Product Management At A Startup – How To

by drjim on December 1, 2014

Startups have special product management needs

Startups have special product management needs
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I’ve recently been working with a startup company that is in the business of offering software as a service. This is a fantastic company that I believe has a lot of future potential. They never had any product management talent before they asked me to help them out. What I found and what I had to do says a lot about the world of startups!

Where To Start?

When I first begin working with a startup, one of the biggest questions that I face is just exactly where to start? It’s a start-up so that means that there probably is no product development definition. There is often so much going on and, of course, because it’s a start-up there are no processes in place. It’s not so much a matter of what needs to be done, but rather what needs to be done first…

Every start-up that I’ve worked with is operating on a short string – they don’t have a lot of cash with which to keep the doors open. What this means is that everything is, by necessity, about sales. As a product manager my #1 goal is to discover what I can do to position the product so that the company can close more deals faster. This is the only way that they are going to be able to keep the money coming in that they are going to need in order to keep the lights on.

One of my first steps is to sit down with whomever is selling the product (often there is no formal sales department just yet). I take the time to understand who they have already presented the product to, what the feedback was, who their big competitors are, and basically how things are going. More often than not, what’s currently missing are not any product features but rather a compelling product story.

What I discover is that although everyone at the company believes that their product is the best, they are not doing a good job of communicating this to prospective customers. I take the time to work on the proposals that the company is sending out: do they have pictures, do they tell the company’s story, do they explain why the company’s product is the best one, is the pricing simple and clear? Just by fixing up this one document I as the product manager can help the company to immediately make more sales. Accomplishing this is something that any product manager can add to their product manager resume.

Changes That Don’t Screw Everything Up

Having gotten the initial push to boost sales taken care of, I now go looking for my next steps. More often than not the firms that I work with make software products, but the following steps could be applied to virtually any product out there.

At a start-up, they often threw together a product and then went looking for customers. When they talked with a potential customer who said that they were really looking for a product that had an additional feature, the company would often scramble to implement that feature. And so it goes. As product manager, one of my first steps to create a product release plan.

Since I’m working with a start-up, I realize that things are going to be chaotic for a while and I don’t want to screw everything up. What I do is to create a product release plan that says that we’ll have a new release every month, we’ll have a “minor” release once a quarter, and that we’ll have a “big” release twice a year. All of sudden there is a method to the madness and everyone seems to be able to easily adapt their schedules to this new process.

My final step in this initial effort to get a start-up product under control is to review the list of planned features. These are often just brief notes jotted down in some online file. I take them and create a formal requirements document (Excel spreadsheet) that documents what the feature would do, who requested it, and how much effort it’s going to take. Once I’ve got this documented, I can sit down with the company’s founder and prioritize what the development teams need to be working on.

What All Of This Means For You

The world of a start-up can be different from the world of an established company. A lot of the policies and procedures that are in place at an established firm simply don’t exist at a start-up. Oh, and forget about the product manager job description – it won’t tell you anything about what you’ll really be doing!

The challenge of working with a start-up can be determining where to start. As with all things having to do with product management, it always has to do with the product. The best place to start is to take a look at the product and determine what features are in it and what features are scheduled to go in. As a product manager you need to take the time to carefully integrate yourself into the company flow so that you don’t screw things up.

I was able to transform the company’s product from a great lab project into a real product. I accomplished this without causing too much disruption to the way that the product development team had been operating.

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

Question For You: What’s the best way to document what features are already in a product?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How much does your product cost? No, I mean based on your product development definition how much does it really cost? Once you account for all of the taxes, installation fees, ongoing maintenance, how much are your customers going to end up paying to use your product? Perhaps even more importantly, how are your customers going to feel as they start to discover the trail of additional fees above and beyond the initial purchase price that they are going to have to end up paying?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig J Willis December 4, 2014 at 4:59 am

It’s a good call to start with sales. I also work with a lot of startups and almost always find the problem they actually have is not what they describe. The reality is that they all know this yet when talking to an outsider they focus on other areas.

We tend to start by helping the team describe their key issues and start with what they feel is most important. Last year I worked with a team where sales was clearly a problem yet we chose to focus on the product. In hindsight I should have been more forceful. I felt that the main problem they had was having a good story around the product. This, of course, affected everything but we decided to try and fix it in Product Management first.

What I like about your advice is the potential to have an immediate impact. While we can make a difference it can often take time to filter out from Prod Man to the rest of the business. Thanks for sharing.

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drjim December 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Craig: great story. You make a fantastic point that just knowing that something is wrong is not enough — you actually have to be able to pin down where it is! Thanks for the input.

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