Ellen Chisa is never bored. Currently helping build a covert Boston-based startup after dropping out of Harvard Business School, she’s on a constant mission to learn more, expand her overlaps and live a life full of rich experiences. Here, she shares what she loves about working on product and how she connects the dots on her journey to date.
How did you get to where you are today?
People joke that my resume is funny because you can make it look very conventional or really wacky, depending on what you highlight.
I grew up in Michigan. I moved to Boston the first time to go to tiny, then-unaccredited Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. I took a year off to try to have a startup with five friends that didn’t work out. After graduation, I ended up in Seattle to work at Microsoft as a PM, then in NYC to work at Kickstarter. Along the way I also worked with the Awesome Foundation and the World Economic Forum Global Shapers. Last year, I moved back to Boston to start at Harvard Business School. I’m relieved to report that it’s a lot easier to move “back” somewhere than it is to move somewhere the first time.
The final step is that I just dropped out to be the first employee at Blade Travel.
From startups and business school to teaching and living life in different cities, you’ve truly expanded your overlaps. Which experience has pushed you the furthest outside of your comfort zone?
Definitely HBS. It was a huge shock. Somehow I knew it was going to be hard going in (I even wrote it down publicly!) and yet I was still surprised by how exhausted I was all the time.
I’m an introvert, but people often don’t realize because I do spend a lot of time with people. I’ve adapted rules to help me cope — I do most things 1:1, I do background research so I’ll feel comfortable, and I have go-to topics. HBS wasn’t conducive to those things – it was small talk on the fly with extreme extroverts.
I’m glad I did it, but wow, that was hard.
Has your incredible variety of personal and professional experiences been spontaneous or carefully calculated? When you look back on the path you’ve taken so far, can you ‘connect the dots’?
I can connect them in reverse, but they definitely didn’t line up so nicely at the time. It’s fun to craft the story of how your career came to be.
For instance, not a ton of people know this, my manager at Microsoft threatened to fire me. It looks super logical that I combined my Microsoft skills & Awesome Foundation interest and found myself at Kickstarter. It also makes a nice story. The truth is, at the time it was much more fraught.
On the whole everything I do is about working with great people and learning new things so that I can make cool stuff.
Kickstarter offers an amazing discovery experience, which you helped create. What advice can you offer for building tools that people will find useful and love?
Talk to people!
It’s not about a quick survey or a “would you..?” it’s about deeper ethnography. When you first start making something, sit down with 10 people and talk to each of them for an hour. Learn all the weird things about how they think about your space. You’ll be amazed at the variation you get. After about 10 people, most of the things you hear overlap. It’s a great way to map a space quickly.
You can also do it casually. Since I’m working on travel, when I meet up with friends I ask about recent and upcoming trips. It’s fun to hear what they’re doing, and it’s covert product research! Win-win.
You left Kickstarter to attend Harvard Business School, which you recently left to work on a new startup project, Blade. Is there a difference in the way you approach your work now, as opposed to before your time at HBS?
Definitely. I see things through another lens. It used to be that I could see “does this fit with what I know of the user?” and “is this technically feasible?” when I was thinking about a Product. I now have a third angle, which is “could this viably make money? how much?”
It’s neat because I didn’t used to have any intuition for that. If I wanted to think about it, I had to explicitly plan. Now I have a better idea off the bat, and I can ask better questions to make sure I’m right.
It’s new, and I’m still surprised when those thoughts pop up. Every time it happens I’m like “who is saying that?” and then I realize it’s me.
Blade is a travel company. What interests you about the space and what you’re working on now?
One piece of it is that I’ve always loved to travel. My family traveled growing up, and that’s definitely continued. It’s personally important to me. To give you an idea of how much I travel – I’ve been on 10 trips so far this year, ranging from three weeks in Indonesia and Cambodia to a day in NYC. It’s fun to work on something that’s such a big part of my life.
The other half is that I try to work on things that I think make the world better. I loved helping people build projects at Kickstarter because it was all about helping creators realize their vision. With travel, it’s about helping people have new experiences, get outside of their comfort zones, and build empathy. I want to live in a world with more of that. :)
What qualities and experience/s make someone a great product manager?
In terms of qualities, thoughtfulness! I’m always looking for why people made the choices they did – and how reflective they are about them.
There should have been a “why” in every decision, and there should also be a “this is how I’ll do the same thing next time” that incorporates learning.
For experiences, I think it’s just about making things over and over. Try a bunch of stuff, see what sticks. Don’t make only one type of thing – try woodworking, knitting, painting – any type of making will help you be better.
What do you enjoy most about working on product?
Everything. I love doing Product. I love getting to make things that will help make peoples’ lives better.
A big factor for why Product instead of Design or Engineering or Strategy is that I like getting to see the entire process of building from start to end. PM is one of the few roles that has a substantial part every step of the way.
Where can we find you in Boston?
On the Red Line somewhere between Davis and Fort Point. I actually prefer to be at home or in my office — I get a lot more work done if I’m in a consistent location. If I’m meeting people, I enjoy Drink for cocktails (and the grilled cheese!) or Crema for coffee.
Last, how do you like your coffee?
It varies. Sometimes different types of milk, never with sugar. Right now, I drink a lot of Grady’s cold brew (diluted with water, no milk) with my breakfast.