Product managers are the unsung heroes in startups.
The Wikipedia definition of product management states:
Product management is an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.
Product management (inbound focused) and product marketing (outbound focused) are different yet complementary efforts with the objective of maximizing sales revenues, market share, and profit margins. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. Product management can be a function separate on its own or a member of marketing or engineering.
Jacques Murphy goes through the Product Management role in startups very nicely. He says very succinctly: “A Product Manager is like a CEO of the product.”
It’s clear that the product management role in most startups is not filled by a dedicated person. More often than not it’s the CEO or CTO (or one of the founders, if you’re not using official C-level titles) that acts as product manager (even if it’s not explicitly defined that way.)
Not defining the Product Manager role clearly in a startup, and dedicating someone to it as quickly as possible is a mistake.
Niel Robertson talks about this issue as the #1 startup mistake in an interview with TechStars.
Part of the problem is the definition of a Product Manager isn’t totally clear. What do they do? How do they do it? How is it different from the CEO, CTO or founders of the company?
And the second major problem is that most startups don’t think it’s necessary to have a dedicated person in this role.
So what does the Product Manager do?
I encourage you to look through the links provided on this post for much more in-depth summaries of Product Managers and their roles, but here’s a snapshot:
- Translate vision into execution. A lot of startup CEOs are great visionaries but not effective in terms of product execution. Part of this is that a startup CEO is inevitably “distracted” by managing all aspects of the business – including funding, recruiting, operations, marketing and more. Product Managers have to be able to process vision (which often comes in spurts, crazed beer-induced meetings, late night sessions, etc.) into actual product execution.
- Remain insanely disciplined. Product Managers are “NO” people, not “YES” people. They have to be able to say “no” to a lot of people and resist the temptation to add just one more feature.
- Manage people. Product Managers are in charge of the product, but really, they’re in charge of people – developers, designers and even marketers / salespeople. A great product manager has to be comfortable managing people (and all the challenges that come with it.)
- Customer-focused. Product Managers can’t rely exclusively on their gut for making decisions. They have to be customer-focused and have the ability and confidence to get out of the office and speak to customers. This is where a customer development approach is essential.
- Metrics-oriented. Along with being customer-focused and not relying on your gut, the same holds true when it comes to tracking metrics about product performance, usage, etc. And this also includes metrics, analysis and involvement in marketing, sales, conversions, etc.
- Business-driven. Product Managers need to be involved in business-related decisions around the product. A good example is pricing. How should you price your product? Product Managers need to be involved in these discussions and decision-making processes because they’re the ones that are most familiar with the product and opportunities for applying business models, marketing tactics, etc.
- Tech-savvy. I can’t find the link (might have been a tweet), but I read a recommendation that said (paraphrasing), “Product managers should know how to code, and use HTML/CSS at least…” — and I tend to agree. Product managers need to be tech-savvy enough to understand the possibilities and limitations of technology. They have to be able to involve themselves in technical discussions, and make sure the engineers and developers aren’t getting caught in tech-weeds. And the more hands-on a Product Manager can be, the better. This isn’t a role where you sit and manage people from the sidelines; certainly not in a startup.
Ivan Chaliff recommends a number of interesting books that can help product managers in startups (along with some that he feels won’t help.) These include The Art of Product Management: Lessons from a Silicon Valley Innovator and Freakonomics.
Without a doubt the role of Product Manager is essential in a startup. And just as clear is the fact that it’s not a very well-defined role, and not prominent enough early on in a startup’s life.
What do you think? How important is a Product Manager in startup? What makes a great Product Manager?