Insights from Ariel Meranus, Product Strategist at Headway
Ariel Meranus is always up for a challenge: she spent four years living and working in countries across South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. "I love the challenge of figuring out something or somewhere completely new," she says. "You just have to be willing to dive all the way in."
Ariel moved back to the U.S. a couple of years ago and now works as a product strategist at Headway, where she helps startups and corporations launch new tech ventures.
Although her digital nomad days are behind her, Ariel's thirst for new challenges is a big part of what brought her to Headway. "With every new venture comes a whole new world of challenges," she says."As a product strategist, my job is to navigate that world."
We chatted with Ariel to learn more about how her willingness to try new things—and ask good questions—helps her create products that customers love. Read on to learn more about her path to product strategy and how you can follow in her footsteps!
Ariel's Path to Product Strategy—and Headway
Ariel started her career in brand strategy. "I really liked leading the strategic direction for brands, but I found myself more and more interested in the strategy behind the digital experiences that they were providing." So she decided to take on a new role as a consultant at a digital think tank where she analyzed digital experiences and authored thought leadership on best practices in the digital world.
Enter product strategy.
"That job really inspired me to learn the ins and outs of tech and ultimately to become a product strategist, because I wanted to actually create those digital experiences."
Product strategy is such a new and versatile field that you'll likely get different job descriptions from every product strategist, but this is how Ariel describes what she does: "Product strategy has an incredibly large surface area. It involves everything from upfront market research to generating value propositions and business models, all the way through building an MVP and growing a product at scale," she explains. "All the while, you are talking to real customers, to ensure you're building a product they will love."
After some time working as a product strategy consultant for startups, she stumbled upon Headway. "I got excited when I found out about the role, because I truly believe in the philosophies Headway lives by. The team here believes in building businesses, not just products. And that means doing a lot of tough strategy work, testing with customers constantly, and championing Lean Startup practices."
Creating a product customers love
So how does Ariel help Headway's clients build products that consumers will love? "There's no perfect formula for building a new venture. It's really about having the right belief system -- namely: learning quickly and iterating," says Ariel.
"In terms of a typical project, clients often come to us with an idea. Then, we go out and do a bunch of research into the market to understand: Are there customers for this? What's the market size? What's the competition look like? What do customers actually need? What are they struggling with?"
After validating that they have a problem worth solving, the team starts to design the solution, asking "What do we want to offer?" How will it work?" "How will it make money?".
If customers respond well to the solution, Ariel and her team begin to prototype the idea. "This is where product management comes more into play," she explains. "Now you're prioritizing features and working in sprints with designers and developers to build the product incrementally." From there, the team continues to iterate and optimize based on analytics. This is the stage when growth becomes the main focus.
"I get the most excited about launching brand new products from the ground up and really having the opportunity to be influential as we go from zero to one."
To excel in this process and create a product that you—and your customers—are happy with, Ariel recommends the following.
1. Start small. "People have a tendency to want to spend months or even years creating a robust product with all the bells and whistles before they introduce it to the market because they think it needs to be perfect," Ariel explains."But this is actually a huge bet with a huge investment that's very risky." Instead, Ariel suggests starting small and releasing early, and then building on the product incrementally.
She uses a wedding cake analogy to explain what she means. "Instead of spending six months perfecting a wedding cake before you let people taste it, we release a cupcake after one week. And we're going to serve that cupcake to real people instead of waiting six months to get real people tasting it."
"Then, we use their feedback to create a bigger and better cake over time. At the end, you still have a wedding cake, but you know people will love it because you've had all this opportunity to iterate. You're in a continuous discovery cycle with customers, building things incrementally towards their demand," she explains.
2. Learn from real customer behavior. "It's not about what people say they want to do, it's about what they actually do. I love conducting deep, qualitative interviews. But you want to confirm qualitative insights with real customer behavior data, because we want to make decisions based on what people actually do and not just what they say they'll do."
3. "Don't measure how fast you can build something. Instead, measure how quickly you can learn. Focus on finding answers to key questions: "Will customers be interested in this?" Will they buy it?" Will they use it? Will they come back? etc." she says. "That information will let you know whether you are on the right track or if you should pivot."
Want to work alongside Ariel building products that customers love? Check out Headway's open roles here.
You see an ad for your dream job. And by some miracle, you actually have all 20 of the preferred qualifications!
So you hurriedly scroll to the bottom of the publication to see what the salary range and benefits are… only to find that "competitive salary" is all that's listed.
What the heck does competitive salary actually mean?!
Phrases like "competitive salary" and "competitive pay" are often used by employers in job listings, but they can leave candidates scratching their heads. So what do these phrases actually mean?
Competitive Salary Definition:
A salary that is at or above market rate for similar positions and geographical locations.
The Good News: While not quite as transparent as listing a number or a range, if the company has said that they pay a competitive salary, then you can assume that they intend to pay you at or above market rate.
The Bad News: "Competitive" can mean different things to different people. It can vary based on the local market, and with remote jobs, this only gets more confusing.
So, when you see these phrases, your first move should be to use resources like Glassdoor, Payscale, and Github to research the market rate for the role (I'll talk more about this later). Once you know the average salary for the position in whichever city you're based, you should expect the company to make an offer at or above that level.
If you get an offer and their competitive salary turns out not be as competitive as you expected, you can share your research and tell them you were expecting something a bit higher.
Remember, companies have access to the same resources you do - and many, many more! So they know very well what is "competitive" and what is not.
If they ask you what your salary expectations are, they are likely hoping that you are expecting less than market rate - or that at a minimum, you don't want much more than it. (If you need help answering the ever-tricky salary expectations question, check out these expert tips.)
So, the real question becomes, once a company does actually give you a number - whether or not they said upfront that they consider it to be competitive - what do you do if it's not?
How To Negotiate a Competitive Salary
There's no doubt that salary negotiation can be uncomfortable - but if you don't ask for what you deserve, you'll never get it.
For women in particular, this can be challenging, because we've been conditioned to be agreeable, and to trust that we've been offered what we deserve. But companies don't want to pay you more than they have to, so you need to be your own advocate. No one else will. The men are asking for more, and you should too.
In these situations, it's crucial that you know your own worth - a modest account of your accomplishments won't get you to the number you deserve. (If you don't yet know the importance of valuing yourself, just check out this story about a designer who was underselling herself by 50k!!)
And if that's not enough to convince you to ask for what your worth, consider the fact that your negotiation today will not only impact your current role, but your entire career earnings trajectory (AND the trajectory of women to come after you, lateral to you, and across the industry).
With a little research, role-playing, and honest communication, you'll be ready to negotiate the salary you deserve.
1. Remind Yourself of Your Value
Have you self-assessed recently? Taking time to reflect on your achievements will help you evaluate your current worth and bring an undeniable strength to your interview. I find that muting the hustle and bustle by stepping into nature with paper and pen helps me to recognize my achievements. From there, my self-confidence and self-respect grows and I can start outlining a game plan to reach my desired salary.
I've achieved XYZ. Here is where I've seen success. Add numbers to back it up. Voilà.
2. Research the market.
First, investigate your field's competitive salaries online. Some of our current partners at PowerToFly use platforms like GitLab's Compensation Calculator to adjust their salaries based on the role, experience, and location. Resources like Payscale, Glassdoor, and Comparably are also great for checking salary ranges.
But don't just rely on the internet - ask 5 friends in similar roles/industries/locations what their compensation package looks like. DO NOT JUST ASK WOMEN! If you truly want to understand what a competitive salary is for your position, you need to understand what other people are making - this includes equity, benefits, bonuses, and other forms of compensation. Don't let the taboo topic of money keep you from earning your worth!
3. Watch how your favorite thought leaders present themselves and mimic them - practice makes perfect.
Research how some of your favorite thought-leaders and innovators present themselves in public so you can adopt some of their presentation skills. TedTalks are a good example. There's a reason these people are chosen as speakers - they have charisma! Have some fun and mimic your gurus as you practice presenting yourself and lead to your competitive salary ask. Now is the time to practice your ask word for word, citing why you deserve this compensation. Role-playing with friends and colleagues is crucial for practicing different scenarios and practicing authentic answers. Don't forget to ask for feedback!
You've done your research. You know what the market rate is, what number you're looking for, and what your walkaway is. The worst that can happen is they say no.