Product Hero: Mike Brown

by Evan Ryan

Mike Brown
Educated as an engineer, Mike Brown’s path into the product world started with a desire and skill to solve problems. Two business ventures taught Mike that addressing the needs of the customer is the number one priority to continued growth and success. He practices that every day at PatientsLikeMe, a customer-centric organization that dually builds community among people with chronic illnesses and helps patients track their own health journey. His superpower of channeling the fear of missing out into a directed energy to experience the world around him is evident. It drives him to adventure and the outdoors to challenge himself physically when he’s not in the office creating product solutions for his company. Mike’s the kind of person who has the technical discipline combined with the art of empathy. These qualities are what makes Mike Brown a Product Hero.

I spoke with Mike about his experiences getting started in the product world and what he’s learned along the way. Below is the transcript of our interview.


Mike Brown: My name’s Mike Brown and I’m a product manager at PatientsLikeMe. My road to getting into product management is one that’s a little bit roundabout: I started off in school at Tufts University as a biomedical engineer and pretty quickly realized that I didn’t want to get a PhD. I learned that I could take grad classes for free as an undergraduate as long as you’re a full time undergrad, so I actually took my senior year of engineering classes and split them into two years and took a full time course load at our school for engineering management, which is very similar to an MBA but focused on technology professionals who are really trying to build a niche in technology organizations. So I managed to get through this grad program at the same time as going through my undergrad and at the end of it finishing both at the same time.

From there I got into business plan competitions and won a $100K business plan competition at Tufts with a group there. We were working on a medical device and then we got into MassChallenge. We were finalists in that global startup accelerator and eventually I firmly planted myself in the startup world where my first foray into building products was actually building a weatherproof hammock called the Alpine Hammock. We ran a couple of Kickstarter campaigns for that and were successful, so we started that business. There wasn’t something on the market that would cover these extreme weather conditions that we most often find in New England and places like Washington, so we put that product on the market. We did that for a couple of years and then eventually got hit with a patent infringement lawsuit so we briefly shut the business down. It’s since restarted with a new design which is great, but at that point I knew that I loved building products – but not necessarily selling hammocks for the outdoor industry.

I got into another startup called GearCommons where we were renting outdoor equipment peer-to-peer. Essentially it was an Airbnb-esque model and that was kind of my first foray into proper product management at the software level. We did that for a couple of years and eventually ran into a number of problems there. The short story is that we ran out of time and money and had to kind of move on. There was not a great product market fit for what we were trying to do, so at that point I knew that I liked products and it was the sweet spot for me, where I was kind of an engineer but a little marketing-ish. I cared a lot about the business and our users and helping our users solve problems and using software to do that. When I was looking for work after two failed startups I was looking around and mostly interviewing at companies that were e-commerce related or mobile advertising related. Coming from these startups trying to solve some really hard problems for people, I wasn’t really that excited about working at any of those jobs. I couldn’t really find a reason to wake up in the morning and go do that professionally.

And then I landed on PatientsLikeMe which, for me, was really interesting because it’s a very mission driven company in that the two founders of the company are brothers and they had a third brother who got diagnosed with ALS and ultimately passed from that disease. So they started PatientsLikeMe as a way for other people with chronic health conditions to meet each other socially online and to know they’re not alone and then to also track them, and their medical data over time. So what I saw there was actually a really phenomenal opportunity to wake up in the morning and go to work and do something that actually makes a difference in people’s lives because your friends and family might be supportive of your condition but they don’t really get it like someone who actually has to live with it every day – symptoms and side effects from treatments, as an example. So I found that really inspiring and I’ve been there for two years now as a software product manager and that is kind of my roundabout way of getting into product management. I wish that it had been actually something I could’ve majored in in college. As an example, it wasn’t something that I ever really knew existed formally until well afterward.

Evan: You kind of have to be in the middle of everything as a product manager, right?

Mike: You have to certainly be a jack of all trades and know that in a lot of the conversations that you’re in with people in your company you’re not the expert in that particular area. For our complex medical architecture that we have for collecting structured medical data, we have bioinformaticists and pharmacists and clinicians who understand that world a lot more than I do. What I do is bridge that gap between the experts in a clinical field but then also bring that to teams who really understand consumer web grade interfaces and so we’ve seen the consumerization of many different fields. When you look at what’s available to patients in the market, that level of consumerization that we see socially or in any app on our phones now, you don’t see that in healthcare. What’s exciting about my role is that we’re bringing a consumer grade front-end to a structured medical data back-end and being that connector of people with experts in both is actually really challenging while also really exciting.

Evan: Do you think the consumerization of healthcare exists yet or that it will ever exist?

Mike: I certainly don’t think that it exists yet. We’re in a stage right now that patients are actually starting to be the ones who are asking questions and seeking information versus simply being told what they should and shouldn’t do. So we’re giving patients the tools to have, for example, aggregated data about what side effects a particular treatment has for patients like you, so that allows you to be well prepared for questions. With your caregiver or doctor, you can really have an informed conversation about what your decisions will actually mean for your own quality of life. We have the data to support people trying to find some of those answers for themselves and what they want their own health plan to look like.

Evan: What’s your relationship with users? How do you make sure that what you’re building reflects the needs and desires of your users? What’s your process for that?

Mike: We gather input from our users in a couple of different ways. One is that we have a dedicated community team that is kind of the front line for patients who are either having issues on their platform or have suggestions for how we may improve it. We do other things that are common in consumer web but not as common in healthcare, which are things like usability testing and ethnographies. Before we jump into a big project we’ll actually try and spend a pretty significant amount of time trying to understand from real patients, and caregivers, and clinicians what the real pain points are: What questions are they trying to answer? And what we have found most often when we continue to do this ethnographic type of research? People have kind of the same fundamental questions which is generally: What is this thing that I have? What will this particular treatment do to me? Is it going to be better? What side effects are there etc. Am I crazy or alone? So we spend a lot of time trying to really empathize and figure out how we can answer questions for people, and as a product manager it’s sometimes difficult to put yourself in the shoes of an end user who is not you.

Evan: Do you believe that to be a successful product manager you need to have some sort of passionate buy-in to the product?

Mike: In any product that you’re building it’s important to align all the different people in the system. It’s not just about creating an ideal experience from the UX side, and it’s not just about having the right structure of data from the research side or engineering side, and it’s not just about making money on the business development side. You really kind of have to bring all of these things together. It’s often a diverse group of people who have different opinions about how things should work or what we should do to solve a certain problem. As a product person, if you don’t have a passion for the things you’re doing it’s going to be really hard to rally a diverse group of very bright people around an idea to actually not only define what it is that you are going to be solving, but also how it will be executed.

Evan: How would you work with your internal team to make a decision? Do you have any sort of voting process or a prioritization process? How many different departments would you get involved in making that final decision?

Mike: Yes, constantly. We constantly have more things that we could use and we have less time or money or people to do it, so it’s a constant conversation around what things are the most important to our patients first. We also work with a number of pharmaceutical clients who are trying to understand how patients are responding to their treatments, and if the treatment is actually making things better for them or worse. How are they evaluating those treatments? We’ll look at a number of different things like the data in a specific area. How many treatment evaluations are we going to get if we do feature X? Is this a thing that actually unlocks new business for the company? For example, can we bring this patient voice into clinical trials, can we bring it into a doctor visit, can we bring it into whatever other opportunity to help bring the patient voice to the center of that? And so we’ll look at a bunch of different opportunities and use that as a way to figure out what the most important next thing we should do is. I would say we have a product road map that is constantly evolving, but we have generally a good idea of the features that we want to bring to patients in a given year. Then, we do planning quarterly, and then at the two week sprint cycle level as well. We release sprints every two weeks throughout the year and so it’s kind of planning at the large scale in terms of feature sets that we want in a given year. But then also at a very granular level of what are we doing today and what are we doing over the next two weeks. It changes depending on what team you’re on within the company as well. Are you in operations where you’re trying to keep your site up and make it perform better and faster? Or are you on a team in the company that’s focused more on the front-end and making delightful experiences for patients and trying to track something like their diagnosis journey? The prioritization depends on what line of work you’re doing as well.

Evan: If you think back to any of the things that you would consider failures in your past entrepreneurial experiences or past roles: What did you bring home, what did you take away from it?

Mike: How many hours do we have to talk about this? I recently wrote a Medium article about GearCommons – one of the main takeaways from running a web community of businesses like GearCommons was that we actually had two big problems that we could solve in the outdoor industry. The first reason why people don’t get outside more is that they say they don’t have enough time and so we kind of felt like that was an ephemeral thing to solve for. How do you help people have more time so they can go outside? It seemed like it was not a very straightforward problem to solve and the number two problem was actually that people lacked access to the right equipment. So if you don’t own a kayak, you don’t typically go kayaking. The outdoor industry requires you to have a lot of equipment that’s highly specialized and very expensive, and therefore has a barrier for people of getting into it. That light bulb idea for us was that the number two problem, access, is one that we can solve using a sharing occurrence model, a very Airbnb or RelayRides-like model and so we really, really focused on driving access to equipment through the roof. We basically amassed over a million dollars in outdoor equipment here in Boston and then a number of cities throughout the country as well, where you had the one-million-dollar gear closet and so that’s what we optimized for and I think with that being our goal, we succeeded in meeting the access requirement that we had set for ourselves. But we had caused a problem unintentionally and we only became aware of it as the business kind of came to a close…hindsight is 20/20. We found that by focusing on the number two problem, we’re actually exacerbating the number one problem, which was time. We actually increased the amount of time that it took to acquire a piece of equipment and so we found that people were actually willing to pay more money to spend less time acquiring their equipment. Because we were so focused on increasing access we didn’t focus at all on time and so by creating this sharing economy marketplace, we actually exacerbated the number one problem and we think that’s one of the big reasons that our platform never took off. So, lesson learned there is to always follow the number one problem, not the number two problem.

Evan: It really benefits you and the product and the company to spend a lot more time upfront validating with other users and getting feedback before you go off and build something, right?

Mike: Yeah, definitely because the real cost of a feature is not what it cost in design and engineering and product and all the other functions in order to build that feature. The real cost is once it’s actually been built, and it’s now actually in production on your site, that’s where you start to see the real cost of having built a feature because that’s something in its own right that can break and that’s something in it’s own right that you have bugs on. Everything that’s then built in on top of that feature over time on your platform is something that will have to take that into account. So the real cost actually happens after you shift it. So it would behoove you to spend as much time upfront trying to gather information and data to guide your decision-making and your requirements before you’ve actually built anything. So as an example, even this week at work we’re doing paper level prototypes that we’re actually also testing with employees at the company: Does this interaction make sense? Is there anything about this that you find puzzling? And then we’ll take it into another level of detail where we’ll actually engage patients, just watching them use a particular interaction to see if this is something that has a pattern that we can introduce to our site to solve a couple of problems.  But you do as much lightweight testing as you can and as is reasonable, but in order to be as sure as you can that what you’re going to build is going to be useful and usable for people.

Evan: These are going to get a little bit silly and a little fun, but if you could learn something new in an instant…think of Neo in the Matrix when he plugs in and learns how to fly a helicopter immediately. What would be that one thing?

Mike: Yeah, for me I think it would be freestyle skiing. I’m really into skiing but I certainly have none of those skills and being able to launch off a jump and pull an awesome trick would be really great but in kind of my current state it seems like a great way to end up with a broken femur so if I could instantly learn how to freestyle ski, I think that would be great.

Evan: What about the one thing that you would…maybe even your coworkers would identify as your superpower? The thing that you do better than anything else.

Mike: One thing that somebody gave me a piece of advice on one time was, “Focus on your strengths and embrace as much as you can with that.” And so one of my superpowers, if I were to channel it appropriately, would be the fear of missing out. So my FOMO is definitely my superpower and I’ve just channeled it, in that when people want to go out and do something whether it’s at work or after work on the weekend generally I say “Yes, let’s do it. I’m in.” So, I just try to embrace that as much as I can versus trying to feel bad about having this kind of fear of missing out attitude.

Evan: Is there anything in your morning ritual that sets you up for being able to tackle whatever you’re presented with? Do you have stuff that you do in the morning that kind of sets you up for the day?

Mike: Yeah, part of it really is just waking up super early. When I was in high school I played ice hockey and we had practice before school every day, so I think it was beaten into me at a young age to just wake up early. As soon as you start stirring just get up. And for me, what that allows me to do in my adult life is to get up early, 6:00 or 6:30. I get some exercise in, go for a run, a bike ride, go to the climbing gym and then once you’ve done that, have a cup of coffee and bike to work. I’ve had jobs in the past where I’ve commuted an hour to and from work every day but how I’ve been able to set up my professional life and personal life is that I can have several hours in the morning before I even get to work to really make sure that I’ve taken care of myself with exercise and a good breakfast and either walking or biking to work as a way to kind of set the day straight and for me as a very outdoorsy person.  I mean, I’ve started two outdoor businesses. It’s important for me to get your heart rate up and get a good exercise and a good sweat in before the day even starts, and for me that is the key to setting the tone for my day.

Evan: What’s the best piece of professional advice that you’ve ever received?

Mike: That is a good question. The best piece of professional advice is actually the same piece of advice that I got from my mother growing up, but I think I was probably 25 before I realized what it actually meant, and then today I’m still struggling with it which is: “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally.” So that’s something that I’m still working on. Being an extrovert, product manager who has to corral a lot of people, it’s sometimes hard to step back and listen and so that’s something that I continue to work on in my own career. It’s really easy to keep talking until the right words come out, but to really listen to what people have to say is even more important than what you have to say. You’re really there to ask good questions and really take the feedback from a number of people. So if I could use my ears and my mouth proportionally, that’s something that I think would serve me and other people really well.

Interview notes:

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About Evan Ryan

Evan is a seasoned product designer and entrepreneur with more than 10 years of experience founding and managing startups in a wide range of verticals....