to negotiate through the recruiter though when you can
- Once a company extends an offer, they are incentivized to sign you. They monitor yield closely (% of offers that get accepted) and care about optimizing it
- To get what you want, have a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement); in other words, strong offers from other reputable companies
- Negotiation boosts their perception of YOUR value, as long as you do so in good faith. Good faith = mean what you say, but you don’t have to say everything!
For example, I didn’t share details on my existing pay because I wanted an offer based on the value I could create for Facebook. Using levels.fyi I knew $300K was on the lower end of the compensation band for L5, so there was plenty of room to negotiate.
Right after I received the offer, the script flipped. Suddenly, I could feel the pull of their salesmanship to close me. I met with the Instagram Reels team, and was surprised to find myself thoroughly impressed with the team. I decided to try something I've never done before: make a bold commitment in the negotiation process.
If they bumped the total compensation to $400K, I would sign. Immediately.
The team was psyched. I was psyched. They said they would talk to the recruiter and compensation team.
I’ve since learned that the compensation team exists as a check and balance for situations like mine. They set compensation, not the hiring manager. They use something called leveling, which is determined by interview performance and years of experience, the latter of which caps you.
My experience put me at an L4 or L5, but no higher. I later learned that a typical L5 has a median of 8 years of experience. I had 3 years of experience in product, and 5 years total. Not bad.
Here’s the twist: people can get paid out of band for their level (i.e., $400K for L5). It’s very rare, but it can happen if you are a strong hire, and have a qualifying event like an IPO, secondary, or bonus that exceeds the offer at hand. Sadly, I did not have an upcoming cash bonanza.
I stuck to my guns and said $400K or no deal.
No, I did not have a sophisticated formula behind this. I had several million in stock options, but they are illiquid. $400K felt right for the value I'd be delivering, and the unvested stock options I would be giving up.
The compensation team, unfortunately, did not see it this way. They heavily discounted my illiquid stock options, so they made begrudgingly small adjustments to the offer. Meanwhile, the Reels team went into overdrive.
How this newsletter boosted interest
The more I resisted, the more interested the team became. They found an article I wrote about TikTok, and told me they paused conversations with all other candidates because I had a unique understanding of the space.
They had directors, VPs and even the Head of Instagram reach out to me.... which may be standard fanfare? Unclear.
There was a deep irony in all of this I couldn't shake. The time they spent courting me far exceeded the cost of simply giving me what I asked for. But because of "the rules", we all had to play along.
The back-and-forth negotiation ended up stretching for weeks. Finally, I had seen enough and it wasn’t going anywhere. I pulled the plug. The team panicked and the compensation team gave a final, Hail Mary offer: $375K.
I turned it down.
All this… for what?
Truth be told, I believe $375K is a fair offer. An incremental $25K would not change my life. I walked away because the negotiation process reminded me of what it's like to work at a big company.
In hindsight, the biggest mistake in my calculation was not accounting for the cost in exercising my stock options, which was hefty enough to probably be considered a qualifying event. If you're in a similar position, I recommend trying it. Some companies will pay to unshackle you from your golden handcuffs.
As for me, I see this experience as a triumph. The most we can ask of experiences that don’t work out perfectly is that they teach us something. I got that, and much more. I met impressive people. I made some mistakes. And now I get to share them with you.
P.S. I would not have been able to skip to L5 if it weren't for my accelerated learning at a startup. Here's a list of the world's top startups funded by Tier 1 investors! And if you'd like to benchmark your startup offer here's a salary and equity database.