In the eye of the storm: Building Uber

In conversation with Uber’s first Head of Product, Mina Radhakrishnan – by Axiom Zen

The year was 2011. Mina Radhakrishnan had just accepted a new position as the first Head of Product for a fledgling black car company. Clocking in at under twenty employees, the startup had the “small feel” she was looking for.

After a recent departure from women’s e-commerce darling ModCloth, she’d searched for a new challenge focused on technology over marketing or merchandising – a place where her product skills could really shine.

Years earlier, Mina left behind a promising New York career at Goldman Sachs for the frothy chaos of San Francisco. But not everyone understood her choice. After a successful year at ModCloth (which raked in $150 million in 2014), her parents conceded it was indeed a “real” company.

And now she was joining yet another company they’d never heard of.

Her parents balked: “A black car company? What is this? What are you doing with your life?”

If you’re even vaguely familiar with The Legend of Uber — its meteoric rise to reinvent how we all get around — you already know what happens next. In a recent fireside chat, Mina (or Mina Rad, as she’s known on the web) delved deep into a career history that reads like a young entrepreneur’s bucket list.

She revealed lessons learned from three years at Uber (something she wryly admits is a dominant topic these days), a stint at Google, as well as current involvement with Redpoint Ventures and 500 Startups.

With that kind of resume, she’s picked up more than a few nuggets about entrepreneurship, product management, and how to build a team.

She says it all boils down to a single word: “Why?”.

Mina Rad at Axiom Zen

Mina says constantly asking “why” helped overcome the product managers’ curse — analysis paralysis — to make faster decisions, and adjust rapidly if an experiment went awry.

That question served as a north star during the chaos of Uber’s unforeseen growth, exploding from twenty to over 2500 employees in a few short years.

“On the outside, everything seems awesome. On the inside, it’s just constant chaos,” she says. “When you’re inside a company [like Uber], all you can see are the things that are going wrong. You don’t have time to focus on things that are going right.”

Beyond a brilliant team, nothing could replace good old-fashioned hard work.

“Uber has only been around for five years, and we’ve maybe scratched ten to fifteen percent of what we can do. There’s just so much left to do. So, you can imagine what it’s like when you’ve only scratched one to two percent of what you need to do,” she says. “Talk about the eye of the storm. That’s what it feels like.”

“Talk about the eye of the storm. That’s what it feels like.”

Great product managers share a few things in common. An obvious start: near-supernatural communication skills and a sense of organization that veers into the obsessive. But even more fundamental, Mina says, is an innate sense of relentless curiosity.

To illustrate this, she mentions a favourite question to ask in job interviews: “Tell me about your favourite product. It can’t be a [tech] hardware product, an app, or a website. It has to be a physical thing.” “I can still remember the top three answers I’ve ever gotten. They turned out to be the best product people I have ever worked with.”

One woman cited a particular style of corkscrew, quickly diving into the maker and design, right down to the model number. That woman turned out to be one of the best product hires of Mina’s career.

“It’s about developing that sense of natural curiosity, always asking why. When a person is really good at explaining the ‘why’ [of a problem], I know they deeply understood it.”

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