Making products that people want

Carolina's Product Management Club gives student-innovators and entrepreneurs real-world experience with product management while developing exciting new features for local tech startups.

QUVI founders Kush Jain (right) and Harshul Makwana (left) working on their initial water bottle sanitation prototype for the UNC Makeathon.
QUVI founders Kush Jain (right) and Harshul Makwana (left) working on their initial water bottle sanitation prototype for the UNC Makeathon in 2019.

One of the best kept secrets on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill might be the Product Management Club (PM Club). Not your traditional student organization, the PM Club gives student-innovators and entrepreneurs real-world experience with product management, while developing exciting new features for local tech startups.

“Creating a culture at Carolina where people understand how to go from an idea to a valuable product will create more opportunities for UNC students since companies that have previously recruited for their product positions almost exclusively from west coast schools will have their eyes on us,” says Kush Chopra, PM Club president and a senior majoring in computer science. “This culture will also help UNC graduates more efficiently plug into the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Triangle area.”

An example of what happens when a school has a strong product culture – and ultimately entrepreneurial culture – is MIT,” adds Chopra. “A 2015 study reported that 30,000 companies founded by MIT alumni actively employed 4.6 million people and produced annual revenues of $1.9 trillion, equivalent to the world’s 10th largest economy. Imagine if the same could be said about UNC. Imagine what would happen to the Triangle. We have the talent to do it, and we’re located in a major innovation hub of the country. We just need a catalyst to get more people thinking in terms of product and how to turn their ideas into valuable solutions for meaningful problems.”

Founded in fall 2019, the club aims to build a product culture within UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Computer Science and ultimately at the University as a whole. The club attracts students interested in entrepreneurship, user experience design, software engineering at startups and those interested in product management roles.

“Product management is a general skill set and methodology that is useful for many things,” adds Chopra. “If you’re starting a company, you need a product that people are willing to buy. If you’re a software engineer at a startup with limited resources, you need to have an understanding of how to efficiently build valuable things for your product. And if you are a product manager at a company, you need to have a fundamental understanding of how to go from an idea to a product – and then how to test the product to continue making it more valuable for the customer and the company.”

To put their ideas to the test, student members get exclusive access to the PM Lab. The lab is a 10-week program that allows students to work in teams to design and pitch features to partner startups. The lab guides students through a cyclical five-step process:

  1. Ideate: identify the problem to solve.
  2. Design: create a low-fidelity prototype.
  3. Build: create a high-fidelity prototype.
  4. Learn: test assumptions.
  5. Iterate: improve your minimum viable product.

The program culminates with a demo day, which allows students to pitch their product features to stakeholders and other members of the club.

So far, the PM Club has partnered with six startup companies for the program: CulTRUEliineReflektMeSubbed (founded by Carolina alumnus Chris Hendel, a Silicon Valley software engineer and product manager), Prime Neuro and Protopia (founded by Carolina alumnus Max Leisten). Club members designed and pitched three features for each company.

Protopia is the engine behind Innovate Carolina’s Ask an Innovator, a free, digital tool that allows students to get entrepreneurial advice from Carolina-connected experts. Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, supports startup venture creation through its innovation hub, which provides startup accelerators, programs and services. These include its 1789 innovation community, which works with organizations like the PM Club and student entrepreneurs to launch new ventures. PM Club members are working with Protopia this semester to update the platform’s student interface to further drive student engagement.

Applications for the club open at the beginning of each semester, and spots fill quickly. If interested, students should follow PM Club on social media and sign up for the mailing list on the club’s website to receive application alerts and deadlines.

“Any UNC student can join, and you don’t need any technical experience,” says Chopra. “We want to empower students to build valuable and meaningful products, while giving them hands-on experiences with real startups.”