Product Management & Entrepreneurship
Episode 016: Raena Akin-Deko
"I think that mindset really aligns with what you have to do to be a successful entrepreneur, because the world is always changing around you, and you have to really have a spirit of experimentation and the sense that I might not get it right the first time."
JJ: Hello. Welcome to Product Voices.
I've seen several instances of product managers going on to become successful entrepreneurs, and I've also seen folks who've been entrepreneurs had their own startup moving back into the corporate life and into companies as product managers and being very successful at that as well. There seems to be a connection between the skills and mindset that it takes to be an entrepreneur and to be a successful product manager, so we're going to explore that a bit on this episode.
Joining me today is Raena Akin-Deko. Raena is the founder and CEO of Verve Strategy, a professional coaching and consulting firm on a mission to help women build wealth through entrepreneurship. As a certified coach and former corporate executive, Raena helps women master their mindsets and acquire the skills needed to get their businesses out of their heads into the market and positioned for growth. Before launching Verve, Raena spent over ten years developing and growing a broad portfolio of innovative programs to improve healthcare quality at a leading healthcare organization.
Raena, thank you so much for joining me.
RAENA: Hi, JJ. It's so great to be here with you today.
So tell me if you agree, do you see a connection between product management and entrepreneurship? The skills that are needed, the mindsets that are needed? What do you think about that.
RAENA: You know what the skills are so linked together. I remember when I was still working in corporate. One of the things that I was always struck by was the fact that these skills seem to be very transferable to entrepreneur pursuits. While I was working in healthcare, I was always thinking about business, always fascinated with what was happening, sort of at the corporate level.
As I watched companies come into being and companies go out of business, I was a person that read just corporate tales of success and failure and was always asking myself, what's going on here? Why are these companies succeeding? Why are these companies failing? And the more I got into product, the more I started to understand that there were just basic linkages between what you have to do to be a successful product manager and also what you have to do to be a successful entrepreneur. There are, I think, certain traits that you pick up along the way, being very experimental and thinking about things, not necessarily in black and white, but thinking about what could this be? And what if I did this? What would happen? And I think that that mindset really aligns with what you have to do to be a successful entrepreneur, because the world is always changing around you, and you have to really have a spirit of experimentation and the sense that I might not get it right the first time.
But let me see if I try this, maybe I can hit upon something that's going to work. And so that always struck me as being something that was really necessary. If somebody was going to be entrepreneurial and start a business, that you really need to have that mindset.
JJ: Yeah, I love that. The way you couch that the experimental side of things. That's exactly right. I mean, there's a certain risk in becoming an entrepreneur, and you have to be somewhat comfortable with that. And I believe that the most successful product managers also are comfortable with some level of risk or some level of ambiguity and being able to say, okay, we're just going to try this. We may not get it right, but we're going to try it. And I think that's a great connection. That's a really good point there.
So what do you think thinking about entrepreneurs and someone who's gone out and is doing their own thing or thinking about going out and doing their own thing? What do you think they can learn from product managers?
RAENA: Oh, man. I think that one of the first things that I always tell entrepreneurs when I talk to them is the first thing that I learned, which was what's the problem you're trying to solve? I think a lot of us, if you have an entrepreneurial, bet you're full of solutions, right? You're full of, oh, I would do this differently. Right. And so we start with sort of the solution in mind to say, I'm going to go out and I'm going to do. But what we fail sometimes to realize is that X is just one of many different ways that you can solve a problem, and it might not even be the best way.
And so I always tell the women that I work with, you have to start with the problem in mind. And I always ask them, what's the problem that you're trying to solve? If you can answer that question, you have not only the tool, the seed, to begin to think about solutions, maybe improve the solution that you're already thinking of, but to think of other ways that you could solve the problem to serve your customers better.
JJ: I think we all get into that solution bias trap. Right. And I think that entrepreneurs, like you said, their very nature is to go solve a problem and be successful in that. And so to force themselves to focus on that problem first, just like we have to do as product managers, we have to build that skill of spending enough time in that problem space before we jump to that solution. I think that's really important.
So what about the reverse? What do you think product managers can learn from entrepreneurs?
RAENA: As I've sort of gone out into this entrepreneurial sort of realm, the main thing that I find that needs to change is I talked about the mindset of experimentation, and you mentioned being comfortable with ambiguity. I think that the total mindset needs to shift into being one that is more entrepreneurial. When you're a product manager, a lot of times you are responding to things that are happening around you. You're responsible to your product team, to your CEO, maybe to the engineers, to others that you're working with. And so you're sort of always sort of fighting these battles on different fronts where you're trying to advance a certain solution or feature, and you have to sort of work within the realm of work within the bounds of what others in the organization think.
But when you move on and out to be an entrepreneur, really everything rests on you. And you have to figure out, well, how do I now start to operate in this environment where I am the decision maker, where I have to sort of make a decision about how to move forward and what what things go and what things don't. You have to really shift from being that sort of I call it the employee mindset, from being an employee mindset where you're working on this team to one where you are the decision maker and you are the entrepreneur. You really have to do that mindshift. And it's super hard to explain that before you get into it. But I see it time and time again, even with myself, sort of this beer and headlights.
Once you sort of make that leap from product into entrepreneurship, you go, oh, my goodness, there's a whole different mindset that I didn't even think about, whereas that I didn't have to deal with. I work with women entrepreneurs, and the number one thing that I see from them is just having the confidence to trust their own decisions.
JJ: It's interesting. I was having this conversation with and he's not an entrepreneur per se, but he's in a product manager for a nonprofit innovation lab type of thing. And he's basically the engineer, the designer, the product manager. He kind of wears all of those hats just by the nature of the size of the organization. And we were having a similar conversation that he has had to learn to make all the decisions and use all the right information because no one's going to stop him. If he says this is a good idea, he just does it. And the same thing with an entrepreneur. And we think before we get there, we think that would be great. We think that I could make great decisions if I just had all the power.
But then when we get it, I love the deer in the headlights analogy there, because it's like, oh, God, we're going to have to do this. It's me.
RAENA: It’s me. What if I keep this up? Yeah, it's this constant vacillation between being stuck because you're like, oh, my God, it's me. I have to make the decision and then being drunk with power.
JJ: I like that too. That's fun.
RAENA: But yeah, it really is. You take on the responsibility and the accountability. I think that when you're part of a team, you're products and incorporate. There's a sense of shared responsibility, shared sense of we did it in collaboration and teamwork. When you're successful, but when you're not successful, they're shared blame. Right. And when you're off on your own, like you're taking you're taking it all on. Yeah. Which can be hard mentally, it can be, especially because we're always harder on ourselves than we are on others. And so when something goes awry and it's only us to blame, if you will, it's a little bit harder.
JJ: So you mentioned confidence and a lack thereof being something that you work with entrepreneurs on. So is that the biggest thing that you think holds entrepreneurs back, or is there something else that you think that when someone's trying to become an entrepreneur, they've started their own journey that may hold them back a little bit in the beginning?
RAENA: Yeah. There are a number of things I think when I think about women entrepreneurs who I work with, confidence definitely is up there. And that's wrapped up in with limiting beliefs, imposter syndrome. Do I know enough? Am I enough? Can I be successful? All those questions that really are around doubt that cast doubt about your ability to be successful, especially if you have been highly successful and moved up the ranks and are doing well in a corporate career and you might have some entrepreneurial thoughts about being an entrepreneur, you still might not necessarily understand or think or know that that might translate into entrepreneur success. And so there is a lot of doubt. And so that is enough to stop somebody cold. Yeah. Because you can't even get to launch. You can't even make the first step. If you don't have the confidence that you can do it, you're not even going to try.
And so I find that a lot of folks, even if they that's the number one thing that will stop you from getting out the gate. Once you get out the gate, it just transforms into there might be certain things that you have to do to be successful if they're like. For example, now we're in an age where there are lots of opportunities to promote your business through social media. And many people are really afraid of getting in front of the camera. And talking and building an audience. That's not something that they feel comfortable doing. And that discomfort might stem from some limiting beliefs or lack of confidence in their ability to connect with an audience or craft a message. And so it could really hamper their ability to be successful. And so while I come from it, from the business side as well, I thought it was really important to be able to address the human aspect of starting a business. I can show you the things that you can do to experiment, to identify your target audience and get the product market fit. But if you don't have the confidence to actually carry through, say, with doing a focus group or doing some calls to your customers, then you're not going to actually even get to a point where you're out there and showing people who you are and what you can offer them. So I find that to be like a really significant barrier to a lot of people, sort of women in particular, wanting to start a business.
JJ: I can completely imagine that I'm an entrepreneur myself in some ways. I don't necessarily think of myself that way, but I am. And I get it. I get the confidence issue and all of that, no matter how successful you've been in your previous corporate career. So if you were to advise, which you do, you literally have a company to advise and coach potential entrepreneurs, how does one get over that hump? How do you get over the confidence or the imposter syndrome to believe in yourself enough to take that first step out there.
RAENA: The first thing. And it's like the basics. I believe in the basics where if you do the basics and you do them consistently, you're going to see some movement. And the one basic thing that you'll hear from, from everybody, not just me. It's not rocket science, is identify why you want to do it, because it will help you to say, you know, what is what I'm doing worth it? If you have a strong enough why you're going to move forward with it. If you can't identify a reason that's greater than the thing that's holding you back, you're not going to move forward.
JJ: I love that. Wow. That's amazing. Identify that why and make sure it's stronger than what's holding you back. Oh, that's very cool. That's really good. Yeah. I need to hire you as my coach. That's amazing.
RAENA: Well, that's the thing. And you'd be so surprised. Like, a lot of times you get stuck and coaching, there's nothing magical. And coaching, coaching is just I hold a mirror up to people to help them maybe to see themselves clearly. And you ask questions and asking that question of, well, why am I doing this? And it's, well, you know what? I really think that I have something to offer the world that's going to make the world better.
JJ: Yeah. And when you believe in that, then it's easier to get out of bed every morning and keep going and keep believing in yourself, even when your confidence wanes, you can keep.
RAENA: Yeah, it is. You have to have that strong Why? There are other techniques, too, to help people, to help women in particular, to identify if there are some things that are holding them back or thoughts to really do things like a thought audit, to really keep track of, hey, what am I thinking on a regular basis that I'm walking around thinking I can't do this when I have such a track record of success. You know, to really track down and stamp out those imposter syndrome feelings and really start to lay down sort of some tracks in their brain that are more supportive of where they want to go.
That's all about the identifying some of those limiting beliefs and replacing them with better beliefs and being consistent at that. Your go to isn't necessarily that negative thought pattern that you've been stuck in, but a more positive one that affirms who you are and reminds you that you can be successful. Because people that I work with who want to be entrepreneurs are highly successful in their careers. So they have the chops. You can figure stuff out. I always tell people, you can figure it out. If it's a knowledge gap, you can figure it out. But the thing about it is having that strong enough. Why?
And really having thought patterns that are more supportive of what you want to do is really critical and foundational to you. Persevering because entrepreneurship is not easy. Things are always changing, you're always changing. And so to persevere through those changes takes a lot of resilience. And having a strong why just constantly remind you of why it's important to continue even when times get tough.
JJ: We've talked a lot about certain skills and characteristics and capabilities. If someone were to be listening now and thinking about going the entrepreneurship route. Is there one or two skills that they should audit themselves on and see if they've got that, see if they need to improve upon that before making that leap. What is the most important skill of a great entrepreneur? Can you pinpoint like that? Or is that too difficult?
RAENA: It's difficult. Oh, my God. How many studies have been done on this? And what I will say is this. And I don't know if I'm going to get to an answer to your question. What I will say is this. I was the same way. I was like, what are the skill sets, hard and soft skills that make a great entrepreneur?
And I don't know if I'm going to say a popular opinion here, but we live in the United States of America, and those opinions are really going to be skewed to white men. The articles are going to point out things that look very masculine in terms of traits. They're going to point out things that are not necessarily something that looks like me as an African American woman. Or any woman.
I am highly introverted. I'm not shy, but I'm introverted. And so if you look out into the popular media, they'll celebrate the extrovert entrepreneur, right? They'll celebrate the genius entrepreneur. And I want you to do a Google search, and you see the ones that are celebrated. They don't look like you, JJ, nor do they look like me. There was one recently who tried to, but that didn't end well for her. We're waiting for her to be sentenced, I think.
JJ:And it makes it hard on all of us, which is not fair.
RAENA: That's my goal. I loved it. That's one of the stories that I love tracking, but I think that one of the things. I think that makes not one of the things, but you really have to define entrepreneurship for yourself. Else. And maybe if I were to boil that down to a trait, I would say it's somebody who has something that they want to offer and doesn't care what anybody else thinks about, whether they have the, quote, unquote right stuff, they're going to keep pushing it forward. And so perhaps whatever the word I can't think of it right now is for someone who just continues to persevere, I mean, it's perseverance persevere despite the obstacles being, I would say a good trait. Because if I look at this makes a great entrepreneur, I'm not going to fit that. I'm not going to fit that. I'm not very extroverted. I'm much more of a synthesizer than an innovator when it comes to new ideas. I have a great superpower and being able to synthesize information from various different sources to come up with something, but I'm not going to go and create the next new flying car. That's just not me. And so I think sometimes popular media celebrates that type of entrepreneur over those who are just maybe in the thick of it, doing things for people, solving real problems for real people. And perhaps their solution isn't very technologically advanced or highly innovative. Maybe it's just better than what's out there right now.
So I think that people should really define entrepreneurship on their own terms. And if they have something that's a burning passion within them that they want to get out to the market, don't be dissuaded by what others are saying about whether or not they can make it as an entrepreneur.
JJ: I think that is such tremendous advice, Raena. It's interesting because representation matters, and we say that a lot, and it's still not there in most circles, as you say. I also tend to coach product managers on what you were saying about kind of everything doesn't have to be a rocket ship into space. Right. Every innovation, in fact, very few of the innovations are truly disruptive, but that's what gets all the attention. Right. And so those people are fascinating people, and the world is better for them, but they're very few and far between. Most of the innovation, most of the development, most of the problems that need to be solved are smaller, are incremental, and look around the world. Everything is a product, everything's something that can be improved upon. And so I tell that to product managers in the same thing is with entrepreneurs, you don't have to create the new flying car, as you say, you can just find a niche problem for a group of people and solve that to your best ability, no matter who you are. And I love that. I'm so glad that you brought that up. It is is so inherent in many of us to doubt ourselves, even though we don't even know we're doing it right because of the representation we've seen or the lack thereof over our lives. So I think that's a really great point. And so find out why. Center yourself on that, believe in yourself, and make it your own. I think that's such tremendous advice. So thank you for that.
JJ: Final question for you. What resources - obviously, you yourself are a tremendous resource to your clients and the people you work with, which, by the way, we'll share on productvoices.com some of the ways to get in contact with you and some of your own resources. But what other resources? Assets you found valuable not only on your entrepreneurial side, but when you were product manager, product leader in corporate. What resources have you used to learn and grow along your career.
RAENA: Yeah. So I would say, like if I were just pointing to the entrepreneurial side again, don't be afraid to get coaching because there are lots of things that can be worked through. Lots of different coaches out there depending on what your needs are or you or somebody who needs that where you're dealing with the human side of it and motivation issues and imposter syndrome. Don't be afraid to get a coach for that. Also, don't be afraid to get help on coaching on the basic business coaching pieces like how do I make sure that I have good product market fit? What about as I'm business planning here, I need help with my strategy and my target market locked in. Don't be afraid to get coaching on that because that can really accelerate your ability to serve and to get traction for your business faster.
And I would say to make good use of your local economic development authorities and the small Business Administration and lots of free resources out there that can really start to help you to get more familiar about what you need to do to even start your business. Because there are a lot of little things out there that I didn't know. I was like, wait a minute, not only do I need to go get this incorporated from the fed for my state and then get a tax number from the federal government I was operating for six months. And then I was like, oh, wait a minute, my county requires me to have a business license, right? So little things like that you can find out really easily by just going online and contacting Small Business Administration and your local economic development authority in your city or county. Those are really important. I would say too, like in terms of the things that I have found useful for me and my product career and then continuing to be useful to me now is
I am a seminar junkie. Webinar seminar junkie. That's how I met you, JJ. Right. aking some I think it was a product strategy course, like several years ago when I was still in corporate to sharpen my skills at Product Strategy. So I'm always looking around for new courses to take that will help me deepen and sharpen my skills and bring new things to my clients because I want to make sure that as I am coaching them, I'm offering them tool sets that are going to be really helpful for them as they try to advance their business. I want the best, most evidence based tool sets and resources that I can offer to them. So I would say make use of the education that's out there in terms of if it's certification courses or education courses that will deepen your skills and something aligned with what you want to do. For me, I'm always do that because I find that to be so useful.
JJ: I love that. Great advice. And I think one of those things that those classes, seminars, I mean, there's a lot of free education out there as well. Any of those that you can find, they obviously teach you certain things, whatever they're designed to the content around. But they also give you that confidence. Right. And just that little bit of extra confidence every time you take a class or every time you read a book or every time you do something, it just adds to your confidence level that you know something else. And as we've talked about throughout this, that's a very important element of that. So love those resources and that advice.
Raena Akin-Deko, founder and CEO of Verve Strategy, thank you so much for joining me. I've loved our conversation.
RAENA: Same here. Thanks so much for inviting me, JJ.
JJ: You bet. And thank you all for joining me on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
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