How This Product Manager Learned to Ask For More Money

"I was raised in a very conservative family where the attitude was that you do what you’re told and be grateful for what you have"
(Illustration: Ashley Floréal)

Want to make more money at work? Of course you do. For our series The Top Up, Canadians across different industries tell us exactly how much they earn—and how they navigated every raise, promotion and job change to get it. Each month, different executives share their journey and their best advice for how you can better negotiate your salary, too. This month, a Toronto-based product manager tells CB how she went from making $40,000 after grad school to $110,000 at a health-tech company in 11 years.

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Current job title: Product manager
Industry: Health-tech
Location: Toronto

First full-time job salary: $40,000 in 2010 as a market research analyst at a health care market research company

I finished my master’s of science—I was a psychology major—at the end of 2009, and did a short research contract with a science and technology organization within the Department of National Defence, working with one of the government’s research scientists. I had a background in empirical research and wanted to put my degree to use. At the end of the contract the government froze its budget and couldn’t keep me because of the lingering impacts of the recession. It was really, really hard to find a job at that time—I was willing to say yes to anyone who wanted to hire me.

While I was job hunting, I saw an online posting for a market research analyst at a Toronto health care market research company and applied. The interview involved a basic math test and an exercise that asked me to answer the type of question an analyst would address, just to see my thought process. I had data analysis skills but no health care background whatsoever, so when I got the job, I learned everything from the ground up. I started in the cardiovascular research group and hopped around different research areas.

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When I was hired, they offered me $40,000. I was like, “perfect, done!” Jobs were still hard to come by after the recession, it was my first one, and it was the most amount of money I’d seen as a grad student. Even though it was an entry-level position, we were underpaid compared to the market average, and whenever someone left we’d hear about how much they were making at their new job. I think the company realized this and rolled out a program where every quarter we had a performance review and if we met certain performance metrics we were eligible for a raise. By early 2011, I was making $41,500, and by halfway through that year I was bumped up to $46,000.

First raise: $5,000 in 2012, bringing salary to $51,000

I had told my manager that I missed being a mentor, which was what I had done as a teaching assistant in grad school, and she asked if I knew about the team lead role in another research group. So I applied and was offered $51,000 for the role. I just thought that was amazing and didn’t negotiate. 

I was a team lead for two years, putting out my own reports and client work while leading a team of five people. I kept getting quarterly salary bumps like in my previous role, so within that period my salary increased to $53,800. People were leaving in droves for other workplaces that were paying a lot more, so the company knew it was an issue and they had to retain talent.

Second raise: $6,200 in 2014, bringing salary to $60,000

In 2014 there was an opening for a manager position to co-manage two research teams. I didn’t go through a formal application process, I just expressed interest in the job and they okayed it. When I was hired, I was given about 20 direct reports.

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I was offered $60,000 for the role, and I said yes without negotiating. I was in my late 20s and my husband was making a good salary, so being a dual-income household gave us the ability to rent a one-bedroom condo downtown even at that salary. I also didn’t know much about negotiating at that time, and I was raised in a very conservative family where the attitude was that you do what you’re told and be grateful for what you have. I never thought I would make that much money. It felt amazing until friends and acquaintances who had left the company told me that their starting salary was $60,000. I couldn’t help but feel like if I had jumped ship I would be making more elsewhere.

After a while I did start asking during quarterly reviews if there was any room for an additional salary bump, suggesting a higher percentage, but I didn’t know the techniques to do it more effectively and make the case for myself. I also interviewed a few times over the years with other companies, but I stuck around because the job was steady, I was climbing up the ladder, and because I’d always had good managers who helped me grow in my career and listened to my concerns. The company also had a fund that paid back 100 per cent of your education costs if you wanted to learn something that would help you in your job, and I took advantage of that a couple of times.

I was a manager for two years. During that time the company wasn’t doing as well so our regular salary bumps decreased from quarterly to annual, but by mid-2016 I was earning just under $66,800.

Third raise: $9,000 in 2016, bringing salary to $75,800

In 2016, a friend of mine who, years before, had moved into the company’s tech product management team, was moving on and suggested I apply for his job as a product manager. That team was responsible for upgrading the company’s portal for research and consulting projects to a more modern online platform. It sounded a bit scary because the role involved learning how to code and working in databases, and I had never touched that outside of computer science class in grade 11. But I applied and was offered the role with a $75,800 salary; by that time we had been acquired by an American company, which I think contributed to higher raises to bring our salaries in line with the Americans on the team. I was happy with that offer.

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The job was my first foray into tech, and I got a lot of training. I became certified to be a scrum project owner and trained on how to work in the agile project management framework. After my training I was a product owner on that team and discovered how much I love working with developers to build a product. 

Over five years I got regular salary bumps that brought me up to $86,600, I also took two maternity leaves, and while I was on leave the company still gave me raises and a performance bonus. It also topped up my pay to 100 per cent for the first 17 weeks both times. I felt very lucky that I had that. 

When I came back from my first mat leave I was feeling a little bit lost. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t as excited about the work anymore. I had joined a Facebook group for moms at work because I’d had some nerves about returning to work, and it was run by a career coach. So I reached out to her and signed up for a career coaching package. She helped me identify my strengths, taught me about negotiation and encouraged me to use networking as a way to find my next job. I started going to networking events just to start building that muscle—and then the pandemic hit. So I put that on hold and stuck it out in my job. But when I came back from my second mat leave in 2021 I decided to pick it back up again.

Second job salary: $110,000 with a $10,000 signing bonus in 2021 as a product manager at a Toronto health-tech company

In 2021, someone in my working moms Facebook group posted to say her friend was hiring a product manager. I reached out to introduce myself. I said I wasn’t job hunting but was hoping to chat about the role and what the company was like, because my professional world had been so small for the past 11 years. She replied inviting me to meet the rest of the team, and it ended up being a job interview rather than an informational interview, which is what I had initially thought. They asked me to apply and gave me a skill test to complete, and then offered me the job with a $90,000 salary.

Related: How Should I Answer the ‘Why Should We Hire You’ Question in Job Interviews?

I thought that wasn’t a bad offer, it was nearly $5,000 more than my current salary. But I was talking with my career coach at every step of the interview process. She encouraged me to research the market average salary for product managers on Glassdoor, LinkedIn and within my working moms network and it was in the six figures. I was terrified—I’d never in my life imagined earning that much money and had been raised to be grateful for what I was offered. My career coach said she understood where I was coming from, but told me I did need to ask for more. She said I should think about what I was really hoping for, and suggest a range with my target salary in the middle.  So I countered their offer, asking for somewhere between $100,000 and $120,000. They met me right in the middle at $110,000 with a $10,000 signing bonus at the end of the year. I’d built up four weeks of vacation at my previous company, and my current employer matched that. 

I’m a little more than a year and a half into the job now and my salary is still the same, but I’m content with that. It’s because I’m in a bit of an odd spot—when I was interviewing I was up front that I met most of their job requirements but had no experience with others. They said it was no problem and I’d have the opportunity to learn on the job. But because the team was so small and start-up-like when I joined, I spent my first year just putting formal processes in place, and there hasn’t been the opportunity for learning those other job responsibilities.

There’s also been a bit of a restructuring, and my boss is handling some of the work I was supposed to be learning how to do. As well, I have two young children and I’m in a very demanding phase of the working parent life. So I know that my career coach would say I should still be asking for more, or looking for opportunities to advance my career and build my experience and tenure, but I am happy to coast right now because I don’t have the capacity to take on more. 

Best negotiating tip: Give a range

The advice that both my career coach and a high-earning friend of mine gave me that’s stuck with me is that when negotiating you should be strategic about the salary amount you discuss. When you counter, give a range and place your ideal salary right in the middle rather at the highest end, because the employer is more likely to meet you in the middle. 

Kelsey Rolfe
Kelsey Rolfe
Kelsey Rolfe is a Toronto-based business journalist who covers finance, tech, mining and work. Follow her on Twitter at @kelseyarolfe