Community Spotlight: John Laughlin, Quiptu

If you’re a product manager, you’re more ready to launch a company than you might think.

It’s a realization John Laughlin made when he jumped into the startup world himself. John recently co-founded Quiptu with his brother-in-law, Josh Roche, to connect outdoor adventurers on a platform where they can rent gear like tents, bikes, and kayaks. But he credits his product management experience for giving him the insights he needs as a founder, enabling him to solve real problems for real people.

Erica Irish: What first attracted you to a career in product? What are some milestones from your career that put you on the path to working in product?

John Laughlin: Back in 2015, I took a job at a marketing agency called Avant Healthcare, and first started in a project support role. Over time, I was leading cross-functional teams and managing communication, timelines, and budget for different deliverables. Instead of software, we were creating pitch decks, basic websites, and videos; that was interesting because it got my feet wet in terms of leading a team and being a solid communicator, to our clients and to our internal team.

So that was before my product role at Near The Box. And then my roommate at IU, Adi Gandra, a Computer Science major, needed someone in a product manager-type role. So I went for it.

I believe that a better product is made when you have people with unique skillsets, unique backgrounds, and a unique lens in the room. They’re the ones who’ll build something great and special.

EI: What inspired you to start Quiptu? Where did you and your co-founders first get the idea for the product, and what made you decide it was time to go all-in? 

JL: The genesis of Quiptu is based on an experience that my co-founder had in Montana. He was invited to go on a backpacking trip and he needed a bike. But there wasn’t a local bike shop or REI around for him to rent a gravel bike, so he essentially had to use his friend’s old gravel bike, take it apart, ship it to Montana, and then put it together. The hassle of that process really inspired him to think about how there might be a better way to do that.

When he approached me, Josh knew I had a background in product and software, and that I had been working within the startup community for a while. He told me the idea for Quiptu the night before he married my sister, funny enough, so he goes on his honeymoon and comes back and invites me to start working on it with him. And the rest is history. We started rolling up our sleeves from there.

EI: As far as your day-to-day work, can you describe what you’re focused on accomplishing for Quiptu right now? 

JL: We’ve been tunnel-focused on getting our MVP ready to go for launch on June 1st. We’re most focused on building a great experience for both owners and renters of outdoor adventure gear.

What’s driving us is our desire to delight our customers. On the owner side—those posting an item—we’re making that process as seamless as we can. But we need to make the experience of making a reservation for a renter smooth as well, and then allow that connection between the owner and renter to occur.

EI: You also continue to work part-time as a product lead for Near The Box, a firm that consults with early-stage product companies from a dev perspective. How does working there inform your perspective on the product industry, and especially the needs of other early-stage product companies? 

JL: My role at Near the Box allows me to be a better client at Quiptu. My eye to channel to customer, to understand their problems on a really deep level, and learning that through my role at Near The Box allows me to not make assumptions in my role as a founder. With Near The Box being on the engineering side, we have a high regard for our deliverables and our outputs, and I’ve carried that with me into Quiptu.

EI: Speaking to the product industry at large, what’s one skill product managers must learn to excel in their discipline? 

JL: The one skill that rings true for all great product managers is communication. For me, that is a daily, weekly, and monthly focus—how can I communicate more effectively and more clearly with my team? And that even extends to communicating with my founding team at Quiptu.

Learning how to use communication tools or product management tools matters. But communicating, both verbally and electronically, with your team and at a really high level is what I think differentiates you as a great product manager.

There’s so much at stake if you’re undervaluing communication. First off, as a team building a deliverable for a client, if you’re not communicating well it’s going to lead invariably to friction with the team. There’s going to be frustration if you’re not setting clear expectations. There’s a quote about this that I’m going to paraphrase from Max Yoder’s book, Do Better Work. One of his rules is “don’t set expectations; make commitments.” And I think that’s really telling of how we should be communicating. We need to communicate in a detailed way.

EI: Can you name something you think is a missed opportunity or an under-discussed topic in product management? 

JL: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much I’ve enjoyed meeting other product managers, particularly through the Better Product Community, and seeing how product managers in other industries can learn from each other. What I mean by that is, the term “product manager” can look very different depending on the domain that you’re operating in.

I think product managers stand to learn from each other. A good example of this is, a product manager working at an agency with deliverables that are more around design is going to be different from a product manager working at an engineering or manufacturing company. And I think there are tips, tricks, and insights to be gained from talking across those lines.

EI: What advice would you offer to anyone just starting their career in product? 

JL: Don’t feel like you have to go down a certain set track from an experience and education perspective to be a product manager. Some of the best product managers I know come from different business disciplines. I come from a sales and non-software project management background. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself to have a perfect path, because the best product managers tend to have diverse and multifaceted experiences.

EI: How about other founders? If anyone reading this is sitting on the next great product idea, what would you say to them about getting started? 

JL: So many times you might ask yourself, “why doesn’t this exist?” or “I wish this would work better.” A lot of getting started is pushing past the inertia to work on a project that answers those questions. And if you’re a product manager who’s entrepreneurial, you’re likely blessed with knowing people who could help you build a startup, so you have a leg up. You also typically understand the value of research, of understanding your user and their true pain points when your startup is going live. I think that’s a really valuable mindset to have as a founder.

EI: Where do you go to stay inspired?

JL: I genuinely get inspired by being outdoors. Hiking in either a nature preserve or a state park gives me the time I need to reflect and introspect, which then fills my cup to be a better family member, friend, and colleague.