Lessons From The Front Lines: Product Management At Startups
Here’s the story. I have worked for eight companies at this stage in my career. Fourteen of these were multinational corporations, and four were startups. Three of the startups I worked for went out of business, and I am now working at my fourth startup (keep your eyes peeled). I’m the only person who can talk about what a product manager should do at a startup.
Where to Start?
It’s a terrible secret in the universe that product managers don’t realize how important they are until their companies are running. This means that if you join a startup as a product manager, you will be joining a company that has most likely left the starting line. Product managers often email me to tell me they have just joined a startup. They want to know what they should first do: create the product development plan, the requirements, the roadmap, and the marketing material. What is your opinion?
They should stop listening to me! The company didn’t have any product management positions until they hired you. This means that the company decided to hire you as their product manager when things got too bad. You will be their product manager and must first solve the problems that led to them hiring you. Most often, things get out of control. Nobody knows what’s in the product, who will have new features, and when.
You will be the new product manager for the company, and you need to plan carefully. Everyone else is used by doing things their own way. You are a different factor. They will likely treat you with respect at first. They are asking the question, “What can you do to help me?” You need to find the issues that sales, development, and support are facing right now and then create solutions. This will make their lives easier and show your value. These are both great things to add to your product manager resume.
It’s all about relationships.
You can get things done in a large company by knowing who you should call. You can only get things done in a startup by actually doing them. It’s essential to have the right relationships in a large company but even more so in a startup. If you have a problem with someone in a large company, there are always other people you can talk to resolve it. In a startup, however, this is not true. Because there are so many of them, everyone is essential. This means you will need to spend the time to develop high-quality relationships with everyone.
Often, the product development team will be the first group of relationships you’ll have to build. This can be a difficult task. They feel that they are responsible for getting the company where it is today. They have decided which functions go into the product and how they look. You are now showing up to tell them that you will be taking over these tasks. It’s up to you to convince them that this will allow them to focus on what they love most: creating great products. You’ll also be responsible for any wrong guesses.
You will also need to get in touch with the sales team. The sales team at startups will typically be small and have come from different businesses. They have worked together in the past. I find that they are more likely to get along than they realize. You’ll be at their party, but they will not allow you to. They have their own descriptions of the product and probably created the pricing. They will need to convince you that your presence on board will allow them to sell more. Stress to them that they will be telling them about actual features, and not just imaginary ones, early in the game. Also that you will help them respond to customer requests for proposals, the startup’s sales team will accept you if you show your value.
What Does All This Mean for You?
Every company is different. Large companies can offer you a steady paycheck, job stability, and the chance to grow your career. Startups are a high-energy work environment with few rules and the constant risk of failure. You will need to know what it takes to succeed as a product manager in a startup.
A product manager at a startup should know what to do immediately. Good news: The company hired you to solve a problem. This means that the problem you are assigned to solve is what you should be focusing on first. Don’t worry about release dates, roadmaps, or other details. It’s crucial to build relationships with people that matter as you work on solving problems. Sales and development are two key areas that will determine your success. You will benefit from their friendships over the long term.
I have worked in both established and startup companies. Even though it is risky, I enjoy working with startups. It feels like the startup needs me. My actions have a direct impact on how the company does business. The rules of product management at a startup are very different. You will be successful if you are clear about what you need and with whom.