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Being the Head of Product of a publicly traded company is a dream career for a lot of people but for NextView Ventures Venture Partner Melody Koh becoming the Head of Product of Blue Apron was only one part of the iterative journey of self-improvement and learning. For Melody, the decision to leave Blue Apron after the company went public to join NextView Ventures was because she wanted to use what she’s learned so far in her startup journey both as a startup founder and Blue Apron’s first product hire in helping the next-generation of startup founders. Melody shared more about her startup journey and the various lessons she learned, including her previous stint as a VC at Time Warner’s venture arm, her wine subscription startup while at Harvard Business School, how she got into the world of product and more.
Starting out in the world of finance & VC
After graduating from the University of Virginia (UVA) with a degree in business, Melody jumped into the world of technology through her first job as an investment banker in Evercore focused on tech and media companies. However, Melody would realize that she didn’t want to become a lifelong banker, which led to the next stop in her journey.
She shared, “When I decided that I didn’t want to be a life long banker and wanted to do something else, a senior banker said that I know you potentially want to go to the buy side and you’re interested in digital media, do you want to go to time warner which has a venture group and makes investments in digital media? I didn’t know what VC was but I read TechCrunch so maybe it will work. That’s how I initially got into venture.”
Melody’s stint at Time Warner Investments would expose her to the world of venture capital and tech startups especially since the team was just 5 people at that time and the New York startup and tech ecosystem was still pretty small. She added, “A lot of friends I now have in the tech/startup ecosystem were from first meetings were during that period of time.”
Going to Business School to Startup
While Melody initially wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to business school, when she got into Harvard Business School, she decided that it was a good opportunity. She came into HBS wanting to focus on transitioning into the operational side of business.
She shared, “When you’re a late stage investor and when you aren’t necessarily on the board of companies, you don’t really understand what product is or business operations so I came into HBS wanting to learn how to build companies.”
Melody would dive right in, brainstorming ideas and opening up her Evernote notebook of ideas. She shared, “There was one idea I couldn’t shake off for about a month. I could hypothesize all day long but I won’t know if people will pay for it until I built it so I decided to go for it.” This idea was a wine subscription ecommerce concept. Melody would spend the entire first year at HBS working on the idea, and would join the Dreamit summer accelerator cohort.
She shared, “That was basically my summer internship but long story short after that, my cofounder decided to part ways right before demo day. I still demoed with a different concept but I decided to go back to school.”
Diving Into The Product Role
While Melody continued to play around with a few ideas during her second year at HBS, she decided that if she was going to have a career in tech, she needed to learn how to build software. She shared, “If I was going to start a company again, I could do it given my professional background at that point. But through my experience working on my own company, I realized I didn’t know how to finesse with software and work with engineers.”
So she forced her way into a product manager job at a late stage company called Fab, which she joined a month after they raised their last round of financing and a few months after, they would have a round of layoffs. Melody shared, “I was there for 7 months, and it was a really good experience and despite the chaos that was going on in the company, I was able to build a lot of things in the company. We had about 6 product managers in NYC and 100 engineers in India so it was a really engineer to product ratio.”
Around December that year, Blue Apron co-founder and CEO Matt Salzberg reached out to Melody asking her if she was interested in interviewing to be the first product hire at Blue Apron. Melody shared, “Matt and I met each other through venture, he was at Bessemer before Blue Apron and that’s how we met during my time at Time Warner.”
It was perfect timing given Melody had been a customer for 4 months and Blue Apron was around 18 months old with 20 employees at that point so she decided why not.
Big Challenges & Lessons From Blue Apron
Throughout the 3 years and 7 months Melody spent at Blue Apron, she got to experience various functions and grow with the company as it went through hyper growth.
She shared, “I had to do things for the first time in my career. I had 7 months in actual product experience so I had to constantly transform myself. It feels like dog years. Every 6-9 months, it felt like I had a brand new job. I was constantly and perpetually behind because I kept getting promoted and getting different responsibilities.”
Due to the fast growth of the company and rapid expansion, Melody had had to be jack-of-all-trades, an individual contributor, hire a bunch of people and get people on boarded. She added, “Imagine yourself as a rubber band and you kept getting stretched and you weren’t really sure if you would break but thank god I didn’t break.” This period of time taught Melody the importance of not trying to bend physics since there’s really only 24 hours a day and to focus her mental energy on the things she could only do and what was extremely critical for the company. She shared, “If I had to spend my time which is very limited today, what are the two things? You can’t bend the physics of time, you’ll never finish the things you want to if you try to.
Lessons In Hiring
One thing Melody had to do a lot of during her career at Blue Apron was hiring—this taught her two big lessons: different types of personalities and character traits thrive during different stages of a company and second, there are certain types of traits that will help a company scale and grow through various stages.
If there’s one constant though, Melody highlighted the importance of the growth mindset and the ability to constantly learn. She shared, “The only way for this person to excel is to keep learning and teaching herself how to do certain things especially in an early stage environment. There’s no training program setting you up. Anything you don’t know, you probably have to figure out.”
Melody shared how she didn’t take any computer science classes as an undergrad and is considered a “non-technical” product person but people in her product team with computer science backgrounds regard her as one of the most technical persons they’ve worked with. She shared, “I just think nothing is impossible if you have the intellectual horsepower and desire to self-teach. I think most of the stuff I learned to be a product person was pretty much learned on the job or self-taught. I think it’s just the desire to level up my understanding constantly and be able to be a student; ask my engineers. I think intellectual curiosity is also really important.”
Back In The World Of Venture Capital
Now that Melody is back in the world of venture capital (read more about the decision here), she is excited to get exposure to different industries and jump from one topic to another. She shares, “It’s certainly intellectually stimulating and its fun to see innovation happening across these different industries and businesses. I very much enjoyed the earlier stages of Blue Apron; not to say I didn’t enjoy being a leader or manager, and coaching employees. I just miss the early stage entrepreneurial energy.”
A big focus of NextView and Melody is this idea of the everyday economy. She expounded, “We are as a firm excited about founders leveraging technology to really impact everyday people’s lives. It’s a pretty broad lens and it provides us with an amount of freedom partnering with founders from different backgrounds.”
Given Melody’s past experience, she has been involved in the ecommerce and is interested in exploring what commerce and retail will look like in the next 10-20 years from how people discover businesses online to fulfillment infrastructure. Related to these, Melody is also fascinated by the transportation and logistical backbone giver her background working on Blue Apron’s operations software for logistics and supply chain.
Advice To Ambitious Young People
Given Melody’s non-linear path back into the world of venture, when asked what her advice was to college seniors and fresh graduates, she shared, “As you probably know by having done this interview, I don’t think anybody has a master plan that they executed on. The most important thing is to constantly push yourself. Then try to imagine the next 5 years and work backwards.”
She added, “If that’s what you want to be 5 years from now, what do you need to acquire in experience, skillset and network to get there? And if you focus on learning, it kind of doesn’t matter what job you are in right now since you have a lot of leeway, shaking and the learning experience to really target your long term self and what that looks like. It is continuous roadmap iteration.”
About the Author: David is a senior at Penn studying Cognitive Science and Computer Science, originally from the Philippines. At Penn, he’s heavily involved in the startup scene as an investment partner at Dorm Room Fund. Currently, he’s working on SkillStackers, the easiest way to scale work using a virtual workforce. Previously, he started a nonprofit organization called YouthHack which has gone on to scale to do programs in over 8 countries in the last 3 years. David enjoys meeting new people and sharing the stories of exceptional entrepreneurs!