Janice Fraser: Knitting at the Edge of new

Janice Fraser Mind the Product Interview

Not many product people can claim to have coached staff at the White House. “It’s my most proud achievement,” says Silicon Valley veteran Janice Fraser, “It was such an honour to be invited to support our public service… it was a peak life experience for me. For four years, every six months during Obama’s second term, I brought a team to the White House to teach startup-type thinking to Obama’s administration.”

An expert in emerging management practices to support innovation at scale, Janice is currently a partner at Seneca.VC, a one-year-old firm where she works alongside other entrepreneurs like Melissa Moore, Shirley Schoenfeld, and their founding advisor Eric Ries.

Seneca is focused on building a community and supporting early-stage startups and entrepreneurs, helping them gain access to investors, giving them operational support, and teaching them to build long-term value using the Lean Startup methodology. As part of this community-building, Seneca has thus far successfully run two conferences called Founders and Funders, each attended by about 200 people.

Janice is also a consultant to large corporations. She works with a handful of large businesses, helping their efforts to transform the way they bring new businesses to market, and acting as a strategic meeting facilitator. Her consulting can turn into heavyweight projects, she says. “I will engage very deeply with select clients on an important piece of their story. For example, I’ve been working with a Fortune 50 company – and a long-standing client – on the development of a measurement tool, helping them to measure the success of startups in the corporate portfolio. It’s a big meaty project.”

In addition, she’s in the midst of writing a book with her husband Jason Fraser, which should be published in 2020. It’s looking at key leadership skills “for life, family, work, and business”. While the details are still under wraps, Janice describes it as “a framework that helps leaders deliver outcomes rather than outputs, and helps everything move more quickly with less drama”.

With such variety, Janice cannot characterise her typical working day, “there’s no such thing!” she says. When she’s not working she isn’t averse to either facilitating or leading a bit of silliness – the other week she went to see a troupe of drag queens performing a musical adaptation of Harry Potter…

There’s This Internet Thing…

Like many product people, Janice hasn’t taken a straight path to her current position. She started out as a molecular biology student, but after taking up an internship she found she disliked the work environment and ended up graduating with an English degree. She then spent five years in editorial at tech media publisher IDG before joining Netscape in the mid 90s, effectively as a product manager. “I was the lead for a 35,000-line Javascript application that was one of the first personalised interfaces to the web (strikingly similar to igoogle.com). We didn’t have UX, product management, none of those things existed. Our mission was ‘there’s this internet thing, what are we going to do with it?’.”

Janice Fraser speaks to mind the Product

A quarter of a century on, Janice has started six companies in Silicon Valley, worked in senior product roles at Pivotal Labs, Bionic, and elsewhere, and terms herself a “poly enthusiast”. “At heart, I’m a product person and entrepreneur, and they’ve played out in different ways in different parts of my career,” she says. “What underlies all that I’ve done and continue to do is that it matters to me that the humans involved in whatever system have an easy time of it. I once had to write a six-word biography – and I came up with ‘knitting at the edge of newness’. Whether it’s been desktop publishing, the internet, user experience, entrepreneurship, corporate transformation, whatever the new thing is, I’m the person at the edge of it trying to make it boring. I’m trying to make it simple for regular people to do the new thing reliably well.”

Regular People

Janice even has a sticker on her computer that says “regular people”, and she completely rejects the received wisdom and mythology that it’s only extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. “Extraordinary things are done by regular people,” she says. “I always find myself saying ‘I bet I can make this easier for everyone.’”

She’s always enjoyed what she does, and says there have been at least four or five times in her career when she felt she was working at the peak of her capability, doing the most good that she could: “I’m incredibly privileged because I’ve had many times in my career when I’ve felt ‘this is a good thing I’m doing.’” Chief among these times was the period she spent working with the Obama administration: “I even had a trip to Camp David where I led a workshop for the National Security Council.”

Janice Fraser talks to mind the ProductShe’s worked in Silicon Valley since her Netscape days and has a pretty clear-eyed view of the place, warts and all. It’s still generally not female-friendly, she says, although the Me Too movement has exposed many of the bad actors. “Most of the women my age, who’ve been around for a while, have stories,” she says. “But it’s still an extraordinarily creative, driven, and curious place.”

What has changed over the years, she says, is that today there are “two Silicon Valleys”. On one hand, there are huge tech companies in Silicon Valley – like Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Google and Twitter – who hire people looking for very secure corporate jobs, and on the other, there’s the entrepreneurial startup space.

“The big tech companies are full of people who have a massive salary and tremendous security at a very young age,” Janice says. “They’re looking for something different from their lives than the startup part of Silicon Valley that I inhabit. This is the part that’s trying to invent the future. If you look back to the mid 90s, the people who were working in Silicon Valley then had some pretty utopian ideals about internet technology.” She says it became very commercial very quickly in the late 90s and post the 2008 recession has been very aggressively commercial. The bro culture that many people find distasteful has developed since the recession, she says. “The Me Too movement is having an impact on this culture,” she says, “if nothing else the millennial women just won’t have it any more.”

A Founder’s Mindset

Janice tends to work with what she terms “founders who are not in fashion” – and she includes women and people of colour in this description. “I want to help them to have a better time. I hussle in the Silicon Valley sense  – but I do it because I’m curious and passionate, not because I feel I have to win at all costs. I’m not about winning and losing, but living my life as myself and finding prosperity, meaning, community and joy that way. That sets me apart from a lot of the community that I’ve been making a career in.”

What qualities does she think a good startup founder needs to possess? Janice finds that the best entrepreneurs have a drive and a particular mindset: “There’s an ability to believe in a future state and to maintain that belief despite headwinds, and at the same time there’s a willingness to accept the truth when you see it or hear it.” The best entrepreneurs also possess both hubris and humility, and can make adjustments to both, she says. “They have an ability to go and learn, and then seek and receive or bring in whatever resources are needed. Courage is effortful and confidence is effortless – and you need a lot of both. You can’t always have courage or be confident, it’s about balance.”

Role Models

Janice Fraser discusses her career with Mind the Product

Where does her own drive and mindset come from? “I learned from a very young age that I had to create my own future and I had to take care of myself,” Janice says. “If you want to have anything you have to go make it yourself. As I say, I’m a poly enthusiast, and I have an insatiable desire to know about ‘stuff’. That doesn’t mean reading everything or watching all the videos, for me it takes the form of engaging with the people.”

Women of Janice’s generation who have enjoyed long careers in Silicon Valley are few and far between, so she hasn’t had many role models to follow. But someone who has been an inspiration to her is tech investor Esther Dyson. “For years I kept a picture of Esther on my desk, and she invested in one of my companies. I’ve always admired her individuality and curiosity. She’s clear-minded, she knows who she is, and she crafted a life for herself in a field that didn’t care much about including women. She dominated in her own way without trying to be anybody else,” she says.

See Janice on the #mtpcon Singapore Stage

You could happily apply those same sentiments to Janice herself. And if you’ve attended a Mind the Product conference in the last few years, then the chances are you will have already seen and heard this clear-mindedness in action. Not only has Janice delivered inspiring keynotes on innovation at #mtpcons in London and San Francisco in the recent past, but she will also be taking to the stage at #mtpcon Singapore in March.

She says she’s looking forward to understanding more about how the AsiaPac region operates, although she’s already had some secondhand exposure to this. “Product management is very much a family business in my house,” she says. “My daughter spent 18 months in Japan setting up the Pivotal office there, and my husband spent three months establishing the product management practice at Pivotal in Singapore.”

Although she’s still officially undecided on the subject of her #mtpcon Singapore keynote, she thinks that a talk she’s developed on the psychology of confidence could be an appropriate one for an Asian audience. Intrigued? Find out more, or buy your #mtpcon Singapore ticket today.

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