Secrets of a Startup Product Manager

Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

A product manager is a unique role that requires a deep understanding of all parts of the company and how they fit together, as well as a customer-centric focus. When designing, building, and launching products, a product manager needs to consider not only the short-term goals of the launch but also the long-term goals of the company.

The product manager is both an executor and an influencer. The PM has the responsibility for shipping great products, but also must be able to influence executive decisions about budgets, staffing, strategy and direction. As one engineer said:

“The best product managers I know are charismatic leaders who can make hard decisions with conviction while rallying others to join them.”

Product management isn’t for everyone. If you like being at ground zero of a company’s problems and getting your hands dirty solving them (without much guidance), you might want to read on. If you prefer more structure and don’t love ambiguity, this isn’t the role for you.

What is a startup product manager?

A startup product manager’s job is similar to a VP of Product in a larger company. However, in a smaller company, there is no formalized VP role, so the product manager takes on that responsibility as well as many others.

A startup PM can have one or many teams reporting to them, and it’s up to the PM to figure out how best to organize their roadmap and team.

In some cases, the product manager will be viewed as an ambassador between the engineering and business sides of the company. This can be challenging because these two groups often have very different priorities and ways of working.

The product manager in a startup needs to be a great multi-tasker and must be able to wear many hats. A startup PM can have the responsibilities of an internal consultant, salesperson, marketing person, project manager, and community manager.

A good startup product manager is an expert on the domain that the company is in as well as the industry in general.

The product manager needs to be able to get out of the building and understand how customers are currently using products from competitors and what they would want if they weren’t already using any products at all.

A PM at a startup must be comfortable with ambiguity since there are rarely any resources dedicated to data analysis or user research during early stages of a company.

Sometimes you’ll have access to analytics from other businesses within the company but there usually aren’t enough resources for feature development based on usage data alone. So how do you figure out what features your customers want?

In early stage companies, it really comes down to talking directly with them either through qualitative interviews or usability studies.

How does being a product manager help drive business success?

The product management role has many different responsibilities depending on where you work but generally includes:

  • Working with your engineering team to define what can be built
  • Working with your sales team to understand customer needs
  • Working with your marketing team to develop a relevant and differentiated story about what you’re building
  • Working with design to bring the product and messaging to life through design and messaging resources (copywriting, graphic design, illustration, photography)
  • Being the user voice when making decisions about features that will be released or not released

Many of these responsibilities are intertwined. For example, understanding customer needs is a key part of defining what can be built. Understanding what can be built is an important part of marketing the product (you have to know what you’re selling).

Being able to clearly articulate why something is valuable and how it fits into the big picture helps shape your messaging and communication as a whole. You’ll find that many PMs are storytellers at heart.

Being able to tell an engaging story about your product helps you influence others within the company (including executives) about where they should spend their time, effort, and money.

And as we’ll discuss below, influencing others within the company is just as important as influencing customers.

Even though a startup product manager has a lot to do, they also have a lot of freedom. The startup world is built on being scrappy and resourceful. You’ll have to work with the resources that you have, so you need to be able to think outside the box in order to get things done.

Skills required to be a startup product manager

The skills needed for a great PM are a unique combination of empathy, creativity, analytical thinking, and technical knowledge. You need empathy because you’ll be working with your customers one-on-one or in small groups every day.

You need creativity because you’ll be coming up with new ways of solving old problems and for coming up with new problems that haven’t been solved yet. Analytical thinking is an important part of any PM role because you’re always looking at how the whole company fits together from multiple angles (engineering, sales, marketing).

Technical knowledge will vary depending on what kind of products you’re building but PMs who don’t understand how things are built are quickly found out in this space and won’t last long.

This isn’t just about coding ability; it’s about understanding the engineering process as well as being able to speak the same language as engineers.

A startup product manager needs to be able to think about the big picture while being able to focus down on the details. This is a difficult balance but it’s important to be able to manage both tasks.

It’s easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of what the product is trying to accomplish or why you’re doing things in a certain way. It’s also easy for PMs who are working on smaller projects (or even big projects!) to get stuck in their day-to-day tasks and lose sight of the bigger picture.

So how do you make sure that you’re not losing focus? Here are some tactics that I’ve found useful:

  • Make sure your team is aligned around your most important metrics. For example, if your company wants a 1% improvement in conversion rate, make sure everyone understands this goal and what it means for them.
  • Make a list of your top three priorities for the week or month and communicate those priorities with your team regularly (and update them as priorities change).
  • Make sure that you’re taking time every day (or at least every week) to plan out your next few weeks so you have a clear vision of where you want your time investment to go.
  • Keep a list of your top priorities in your head or on a whiteboard somewhere and check in with it throughout the day. I’ve found that keeping a to-do list of just two items helps me focus my attention more effectively.

What kind of environments are great for product managers?

A PM that thrives in a startup environment doesn’t need to be an extrovert, but they do need to be able to influence others.

Whether you’re working with engineers, salespeople, or executives, you’ll need to be able to get buy-in for your ideas by presenting them in a way that resonates with different people.

You’ll also need to understand where others are coming from and why they might not agree with you. To work at a startup, you must be comfortable with change; this is one of the biggest differences between working at a startup versus working at a larger company.

Changes will occur quickly and sometimes you won’t have as much time as you’d like to prepare for those changes.

Being adaptable is key; if someone else has come up with an idea faster than you, it’s important that you’re able to respond quickly rather than dwelling on the fact that someone beat you to the punch (this is also a great way to learn from others).

A product manager at a startup needs to be very flexible. You may be asked to do more than you were originally planning on doing. You may also have more responsibility than you expected.

In the early stages of a company, there are usually no formalized roles and responsibilities, so you’ll need to figure out how best to organize your tasks and your team on your own (sometimes with the input of others).

This can be really fun but it can also be stressful because you’re not always sure what’s going on or if you’re spending your time wisely.

There’s no one right way to be a product manager. It’s very different from company to company and even from project to project.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to figure out what works for you and your team. If you’re a startup founder, make sure that you hire and develop product managers that will reinforce your vision of the product.

If you’re a product manager, make sure that you know what kind of environment is best for you and adjust accordingly.

About the Author

I am the Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students learn better. I am also a mentor and angel investor in other Startups of my other interests (Proptech, Fintech, HRtech, Ride-hailing, C2C marketplaces, and SaaS). You can also find me on Cudy for early-stage Startup Founder mentorship and advice.

You can connect with me on Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexanderlhk) and let me know that you are a reader of my Medium posts in your invitation message.

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Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and investor.

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Alexander Lim

Alexander Lim

Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and investor.

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