Lessons From The Front Lines: Product Management At Startups

by drjim on September 14, 2015

Working at a startup offers unique challenges for product managers

Working at a startup offers unique challenges for product managers
Image Credit: Aleksandar Ratkovic

So here’s my story: at this point in my career I’ve worked for 8 separate companies. Four of them were enormous multinational firms and four of them were startups. Three of the startups that I worked for went out of business and I’m now working at my fourth startup (keep your fingers crossed). If anyone out there is in a position to talk about what a product manager needs to be doing at a startup, I guess that it’s me.

Where To Start?

It’s an ugly secret of the universe, but as important as we product managers think that we are, most firms don’t realize that they need us until they are already up and running. What this means is that as a product manager, if you are joining a startup you’re going to be joining a company that has already left the starting line in most cases. I get emails from product managers all the time telling me that they’ve just joined a startup and they’d like to know what they should do first: work on the product development definition, requirements, roadmap, marketing material, etc.?

My recommendation to them is always the same: stop! Look, the company didn’t have a product management position until they hired you. What this means is that things finally got bad enough that they decided that they needed to have someone step in to fix things. As their new product manager, you need to initially focused on solving those problems that have caused them to decide to hire you. More often than not what has happened is that things have gotten out of control: nobody knows what is in the product now, nobody knows what new features are coming or when they will be available, etc.

As the company’s new product manager you are going to have to move very carefully. Everyone else is used to doing things their way. You are a new factor. They’ll probably initially treat you with respect. However, they are all asking themselves the question “what can you do for me?” This means that you need to identify the problems that development, sales, support are having right now and create solutions for them. By doing this you’ll make their lives better and you will have shown your value right off the bat. Both of which are good things to add to your product manager resume.

It’s All About Relationships

In a big company, you get things done by knowing who to call. In a startup, you get things done by actually doing them. Yes, having the right set of relationships is important in a big company, but it’s even more important in a startup. In a big company if you have a disagreement with someone, then there is always someone else that you can deal with to get what you need. However, that’s not the case in a startup. Everyone is important simply because there are so few of them. This means that you’re going to have to take the time to build high quality relationships with everyone.

More often than not, the first set of relationships that you’ll be faced with building will be with the company’s product development team. This can be a tough challenge. The development team feels that they are the ones who are responsible for getting the company to where it currently is. They’ve decided what functions went into the product and what they looked like. Now you are showing up and telling them that you’ll be taking these tasks over. You’re going to have to sell it to them as freeing them up to do more of what they do best: develop a great product. Also, you’ll take responsibility for any bad guesses.

The other team that will be important for you to connect with will be the sales team. Generally at a startup, the sales team will be fairly small and they will have all come from other businesses. More often than not I’ve discovered that they all have a relationship with each other – they’ve worked together somewhere else. When you show up, you’ll be crashing their party – they’ve created their own ways of describing the product and they were probably the ones who created the product pricing. You’re going to have to convince them that having you onboard is going to allow them to sell more. Stress that you’ll be telling them about new features (that are real, not imaginary) early on in the game and that you’ll help them create responses to customer requests for proposal. Show your value and you’ll be accepted by the startup’s sales team.

What All Of This Means For You

All companies are not created the same. Large companies offer a secure paycheck, job stability, and a chance to advance your career. Startups offer you a high energy work environment, few rules, and the ever present risk of complete failure. If you find yourself as a product manager for a startup, you are going to have to be aware of what you’ll have to do in order to be successful – even if it was now covered in the product manager job description.

Knowing what to do right off the bat is one of the most important things that a product manager who is working at a startup needs to know. The good news is that the company ran into a problem that they hired you to solve. What this means is that this problem is exactly what you need to tackle first – don’t worry about roadmaps, release schedules, etc. As you solve problems, it’s going to be very important that you build relationships with the people who matter. Two groups that will be critical to your success include development and sales. Take the time to build the relationships with them that will serve you well over time.

I’ve worked for both large, established firms and startups. I like working at startups better even though there is so much risk involved. I feel as though the startup really needs me, my actions have a very clear impact on what and how the company conducts business. However, at a startup the rules for what a product manager needs to do are different. Make sure that you know what you need to be dong and who you need to be working with and everything will turn out to be a success!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that you should create a schedule to check with your start up management on how you are doing as a product manager?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers, our job is to do everything in our power to make sure that our product is a success. It would be a wonderful world if only our potential customers would come to us and ask us to please sell them our product. However, it rarely happens that way. Instead, more often than not customers issue Requests For Proposals (RFPs) and we’re invited to submit a proposal along with several other vendors. I was recently involved in an RFP process and it went very, very badly…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Wilson September 30, 2015 at 10:09 am

Excellent advice about communicating with both sides – sales and development. You need market feedback to inform your roadmap. If you have a physical product, not a service or software, remember that software usually has regular updates, so think of your physical product as steps along that update path to get to where you should be, but don’t kill that cashflow by interrupting the current product.

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drjim October 14, 2015 at 10:31 am

Andrew: You got that right. At a startup a little bit of everything has to be managed all the time!

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