Catherine Ulrich: To build the future, spend 50% of your time learning
Moving from the product world to investor world is not a usual jump, but two-time Chief Product Officer-turned-Venture capitalist Catherine Ulrich says it was the right next step.
Beginning her career in product management, Catherine worked her way up to become Chief Product Officer at both Weight Watchers and Shutterstock. Focused on helping individuals make a positive impact in their lives throughout her entire career, she now invests in and advises companies working to solve global problems through First Mark Capital, where she is an investment partner.
If you want to make an impact in anything you do, you have to get as close to the problem you are solving as possible. I see this with founders I advise – success comes based on how closely you understand the problem you are solving.
The better you are at getting close to customers, the better chance you’ll have at making an impact. It’s also the smartest way to not waste time or money.
This is especially true with the decreasing costs of launching a new business. The key is if you’re focusing on the right problem, if you have the best user experience, and if you’re using the right technology.
What impact do timing and external factors have on success? Can a strong founder get around adverse tides?
A strong founder is not enough to build a successful business. Most founders should be worried about the time you have left with the capital you have or raised. You want to keep burn rate as low as possible for as long as possible, but then you need to step on the gas when you truly have product market fit.
Knowing that balance – the time to act slowly and the time to step on the gas – is about having smart structures in place to give yourself as much time as possible to overcome problems.
I had a mentor who told me that the secret to a happy life is that 50% of the time you add immediate value and 50% of the time you learn something new.
I considered this ‘underrated’ because it kind of made sense at the time when he told me. But as I’ve gone through life, the quote has become stronger for me – you realize how powerful it is. Most people, as they get older, spend less time learning new things. However, if you keep this spice and variety, you can have a great life.
This doesn’t always have to be in work or in one specific area. For instance, I’m a mom with two kids. I had both when I was a CPO and executive, so there was a time when kids took up the new bucket of ‘learning.’ Over time, though, you’re used to it because you’ve figured out how to be a mom or be two working parents. So you learn something else.
One is a tactical technique I learned early in my career: the power of the cold call or LinkedIn reach out.
When I was first asked to lead a product team, I’d never done it before. I came from a strategy and financial analysis background, and I didn’t have a mentor. There also weren’t many digital product leaders in 2008 when I got the job, so I cold reached out on LinkedIn to a bunch of Heads and VPs of product across the United States, and particularly, in Silicon Valley.
Some answered and let me interview them and ask questions. It was from this experience that I got my mantra of seeking “10 years of knowledge in an hour.” I try to offer my expertise or help on something else, but I get to ask them a bunch of questions – the way I see it is I could either spend 10 years making the mistakes myself or learn from them in an hour.
Two is that, over my career, I shifted to think that one of the most important things to know the answer to is what you are not good at. When I was younger, I tried to be good at everything. I didn’t want to admit weakness.
Now, I am comfortable talking about what I am not as strong with – then hiring someone to do it or having a team to help you with it.
Impact is an interesting word. Early in my life I was dead-set on being a doctor. Then I got into public health policy because policy had more impact than being a single physician. Then I went to Weight Watchers – there was even more impact because it was global and helping people lose weight with a sustainable behavior change.
Now, I am able to invest in companies I believe will have an impact on the world. For example, Parsley Health, working to build a truly patient-centric method of primary care. It all comes back to my belief and value system that one of the best things you can do with your time here is develop meaningful relationships. At First Mark, we partner with companies and founders along the whole journey – becoming a platform to make connections, help with talent, gain customers, etc. so they can make their impact.
Don’t miss Catherine sharing more tech insights live at Elevate. Use this code to save 20% off your tickets!